The Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational (OUSCI) saw its 10th edition this year, immediately following the SEMA show in Las Vegas. Chevrolet vehicles have had a long and dominant history in this event, capturing eight crowns over its nine years. Defending champion Danny Popp’s 2003 Corvette has won the previous three titles (and four overall). If Popp were able to capture the 2017 crown, he would lay claim to half of the 10 titles that have been awarded in the event’s history, but that would be easier said than done.
None of Popp’s previous OUSCI victories came easily, nor were they won in dominant fashion. With each subsequent year, Popp needed to find new ways to stay ahead of the competition that was accelerating quickly. In previous events, Popp had teammates, of a sort, who could run interference for him on the Falken Tire Road Course segment, helping him secure a large enough margin to overcome deficits he might incur in other segments.
Popp, and the OUSCI, lost a great friend and competitor with the passing of Todd Rumpke last year, whose Corvette could always be counted on to help widen the gap between Popp and the competition. In addition, the Corvettes of James Forbis and Paul Curley, which had a history of strong runs on the road course also failed to make it to Las Vegas. While new competitors with very fast Corvettes emerged, there was far less certainty that Popp would be able to open up a similar gap on the road course against familiar foes like the 1967 Camaro of Mike DuSold and the Mitsubishi Evos of Ken Thwaits and Brandon Ranvek, who typically perform better during the Saturday segments of the event than on the Sunday road course.
However, a case could be made that the 2017 OUSCI wasn’t necessarily the defending champion’s title to lose. Rich Willhoff’s 2006 Z06 had won the regular season championship in the Holley EFI GTL class the last two seasons, while accumulating the highest season-long and individual event point totals in the series. Willhoff primarily runs the western side of the schedule. Even though he had been solid in the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering Challenge in the events he ran, he didn’t typically encounter some of the East Coast heavyweights, including Popp, Larry Woo’s ’68 Camaro, Randy Johnson’s ’02 Corvette. And that list doesn’t even include the wildcards that always show up at SEMA, including Kyle Tucker’s stunning third-gen Camaro and Bob Bertelsen’s outrageous ’68 Corvette.
Willhoff’s Vette finished in the upper-third of the D&E field, but that created a points gap he wasn’t able to overcome in the three timed segments. The first-gen Camaros of DuSold and Woo captured the top two spots respectively in the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering Challenge, with Thwaits’ Evo close behind in Third. Everyone finished behind Thwaits’ Evo on the Detroit Speed Autocross and the PowerStop Speed Stop Challenge, leaving the last hope for another Chevy victory on the Falken Tire Road Course Time Trial.
Thwaits’ Evo is no slouch on the road course, but was not expected to contend for the fast time there. Could anyone else reel him in, knowing he only left two points out of 400 on the table in the other four segments? As it turned out, there were several cars well within striking distance. In fact, the final results showed the Top 5 finishers were all within 10 points of each other. Popp held off everyone but Austin Barnes’ ’10 Dodge Viper on the road course, but struggled with mechanical issues throughout the weekend and wound up in Fifth place. Brandon Ranvek’s Evo went through a clutch swap and finished just two points ahead of Popp in Fourth. Mike DuSold’s Camaro edged out Ranvek by just two points for Third, thanks to some late-night welding.
Thwaits ended up just outside the Top 10 on the road course and Barnes’ Viper won that segment, but he came up just short against Thwaits in every other segment and three points out of the top spot at the end of the weekend. While the Chevrolet winning streak at the OUSCI stops at seven events in a row, Chevy power still had a strong overall presence in the event, capturing seven of the Top 10 spots and 20 of the Top 25 overall.
New episodes of Optima’s 2017 Search for the Ultimate Street Car TV series continue to air each weekend on MAVTV, starting Friday at 8 p.m. Eastern. The OUSCI episode will likely air in early December. The 2018 qualifying schedule will also be announced soon, so if you’d like to get in on the action in your street car next season, get ready. You can find all the latest information on the series and how you can get involved at DriveOPTIMA.com.
2017 Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational Top 10
1. Ken Thwaits, 2006 Mitsubishi Evo
2. Austin Barnes, 2010 Dodge Viper
3. Mike DuSold, 1967 Camaro
4. Brandon Ranvek, 2006 Mitsubishi Evo
5. Danny Popp, 2003 Corvette
6. Randy Johnson, 2002 Corvette
7. Rich Willhoff, 2006 Corvette
8. Larry Woo, 1968 Camaro
9. Jake Rozelle, 2003 Corvette
10. Robert DeuPree, 2009 Corvette
Photos: Jim McIlvaine