Racer Boy: Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car – Run What You Brung

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Photos by Saroja Raman

So you finally got yourself a little hot rod in your driveway and you have been telling everyone who will listen to you in any random Starbucks parking lot that your car is fast. You quote the zero-to-sixty times from statistics which you memorized from the internet and just like Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon, you’ve “made a few modifications” yourself to improve the car’s performance. You know deep down in your hot rodder heart that if you were given the opportunity to compete with your machine of speed you would crush all of the other fools on your favorite car forum. The Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car is just the place for a guy like you with a fast street car to show those bench racing keyboard jockeys that your car is truly legit!

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THE COST

Five hundred clams is what it costs to enter a Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car event but you do get plenty for your money here, especially if you compare the costs of each separate type of event (if you were to try to enter them individually). You will get to compete in an autocross (normally $35), a speed stop challenge (normally $300), a road rally (normally $25), a car show (normally $20) and a hot laps (time trial, normally $250-$400). If you add up all of those separate entry fees you would be looking at over $600. And I guarantee you that you will get much more track time than you would at most other events. Average autocrosses give you 3-5 runs, where at Optima you can run until the tires fall off, most people get around 12 runs. The hot laps segment offers 5 separate 20-minute track sessions which is plenty of adrenaline filled, fuel burning, brake pad destroying action.

Gear

SANCTIONING BODY

This even is run by the Ultimate Street Car Association (USCA). The title sponsor is Optima Batteries and the events are presented by Advanced Auto Parts. Additional partners with the event are Detroit Speed, Falken Tires, Jet Hot, K & N, Snap On Tools, Lingenfelter, and Wilwood. That sort of corporate sponsorship means this will be a much more legitimate event than you standard autocross held in a deserted parking lot. You will find vender booths, prize money, great looking decals, first class registration facilities (handled in a Optima big rig that looks like a real life Transformer), and a cool podium. The event logistics are second to none and each race is filmed for the television show Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car for MAVTV. Yes, you will get to win (or lose) on TV.

There are multiple classes to compete in: GTL (cars under 3,200 pounds), GTS (two seater or all-wheel drive cars over 3,200 pounds), GT (four seaters), GTV (Vintage), and EC (Fun Runs). The multiple classes offer a format where almost every four wheel vehicle made has a place to come out and play. The range is as wide as Ford Pintos to Corvette Z06s.

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THE HIGH

Here you get the chance to run your car at the max. Strap on your helmet and drive it like you stole it. The cool part about Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car is the multiple events from autocross (low speed, drifting fun) to hot laps (high speed, ass clinching fear). You can run your car as hard (or not as hard) as you feel comfortable. If you enjoy sliding the car on the autocross course but don’t want to see how close you can get to the concrete wall on the exit of Turn 2 that is your choice. Some folks see this event as the ultimate dynamic car show (trailer queens should not apply), while others see it as the ultimate racing competition. Which category you fall into depends on your competitive nature and how fast the car you brought is.

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CAR WEAR

This event isn’t any harder on a car than a standard track day, other than the fact that it is a solid weekend of racing with lots of track time. The speed stop challenge is definitely hard on brake rotors and tires (especially if your GTV car doesn’t have ABS). I saw a lot of front wheel lock up flat spot a lot of tires at this event. This is crucial to understand because the speed stop challenge is the day prior to the hot laps on the big track. Running at over a hundred miles an hour with square tires will knock your fillings out. The key during this weekend is being able to run hard and fast, but also to make the car (and tires) last through all of the different events. Your car must be successful in each event in order to score enough points to win. Even the road rally causes grief especially for the “race cars with license plates.” With a lot of speed bumps, drive way entries, and other challenges that are easy for true street cars but a total disaster for a car that is so low it drags the oil pan across every driveway it enters, teams realize that lowering your car to minimum ride height for good handling on the road course may not be the best recipe for this competition.

Like any track day, the big thing to realize for car preparation is that a good brake fluid and extra cooling for brakes is the key to multiple high speed braking zones on a big track. Standard street car brakes for the Ultimate Street Car competition will not cut the mustard.

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YOUR DAY

Your day at this particular event is actually “your weekend” as this is a two day event. Competitors can choose to enter a single day (less cost, run only certain events), but you can’t win the overall competition by only running in half of the events.

You will show up early and start the registration process through the Optima Transformer rig. You need a valid driver’s license (no racing license required), standard car insurance, and valid registration (as the vehicle’s owner –this keeps out the hired guns). You will get a sticker set for your car and your car number. Next you get into the long tech line and put the stickers on your car as you wait to have your car checked out. You will also need a Snell SA 2010 helmet. If you have your own transponder you will need to give your number to the registration desk, if you don’t have one (or even know what one is) you can rent one from the staff and they will even help mount it to your car (how is that for customer service?). Tech is relatively painless (much more like an autocross tech session than a road race scrutineering session) and each of your tires is marked to ensure competitors only use a single set of 200 plus treadwear tires during the weekend for the entirety of the event. After there will be a welcome ceremony/drivers meeting. Cars will be split into two groups based on odd or even car numbers. One set of cars will head to the autocross while the other set will head to the speed stop challenge.

Tire Mark

The autocross, presented by Detroit Speed and Engineering, is just like any autocross: cones line the track, one car on course at time, best time wins. The only difference was the nearly unlimited runs available and cameras being placed on the car for MAVTV. The speed stop challenge, presented by Wilwood Disc Brakes, was different than expected. Instead of a straight line acceleration run and then a panic stop for time, the speed stop challenge was an acceleration run, a right turn, a left turn, another left turn, and then a panic stop in a cone lined box. That meant the speed stop challenge was not just measuring acceleration and braking ability, but also handling ability too. Cars that were set up to do well in the autocross would do well in the speed stop challenge as well and all-wheel drive cars, who could get off of the line quickly, dominated here.

Car Show

During the Lingenfelter Performance and Engineering car show judging, called Engineering and Design, a series of judges will pour over your car, ask questions and see what modifications have made the car perform better while also remaining streetable. This was done anytime during the day when a car wasn’t running in the autocross or speed stop challenge.

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The last event of the first day was the road rally where each driver’s driver license was placed into a sealed envelope that had to be turned back into registration at the Holley welcome party that evening. The idea was that if any shenanigans happened on the road and the Highway Patrol had to get involved, then the license would have to come out of the sealed envelope and the competitor would receive zero points for the event. The ploy worked and everyone on the road rally drove appropriately on the public roads, which was nice to see. There was plenty of track time to drive crazy so there was no need for it on the highways.

The Holley welcome party was a great event to bench race, enjoy some good food, and see the results from the earlier events. During the welcome party they also discussed the hot laps section which would happen on the second day of competition.

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The next day started with a driver’s meeting discussing classes, flags, and passing rules for the hot laps section (standard track day stuff). Then it was time to head out onto the big track for big speeds. The best lap counts toward you overall score so if you can get it done during one session and don’t feel like destroying any more tires that is your choice. Or if you wanted to run until your tires were down to the cords you could.

At the end of the weekend was the podium presentation with special awards, trophies and cash prizes being handed out to the winners. MAVTV was on hand to do video interviews with the winners of each class and fun was had by all.

People

THE PEOPLE

This is the ultimate car dude crowd. People here don’t build cars to sit in parking lots and be wiped with a diaper. And the people here don’t build cobbled together crap cars to be raced around a circle track and look like hell. The people in the Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car build cars that they are proud to drive, and drive hard. The people and the machines at this event are the coolest combination of performance and detail. There is an enormous amount of knowledge in this paddock and just walking into anyone’s pit space and asking questions about their car will start a thirty minute conversation about wheel spacing or minitubs. To be a spectator at this event would beat going to any car show as you will get to see cars just as clean and beautiful being drifted around a track.

Podium

GLORY

There is glory to be found at the Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car. You can win each separate event and you could win the whole enchilada. Winning means a podium ceremony, a trophy, and $500 from Wilwood Disc Brakes. Not too shabby for an event that doesn’t require a racing license plate to compete in. Plus your racing talents will be on display on MAVTV. Each event is an opportunity to qualify for the big show in Las Vegas at the end of the SEMA show. Glory is definitely here to be had.

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OH, YOU WANT TO WIN, DO YA?

To win this event you need a fast car, period. Sure, in autocross you can overcome a lack of power with some driving skill, but here you need a car that is fast, handles good, stops good, looks good, the complete package. Oh, and you also need to be able to drive the wheels off of it too. Corvettes won two of the five classes (big horsepower, big tires, low center of gravity, big brakes). It is tough to overcome those engineering advantages in a Subaru WRX.

To win you need to have your car setup to do well in an autocross environment with the best performing 200 treadwear tires you can find. Your DOT Hoosier Racing Tires don’t get to play here. Autocross alignment and setup will do you well in three of the five events (autocross, speed stop challenge and road rally). The engineering and design segment will come down to the streetability and modifications of your car (bone stock cars don’t score too well here). The hot laps segment of the event comes down to horsepower and sometimes huge balls. Trust me, every track has that one scary corner that is tough to build up the guts to go through at max speed. The person who masters the track quickly will have a solid lap time and do well.

Even though a racing license is not necessary to run in this event it does have its advantages. Namely during the hot laps segment where a run group was setup with unlimited passing for those who have road racing experience and equipment in the cars (5-point harness and neck restraint). The rookie run group had very limited locations and point-by-passing which makes getting a very fast, unhindered lap difficult to obtain.

Scales

We were able to win the event at Thunderhill based on pre-race preparation. We read the rules inside and out and decided to add weight to our Z06 to bump it into the GTS category. This meant we would have theoretically the lightest weight car in the class (with mountains of LS7 horsepower). Prior to the event we autocrossed the car with the SCCA and got the alignment and tire pressures right on some Michelin Pilot Sport tires for tight courses. Then we ran the car in the Speed Ventures Corvette Challenge on a big course with the same tires to figure out the settings for high speeds. Then we picked an Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car event that was at a track were we intimately familiar with, Thunderhill Raceway Park, where we have raced in numerous NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill events. We knew our car, we knew the track, and we showed up ready to race and win. Teams who were adjusting tire pressures or learning a new track were at a serious disadvantage. Like a lot of racing, the race is won in the garage the night before. Even with the road rally, we ensured we had a navigator with us and used GPS to guarantee we stayed on course and got maximum points. We left nothing to chance.

Sadly, every “street” car that won its class in the Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car event arrived in a racing trailer (ours included). It’s not to say that these cars aren’t street cars, they legitimately were, however, the winners usually had radical alignment settings which would destroy a set of tires on the drive from Los Angeles to Thunderhill. A lot of teams were using the racing gas at the track at $10 a gallon, which is not something you want to waste on a long road trip.

Bottom line, to win this event you have to have a fast car, but you really have to be a driver.

RACER BOY GAUGE

Let’s review the Racer Boy gauge cluster here:

Racer Boy Gauge Optima

FUEL (Cost): The fuel gauge is three quarters full because this event does cost $500 to run but you can use the same car you make your Red Box video runs in to do it, so a dedicated racing car (and big money is not necessary). If you actually want to win it… start selling your house and your kidney because that won’t come cheap.

RPMs (Adrenaline): The tachometer is at 6,200 RPMs because this is the real deal. Running a hot lap around a full race course will get your adrenaline going big time. The event is truly awesome.

MPH (Danger): The speedometer is at 124 miles per hour because if you drive a big horsepower car then chances are you will be going 124 miles an hour into turn one, which could be dangerous if you are trying to adjust the angle on your GoPro camera instead of watching the track. Big speeds = big risks. Be careful and have fun.

VOLTS (Time): The volts gauge is less than three quarters full because this event is a full weekend affair, but you don’t have to spend months preparing a racecar before the weekend since you will be using your daily driver here.

MILEAGE (Car Wear): The mileage is at 3,000 miles because you will get lots of track time and chances are you will do 3,000 miles of damage to tires, brake pads and rotors in only 100 miles of actual driving. This event is for folks who don’t mind running their cars at the limit, and with that limit comes the replacement of wearable items.

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CHECKERED FLAG

The name “Optima Ultimate Street Car Challenge” says it all, it is the ultimate playground for street cars for people who like to drive hard. The crowds and the cars are worth the trip alone and the racing is awesome. Bang for your buck cash versus track time, you can’t beat this series and you get the chance to race on MAVTV. Racer Boy gives this event a big thumbs up. See you at the track!

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