Some cars never rust, hidden from the world in wax and sealant, their souls lying idle in garages like tigers in a zoo.
Other cars ride right to the edge of auto purgatory, teetering rimless and torn to shreds by squirrels. The streets strip their shine and rip their bumpers, but in the hands of gonzo motorheads, some are born again to bare one last fang at the junk man, electrical problems be damned.
“I think your car’s on fire,” someone said calmly Friday morning inside a paddock at a South Jersey racetrack.
Smoke was indeed curling from the interior of a 1978 Buick Opel named Suzie. Yuri Shnirman, 30, of Brooklyn, had acquired the car after promising a “guy’s friend’s uncle” that he’d buy it for $1 if it survived a cross-country trip. Scrappy little Suzie made it. Her paint job looks like moldy lemonade.
“Well, she sort of made it . . ,” Shnirman said.
Dozens of cars like Suzie sat in various, head-scratching stages in preparation for this weekend’s “Real Hoopties of New Jersey” endurance race at the New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, Cumberland County. The race is just one in a series that tours the world, called “24 Hours of Lemons,” a nod to the famous Le Mans race in France, except with cars that had to be bought and prepped for $500 or less. Often that means zip ties and spray foam, but also glitter and giraffe-print paint. It doesn’t feel French.
Participants say the Mad Max, death-race vibe by day is countered by a Burning Man bacchanal at night, fueled by beer but also lots of theatrics. Judges are supposed to determine whether entrants spent more than $500 on upgrades and many drivers attempt to distract, bewilder, or flat-out bribe them.
“You know we’re all just idiots, right?” Brandon Wright, 40, of Pennsville, said.
Wright was in the paddock working on his team’s 1994 BMW 325, painted purple and pink in honor of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. The interior of the car looked like a jet cockpit. Wright and his teammates travel across the country to win, not just wear costumes.
“Yeah, it’s fast,” he said. “We’re a Top 10 finisher in most races.”
William Brown and fellow driver Greg Nikishin were broken down before noon, wrangling parts in and out of “Frankenvette,” a 1981 Chevette painted matte black and neon green.
“I mean, it’s also parts of 30 different cars,” Brown said. “Mostly bolts and junk.”
Both men were spending the weekend in the back bed of their junker pickup trucks.
A man driving a van with a giant plunger affixed to the roof slowed to marvel at a dusty black 1985 Cadillac Brougham, something you’d see groundhogs living under beside an uncle’s house.
“Man, that is one bitchin` ride,” the driver said.
The Caddy had a second car affixed to its roof with bolts and two-by-fours.
“That’s what you call a top-fuel dragster,” said Halfdan Prahl, 58, of Connecticut, one of the drivers.
Prahl said the dragster is a tribute to Don Garlits, a racing icon he really, really has a thing for.
“I’m not sure he’d think it’s a tribute, mind you,” Prahl said. “He’d probably think we’re kind of crazy.”
The Cadillac can move, the crew said. It’s been retrofitted with a 350-cubic-inch engine, and the interior looks like a science experiment. When asked if the dragster bolted to the roof helps the car in any way, the whole crew laughed.
“Absolutely not,” one said. “There’s no helping this thing.”