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
Photos by Jim McIlvaine