Columnist Bryan Mahoney

Columnist Bryan Mahoney

The white '91 Mustang was wasted. Dead. A heap of scrap worth barely more than the gas Bob Thomas spent to go and see it.

But in his eyes, and in the eyes of The Old and the Reckless race team, the car represented "Life, the Universe and Everything." And, boy, was it pungent.

"That thing smelled worse than any car I've come across and I've come across thousands," said Thomas, a former insurance appraiser.

Thomas and five friends are part of an independent racing subculture that turns wrecks into racers, a gaggle of speed freaks who find cars for $500 or less and compete in 24-hour events. Called the "24 Hours of LeMONS," the races are like Pasadena's Doo Dah Parade, only faster.

I met Thomas, a Burbank resident, and his teammates at a North Hollywood trucking company where they house three racers and a parts car. The '91 Mustang is the crown jewel of their collection, numbered 42 in honor of Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." In the sci-fi novel, it is revealed that this number is the answer to "Life, the Universe and Everything."

They also have another Mustang and an old Escort, a reliable car in case something goes wrong with the sports cars on race day. For the driver, the Escort's automatic transmission is less fun to operate.

"It's kind of like going to the movies with your sister – the movie's fine, but there's something missing to the experience," said Paul Blankenship of Chatsworth.

On Sunday afternoon, Thomas and Mike Kerr of Diamond Bar evaluated two engines they forklifted into the trucking company's warehouse. One of the engines was burned in a wreck, and that's the promising one.

"This isn't NASCAR, where there's a million bucks on the line," Kerr said. "There's a reverse satisfaction in getting the engine and transmission (to work)."

Soon Blankenship shows up with fuel for the day — a bag full of Carl's Jr. burgers. The three men represent half of The Old and the Reckless, and Blankenship's membership in an Alfa Romeo car club technically puts him ahead of the others in terms of experience.

But when they first uncovered that abandoned Mustang three years ago and decided to enter LeMONS, none of them had any real mechanical or race knowledge. That first year they entered 13 races throughout Southern California.

"It's like going to the Olympics and saying, 'The Olympics would be real cool, but we should really try the sport one time," Blankenship said.

Inside the stripped car, a roll cage and safety seat were added. A large kitchen wall clock hangs from a single nail on the passenger-side dash to let the driver know when his two-hour stint is up.

With a $1,000 entry fee and the $500-or-less jalopy, anyone can drive at LeMONS or ChumpCar races throughout the country. You might find speedsters resplendent with rubber ducks one day or the Starship Enterprise on the hood. Races can draw hundreds of four-person teams plus spectators, so the weekend events become festivals in their own right.

On a great day you might win the race – and go home with $500 in nickels. The Old and the Reckless' best finish was fifth, earning them a bunch of gaskets and a baseball cap.

"I was never going to go racing because I knew it would cost a bucket-load of money," Thomas said. "This keeps me off the streets."

If racing is about the journey more than the destination, The Old and the Reckless may have found the secret to life after all.

"Guys need to have adventures," Thomas said.

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BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he's not knee deep in spark plugs, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter at @818NewGuy.