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The Spectre 341 Challenge - Comstock Lode

Lou Gigliotti strikes gold again at the Spectre 341 Challenge

Steve Temple Dec 1, 2011
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Once more, it was the Corvette ZR1 driven by Lou Gigliotti that showed everybody the way to the top of the hill at Virginia City, Nevada, in the Spectre 341 Challenge hill-climb event. For the last several decades, this tortuous stretch of mountain road leading from south Reno to the legendary mining area of the Comstock Lode has attracted all sorts of exotic and precious metal of the vehicular type. Up until recently, different organizations such as the Ferrari and Shelby owners clubs have sponsored timed runs, but a couple years ago, Spectre Performance grabbed the reins of this wild-ass event. In fact, Spectre president Amir Rosenbaum still holds the record of 3 minutes, 10 seconds in a '92 Ferrari F40.

Back in mid June of this year, 40 or so hot rides of all types attempted to best Rosenbaum's time. They ran the gamut-German supercars, vintage muscle machines, homegrown racers, exotic imports, and, of course, Corvettes-testing both their mettle and metal on the 5.2-mile road course. All told, the drivers logged 391 runs, twisting through the foothills east of Lake Tahoe on two-dozen or so widely varying curves and a 1,200-foot rise in elevation, along with some really hairy 500-foot drop-offs-and no guardrails. (Indeed, over the years some hard-charging participants have not lived to tell the tale of their driving exploits. Last year, Las Vegas race car driver Alexander Djordjevic was killed when his Porsche 911 Turbo flew off the edge.)

On the whole, Nevada is known for a lot of unconventional activities-gambling, legal brothels, and nuclear testing, among others. And now the Spectre 341 as well, an unusual form of amateur motorsports that lets you drive your car as fast as you want on a closed-off state highway in the northern part of the state. Given the potential for full-throttle thrills, it's no surprise that several participants were Corvette owners.

This year, four in particular took on the Geiger Grade leading up to Virginia City: winner Lou Gigliotti, Randy Harris (Sixth place), Ryan Tauchen (14th), and Frank Vanson (19th). This quad of Vettes all had exhilarating experiences to relate, but we'll start with Gigliotti of Wylie, Texas, who drove his LG Motorsports '10 ZR1 to a blistering elapsed time of 3:14 (averaging 96.27 mph), a full 7.3 seconds faster than his race-winning run last year!

In hot pursuit was Duck Fuson, finishing Second in 3:15.2 in his radical 2,300-pound 911 Turbo. Another Teutonic tuner car came in Third, an '11 911 GT3 RS driven by Jeff Rosen in 3:22.2. Only two seconds off that time was Jeremy Kappus, who nailed a 3:24.2 run in his daily driver, a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX.

Gigliotti feels he actually left several seconds on the table, as the early part of the course is much steeper than he realized, and scrubbed off some speed. "The Hill grabs you," he noted after the race. But a near accident prompted him to cut his efforts short.

"We did three runs," Gigliotti related, "but on the fourth the 'Puff Daddy' Pfadt Camaro crashed on the course-[and] we didn't know it. So we're running at 120 mph, coming around the corner, and he's sitting in the middle of the road. We missed him literally by inches, and there was no room on the other side. We really had to thread the needle."

Despite this mishap, Aaron Pfadt's Camaro acquitted itself well on other runs, managing an Eighth place standing with a time of 3:32:1, averaging more than 88 mph.

Seeing how much he was in the lead at that point, Gigliotti decided to call it a day. What does he attribute his winning to? Lots of experience, for one thing, as this 61-year-old racer has been competing for decades.

In addition, he's sharpened the sights on his gunmetal-gray ZR1 with a host of aftermarket performance mods from his company, LG Motorsports. Major upgrades included a new blower, cam, heads, and headers. With the supercharger's pulleys resized to spin out some 20 pounds of pressure, the output is in the neighborhood of 756 rwhp. Gigliotti estimates that there's a loss of a couple pounds of boost due to the altitude, but power is less of an issue than suspension tuning for the snaking switchbacks.

"The hardest part is trying to remember the curves, because three of the corners are so similar," he admits. "I didn't know which one I could really roll on the throttle on exitàThere are three righthand turns after three straightaways. At the end of the longest one, I'm hitting 155 mph." (This is where the Porsche driver met his fate last year; hence, a reasonable degree of caution.)

For improved handling on these challenging twisties, Gigliotti added LG drop spindles and sway bars, plus new endlinks and shocks. The Forgeline GA3R wheels were increased in size for this year's assault, too, from 18 to 19 inches, and wrapped with Hoosier A6 rubber (315 front, 345 rear). Other upgrades include LG aero treatments, such as a GT2 rear wing and a high-downforce front splitter with tunnels, plus improved cooling and air intakes.

"The car is set up with a bit of understeer, for a safety margin. If you spin, there's no room for error," he points out. "I love life. Being the fastest on the Hill is one thing-being dead is another."

How about his two Corvette compatriots? Seasoned 341 contender Randy Harris manned the wheel of a tricked-out black '00 C5 for the first time, having run a '91 ZR1 and a Porsche 911 Turbo in the previous two decades. Even though his 650hp, twin-turbo Lingenfelter mill has less output than Gigliotti's grinding machine, he still maintained a speed of 88.58 mph over the 5-mile sprint, finishing a scant 15 seconds behind the fastest time. Even so, he was not to be consoled:

"That's a long 15 seconds," he winced. "What Lou did in the last two years-it's incredible!"

Harris compensated for having comparatively less power by adding bigger Baer brakes, wider wheels, Fox shocks, and fatter sway bars, along with a weight reduction by stripping out the interior.

"I feel I went way overboard with gutting it, but then you turn the key and press the accelerator, and you forget about what's missing as your senses overtake you," he points out. "At Virginia City it's all adrenaline, with your mind and the dangers keeping that adrenaline in check."

Confirming Gigliotti's observations, he admits that the most challenging aspect of the 341 is staying focused and, "Not messing upàIt's not a 10/10ths course. I've had two wrecks on it over the years, and that kinda slows you down a bit." Even so, he went home happy: "It was a good year," he sums up.

On the other hand, Frank Vanson, an 11-year veteran of the Geiger Grade, is used to running a '66 Mustang Fastback, built to GT350R specs and purchased from a fellow 341 runner who inspired him to jump into the fray. But this year he switched from Blue Oval to Bow Tie and bought an '08 Z06. His mods were moderate, tweaking the brakes with some racing pads and fluid, and softer-riding Pfadt suspension upgrades. The engine stayed stock, and all for good reason:

"The amazing thing with the Z06 is that on the first time out, I came within one or two seconds of my fastest time in the Mustang! The Z06 is the closest thing to a track car right out of the box."

His best run was 3:46, while the Mustang did 3:44-but it took four or five years behind the wheel of his ponycar before he broke under the four-minute mark (though he admits that other 341 events are kind of "social," while Spectre's is far more serious).

"That's in the middle of the pack, but it was my first time out in the Corvette, and I've seen more accidents with Corvettes," he says. "I know they can get away from you."

What's interesting is that the top speed of his Mustang on the course is 114 mph, while his Corvette runs as fast as 120 mph. He feels the better brakes of the Corvette account for this disparity by allowing him to scrub off more speed in the corners. He's not complaining, though, noting the same blind curve as Gigliotti.

"There's this long straightway, with a kink to the right at the end, and the hills dropping away," he relates. "If you go over, it's not pretty. I want to drive back home and be able to talk about it. Next year, I plan to use stickier tires. More power without adhesion is not good."

Other standout 341 entries included RJ Gottlieb, driving his "Big Red" '69 Camaro race car in 3:29.99. This modernized rig also won the Silver State Challenge (yet another unlimited speed event in Nevada). Winner of the run-whatcha-brung de facto category was Dan Weishaar. He drove his '68 Plymouth Road Runner all the way from Yuma, Arizona, to Virginia City and made more than a dozen runs up the hill. And then drove home.

"This is one of the only events in the world where a driver can show up with a street car and truly test the vehicle and themselves in a real-world environment," notes Spectre Performance founder Rosenbaum. "This is more than a race-it's about having fun. We work with FM3 Performance Marketing to present a professional, well-organized, fun weekend at a cool, Old West town where the entire family can show up, hang out with other car nuts, and have a great time."

For those not familiar with this historical region, Virginia City was once the site of vast mineral deposits and mining bonanzas. The northern transport route into the town dates back to 1861, when the territorial legislature granted Dr. D. M. Geiger and J. H. Tilton a franchise to develop a toll road, which opened in 1863. Its sharp descent, including hairpin turns and steep slopes, made it impractical for heavy loads, but it was a popular route for stagecoaches. Because drivers had to slow in some places, these became common locations for robberies.

Following the extension of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad to Reno in August 1872, the toll road fell into disuse and a few years later became a public highway. In 1936, the New Deal Works Progress Administration improved Geiger Grade. The project bypassed the steepest grades, widened the road, and made it more passable for automobiles. (Little did they know just how much faster autos could make the trip than those old stagecoaches.)

Skipping ahead in time by several decades, the Spectre 341 Challenge has roots going back to the early '70s. Hans Tanner was the President of the Ferrari Owners Club (FOC) in Southern California. He fondly recalled the hill climbs that took place in Europe, and felt that Virginia City, where he was working for the local newspaper, would be the perfect site for a stateside equivalent.

So in June of 1972, Tanner and the FOC organized the first Virginia City Hill Climb. The competitors raced Ferraris from model year 1972 and older. Cars that today are worth millions were flogged up the mountain road. As the years went by, the club members started bringing hotter rides.

Then in 1985, Bobby Donner Jr. set an all-time record of 3:24.57 (91.5-mph average) in a Ferrari 512BB/LM, a Le Mans-category all-out race car. In 1988, Reg Howell reset the all-time record in a Chevy-powered Lola T-70 with a time of 3:23.78 (91.9-mph average).

Following this, competitors started bringing open-wheel cars, at which point the State of Nevada stepped in and mandated that all cars be street licensed, registered, and insured. The ostensible reason? Because after the completed run, racers had to put on the left turn signal and merge onto operational public Highway 342 to get back to the start line.

Unfortunately, organizers decided in 2002 to discontinue the event. But in 2010, Spectre and FM3 resurrected the annual Virginia City Hill Climb under a moniker, the Spectre 341 Challenge. The timing was right (in both senses of that expression), as more than two dozen supercars from across the country competed in the revived event, including a rally-prepped Nissan GT-R, a road-race Corvette ZR1, tuned Lancer Evos, a variety of muscle cars, and even a '52 DeSoto Pikes Peak race car. That event also saw six new members inducted into the "3:41 Club" an exclusive group of drivers who have driven the mountain in less than 3 minutes, 41 seconds.

Of course, Gigliotti is a member and then some, having won two years in a row, and is only 4 seconds off the record. For next year's event, will he beat that time and get the hat trick? Vette fans sure hope so.



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