When Life Gives You LeMons…

As you may know if you’ve been following my photography, I vary quite a bit in my subject matter. I’ve done lots of landscape, architecture, ruins, and for the past few years a lot of wildlife photography. But I think my favorite (and most under-represented) has always been sports. Whether photographing kid’s soccer and basketball games or motorsports such as motorcycle or auto racing, I love the excitement of running back and forth beside the basketball court in the high-school gym or wandering around a racetrack looking for the best vantage points.

Let’s Go To The Races!

"Swedish Meatball" by Darin Volpe [1963 Volvo Pv544 At The 24 Hours Of Lemons Race, Sonoma California]

My brother (the same one who tormented me through four states and who gave me the Aries Viscount that started me off on photography) occasionally drives in “24 Hours of LeMons” race. A play on the famous “24 Hours of Le Mans” road race, the “24 Hours of LeMons” (or “Lemons Race” for short) is a racing series for cars that are bought for no more than $500. These clunkers gather at race tracks across the United States to see how fast they can complete (or how long they can last in) a fourteen-hour endurance race. Races take place over a weekend with driving split between the two days, and lots of repair work under lights on Saturday night as teams try to get the cars that died or barely survived that day’s run ready for Sunday.

"Jackalope Wrangler" by Darin Volpe [Volkswagen Rabbit at the 24 Hours Of Lemons Race, Sonoma California]

Just about any car that was once legal on the road is welcome to race as long as you can convince the judges that it didn’t cost you more than $500 and it’s equipped with the required safety gear. Participants vary from those with fairly straightforward race car conversions to some more elaborately decorated vehicles that may involve involve statues, horns, fur, or some combination of all three. Some are out to win, some are happy to finish, and some just want to have the craziest contraption on the track.

"Never Surrender" [24 Hours of LeMons Track Official at Sonoma Raceway, California]

I hadn’t attended a Lemons race in eight years, but decided that the March 2018 race at the Sonoma Raceway (formerly known as Sears Point and Infineon Raceway) would be a good excuse to see what I could do at the track with my 150-600mm Tamron. So I headed up to the Bay Area after work on Friday ready for two days of racing.

Photographing the Race

"Hot Pursuit" by Darin Volpe [Race Cars At The 24 Hours Of Lemons Race, Sonoma California]

After a few shots in the pits, I headed trackside with my 150-600mm. I found the long reach great for getting head-on shots of distant cars heading straight at me. The zoom also let me adjust for how far I was from the track so the cars would still fit in the frame. The drawbacks were that the zoom on this big lens is not smooth which made zooming out as cars approached impossible, and it’s also a heavy lens which made holding it up and panning quite tiring. I later put it on my monopod which largely took care of the weight but didn’t help with the difficulty panning. I found that my best lens for racing is the 80-200mm AF-D Nikkor. Most of the action on the track takes place within the range of a 200mm lens and I could effortlessly turn the zoom ring on the pro lens smoothly with two fingers as the cars approached and passed. This, combined with the relatively light weight, made it easier to pan with the action and keep the cars from overflowing the frame.

"The Quest For Domination" by Darin Volpe [Mazda And Bmw At The 24 Hours Of Lemons Race In Sonoma, California]

When it comes to racing, I’ve learned that slower is better where the shutter is concerned. Many people’s first thought is to set a fast shutter speed when shooting fast cars with long lenses to avoid motion blur and get sharp photos. But if you use too fast a shutter you’ll not only get sharp cars, but you’ll also freeze the wheels and it ends up looking like you’re taking pictures of cars parked on the racetrack. I found that 1/200, 1/320, or 1/640 work best depending on how fast the cars are going. And then take a lot of pictures. You may end up with lots of blurry throw-away shots but the ones you do get sharp will will be far more interesting, and its better to have fewer sharp keepers with blurred wheels than all the perfectly sharp photos of “parked cars.”

Watching The Race

You never know what you’re going to see on the track at a Lemons race. Some teams, like Half-Life Racing, go for a no-nonsense race car approach. Their Mazda Miata and 300ZX have had everything that’s not required to make them go faster pulled out, leaving behind their stripped down bodies and drivetrains designed to do just one thing – turn as many laps as possible without having to head to the pits for repairs

"Seize-z-um And Ra-d-um" by Darin Volpe [Half-life Racing At The 24 Hours Of Lemons Race, Sonoma California]
"Bare Necessities" by Darin Volpe [Race Car Cockpit At The 24 Hours Of Lemons Race, Sonoma California]

Other teams worry less about weight and aerodynamics and more about style, like these entries from Loch Ness Le Monsters and Hella Shitty Racing.

"Scotty, We Need More Power!" by Darin Volpe [Mazda Miata At The 24 Hours Of Lemons Race In Sonoma, California]
"Hella Shitty Beetle" by Darin Volpe [Volkswagen Beetle Racer At The 24 Hours Of Lemons Race, Sonoma California]

Then you have teams like Black Iron Racing and Finger Tight Racing who go for both the theme and the win. Finger Tight’s yellow duck Mustang came in at 18th place out of a field of over 170 cars, and Black Iron’s “The 70’s Called and They Want Their RV Back” BMW came in 10th place.

"Everybody And Their Duck" [Ford Mustang at the 24 Hours of LeMons Race in Sonoma, California]
"Where's The Dump Station?" by Darin Volpe [BMW Camper Race Car at the 24 Hours Of Lemons Race, Sonoma California]

Lemons cars are supposed to come in at under $500 (plus safety gear), but some just don’t have a chance. Team Baka came to Sonoma with the body of a 1971 Honda N600 draped over a custom chassis holding a Honda S2000 engine. Cars like this can never win since they get slapped with a one lap penalty for every $10 they go over $500, but the organizers still let them race because of the sheer awesomeness they bring to the event.

"Divine Wind" by Darin Volpe [Honda N600 -more Or Less- at the 24 Hours Of Lemons Race, Sonoma California]
"Zero" by Darin Volpe [Honda N600 -more Or Less- At The 24 Hours Of Lemons Race, Sonoma California]

And finally, when a bunch of amateurs get on a race track, not everyone comes out with their car in the same condition it started in. This BMW had a decent chance of winning until it was forced off the track by another car, rolled a couple of times, and ended up in the wall. Fortunately the driver came out OK (which is why safety equipment isn’t counted in the $500 car value) but since the rules say that all accidents you’re in are your fault and he rolled his car, he’s disqualified for the rest of the season.

Dinner Time

After the first day of racing they held a cooking competition using only your car’s engine to cook on. I chose not to sample the LeMon Pork.


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