The Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational (OUSCI), presented by K&N Filters, is the culmination of a yearlong process to find the ultimate street car. Optima’s definition of the ultimate street car starts with a street-legal production vehicle, running 200 treadwear tires. From there, it must be able to handle the heat of bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Vegas strip, as well as the heat of competition at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and look great while doing it all.
Danny Popp’s 2003 Corvette Z06 has won it the past two years and Popp also previously won it a third time in a Corvette he built for his best friend, Todd Rumpke. However, the competition is always evolving and improving and changes in the way the event was scored had everyone wondering if Popp could win three in a row?
The Lingenfelter Design & Engineering Challenge (D&E) has long been the real difference maker in this event and its qualifying series, as it places a heavy emphasis on making sure these street cars aren’t really just race cars with license plates. This key segment ensures that the winning car will not only have a full interior and functioning accessories, but that when fans of a particular type of vehicle talk about what they consider the “ultimate” version of that car to be, the top contenders in the OUSCI are always in the conversation.
In 2016, the points in Design & Engineering were equalized with the other four segments, so a Tenth Place finish in D&E was now worth as much as a Tenth Place finish on the Detroit Speed Autocross or PowerStop Speed Stop Challenge. Many wondered if this change would give an unfair advantage to vintage cars in the series, which tend to have far more custom features than late-model entries. While pre-1990 entries did finish in four of the top 10 spots, late-model owners also stepped up their D&E game to remain competitive in that segment.
There are also three timed segments on the track that must be completed, so even with a more balanced scoring system, the performance of the car in action still makes up the majority of the final score. First place in each segment is worth 100 points, so a perfect score on the weekend would total 500 points. Four of the segments are complete by the end of the Lucas Oil Road Rally on Saturday night, so Sunday’s Falken Tire Road Course Time Trial is typically the deciding factor on who wins the title and this year was no exception.
Because this event is filmed for broadcast on national TV, the outcome of all segments remains a secret until the awards ceremony Sunday night. The field was stacked with as many contenders for the overall win as it has ever seen, many of them in late-model Corvettes. However, there were a wide variety of other legitimate players in a wide variety of cars, both foreign and domestic.
Competitors generally do a pretty good job of documenting their times and sharing information, so Popp knew he had probably locked up the win on the Autocross. However, he also knew Ken Thwaits’ Evo likely finished right behind him in Second Place and probably won the Speed Stop. He also knew Austin Barnes’ Evo probably finished ahead of him in Second Place in the Speed Stop, which meant Thwaits likely had a one-point edge in two of the three timed events.
What no one knew was who came out on top in the Design & Engineering Challenge and how much of a gap there was between competitors. Rich Willhoff, Karl Dunn, and Paul Curley’s Corvettes all finished in the Top 10 in both the Autocross and Speed Stop, and all are exceptionally well-built cars, which could also be factors on the D&E side. Mike DuSold’s 1967 Camaro was also known to be one of the top contenders in all segments, but when he stumbled on the Speed Stop, his chances of winning the title diminished significantly. Curley’s Corvette was the next to falter when it fell victim to mechanical issues on the Road Rally and lost 50 points as a result.
Thwaits’ Evo and DuSold’s Camaro ended up tying for the win in Design & Engineering, which meant Thwaits only left one point on the table on Saturday, while Popp’s Corvette finished Eighth, which meant he left a total of 10 points on the table and had a nine-point deficit to overcome on the road course. Popp has traditionally won the Road Course portion of the event, but he has also enjoyed a cushion created by the finishing positions of several of his RAFT Racing cohorts, which often ends up giving him the points advantage he has needed to secure the overall win.
Grabbing as many points as possible on Saturday and gapping the competition on Sunday has been a successful strategy for Popp in his previous OUSCI victories, but 2016 would be different. Popp’s best friend and running mate, Todd Rumpke, lost his battle with cancer earlier in the year and would only be there in spirit to help Danny win a fourth title. Another RAFT teammate, James Forbis, had a last-minute conflict that prevented him from bringing his Corvette to the OUSCI and adding another potential buffer spot on the road course. Curley’s troubles on the road rally the night before left doubt as to whether he’d be able to return to action on Sunday and grab a spot and DuSold’s braking issues called into question how fast his Camaro might be on the final day.
The math that none of the competitors knew was where Ken Thwaits’ Evo needed to finish in order to secure the victory over Popp. Thwaits knew he needed a solid run, but didn’t know if his D&E score gave him an additional cushion or erased the advantage he held after the first two timed events. As it turned out, Thwaits only needed to finish in Eighth Place to secure the title and his Evo was easily capable of a podium finish on the road course. However, that’s where Ken’s luck ran out.
The Evo, which had performed near flawlessly all day on Saturday developed engine issues on Ken’s very first lap on Sunday, preventing him from even posting a single lap time. Fortunately for Thwaits, three other Evos were in the event and Luke Keller agreed to loan Thwaits the cylinder head from his 2006 Evo so Thwaits could at least get on the track and take a stab at the top spot.
The engine work and head swap took most of the day, but Thwaits was able to take to the track in the very last session. While Ken’s car was being wrenched on, Popp locked up the top spot on the big track with Rich Willhoff and Mike DuSold finishing Second and Third, respectively. Jeremy Swenson’s ZR1 posted the fourth-fastest time, while two-time GT regular season champion, Bryan Johnson’s 2013 Camaro posted the fifth-fastest lap. Curley resolved his fuel pump issues to capture Sixth Place, while Mike Maier’s Mustang posted the seventh fastest mark.
If Thwaits wanted to win the title, he’d need to get past Karl Dunn’s 2002 Z06, which posted a best lap time of 1:47.274. While Thwaits was able to get back on the track and past the majority of the field, he fell short in his quest, posting a best time of 1:49.883, which meant Danny Popp had earned his third-straight OUSCI title and fourth overall. Thwaits did manage to get past Willhoff and DuSold for Second Place overall, but Chevy once again reigned supreme at the OUSCI.
If you weren’t able to make it to this awesome event, you can check out the TV coverage on MAVTV every weekend, starting on Friday nights at 8 p.m. ET/PT. The OUSCI episode is set to air on Thanksgiving weekend and all the shows will also be available for on-demand viewing on the OPTIMA Network on Roku after the show’s premiere on TV. The 2017 schedule has been announced and registration will open before the end of the year. If you’ve followed this series but wanted to get involved, we encourage you to give it a shot in 2017. The series emphasizes a safe and fun experience within the framework of friendly competition and is very welcoming to new participants. If you’d like to learn more, please visit DriveOPTIMA.com.
|Danny Popp||2003 Corvette||491 points|
|Ken Thwaits||2006 Mitsubishi Evo||483 points|
|Rich Willhoff||2006 Corvette||478 points|
|Mike DuSold||1967 Camaro||462 points|
|Mike Maier||1966 Ford Mustang||462 points|
|Karl Dunn||2002 Corvette||462 points|
|Kyle Tucker||1970 Camaro||446 points|
|Robert DeuPree||2009 Corvette||446 points|
|Austin Barnes||2012 Mitsubishi Evo||444 points|
|Jake Rozelle||1969 Camaro||441 points|
|(tie-breakers go to the higher score in Design & Engineering)|