"These guys are racing on a glorified cow path," Aaron Olson, race director of the Sandhills Open Road Challenge, exclaims. We're in central Nebraska, damn near the center of these United States, bombing down the road that connects tiny Arnold with even smaller Dunning. Out here the air is clean, the sky is a piercing blue, and you can literally see for miles. For most of you, the next town over means maybe a mile or so, with a drive time of at most a few minutes. But the Great Plains have a way of changing perspectives: Dunning is 35 miles to the north.
60-year-old Ken Hodges of Julesburg, Colorado, getting his 2007 Z06 ready for a 136-mph pass in the half-mile competition that, along with the one-mile event, is held on the Cozad-Callaway oil road. Hodges was a good 20 mph off the pace of the fastest Vette, but made up for it by placing third in the 95-mph road race class the following day.---->
The sun is blinding, but from my perch in Olson's pickup, I get a firsthand look at the 29-mile northbound leg of this 55-mile, open-road racecourse. And immediately, I see what he means: this narrow, patchy, and occasionally broken asphalt is nothing like the smooth and wide I-80 just a few miles south of here. It's a county road, used mostly for farm implements and work trucks. And as such, the kind of low speeds needed for such vehicles must have been taken into consideration when building it. With sharp and barely visible turns, intense elevation changes, and transitions from decent to iffy pavement, the Autobahn it ain't. As I peered over a sharply curved section's guardrail into a deep ditch, I wondered if I'd be willing to hit 100 behind the wheel. But this weekend, a stock car would average 139 mph on this course, a 2001 Corvette convertible would average 120-and two exotic racecars would blast through another section of one-mile straightaway at over 215 miles an hour!
This is Bentonville, Arkansas-resident Dave Domingues, putting his AFR headed, Comp-cammed LS1 to work at the one-mile shootout. In addition to more exhaust bolt-ons, Dave uses LG, Hotchkis, and BMR suspension parts, Wilwood brakes, and a Wolfe cage to stick this '02 SOM to the pavement. Domingues blasted to 155 mph soon after this shot was taken, and finished up fourth in the 115-mph bracket of the road race.---->
The SORC, a non-profit organization, started this race in 2001, and added a one-mile shootout in 2003. All proceeds go toward much-needed civic projects in and around Arnold, including assistance for the local fire departments, public schools, and scholarship funds. And an Arnold Community Center was recently built with assistance from the SORC!
Cletus Kraft's Z06 gets a thorough pre-run inspection from the SORC tech officials to ensure that it's safe enough to make its 168-mph one-mile hit. The tech team puts in three days of physical work to ensure that each vehicle and driver is safe for their racing class. Cletus and his wife Brenda have driven down from Devils Lake, North Dakota, for the past five years for a vacation at this event, and she does the navigating. Hey Cletus: with your wife screaming orders at you as you try to navigate the 105-mph class under stress ... how exactly is that a vacation?---->
You might think that with little population density and lots of space, putting a race on would be easy. But that is not the case. This event happens around private land, and the SORC had to secure permission from the landowners to not only use the space, but to effectively close a nearly 30-mile stretch of road for a couple of days! Thankfully, those folks saw what the SORC was trying to accomplish and jumped on board. And it takes over 200 volunteers from the community to pull this event off each year!
So on August 9-11, 2007, Arnold welcomed over 100 vehicles to its seventh annual Sandhills Open Road Challenge. A large majority of the entrants are Corvettes: C4s, C5s, and C6s are everywhere, especially the ultra-potent ZR-1s and Z06s. However, there were third- and fourth-gen F-bodies, a GTO, a G-body, and even a newer Grand Prix in attendance as well. This three-day event happens in a setting that is mostly inhabited by tractors and work trucks. The population hovers around 600; there's a long main street and not much else; there is one hotel. But if you bring your high-speed GM up Highway 83 in early August, you'll be met by a town full of friendly and helpful folk-the kind that open up their homes to you for a good night's sleep. You'll enjoy a nice loud parade, a smoky burnout contest, and a car show consisting of the race entrants. And when it's all said and done, gear up for an awards BBQ, live music, and a few cold ones. But stay focused: serious racing is what you're really there for, and there's a half- and one-mile top-speed shootout to tame, and an open-road race that many call the most challenging in America.
My time on the south-to-north leg with Aaron, and going north-south after the event, gave me a good feel of this course-and it's a good one. In the first five miles of the north-south section, a driver has to accelerate over several very large hills, negotiate hard and slight right-hand curves, nail the brakes for a 90-degree left-hander, and man up for a quick right/left switch. And if you like straightaways, this course has them-several 2-miles, a 3-mile, and a 5-mile! There is no runoff, and in place of a tire barrier, prepare for a ditch and a barbed-wire fence. This is as intense as open-road racing gets.
But the SORC isn't resting on its laurels; the August 7-9, 2008 event will feature all of the events listed here-and will be adding track days on August 5-6 at Motorsport Park Hastings, a 2.15-mile road course. This is a really cool event to behold, and I'll bet even cooler to race in, so go to www.sorcrace.com to check out the class and rule structure, and start making plans.