4th Annual Optima Invitational - The Dogs Of War

The Top Cars in the Country Square Off at the Fourth Annual Optima Invitational

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There was a time when Pro Street cars ruled the show circuit and even the pages of magazines. They looked fast, but they seemed relegated to idling through fairgrounds or maybe the occasional clandestine blast down a deserted street. The look was race car, but they soon gained an almost poseur status. Why? Because there was something wrong with a car all gussied up to dance just sitting it out.

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The same phenomenon started happening in the Pro Touring segment. These cars looked ready for the Nürburgring, but never got put to the test. Then someone came up with a novel idea: How about sticking these worked-over classics on a track and seeing what they can do? The result was a hit and soon guys were building cars that not only looked good, but could throw down in the twisties as well.

Three years ago the folks at Optima Batteries decided to kick this trend up a few notches by organizing a shootout where the best handling cars in the country would vie for top honors. Since that inaugural race the rules for the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational (OUSCI) have morphed and the competition level has racked up, but the goal is the same: cool custom and Pro Touring cars fighting it out with imports and exotics to see who is the fastest of the fast.

There are three ways to get a golden ticket to run at this gig: win one of the regional qualifying events, catch the eyes of the event organizers, or snag one of the 10 invites handed out at the SEMA show in Vegas. But, we’ll tell you one thing—getting in is a lot easier than winning.

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Rule Book

Similar to last year, the three driving events were scored using a points system, where the top 20 finishers were awarded from 25 points (First Place) to 1 point (20th Place). This meant the cars had to consistently perform in all three driving challenges to win the big prize.

The biggest change was to the Raybestos Performance Design Challenge, which used to be judged on a 1-10. This year it was modified so that it factored in just like the driving events (1-25 point scale for the top 20 cars). Last year it was more of a tiebreaker, but now it was 25 percent of the final tally. Cars not finishing all of the events would be DQ’d out of the competition.

The other way to gain, or lose, points was in the Detroit Speed–sponsored road rally. This segment took place the night before the event and required all cars to make the 60-plus miles from the SEMA show in Vegas to the town of Pahrump. Rain, snow, and ice along the way just made it more challenging, especially for a car lacking things like wipers, heaters, and side glass. Competitors who made the trek within the given time picked up 10 points.

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The Hot Lap Challenge, sponsored by BFGoodrich, consisted of a warm-up lap, followed by three timed laps and one cooldown lap. The RideTech-sponsored autocross consisted of three timed laps with no practice runs. Hitting a cone added a second to the final time and missing a turn resulted in a big fat DNF. In the Wilwood Brakes–sponsored Speed/Stop Challenge, drivers combined launch speed with braking prowess to traverse the given distance, stopping in the coned-off box, in the least amount of time. Even touching a cone in the stop box earned a DNF; it’s a tricky event that can flat spot tires in a heartbeat. The competitor’s best time in each event was used to determine the number of points they would accumulate. The other big rule was that the tires had to be 200 or greater treadwear.

Drivers

The hardest part of an event like this is handling the drivers. After all, the point is to find the “Ultimate Street Car” and skill behind the wheel can make all the difference, especially on the road course and autocross. This year the rules were further tightened up so that only car owners and builders who’ve done at least 80 percent of the work can pilot the cars. Of course that doesn’t keep the “pro” drivers out, but it does stop it from getting out of control. Last year’s winner, Mark Stielow, was back to defend his title in his blown ’69 Camaro. He has hundreds, if not thousands, of laps at Spring Mountain, so he certainly had an advantage. There were also some familiar faces like the Tuckers from Detroit Speed, national autocross champion Mary Pozzi, and Brian Finch. All of them ended up being 2-5 seconds faster than they were last year. So yes, practice does pay off. There were also new hot shoes piloting cars, including Mike Maier, Brian Hobaugh, Danny Popp, Pete Callaway, and Vinny Allegretta. Such a deep talent pool, combined with cars that blurred the lines between street car and race car, guaranteed an all-out war on the track, and we weren’t disappointed.

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Race Day

The weather on Friday was less than stellar; however, on Saturday morning we were greeted with blue skies. Even though the morning temps hovered in the mid 30s, it was better than the alternative. Around sunrise the drivers started trickling in and getting their cars ready for their tech inspection. The mood was friendly, but by the time the morning drivers’ meeting got going you could tell that everything was getting a bit more serious. Let’s admit it, a friendly competition is still a competition.

The desire to win never muddied the fact that everyone racing were friends with a common love of all things automotive. Last year’s winner, Stielow, gave the other hot shoes tips on how best to navigate Spring Mountain’s 2.1-mile road course and when there were mechanical issues, other drivers and support crew stepped up to lend a hand or needed tools. Near the end of the event, Popp cracked his brake master cylinder on the road course. Normally this would have ended his day, and his chances of winning, but Callaway, who was done with all of his events, gave him the master off of his ’08 Corvette. It was a classy act indicative of the event; gearheads coming together to share their passion while trying to best each other out on the track. It’s what makes this better, and to us far more enjoyable, than the “dog-eat-dog” mentality found in professional racing.

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By the end of the event all of the expected names were on the leaderboard with 7 out of the top 10 being Chevrolets. Most importantly, for the third year out of four, a Chevy stood on the top rung of the ladder. Who knows what next year will bring, but we’re sure of one thing; when November rolls around, we’ll be there to watch the best of the best battle it out.

Top 10 Road Course

Name Vehicle Time
Danny Popp ’06 Z06 Vette 1:42.208
Pete Callaway ’08 SC652 Vette 1:44.749
Mark Stielow ’69 Camaro 1:45.410
Kyle Tucker ’71 Camaro 1:48.430
Gary Rubio ’09 Nissan GT-R 1:48.441
Mike Maier ’66 Mustang 1:48.721
Brian Hobaugh ’73 Camaro 1:48.879
Filip Trojanek ’66 Mustang 1:50.265
David Mikels ’10 Camaro 1:51.319
Vincent Allegretta ’69 Camaro 1:51.584

Top 10 Autocross

Name Vehicle Time
Danny Popp ’06 Z06 Vette 38.251
Mary Pozzi ’73 Camaro 39.414
Brian Hobaugh ’73 Camaro 39.502
Pete Callaway ’08 SC652 Vette 39.626
Mike Maier ’66 Mustang 39.654
Brian Finch ’69 Camaro 39.658
Mark Stielow ’69 Camaro 40.017
Kyle Tucker ’70 Camaro 40.031
Gary Rubio ’09 Nissan GT-R 40.117
Mark Rife ’63 Corvette 40.167

Top 10 Speed-Stop

Name Vehicle Time
Gary Rubio ’09 Nissan GT-R 6.541
Mark Stielow ’69 Camaro 7.096
Danny Popp ’06 Z06 Vette 7.378
Mary Pozzi ’73 Camaro 7.413
Mike Maier ’66 Mustang 7.425
Brian Finch ’69 Camaro 7.479
Terry Neuville ’68 Camaro 7.491
Filip Trojanek ’66 Mustang 7.530
James Shipka ’67 Camaro 7.545
Joe Shown ’90 ZR1 Vette 7.568

Top 5 Finishers –Style Category

Name Vehicle Place
Phil Gerber ’67 Chevelle 1st
Curt Ukasik ’62 Nova 2nd
JF Launier ’57 Bel Air 3rd
Brian Hobaugh ’73 Camaro 4th
Mike Langford ’01 PT Cruiser 5th

Overall Winners

Name Vehicle Place
Danny Popp ’06 Z06 Vette 1st
Mark Stielow ’69 Camaro 2nd
Brian Hobaugh ’73 Camaro 3rd
Gary Rubio ’09 Nissan GT-R 4th
Mary Pozzi ’73 Camaro 5th

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