New York Jets, 1969. US Men’s Hockey Team, 1980. Buster Douglas, 1990. RotoMotoSportNJ, 2014.
There is a new name in the record books of sports underdogs who battled back from adversity, bad luck, a skeptical public eye and near catastrophe. RotoMotoSportNJ now takes their rightful place as one of the most inspiring stories of 2014.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
We met the RotoMoto team in a barn on a freezing cold February day in Hunterdon County and this past weekend we finally got to watch them racing at the Real Hoopties of New Jersey at New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville. From Friday to Sunday, we also got to watch them rebuild an engine, bribe judges with a Chris Christie suit, have a fun weekend with their families and win an award. So, we got everything we expected and a whole lot more when we put out a feeler last year for a NJ team who would let us follow them.
The long weekend started at 6:30am when YDKJ’s Don drove out to the barn where he found the car all packed up on a trailer. Most of the RotoMoto team was there on Friday which is Tech Day at LeMons. A two-hour drive to Millville later and they began preparations for two inspections. One for safety and one for ensuring that the car really is worth $500. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to race a $500 car so every team who races expects to bribe the judges with mostly alcoholic gifts. Our team brought beer but also had a “signed” photo of Governor Chris Christie. This part of the event is a perfect example of the nature of the 24 Hours of LeMons. Yes, the teams are serious about racing their cars. But, they’re also serious about having fun.
The Chris Christie picture gave the judges an idea about a penalty involving a fake Chris Christie suit (there are penalties given out to people who aren’t being nice on the racetrack and for off-the-track problems, too). The judges asked the team if they could devise such a costume and they immediately jumped on it. Here’s Kevin’s fiance modeling the suit with Dante, Kevin, Matt and Dante’s dad, also named Dante, behind her.
Tech and judging were going smoothly on Friday until four practice laps around the track basically blew up the engine. They had been working on overhauling the engine in the winter when we first met them so this was a particularly hard blow knowing that most of their work on the car had revolved around exactly went wrong. Don texted us to let us know that the car was broken and the rest of the YDKJ team—Ed, Mike and I—got down to the track as soon as we could on Saturday to see what happened.
Once the whole YDKJ team was on hand to cover the race, we all got a look at the Merkur XR4ti. Oh dear. Oddly enough, it didn’t look that much different than when we first saw it in February which was cause for concern. The majority of the space under the hood was empty and the guys from the team were crawling all over the car. Matt had driven all the way back to Frenchtown to retrieve parts of the old engine that they had taken out over the winter. It was their only shot!
There were an inordinate number of what looked like broken and twisted metal pieces strewn throughout the garage. We talked to them for a while and tried to keep their spirits up. We knew these were a great group of guys and if anyone could fix it they could.
We decided to get out of their hair and catch the beginning of the race because it could be a distraction when you have four people from a website hovering and taking constant pictures of you. At times, there was a paparazzi level of photos being taken.
The cars all lined up near the entrance to the pits and in good LeMons fashion, some cars wouldn’t start and one overheated waiting in line. Memories of my family’s crappy cars throughout the years swirled as I watched some of those same models cars being pushed out of the way to start the race for the cars behind them. All the LeMons cars lined up is certainly a sight to see. BMWs, Volvos, Mustangs, a VW Bug, a Rover and a Jeep Cherokee were in sight along with lots of other “crap can” cars. Check out the giant photo gallery from our weekend in Millville.
After a quick pit stop back at the garage where the guys were still working hard, we left at noon to go have lunch. We made sure to let them know that they should alert us when the car was back in service. On the way back to the track we stopped to get many growlers of the great local beer at Glasstown Brewing Company. We figured if the car wasn’t going to start we might as well get fall-down drunk. However shortly into our Glasstown visit, we heard the “She Lives!!” call. The excitement was palpable as we raced back to the track. There is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you here the engine roll over and it runs just 23 hours after it died on the track. The car was brought back to life to wild cheers and applause!
With the adrenaline running high, Kevin jumped into his racing suit and got ready to roll.
YDKJ got into position to capture the Merkur’s first lap on camera and away they went. To finally see the car on the track was an awesome feeling! They were able to get two hours of racing in before the 6:00pm session ending.
The procession of cars into the paddocks was particularly sweet knowing how much RotoMoto had fought to get the car out there on Saturday. We were glad Dante didn’t get hurt jumping into the passenger side of the car “Dukes of Hazzard” style for the parade off the track.
RotoMoto’s family members who were attending with the guys invited us to a post-race day picnic and drinking session with lots of camp chairs, a canopy and really delicious homemade food! (Note to self: must find out recipe for the eggplant) We had a great time hanging out with the extended Roto family and they really treated us like family. There was a lot of laughing, stories, and an extended debate trying to figure out Matt’s actual occupation. Dante seems to have slightly misled us about it initially. Soon, the family members started petering out though and wanted to get back to their hotels. We had been hearing about the legendary after parties on Saturday night so we were ready for the real party to get started!
Now we have been sworn to secrecy for most of the evening but here is what we can tell you. One racing team had an Italian-themed buffet dinner set up. Another team had ribs for anyone who wanted them. The biggest party even had a DJ, jello shots, and a few guys dancing around in Speedos holding blow-up zebras. Everyone was just as friendly as we’d experienced during the race and while most of the people there probably don’t remember much, we know a good time was had by all. Our memories are as blurry as this picture.
Sunday morning brought two new drivers to the RotoMoto team. We’d met John in February and he’d also brought his brother to the race. Sunday morning there was a drivers’ meeting before race time where lots of teams got in trouble for various driving-related infractions and a few top ten teams were penalized out of the winner’s circle. There were around 160 cars registered for the weekend and it was very important to the officials that drivers follow the rules. Rule breakers were not taken lightly.
RotoMoto was out there in the morning, too, after having to fix a hanging exhaust but we soon lost track of them as we watched the race. Unfortunately we got a text from Don that the Merkur was down again. And, this time it was more serious than a low exhaust. All the radiator fluid had been lost and the team was back at crawling all over the car to find the problem. The more they worked, though, the more it seemed like there would be no more racing today for RotoMoto.
The race was ending at 3:30pm and by 1:00pm it was apparent that the car wouldn’t be fixed in time for more laps so they called it a day. They cleaned up their garage and towed the car over to their trailer. By the time the car was trailered the race was nearly over so we all waited for the awards ceremony.
With some fanfare, the actual winners are announced.
Lo and behold, here is the inspirational part, kids! This RotoMoto team that would not quit, not take no for an answer, refused to give up the dream of driving a $500 car around the track again, again and again with other like-minded lunatics. The team that practically worked around the clock, including the wee hours of the morning. This is the team that took the coveted Judges’ Choice award!!!!! The team won the admiration and respect of the organizers. That is a win in our book!
They won for the heroic engine build and for making the Chris Christie suit during the rebuild.
All in all it was an awesome weekend with an incredible team. We only have one question. Is it August yet?
Here’s a round up of most of our RotoMoto pictures from the day. Others are being examined for evidence of too much fun on Saturday night.
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