Three years ago the gearheads at Optima Batteries had the idea to gather up some of the sweetest high-performance muscle cars at SEMA, sprinkle in some modern performance icons, and let them all battle it out on the track. The result became the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational (OUSCI). Since then the rules have been tweaked but the soul of the event has remained true: bitchin rides that look like they can haul ass are put to the ultimate test of car and driver. There are three ways to get a “golden ticket” to run at this party: win one of the regional qualifying events, get noticed during the year by the event organizers, or snag one of the 10 invites handed out at the SEMA show in Las Vegas. No matter how you get there, you’ll soon find out that being fast is a hell of a lot harder than looking fast.
Like last year, all the driving events were scored using a points system where the top 20 finishers were awarded from 25 (First place) to 1 point (20th place). This meant the cars had to excel in all three driving challenges to win the big prize.
The Raybestos Performance Design Challenge portion used to be judged on a 1-10 scale with 1 being the best score. But this year it was changed so that it factored in just like the driving events (1-25 point scale for the top 20 cars). Whereas before it was more of a tie-breaker, now it was 25 percent of the final tally. Also, any car not finishing all the events would be disqualified.
The only other way to earn, or lose, points was in the Detroit Speed Inc.-sponsored road rally. Here, all the competitors were required to drive on a pre-planned course from Las Vegas to Pahrump; no trailer queens here. This year was even more entertaining since it featured rain, freezing temps, snow, and ice. We’re sure the cars without side windows or heaters were real fun to drive that night. Those that made the cruise in the prescribed time were awarded 10 bonus points.
The BFGoodrich-sponsored Hot Lap Challenge consisted of a warm-up lap, followed by three timed laps and one cool-down lap. The cars were sent out individually as there is no fender-to-fender racing. The Ridetech-sponsored autocross consisted of three timed laps with no practice laps. Hitting a cone resulted in a 1-second penalty and making a wrong turn in the cones resulted in a big fat DNF. For the Wilwood Brakes-sponsored Speed/Stop Challenge, drivers had to combine launch speed with braking prowess to traverse the given distance and stop in the coned-off box in the shortest amount of time. Touch a cone in the stop box, and that run was a DNF. Many times there was equal tire smoke at both ends of the run with more than a few tires becoming less than round. The competitor’s best time in each event was used to determine how many points they secured in that segment.
In an effort to keep “ringers” from being stuffed behind the wheel, the owner/builder rules were tightened up even more than last year with a builder needing to have worked on at least 80 percent of the car. Now that doesn’t mean there weren’t “pros” behind many of the wheels. Last year’s champ Mark Stielow was back to defend his crown with his insanely badass ’69 Camaro. Mark has hundreds, if not thousands, of laps at Spring Mountain and could mostly likely walk the track faster than most people could drive it. There were also some familiar faces like Kyle Tucker, Stacy Tucker, Mary Pozzi, and Brian Finch. All of them ended up being 2-5 seconds faster than they were last year. So yes, practice does pay off. There were also new heavy hitters piloting cars including Mike Maier, Brian Hobaugh, Pete Callaway, and Vinny Allegretta. Such a deep talent pool, combined with cars that blurred the lines between street car and race car, guaranteed fierce competition, and that’s exactly what we got.
The Big Day
After a night of freezing rain, competitors were greeted by clear blue skies for our day of racing at Spring Mountain. The 50 drivers crawled out of bed in darkness to start prepping their cars for the torturous day ahead. The mid-30-degree temps didn’t help with setting tire pressures, although it did make hot coffee the beverage of choice. At the 8 a.m. driver’s meeting, the game faces were starting to get donned. After all, while everyone is friends, this was still a race and, trust us, most of the drivers were there to win.
Still, that seriousness was tempered with a ton of sportsmanship and goodwill. Mark Stielow gave the other drivers tips on how to run Spring Mountain’s 2.1-mile road course, guys loaned each other tools, and we even saw people helping out with mechanical issues. Near the end of the event, Danny Popp grenaded his brake master cylinder on the road course. Normally this would have ended his day, and his chances of winning, but Pete Callaway, who was done with all of his events, gave Danny the master off of his ’08 Corvette. It was a class act indicative of event; friends with a common interest coming together to share their passion while trying to kick each other’s asses on the track. Almost brings a tear to our eye.
At the end of the day, the big names we expected to see at the top of the leader board were all there. Sadly, a Camaro didn’t win this year, but one came very close, and we would choose it to drive over the pseudo-race car that took the top spot any day. Camaro Performers’ very own Mary Pozzi nailed the number five spot, and in fact, four of the top six cars were Camaros, so we have a lot to be proud of. Besides, given our current a-Camaro-wins-every-other-year tradition, we’re in great shape for 2012 when the desert of southern Nevada will once again reverberate with the pissed off sound of the baddest street cars on the planet.