Words and Photos by Right Foot: Rob Krider
It’s probably happened. Statistically speaking I’m sure you have found yourself sitting on the couch late at night in nothing but your underwear. As you were channel surfing in your tighty whities you probably landed on the MAVTV channel. Something shiny and fast caught your eye and you decided to stay on the channel for a bit to see what all of the tire smoke and oversteer was about. Chances are you were watching the show Optima’s Search for the Ultimate Street Car -a show where gearheads take their hotrods to the track and lay it all down to see who has the fastest car around equipped with a license plate. Here is the really cool thing about the show: you can be on it. If you read GH4L chances are you probably own a car, now all you have to do is get off the couch and bring that car the track. Wait, don’t forget your pants.
You don’t have to own a bad ass Dodge like the one pictured above to compete in the Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car (although you would look cooler if you did). Any street car can enter. You also don’t need an expensive competition license to race on the track at Optima. All you need is a standard driver’s license, a street legal vehicle, car insurance, and a helmet. Oh, and one more thing, big enough cojones to take your car to the track and drive it like you stole it.
When I say any car, I mean any car, as displayed by this clean (and surprisingly fast) Ford Pinto. In fact, cars like this are rewarded at Optima with points in the Lingenfelter Design and Engineering aspect of the competition. Optima’s Search for the Ultimate Street Car truly is what it claims to be, a search for the best street car in the country. With multiple challenges in different aspects of driving duties like autocross, speed stop, road rally, design/engineering, and road course, cars are evaluated for their overall ability to be fast, nimble, and look good while doing all of the above.
And all of this tire shredding action makes darn good television. Camera crews run around like crazy as they move cameras from one car to the next during the event, ensuring every competitor gets some time on the big screen. The more dynamic a competitor drives (read: slide your car and you will get on TV) and the more outgoing the competitor is in front of the camera during an interview (read: look at the camera and say more than, “Um…”) the better their chances are of making it off of the cutting room floor.
The above video is a mash-up of a few different episodes of Optima’s Search for the Ultimate Street Car from the 2015 season where I scored some screen time. The trick to being featured on the show is to go to multiple events, drive like a madman, and not shy away from the interviews. If you are an egotistical maniac with a lead foot, that shouldn’t be a problem.
To prove you can show up to the Optima event in any car, I parked my Corvette Z06 from the previous season and brought out my teenage daughter’s Nissan 350Z automatic complete with bedazzled front license plate cover. I knew I wouldn’t win overall in the little Z car, but I was sure I would beat somebody.
I bet my good friend, Keith Kramer from Double Nickel Nine Motorsports, I wouldn’t come in last place. He hoped I would, especially since he was driving a built Nissan 370Z Nismo 6-speed tuned by Jim Wolf Technology in the same class and didn’t want to see the stock automatic 350Z best the racy Nismo 370Z. The only way to find out was to go to the first event of 2016 at Thunderhill, in Willows, CA, and let the points fall where they may.
We both registered for the event and joined the Ultimate Street Car Association (USCA). When we arrived at Thunderhill they provided all the decals we needed to transform our street cars into racecars. Everyone knows that decals add ten horsepower. I was hoping it was ten horsepower per decal, so added as many as possible.
The folks at the USCA are fantastic and help the competitors through each part of the process, registration, technical inspection, transponder mounting, camera placement, you name it. If you have any questions or issues don’t hesitate to ask them. They are all awesome.
Jimi Day is the Master of Ceremonies for Optima events and he lives and loves cars and racing. He does a fantastic job during the driver’s meetings of explaining the rules and layout of the event for both first timers and seasoned veterans. All of this takes place in the Optima transformer big rig/stage aptly named “Optima Prime.”
Once all of the formalities were over it was time to kick the tires and light the fires. Competitors gridded up and got ready to take on the Detroit Speed & Engineering autocross course. One car at a time took on the tight, technical, cone lined race track. Fastest time wins. Simple enough.
What is cool about the autocross segment is you can run your car at, and beyond, the limit without worrying about balling up your street car. Worst thing that can happen, you spin, you smack an orange cone, and your time is penalized for each cone you knock down. It is a great opportunity to drive hard.
The good news is that only one of your runs, the best run, counts. So if you want to make adjustments, like Mike Maier (above) swapping springs, you can do that to try to improve your time. Unfortunately for Mike, the spring swap didn’t help.
Nobody expects a Ford Fairlane to outrun a Corvette Z06 on an autocross course. The USCA has setup multiple classes to even the competition amongst makes and models for the regional events across the United States. However, at the end of the year at the Invitational in Las Vegas, those classes are dissolved and there will only be one Ultimate Street Car. Nope, it hasn’t been a Ford Fairlane, yet.
The competition classes at regional events are as follows:
GTV: pre-1990, 3200+ pounds (like the vintage Chevelle pictured above)
GTS: post-1989, 3200+ pounds, two-seaters and AWD vehicles (Vipers, 370Zs)
GT: post-1989, 3200+ pounds, two-wheel drive sedans, four-seater coupes, trucks, etc. (Mustangs, Camaros)
GTL: anything under 3200 pounds (Corvette Z06 territory)
Once we finished the autocross, where I’ll admit the 370Z bested the 350Z, we headed to the Powerstop Speed Stop challenge where tires are punished. Especially tires on GTV cars that didn’t come equipped in 1969 with ABS.
The car to watch (and the best photo of the weekend) was this black Honda S2000 which would actually spew fire from the brake calipers as it spun into the stop box. A total crowd pleaser.
Running in the event is a lot of fun, but just being at the event and watching some really cool old cars that have been creatively modified to really perform is also impressive. There were definitely some sleepers in the paddock.
Racing does put stress on cars. Running your car at the maximum level of performance can cause things to break, as seen here with some clutch work needing to be done to this 5th Gen Camaro.
Believe it or not the little automatic 350Z was able to squeak out a win over the heavier 370Z in the Speed Stop challenge, thanks to some very sticky Carbotech brake pads. That meant both cars were at a dead heat in points heading into the Road Rally challenge.
The Lucas Oil Road Rally is Optima’s ability to judge a vehicle’s road worthiness on actual roads and is also a rolling car show through different communities where these events are held.
The trick to being successful in the Road Rally is having a good navigator and a clipboard. You don’t want to get lost, miss checkpoints, or miss making it back to the track for the banquet. The first reason is by the time you get back all the food will be gone, and more importantly if you miss the time limit you won’t get any points for the Road Rally. Every point in this competition is crucial.
The Road Rally was cool. The route was scenic and it was neat seeing all of the hot rods out on the roads. Optima included a Poker Run as part of the event. Each checkpoint allowed you to pick a card. Best poker hand at the end was the winner.
The Road Rally also offered the opportunity to get some fuel and prepare for the following day which would be the Road Course challenge where certainly lots of fuel would be burned.
When we got back to the track it was time to enjoy some Tactical Ops craft brew, eat at the banquet, and do some bench racing with some awesome like-minded car nuts. The two Nissan’s were in a dead heat for points causing a lot of trash talking to ensue at our table. Jimi Day provided information about the next day’s event: The Falken Tires Road Course Challenge.
Not everybody got to enjoy dinner. Some were in the paddock still slapping a clutch into a Camaro. Don’t feel bad for the owner, Ken Thwaits, as his crew got the car back together and he actually won the GT class that weekend. Pretty impressive.
The next day all competitors were required to have a transponder mounted to their vehicle somewhere to keep track of their times on Thunderhill’s famed road course. In most cases a simple zip tie got the job done.
Run groups for the Falken Tire Road Course time attack were divided by driver safety gear and racing experience. In order to be in the expert group you needed to have a full Nomex suit, neck protection, and 5-point harnesses. The “expert” group allowed unlimited passing throughout the track allowing for better chances for a fast lap.
The Road Course challenge is where cars with big horsepower can really shine. It is also a place where being a fearless driver helps too. Going into Turn 1 at Thunderhill is a butt puckering experience not to be underestimated.
The Optima Street Car Challenge isn’t just a place for the boys to play. Alexandra Zust driving a Lotus Elise, drove great and earned a podium finish in the highly competitive GTV class.
For our own little sub-competition, Keith Kramer, driving the 370Z, smashed the 350Z’s time in the Road Course challenge, giving him the win. The 370Z also earned more points in the Lingenfelter Design/Engineering judging for being more modified than the stock 350Z. However, I was given some points for my daughter’s bedazzled front license plate frame. Thank you Optima!
After the racing was done it was time to head back to Optima Prime for the awards ceremony. The above podium was for the GT class with Ken Thwaits (first -middle), Jordan Priestley (second -left), and Richard Forsythe (third -right).
The winners for the first Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car of the 2016 season at Thunderhill were everyone that attended and participated. The fastest guy on the track was Rich Willhoff in his yellow Z06 Corvette (pictured above).
Here is the podium for each class:
GTL Class (anything under 3200 pounds)
1. Rich Willhoff, 2006 Chevrolet Corvette Z06
2. Duke Langley, 2002 Chevrolet Corvette Z06
3. Alexandra Zust, 2005 Lotus Elise
GTV Class (pre-1990, 3200+ pounds)
1. Jake Rozelle, 1969 Chevrolet Camaro
2. Chad Ryker, 1968 Chevrolet Camaro
3. Efrain Diaz, 1969 Chevrolet Camaro
GTS Class (post-1989, 3200+ pounds, two-seaters and AWD vehicles)
1. Brian Hobaugh, Chevrolet Corvette Z06
2. Carrie Willhoff, Chevrolet Corvette Z06
3. Lynn Proctor, 2005 Dodge Viper
GT Class (post-1989, 3200+ pounds, two-wheel drive sedans, four-seater coupes, trucks, etc.)
1. Ken Thwaits, 2014 Chevrolet Camaro
2. Jordan Priestley, 2011 Chevrolet Camaro
3. Jordan Priestley, 2016 Chevrolet Camaro (this crazy dude drove two cars!)
K&N Spirit of the Event Award
Sean Fogli, 1968 Ford F100
All of the above winners were automatically invited to SEMA and the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational in Las Vegas at the end of the year.
The mighty Nismo version of the 370Z proved its worth by besting its predecessor, the 350Z. However, the little baby Z did quite well in the Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car by outperforming many cars at the event in multiple challenges. It doesn’t matter how bitchen’ a car is on paper, or how much horsepower it has, it needs to be driven by a capable wheelman in order to actually perform well (as proven by the results of a stock Nissan with an automatic). But racing results don’t lie and you and see from the results it helps if you bring a big gun to the fight, and a Corvette Z06 is a pretty big gun.
Rob Krider, author of the novel Cadet Blues, won the GTS class at Thunderhill in 2015 and competed in the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational in Las Vegas driving a Corvette Z06. His adventure was featured in Power and Performance News magazine Spring 2016 issue. To read more stories from Rob go to robkrider.com.