Home » Vannonball Run: Lemons Racer Plans To Enter Every Race Next Year in An Old Dodge Minivan

Vannonball Run: Lemons Racer Plans To Enter Every Race Next Year in An Old Dodge Minivan

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In a Lemons field full of colorful characters and oddball vehicles, Zac Caldwell might not stand out at first glance. He campaigns a 2006 Dodge Caravan in races up and down the country, traveling great distances to do so. It’s by no means the flashiest car in any given lineup, and certainly not the fastest. However, this humble family conveyance has taken him a long way, and next year, he’s planning to go farther and wider than ever before. He’s plotted a 30,000 mile route that will see him take on every 24 Hours of Lemons race in the United States next year. It’s the Vannonball.

It sounds mad on the face of it. Sure, plenty of racing teams take on a ton of races in a season, no problem. But they do it with trailers, mechanics, expensive hotels and those performance trainers that can also give you a massage when you need it. Caldwell has none of that, and he drives his racing minivan to and from every event. 2023 saw Caldwell do four races on consecutive weekends, but next year, he’s ramping up in serious fashion. The 24 Hours of Lemons has 23 races on the calendar, so it’s no mean feat to get to every single one, let alone while keeping the racecar in good enough shape to roadtrip between each one. Thus far, the Dodge’s 3.8-liter pushrod V6 and automatic transmission have both proved hardy, but Caldwell will be asking a lot from the largely-stock van in 2024.

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As you might imagine, there’s a deep underlying motivation driving this thing. “My mom was a cancer survivor, and her passing in early 2022 is deeply ingrained in this whole experience,” Caldwell told The Autopian. “She was a car enthusiast, and as much as my risk-seeking behavior would terrify her, this trip is an extension of my habit to keep her heart rate up when she was alive.” It’s in part due to his mother’s influence that Caldwell is using this run to raise funds for charity. Lemons of Love is a favorite charity for many in the broader Lemons racing community, and it’s the target of Caldwell’s fundraising effort. He’s hoping to raise at least $1,000 at each race on the calendar, or a total of $23,000 over the year. That money will go to help Lemons of Love in its mission to provide support and care packages to patients undergoing chemotherapy.

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Like so many Lemons racers on a budget, Caldwell drives the van to events.

The family links run deep with the 2006 Dodge Caravan. “My parents purchased the van in 2007… and it was our daily grocery getter for many years,” he explains. “It became the farm truck for a while, we used to load in hay for my mother’s [horse] riding clinic.” Eventually, the car was left to sit as a spare car for the family, but Caldwell had something different in mind when he decided to prep it for track use in 2022.

Like many astute Lemons competitors, he’s taken a safe and steady route with his build. “I’ve found a lot of success with just leaving things alone,” he says. “It’s designed to do long hauls on the highway, so it’s pretty sturdy and reliable if you don’t futz with things too much.” The fact that the van doesn’t have a sharp, pointy racing setup is a major boon for the long drives to and from events, and should serve Caldwell well next year. Beyond the usual safety mods, it’s largely stock. “The most expensive thing I’ve done to it is try to put wheels that fit good tires and I use Carbotech brake pads, which really did make a huge difference,” he explains.

It’s easy to imagine something going wrong with a 2006 Dodge Caravan in 30,000 miles of highway driving, to say nothing of the dangers of racing it on track. Caldwell has his concerns, but he’s not unduly worried. “I’ve kind of worked through it, and have a lot of solutions to a lot of problems.” He notes that the schedule next year isn’t too punishing for what he’s planning, noting he can break it up into five or six chunks of two to five races at a time.

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Regardless, contingency planning is a big part of his efforts to pull this off. “It’s very likely I’ll end up having three parts cars in different parts of the country, and carrying another most of the drivetrain on the trailer with me.” The benefit of choosing such a workaday vehicle is that finding bits and pieces is never excessively difficult, too. “The joy of racing a car that Dodge made thousands of is that I am never more than about 50 miles away from the parts I need,” says Caldwell.

Along his journey thus far, Caldwell has often been asked if he’s independently wealthy to fund such adventures. It’s a lot more budget-minded than it might seem from the outside, according to him. “I finance these trips with arrive-and-drive fees,” he explains. “The sacrifice I make to keep those fees affordable while making the trips ambitious is choosing a car that can be operated very cheaply and very often sacrificing my own seat time.” While Caldwell will be taking the van to all 23 events, he won’t necessarily personally drive at each one. “I’ll only race at about half of the events, but if you think about it, I get plenty of time behind the wheel of the van,” he says.

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The van was a hit at a previous race at New Jersey Motorsports Park, with over 50 people on or in the vehicle in this picture. Caldwell explains that the van does double duty as a pit vehicle at races. “The stow and go trays get filled with ice and beer and sodas, and we drive around the paddock, picking people up, dropping people off, crashing, paddock parties, and chanting various absurd things,” he says.

He promotes the page and available arrive-and-drive slots on his Facebook page, and makes some additional money selling T-shirts and calendars online. He’s looking to fill 100 driver slots next year to help fund the mission. “I love when the van is someone’s first Lemons car,” says Caldwell.

Ultimately, beyond raising some money for a good cause, Caldwell is just out to enjoy the ride. “I don’t know what I hope to achieve with this trip beyond continuing to live the life I feel like I have been handed,” he told me. “In many ways I am the luckiest person I know.”

The world of Lemons racing has inspired grand feats before; Neal Losey won the hearts of many when he ran an entire season last year, flying across the country. Trying to achieve a similar feat in a longer season, all the while driving the racecar between events seems like an even greater challenge. Regardless, it’s easy to imagine the warm and welcoming Lemons crowd cheering on the mighty Dodge when it pulls into races across the country. It will surely take a Herculean effort to keep that van alive through an entire 11 months of racing, but Caldwell has set that as his aim. Here’s to the Vannonball, long may it run.

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Image credits: Zac Caldwell

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LTDScott
LTDScott
4 months ago

This is a tempting arrive and drive opportunity. I run my own Lemons team but I’ve had some of the most fun experiences doing arrive and drives in vehicles that have no business being on track – a stretch limo, Ford Granada, Mini Moke, and Hyundai Excel come to mind.

Last edited 4 months ago by LTDScott
Zac Caldwell
Zac Caldwell
4 months ago
Reply to  LTDScott

Let me encourage that! It’s a riot to drive- the body roll is more funhouse that house of horrors, and it’s not as slow as you’d think. You earn every pass- but it does make a few passes.

Mthew_M
Mthew_M
4 months ago

“Hey, I do Lemons too!” comment thread.

-Miller High Life Buick Century
-Porsche 944 (Currently Martini, Future Theme TBD)

Last edited 4 months ago by Mthew_M
Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
4 months ago
Reply to  Mthew_M

I need to get back into Lemons Partying soon. Current list of garbage car sons:

  • 1984 Porsche 944 (Salzburg themed)
  • 1971 Volkswagen 411

My theme is that I’m bad at this, and Tetanus usually gets to use my entry points. Haha. (I’ve raced their Martini 944, too! Great car. It’s like mine, except sorted.)

Mthew_M
Mthew_M
4 months ago
Reply to  Stef Schrader

Very nice! I actually read your writeup on the car, and it helped convince me to buy it. 🙂 ‘Blanco’ is headed to Road Atlanta this weekend (lord willing & the creek don’t rise any more than it has) – it’s currently at the performance alignment shop after quite a few last-minute setbacks and a regular alignment shop not being able to get the rear close at all. Will have to have you back in the car sometime!

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
4 months ago
Reply to  Mthew_M

Oh my gosh! You have Blanco now?! That’s a fun car. Good luck! (And hell yeah, I’d be down to drive it again once I knock the rust off my own driving skills.)

H4llelujah
H4llelujah
4 months ago

What an absolute boss. God bless this man.

Last edited 4 months ago by H4llelujah
Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
4 months ago

“The van was a hit at a previous race at New Jersey Motorsports Park, with over 50 people on or in the vehicle in this picture.”

I was working as Lemons staff at that race and was inside the van. With so much buckling going on around it I still don’t know how the windshield survived.

I imagine the most brutal aspect of next year’s schedule is that Pacific Raceways and the second High Plains race are on the same weekend. They’re about 1400 miles apart. Possible, certainly, but ouch.

Marc Fuhrman
Marc Fuhrman
4 months ago
Reply to  Mike Harrell

Yeah, I saw that as well. Assuming no breakdowns or extended stops that’s a trip of 20-24 straight hours. I’m not sure you’d be able to actually put any laps in at one venue then drive to the other and get some laps in there as well. He might be able to pull it off if he only races for an hour or two at each race? Wouldn’t blame him if he skipped one of them.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
4 months ago
Reply to  Marc Fuhrman

That’s about the only way I see it working as well. Race for an hour at High Plains then drive to Pacific Raceways. It’ll make for a long slog to the following race in Kentucky but at least it’s somewhat reasonable from the previous race in Wisconsin to Colorado and I suspect what’s more important is that the time change works in his favor this way going to Washington. That gives him 29 hours to pack up, drive, unpack, get through tech, and get on track in time to race for another hour, which means there’s just enough time to make it work, assuming only minor issues while in transit. A longer time spent at the first race is possible, of course, but it would leave less of a margin for problems on the road. I’d be inclined to conserve that time for the possibility of more laps at the second race.

Last edited 4 months ago by Mike Harrell
Zac Caldwell
Zac Caldwell
4 months ago
Reply to  Mike Harrell

I’m exploring a lot of different solutions to that problem. The easiest is to just do a little handwavey kayfabe and get a second lookalike to one of them- of course, my concern is if that betrays the whole premise. The washington races are both painfully situated, too.

We do this not because it easy…

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
4 months ago
Reply to  Zac Caldwell

Currently I’m scheduled to work at both WA races, the first CO race, and the second Thunderhill race, so I hope to see you there! Best wishes with the, ah, let’s go with “challenging” logistics of all this.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
4 months ago

Sometime back it was said that Lemons is the cheapest per mile racing in an actual car (for a given value of car: I’ve seen a few Lemons Wrapups). I keep meaning to go spectate at Carolina Motorsports Park.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
4 months ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

you may or may not know people with (now-running) cars for this

Mthew_M
Mthew_M
4 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Definitely come to CMP! The Parade is back this year, so definitely don’t miss all the cars in Camden on Friday night.

And, Jason is usually there. He’s given me some penalties over the years…

Last edited 4 months ago by Mthew_M
Chally_Sheedy
Chally_Sheedy
4 months ago

One giant leap for Vankind.

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