100 of the Nation’s Highest-Performing Street Cars Duke it Out After the SEMA Show
By Scott Parkhurst
Images Courtesy of OPTIMA Batteries
For the seventh consecutive year, OPTIMA Batteries has produced a phenomenal competition in the wake of the annual SEMA show. This event, known as the OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational, presented by K&N Filters, brings together a select group of all-around performance cars. Unlimited by make, model, tire size or horsepower level, the field is incredibly diverse. This year boasted everything from a vintage Volvo Amazon with an LS-V8 swap to buzzy turbo-fed Mitsubishi Evos with all-wheel drive and ABS.
The competition offers five separate ways for drivers to gain points. The on-track events consist of an autocross course (sponsored by RideTech), a timed speed-stop challenge (from a standing start, accelerate as fast as possible and stop inside a box, which is sponsored by Wilwood), and open laps on a 2.4-mile road course (sponsored by BF Goodrich). Beyond the timed performance driving, there is also a quality and craftsmanship judging (sponsored by Lingenfelter) and a mandatory street drive (sponsored by Detroit Speed) to prove the vehicle’s roadworthiness.
Rules-wise, the tires are limited to a 200 treadwear rating, which is a legit street tire on anyone’s scale, and proper safety equipment must be in place. Current street registration and proof of insurance are also required. This may seem pretty bare-bones, but a big part of the quality and craftsmanship judging is checking things like backup light function, the horn and things like a radio. The competition comes down to points, so every single one becomes critical. The more of a real street car you have, the higher your score is. The finer its design and craftsmanship is, the more points you are rewarded with.
The idea is, of course, to avoid stripped-down barely-legal race cars getting plates and running away with the competition on the track. It’s very possible for a car to produce the best times in all the track events and still lose the competition if it’s not built and finished to a high standard of quality. They call this “Ultimate Street Car” for a reason; since the nation’s ultimate street car would not look like a refugee from rat rod raceway.
Additionally, this is an invitational event, meaning the cars and trucks are almost all pre-screened. A few participants were able to earn their way into the event based on performances at other OPTIMA-sponsored events earlier in the season, but those events also use the same criteria when naming winners. So, the final field is a solid group of very nice cars that perform well on both the street and the track.
The really cool part of the Ultimate Street Car Invitational is watching the on-track events. Seeing the incredible variety of ultra-high performance machinery in a weekend long dogfight on the track is the stuff dreams are made of. The coolest Pro-Touring cars in the country really showcase how well vintage American muscle can perform on the track, and their efforts can be compared directly to tricked-out Porsche twin turbos and Mercedes AMG cars that push the $200K envelope. Mix in a generous group of Asian screamers, including some with LS V8 swaps (like an RX-7 and a Conquest/Starion) and you start to get the idea. Modified GT-Rs? Check. How about Corvettes? Yes, they are very well represented too, in many generations and with all the best updates. Some very heavily worked over vintage pickup trucks were also in the field, and proved they are indeed a force to be reckoned with.
With so much power on the entry list, it’s natural to start looking at the drivers to see if any familiar faces exist. Last year’s champion Brian Hobaugh was back to defend his title, and his incredible bright red ’64 Corvette coupe looked show-ready. Brian is a well-known SCCA autocrosser, with multiple titles to his name. One of his rivals on the SCCA circuit is Danny Popp, who was also competing in the OPTIMA event with an ’03 Z06 Corvette that had been modified as well. Two-time OPTIMA champ Mark Stielow was back in the field with a freshly-built car too. His latest creation, called Hellfire, is a ’69 Camaro with extensive carbon fiber infused throughout. Pretty much everything forward of the firewall is CF, along with the decklid and many other components. He won this event two years ago with a silver ’67 Camaro, and the new car is 250lbs. lighter and has 150 more horsepower. Mark is also a very talented driver, having proven the ability to wheel his incredible creations at high speeds while earning the OPTIMA title in the past.
Many of the other drivers also brought hard-earned championship titles and experience with them. Several of the import drivers had participated in high-end competition, and one driver (Ken Thwaits) was once a racer on the Trans-Am circuit. While no one in possession of a current pro license may compete in the OPTIMA events, those with racing in their past are welcome to come out and play. Robby Unser was seen behind the wheel of a new ’65 Nova Pro Touring machine, and his skills behind the wheel are unquestionable. The competition is certainly more than just horsepower and fat tires!
It would take the right combination of a well-built car, which was finished to a high level of craftsmanship and driven to its absolute limits across several different events to ultimately win the big trophy. This year, that car was the ’03 Z06 of Danny Popp, who will have his name engraved on the OPTIMA cup for the second time. He narrowly outperformed newcomer Brandon Ranvek (in an ’06 Mitsubishi Evo RS) and Betim Berisha (in an ’11 Porsche 911 Twin Turbo) once all the times and scores were tallied up.
The full results from the event are great fun to review. Seeing the final scores from each individual challenge gives proper perspective on the level of performance the various cars and drivers were able to deliver. It’s become clear that the right mix of car and driver are key to finishing well at the OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational, as it should be. No matter how talented, no driver should be able to win with a bone-stock ride, and likewise, no driver without experience should be able to bring 1,500 horsepower to the event and walk away from the field. Because of the intelligent way the event is structured, neither of these things can happen, and whoever ends up winning the title of “Ultimate Street Car Champion” does so as the result of hard work and talent, as it should be.