You're cruising in your Camaro out in the middle of nowhere. Just you, the thumping of your V-8, and mile after mile of sweet beckoning asphalt winding through nothing but desolation. That's about the time when you start to think, "Man, I would love to open her up and see what she can do." But then the buzz kill of reality kicks in and you consider all the bad things that can accompany a triple-digit speeding ticket. So there you are with all that power and clipping along at 65 mph, maybe 70 if you're so bold. If this sounds painfully familiar then we've found the solution to what ails you: It's called open road racing and it's a way for you to put the hammer down on genuine public highways. Best of all, it's perfectly legal and a whole lot safer.
The Event The Nevada Open Road Challenge (NORC) is held every May and is identical to its more famous cousin, the Silver State Classic Challenge, which has been taking place each September since 1988. The basic concept is simple. A 90-mile stretch of desert highway is closed to all traffic while racers are sent out at 1 minute increments to tackle the tarmac. For most racers it isn't about how fast you can go, instead it's about precision driving where time, not top speed, is the key to claiming one of the top spots. The cars are broken up into speed classes that range from as low at 95 mph to as high as 180 mph. For example, let's say that you're in the 120-mph class. Your goal is to average 120 mph over the entire 90-mile route. Some math is done and a time is established for each class. In the case of the 120-mph class, the goal would be to cross the finish line with a time of exactly 45 minutes. Think of it as a 90-mile bracket race, but you're allowed to be over or under in regards to time. Of course, like any race, there are rules. In addition to your target speed there's also a "tech speed" assigned to each car. This speed is determined by the tech inspectors and factors in the car's safety equipment and the driver's skill level. During the run a driver can't go 30 mph slower than their target speed and never faster than their tech speed. Too fast or too slow will get you a big, fat DQ next to your name. So, for the 120-mph class where the car was tech'd up to 145 mph, that driver can't go below 90 mph or faster than 145. Simple? Well, not so much.
Since the race is started at a dead stop, a car is already all upside down on the whole "average speed" deal. Plus there are some areas, like the narrows, that generally require a slower speed. That's where the navigator comes in. It's the nav's job to use landmarks, typically mile markers, to make sure the driver crosses the finish line at the right time. To keep track of everything, the navigator employs a variety of tricks, including stopwatches, a GPS, and most importantly, course notes.
Everybody seems to have their own team strategy. Some bank time so that they can slow down for the narrows. Others try to keep their average the whole distance. Some drivers don't even run with a navigator. Regardless of the tactics employed, the goal is still the same: To hit the magic number when the finish line beam is broken.
Any car on four or more wheels can run the race provided they pass tech. Ferraris, Hondas, 'Vettes, and even trucks have run in the event. Cars are sent from the starting line beginning with the 150-mph class and work down to the 95-mph group. After that, the course is inspected for debris and then the unlimited, 180, and 160-mph classes are sent southbound.
In addition to the main event held on Sunday, there are also speed events sprinkled over the preceding days. On Friday there's a half-mile shootout where competitors try to see how fast they can get going in 2,640 feet from a standing stop. There's also a zero-to-100-to-zero contest that combines acceleration with braking. Saturday's event includes a 1-mile shootout and, if there's anyone in attendance with a capable car, and the stones to try it, a zero-to-200-to-zero competition. To make all of this even more challenging, the venue is at an altitude of well over 6,000 feet. Along with the driving events there are also parades, car shows, dinners, and other festivities. It's a big deal for the small town of Ely that serves as the event's official base camp, and "party central" for all the participants.
Safety If there's one thing organizers of the event practice, it's safety. Cars must pass a very rigorous technical inspection. Tires are inspected before every event to make sure they aren't damaged or carrying a nail. Speed rules are strictly enforced. In fact, if you get a speeding ticket on any of the event highways, even up to 90 days before the event, then you're out. They want people to have fun, and not end up hurt, or injure others.
After talking with many open road veterans, we came away with the idea that this is serious business. Many say it's the most dangerous form of auto racing. This makes perfect sense when you think about it. First off, you're on a public highway, not a pristine racetrack. There are dips, bumps, rough patches, and all the stuff you would expect to find on a highway. There are also creatures, both big and small. Hitting a turkey buzzard at buck ten can ruin your whole day. Hitting a deer would be noticeably worse, while hitting some wandering cattle would be, well, just use your imagination on that.
One major rule is: if you stop, you're done. In other words, if you have to pull over for any reason, then you must stay off the highway. For obvious reasons they can't have cars merging onto a highway with other cars going over 100 mph. Also, if you have major problems and have to drop below 80 mph then you need to pull over so that the cars behind you don't have to pass. It just adds unnecessary danger to an already risky event. Passing however, is allowed if done safely.
While there are ambulances stationed at points along the route, you need to keep in mind that you're still in the middle of nowhere, and unlike a dedicated racetrack, help isn't always just a couple of minutes away. For these reasons the organizers rely on the safety procedure developed during the two decades this event has been going on. For example, rookies have to complete a "qualifying school." This keeps people who don't know an apex from an apple out of the event and ensures their car is capable of maneuvering around a controlled track. Also, rookies can't run faster than 115 mph as a target and can't have a tech speed greater than 124 mph.
The Invitation We were just minding our own business at Camaro Performers Central when a call came in from James Shipka, owner of a sweet Pro Touring-style '67 F-body called the "One Lap Camaro," asking if I wanted to navigate while he drove in the event. Asked to represent Optima Batteries, James jumped at the chance to run his Camaro and I was excited to join in. Optima, along with K&N, and MSD/Racepak, are key sponsors of these races, and while Optima normally runs their own car, for this event they needed a stand in.
To help get the car mechanically sorted out and ready for action, Shipka and I enlisted the aid of veteran go-fast gurus David and Mary Pozzi of Pozzi Racing. They're the same team who helped us win the 2008 Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational and were instrumental in making sure the car was safe and sound. In fact, David noticed one of the front tires had a cut, so we mounted up a fresh pair of Toyo R888 tires. With a car, a team, and a plan, we loaded up our gear and headed to Vegas, the starting point of our adventure.
Like many things in life, this exercise involved math. James had a stopwatch secured to his steering wheel which would count down from our target time of 51:25.7 seconds. He also had two key times: one when we wanted to enter the narrows, and another when we wanted to exit it. As navigator I had two stop watches. The first counted down like James' while the other would count up and be used for splits at the various mile markers.
Fast Times At Camaro High At the top of the speed heap for these open road races are the unlimited cars. They don't give a crap about checkpoints or average times. Their only goal is to traverse the 90 miles as quickly as possible, at times going well over 200 mph.
Richard Hille's '96 Camaro is built for one thing: open road racing. His ride features a 750hp small-block, tons of aerodynamic modifications, and more safety equipment than the space shuttle. This Camaro has been over 200 mph, something not done by many cars.
Richard blew his left rear tire somewhere near the narrows at 180 mph and just kept going, although he said he had to slow down to 160. He went like that for around 10 miles and when he crossed the finish line the car was smoldering and the beads were worn off the wheels. He told us that he hit over 200 mph along the route, but we'll never know since he was disqualified for not pulling over. Another unlimited car behind him ended up crashing, which red flagged the rest of the event. Luckily the driver, Michael Borders, wasn't injured.
The Results As navigator, my job was to get us to through the timing lights as close to 51:25.7 as possible. When the countdown timer was 10 seconds from going to zeros, I started a verbal countdown to James so he could try and time the finish a little better. In fact, I was so busy I never even looked up to see the finish line (I heard it was cool). I was fairly confident that we were within a second of being perfect, but we wouldn't know until the awards dinner that night.
We came to find out we were fast, but missed our time by 0.377 seconds, which gave us an average speed of 104.99 mph. It got us a special mention, but that time was only good for Fourth Place in our class. Overall we came in 27th out of 118 teams, but we were the highest ranking rookies. We were happy with our performance even if we didn't get a plaque and a picture with the two smokin' hot trophy girls. You can see all the results and find out more about future events over at www.sscc.us.
Sunday is all about highway 318. While the first car isn’t launched until 8 a.m., the day begins a lot earlier for event organizers. Over 100 course workers are in place and the highway is officially shut down at 5 a.m. Every junction of the road and possible place where Joe Public can wander onto the raceway is checked, double checked, and guarded. There are no spectator areas for this race, so being a volunteer is a great way to get a front row seat.
The team of Shipka and Rupp suited up and ready to strap into the Camaro. Since we were both wearing helmets, and it’s noisy going those speeds, we dropped $100 on a Chatterbox communication system. This way James could hear my constant nagging for him to speed up or slow down.
Time to start prepping for the main event. Going 90 miles at triple-digit speeds, especially at altitude, is hard on an engine. To take care of the internals, we filled the LS7’s dry sump oil system with 11 quarts of Torco SR-5 synthetic. The SR-5 is the best stuff they sell and it’s formulated to take the punishment inherent to racing.
David Pozzi was in charge of the tires, in other words our lives were in his very capable hands. The night before the event we upped all four tires to 42 pounds. This way we could check them in the morning to make sure there were no leaks. Then David used our too-cool Longacer digital gauge to make sure the rollers were set to 39 psi.
With 8 seconds until launch we were very busy in the cockpit. The clock is the atomic type and a car was launched every minute. There’s no beam at the starting line so you don’t have to leave right when the clock hits zero, but that is when the counter starts. Before this we were warned of several deer in the area and of some loose cattle. If we weren’t hyper-awake before then, we sure were after that warning. At 10:20 a.m. we clicked all three of our stop watches and James mashed the gas. By the time we crested the first hill the radar had us at 107 mph.
While I was busy with calculations, James was occupied keeping the Camaro on the road. We had made our own course notes, but halfway through, they seemed to be off so we ditched them and relied on the notes given to us earlier by Blue. The Camaro never dropped below 100 mph and we maxed at around 121 mph; well under our tech speed. We blew through the narrows at over 100 mph.
All the racers gathered at the finish line to hang out and talk about their runs. Once all the rookies finished, we were directed by the Queen of 318 to perform a ceremonial chant to the highway. If you want to know the details then you’ll just have to get off the couch and come run the event.
Another rookie at the event was Gary Linsner in his ’02 V-6 Camaro. Gary was in the 100-mph class and missed his target time by 4.328 seconds, earning him a Second Place finish in his class.
The One Lap Camaro performed flawlessly. It always felt stable and sucked up the dips and bumps on the highway with ease. We were worried about fuel consumption, but when we filled up after the race, the Camaro had only sucked down 5 gallons. That’s 20 mpg while doing triple-digit speeds. Bugs were smashed into every crack and crevice on the front of the Camaro.
To see some of the video from our GoPro camera, slide over to YouTube and search for “One Lap Camaro Silver State.” You can also search “OLC splittervision” for some down-to-earth video.