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Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car 2018 Las Vegas

Season five heats up in Vegas

Jim McIlvaine Mar 22, 2018
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Optima’s Ultimate Street Car Invitational (OUSCI) began at the SEMA show 10 years ago and it sought to answer a simple question: How many of these incredible show cars can actually be driven on the street, let alone enjoyed at the track? The answer in the early years was “not too many,” but the event was an incredible success. After six years, there were so many people looking for a shot at the OUSCI title, a nationwide qualifying series was started. Hopefuls from coast to coast could now come out and run in an event that had the same format as the OUSCI, and if they did well enough, they’d receive an invitation to the SEMA show and the OUSCI.

Now entering its fifth full season of competition, Optima’s Search for the Ultimate Street Car series routinely sells out of competitor spots months in advance and the fields are increasingly stacked with some of the most amazing street cars and trucks ever created. While the emphasis in the series is on safety and friendly competition, the friendly competition part has ramped up so much, the OUSCI field on display at the SEMA show now has few rivals anywhere at SEMA in terms of build quality, fit, finish, and, especially, driveability.

Getting to SEMA and the OUSCI in 2018 starts in the same place it did last year: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (LVMS), which is also the final destination in early November. A sold-out field converged on a warm but windy track in mid-March, vying for valuable points that lead to points championships in six different classes and invitations to the big show.

The QA1 GTV class focuses on the early iron (and at least 3,200 pounds of it) and as competitors throughout the series battle for every available point, this class has emerged in the role of spoiler more than any other. Six cars that finished outside the top seven in this class all captured Top 20 overall points in the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering competition. This group was led by Bryan Battaglini’s gorgeous ’70 Camaro, which only finished 13th in GTV, but finished Eighth overall in Design & Engineering.

With 2017 class champion, John Lazorack III opting not to defend his title in his LS-powered Chrysler Conquest, the door has swung open for other competitors looking to climb to the top of the GTV mountain, and a trio of West Coast Camaros have announced their intentions early. Chad Ryker’s ’68 Camaro topped the podium in Las Vegas, followed by Nick Relampagos’ ’70 Camaro and Efrain Diaz’s ’69 Camaro. Those three will likely do battle all season long and enter into an even larger fray when the series moves east of the Rocky Mountains.

Austin Barnes has every intention of defending his 2017 Recaro GTS class championship and started off with a win in Vegas, topping Jordan Priestley’s ’17 Corvette. The GTS class really shows the variety of cars that compete in this series, with six different makes represented. However, Chevys are looking to take command, and in spite of missing out on the top spot at Vegas, six of the top 10 were Corvettes.

The heavy hitters in the series seem to reside in the Holley EFI GTL class, for late-model vehicles that weigh less than 3,200 pounds. Ken Thwaits emerged from this class last season to capture the OUSCI crown and Danny Popp’s C5 Corvette did the same in the three years prior. However, putting together three solid regular events proved more elusive for Thwaits’ Mitsubishi Evo and Rich Willhoff defended his 2016 class championship with another regular season title in 2017.

Thwaits went back to the drawing board, dialed back the power in exchange for more reliability. That strategy appears to be paying dividends, as he followed up his OUSCI triumph in November with the GTL class in Vegas. However, he was far from alone at the top. Mike DuSold’s lightweight ’67 Camaro held the lead going into day two, but lost a cylinder before posting his first lap on the Falken Tire Road Course time trial. Willhoff also remained within striking distance, edging out Thwaits on the road course and finishing just nine points back in the standings.

The largest class in the series is often the Franklin Road Apparel GT class for late-model muscle cars, and two dozen entries posted scores in Las Vegas. While the occasional Mopar or BMW will make an appearance from time to time, the battle in this class has really been about Chevy versus Ford. While the two marques split the Top 10 finishing positions at LVMS, Eric Sheely’s ’18 Camaro ZL1 1LE topped the field and Chad Langley’s ’18 Camaro ZL1 joined him on the podium in Third place.

Sheely’s performance suggests he could emerge as a serious challenger to Bryan Johnson’s three-year stranglehold on the class. While Sheely was well back of Johnson’s fifth-gen at the 2017 OUSCI, he elevated his performance significantly since last November, while doing it in a field that was far more competitive and balanced than the 2017 Vegas qualifying field. The class championship may be decided without the two ever facing off against each other, as Sheely is scheduled to run the three western events, while Johnson is set to run the four eastern events. There is still limited space available at NOLA Motorsports Park and Auto Club Speedway, so it will be interesting to see if either adds another stop on their schedule.

If you haven’t been to one of these events yet, and the series stops near you, make a point to get out there. Spectator admission is free and you won’t find a more capable collection of legitimate street cars anywhere in the world.

Learn more about the series at DriveOptima.com.

2018 Las Vegas Results:
QA1 GTV Class (pre-1990, 3,200+ pounds)
1. Chad Ryker, 1968 Camaro
2. Nick Relampagos, 1970 Camaro
3. Efrain Diaz, 1969 Camaro

Recaro GTS Class (post-1989, 3,200+ pounds, two-seaters & AWD vehicles)
1. Austin Barnes, 2010 Dodge Viper
2. Jordan Priestley, 2017 Corvette
3. Brandon Williams, 2009 Nissan GT-R

Holley EFI GTL Class (non-compacts under 3,200 pounds)
1. Ken Thwaits, 2006 Mitsubishi Evo
2. Rich Willhoff, 2006 Corvette
3. Duke Langley, 2002 Corvette

GTE Class (BEV electric vehicles)
1. Matthew Scott, 2017 Hyundai Ioniq

GTC Class (two-wheel drive compacts, 107-inch wheelbase or less)
1. Kevin Schultz, 2008 Honda S2000
2. Sammy Valafar, 2004 Mazda Miata
3. Matt Trainham, 2018 Hyundai Veloster

Franklin Road Apparel GT Class (post-1989, 3,200+ pounds, 2wd sedans, four-seater coupes, trucks, etc.)
1. Eric Sheely, 2018 Camaro
2. Mike Maier, 2017 Ford Mustang
3. Chad Langley, 2018 Camaro

Spectre Performance Spirit of the Event Award: Duke Langley, 2002 Chevrolet Camaro

2018 Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car Schedule
New Orleans Motorsports Park April 14-15
National Corvette Museum June 2-3
Pikes Peak International Raceway July 7-8
Barber Motorsports Park August 4-5
Auto Club Speedway September 15-16
Road America October 6-7
Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational November 3-4

001 2018 Optima Ultimate Street Car Series Las Vegas 2/47

Chad Ryker’s ’68 Camaro finished Fourth in the QA1 GTV class points chase in 2017. With defending class champion John Lazorack III not looking to defend his title and Third place finisher Brian Hobaugh moving back to his C5 in 2018, Ryker is looking to challenge for the championship. He got off to a great start with a class win in Vegas.

002 2018 Optima Ultimate Street Car Series Las Vegas 3/47

The Recaro GTS class has turned into the most competitive class in the series, and the large fields are stacked with exceptional cars. Jordan Priestley’s ’17 Corvette finished Fourth in the regular season points chase last year, but he has closed the gap significantly on class champion Austin Barnes’ ACR Viper, placing second in class with 477 points to Barnes’ 490.

003 2018 Optima Ultimate Street Car Series Las Vegas 4/47

While seven events make up the regular season, only a competitor’s best three events count toward their season-long point total. Rich Willhoff has been able to capture the Holley EFI GTL class championship in each of the last two seasons by running in just three events. While he once again captured an OUSCI invitation at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he was topped in his class by defending OUSCI champ Ken Thwaits’ ’06 Mitsubishi Evo, who is eyeing up a regular season title chase in 2018.

004 2018 Optima Ultimate Street Car Series Las Vegas 5/47

Mike DuSold’s incredible ’67 Camaro was leading in the Holley EFI GTL class after day one, but his engine went south before he was able to record a single lap on the Falken Tire Road Course time trial. That relegated DuSold’s F-body to a Seventh place finish and three more events to get back in the points chase.

005 2018 Optima Ultimate Street Car Series Las Vegas 6/47

If you want to contend for the Franklin Road Apparel GT class championship, you need to hang with the big boys on the Falken Tire Road Course time trial. Eric Sheely did exactly that, finishing 10th overall and taking the class win in Vegas. Three-time defending class champion Bryan Johnson is officially put on notice.

006 2018 Optima Ultimate Street Car Series Las Vegas 7/47

This series seems to attract some of the nicest second-gen Camaros on the planet, including Bryan Battaglini’s ’70 Camaro, which finished Eighth out of 79 cars in the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering challenge and 13th in the QA1 GTV class.

007 2018 Optima Ultimate Street Car Series Las Vegas 8/47

Qualifying for the OUSCI can happen at a single event, but fast and deep fields make that an increasingly difficult accomplishment. Likewise, contending for a class points championship pretty much requires appearances at three events. John Grow’s ’14 Camaro ZL1 may have only finished Fifth in GT at Vegas but he’ll be back three more times this season looking to improve on this Fifth-place finish in the 2017 standings.

008 2018 Optima Ultimate Street Car Series Las Vegas 9/47

You just don’t see cars like Greg Thurmond’s ’65 Sting Ray getting thrashed on a racetrack anywhere but in this series. Many SEMA show builds only excel at looking good, but Thurmond builds his Vettes to be driven hard on the track and reliably on the road.

009 2018 Optima Ultimate Street Car Series Las Vegas 10/47

How tight is the competition in this series? A maximum of 500 points are available at every event, and Nick Relampagos’ ’70 Camaro grabbed 428 points. However, so did Efrain Diaz’s ’69 Camaro. The first tiebreaker is the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering Challenge, where they both tied. The second tiebreaker is the Detroit Speed Autocross, where Nick edged out Efrain by 99 thousandths of a second (0.099) for Second place in the QA1 GTV class!

Photos by Jim McIlvaine

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