It really depends on what kind of racing you hope to do in LeMons. Do you want to go reasonably fast and focus on maximizing track time while racing? Get a Civic/Saturn/Escort/Miata/second gen MR2/Volvo 240/etc. Wanna be more reliable than most, but necessarily all that fast? Get a Corolla/Tercel/Geo Metro, or something along those lines that really doesn't have enough power to destroy itself. Do you want to drive something ridiculous, probably much less reliable, but potentially worthy of the Index Of Effluency (the GRAND PRIZE in LeMons racing)? Buy an unusual old car that has no business being anywhere near a race track. If you have to ask Jay Lamm for a weight waiver, you're off to a good start. If you've never heard of the car manufacturer before finding the car, even better! I personally find the oddball stuff to be far more fun, and more challenging on the track as well. Most racers can go relatively fast in a good car. Not many can go relatively fast in a total POS, but I assure you they will have more fun trying! I grinned far more broadly while sliding around Gingerman in a rusted-out '65 Impala wagon on forty year old rubber than I did running the fastest lap of the race at Summit Point in my Mark VIII.
Advice On Your First Build:
Key here is talking to the right folks, depending on which car you end up choosing. Find the teams who have been fairly successful with the car you've procured, and ask them for tips. For example, Hondas are great street cars, but have a poor overall LeMons reliability record unless you put a much larger radiator in them. Chris Overzet (Fabtoys) in CA and Craig Ledbetter (Solman244) in SC are extremely knowledgeable Honda gurus (Overzet has the best reliability record, but Craig is equally well versed in the technical aspects). For a single cam Neon, talk with Mary Beth (Doctawife ) or her husband Chris (CPChampion) in Texas. They've done like a dozen races in theirs, and finished very well. For twin cam Neons, ask the Skid Marks guys in the midwest. They have won a number of races in theirs--that thing is FAST. A Miata is an easy car to drive, and pretty damn durable. I just bought a decent one for $500; they are out there. Ask Eyesore in CA, the Miagra guys in Texas, or the Endurance Karting guys on the east coast. No matter what your choice of car, the Lemons gang is always willing to help other teams. All you have to do is ask!
For your first build and outing, don't sweat trying to mod/improve the car too heavily. What most new teams want is a (hopefully) reliable car to learn the ropes in, so to speak. You will probably have a serious time and money constraint, because everything takes at least twice as long and costs at least twice as much as you budget. I'd honestly suggest finding a built LeMons car that is a proven entity, if it proves difficult to get everyone together for a build, or you don't have much skill yet. They appear frequently in the Cars For Sale section of the LeMons Forum. Some of this stuff, the cage especially, has to be absolutely right, or you will never get through tech.
For a cage, you'll likely spend nearly as much on materials as you will a pre-cut and pre-notched cage kit. I use Jim Whitley at www.rollcagecomponents.com. I don't bend my own cages, I just tell him what car I have, or give him measurements. You may have to modify it a bit, but it gets you a thousand times closer to your goal, and he's really inexpensive. He also sells all the safety gear, like seats and harnesses, and installs whatever you'd like, if you bring the car to Richmond, VA. If you are out west, John Pagel (Evil Genius) in Sacramento also does the same stuff, and he's the official head tech inspection guy for LeMons. Drag race seats are cheaper, but SUCK for endurance road racing. Find a used Corbeau or Kirkey road race seat (or similar), and buy a NEW cam lock harness. It's much faster to put on, easier to release, and you don't have to worry about wear or expiration dates.
Making It Faster:
If you really want to optimize performance right out of the gate, a turbo kit may seem like a good option, but it's a surefire way to go fast for a short while, then wrench for a long while. Best bet is weight reduction, and make sure you are running 100% in the stock form. Eliminate all the dead or unnecessary weight (stereo gear, carpet/sound deadening materials, glass, window motors, inner door panels, etc.). Then, tune it up. Don't forget the fuel filter! Ditch the convertor and stock exhaust for a cheap chinese header and homemade high flow exhaust. It will be lighter, flow better, and sound great (louder). Any muffler shop should be able to bend you a cheap aluminized single pipe, if you can't find a decent used setup in junkyards or online. Craisglist is your best friend for LeMons builds; you can get anything dirt cheap if you look hard enough. Forums for any given car will have classifieds, those work too.
Making It Stop:
Cut off the dust shields from the brake discs, and run dryer ducts for cooling. Buy really good pads. They will cost more up front, but last probably 3-6x longer, stop better, and fade less. I used to go through cheap $30-40 ceramic pads in like 5 hours, and blow out calipers in the process. Now, I buy fairly expensive Performance Friction 08 pads, and they last for multiple races while running really fast laps and braking insanely hard. Even Porterfields or Hawks at about $70/set are worlds better than off-the-shelf local stuff, and are available for most cars. If you can afford brake upgrades, they are budget-exempt, and money well spent. Drilled and slotted stuff is totally unnecessary, and can often wear pads faster. If you can, get decent rotors, preferably of American, German, or Italian manufacture. They tend to be made from much better steel, and last longer without warping.
Making It Turn:
Cut the stock springs to make them stiffer, and lower ride height. If your shocks are not blown, leave them alone for now, or face the wrath of the Judges for your heinous cheaty crimes. Negative camber is usually a set of crash or "camber" bolts and cut springs away, and will help tremendously. Amount depends on the car, but 2.5 degrees is usually a good starting point. Too much, and you lose braking, and wear tires. Too little, and you eat sidewalls up. Tires are the other big thing new teams screw up. Those nice, full tread all seasons that came on your craigslist special will chunk up and wear out faster than lower treadwear race rubber, while gripping far, far less. Dunlop Direzza Star Specs from Tire Rack are my favorites, followed closely by Falken Azenis RT 615K from Discount Tire Direct.
Keeping It Cool:
Don't cheap out on the cooling system, or you will be swapping head gaskets on day one. A nice, clean radiator and working fan is critical, as are hoses in good shape. If the stock stuff is at all iffy, cheap chinese aluminum racing radiators are all over Ebay, and many can be ordered with electric fans already mounted.
Keeping It Out On The Race Track:
If the condition of the clutch or timing belt is unknown, check or replace them. Same goes for the water pump, idler pulleys, alternator, and accessory belts. They will likely fail during the race if at all marginal, and potentially ruin your weekend. It takes too much money and time getting prepped, entered, and to a LeMons race to spend your time fixing stuff you could have already addressed. Bring the worn-but-functioning old stuff for spares---ALL of it. You never know what used parts you will need, but you will eventually need them, and they will likely save your weekend. Lucas oil stabilizer products really seem to help prolong race engines in my experience, as do synthetic oils. Mobil 1 is relatively inexpensive. Use a quality oil filter, not some $4 piece of crap. Double check everything. Make sure you have functioning gauges, and check them often while racing.
If you are not running an obviously cheaty car, you will be fine at BS tech. Bring your receipts, or expect some grief. Come up with a great theme, costumes, and a decent bribe, even if you are not cheating. It makes the whole weekend LOTS more fun, and puts you in the good graces of the judges. BTW, racing stickers and stripes ARE NOT a theme. Be outlandish. Study the LeMons galleries Judge Phil has here for inspiration:
Join the LeMons forum! You will make new friends, get lots of sage advice, and have more fun. Also, you can email or message those you think might be able to help guide you best. Most of us with LeMons experience are ready and willing...