For reasons we will never understand, the University of Colorado, Boulder, sponsors a 24 Hours of Lemons racing team made up of CU engineering students: Buffs Racing. While we believe that every school should sponsor a student team, we feel even more strongly that the third-generation Chevrolet Cavalier/Pontiac Sunbird does a fine job of teaching team-building, toughness, and optimism in the face of repeated crushing setbacks. Buffs Racing learned all they could from their first Lemons car, a 1998 Cavalier with the 115-horse pushrod 122 engine and spatula-in-the-garbage-disposal 5-speed manual transmission… and then they threw it away.
The Buffs made their Lemons debut at the 2017 B.F.E. GP in Colorado, bringing a crew of about a dozen engineers to keep this finely-tuned racing thoroughbred in tip-top competitive shape.
Stuff broke. Lots of stuff. The team members learned that theory and practice don’t always match up perfectly, which we think is a valuable engineering lesson.
They never gave up, wrenching all weekend under the searing Colorado summer sun.
When the checkered flag waved on Sunday afternoon, Buffs Racing stood in 49th place out of 61 entries, which is pretty respectable for a first-time team with a low-bidder GM economy car. For this, the Lemons Supreme Court awarded Buffs Racing the Judges’ Choice trophy.
After that, the Buffs decided that they’d have more fun with a somewhat more reliable car. Each of the local Colorado teams has a half-dozen hooptie project race cars stacked up and awaiting cage installation, and no distant teams seemed interested in driving 1,000 miles each way to Boulder and towing back a Cavalier with a proven history of nightmarish mechanical failure. The team made a quick call to Littleton U-Pull and the tow truck hauled off their Chevy.
Since several publications pay me to visit junkyards and write about the interesting stuff I find, I make my appointed rounds to all the Denver-area car graveyards. A few months after the 2017 B.F.E. GP, I spotted the Buffs Racing Cavalier. While this wasn’t the first Lemons car I’d seen in a U-Wrench-type yard (see the sad story of the Dudes Ex Machina 1972 Plymouth Scamp), it was the first one I didn’t expect to find during a junkyard crawl.
The team cut out the cage before ditching the car, which would have made some sense if they’d planned to race another GM J-Body.
We would have recommended that they move up on the GM pyramid, maybe with a nice Oldsmobile Toronado Troféo or a Pontiac Executive Safari. Instead, Buffs Racing chose something less interesting but perhaps more reliable: a 1999 Mazda Miata, which debuted at the 2018 Sears Pointless race, a 1,300-mile tow from Boulder.
The Buffs Racing Miata got some penalty laps for being on the cheaty side (1999 is pretty new for a Lemons Miata), but that turned out not to matter when the head gasket failed immediately. The team members learned that a dozen mechanics don’t make an engine repair go faster, and another team won the Judges’ Choice for loaning them a Subaru Forester to get some track time.
Let’s not dwell on the crunching sound the cold steel jaws of The Crusher made when they consumed the Buffs Racing Cavalier. Instead, let’s feel the optimism of this Cavalier TV commercial from 21 years ago.