At the heart of our sport, there's a basic fact that many people lose sight of: Cars were made to be driven. We're not talking about new cars, but older cars—the way hot rodders build them. More power, better brakes, and updated handling all equate to better driving characteristics. So why do so many great cars get carted to and from events in trailers?
I've kept this in mind with my '66 Chevelle. I've owned this car for 25 years and have used it for everything from drag racing to daily commuting. I have a long history of driving this car, and intend to continue that. I recently did a frame-off rebuild of the car, turning it into a contemporary Pro Touring muscle car. The drivetrain is now comprised of an LS3, Tremec six-speed, and Moser 9-inch. The ABC Performance suspension puts the car on par with a Z06 Corvette in handling. Big 14-inch Baer rotors and six-piston calipers make the stoppers as capable as the powertrain and suspension.
After driving the car to several events around the Midwest for competition, we decided to qualify for the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational (OUSCI), and if we managed to snag a spot in this event, we would drive the Chevelle from Detroit to Las Vegas for the event. Robert McGaffin—the photographer whose work graces many pages in this magazine—told us, "If you do that, I want to go!"
Fast-forward a month or so: We were among the first group of invitees to the 2012 Optima challenge, and we hashed out a plan to bring you along on the adventure. We were excited about the drive and competing with the world-class cars and drivers at the race, and worried about the exact same things.
We were among the first group of invitees to the 2012 Optima challenge, and we hashed out a plan to bring you along on the ...
I'm not a newbie to driving relics of various quality on cross-country trips. I enjoy the combination of driving a hot rod, seeing the country, and reverting back to basic survival instincts when something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong. We knew the weaknesses of the Chevelle in question, and packed accordingly. In racing, we had taken out serpentine belts, power steering pumps, and a water pump. In addition, we had just replaced the coilovers at all four corners with double-adjustable units from Viking Performance, so we anticipated the need to make some ride-height adjustments and play with the shock valving.
To make the story a little more interesting, you need to know that over time the wiper system had been removed, the heater was gone, the stereo was a distant memory, and even the comfy padded stock seats were swapped for Kirkey vintage racing buckets. Ironically, it was a cold and rainy day in Detroit when I finally rowed the gears in the Tremec six-speed and set the engine into its happy range for the trip westward. I motored out of hometown Detroit and into Chicago to pick up Robert. It took a bit of effort for us to add his gear to the already full trunk and the area formerly called a backseat. This was it: We were really doing this trip.
We had eight days to get from Detroit to Vegas. Google Maps claimed that we would cover 2,000 miles if Robert and I took the direct route. We had no intention of doing that. We kept track of roughly how far we should try to travel each day, but Robert and I didn't have hotel reservations and decided we'd pretty much do whatever we wanted along the way. We took the southern route to avoid possible snow in Colorado and Utah. Robert quickly pointed out that we'd roughly be driving Route 66, so we opted to become Mother Road tourists.
At the end of this first chapter in our adventure, we would reside in Las Vegas for a week to partake in the SEMA Show routine, but the main goal was for us and the Chevelle to arrive at the Optima challenge in good shape. The first event at Optima is the Detroit Speed & Engineering/JRi Shocks Road Rally, which is a staged drive from SEMA to the racetrack to demonstrate the true streetability of the participating cars. One stop would include a fun lap around the interior road course at the Las Vegas Speedway and a tour of the Shelby American facility before heading into the mountains to Pahrump, Nevada.
Saturday of Optima is a full-day thrash, starting at sunup with check-in and tech inspection. The event itself is pretty brutal. Before sunset, all 50 competitors have to complete the BFGoodrich Hot Lap Challenge, RideTech Autocross Challenge, and Wilwood Disc Brakes Speed-Stop Challenge. You also have to make sure that your car is judged for the Lingenfelter Performance and Design Challenge. To manage this feat, the team at Optima have the entire event coordinated like a military invasion. Each event is timed with specific start and stop times, the field is divided into four groups and if you miss your time slot, well, you're going down in flames. Points are awarded to the top positions in each segment of the competition and added to points that everyone could earn during the road rally. The champion is the one with the most points.
The photos tell the story of the adventure, but allow us to jump to the end. When the awards were announced at the end of the day, we were quite happy to have tied for 34th Place. I was completely humbled, though, to have Bret Voelkel call my name to receive the RideTech Renegade award for doing the most with the least and having fun in the spirit of the event!