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!
Our first photo stop along Route 66 was just south of Chicago in the quaint Midwest town of Pontiac, Illinois. We arrived too late to check out the Route 66 museum there, but the back of the building sported a great mural with a convenient place to park and take a picture.
From Chicago through St. Louis, what's left of Route 66 is now the frontage road along I-55. It veers off here and there to become Main Street of the small towns along its path. We found this completely deserted stretch of the Mother Road south of Bloomington, Illinois.
On the western side of Springfield, Missouri, Route 66 departs I-40 and runs far enough asunder that it becomes more genuine. This is the start of the old Route 66 that the world has bypassed. From this point on, we really experienced the history and people tied to this historic road. Rob and I also saw a fair amount of this: local business that didn't survive the Great Depression or the many other economic crashes since Route 66 officially opened in 1926.
Robert and I kicked back at the Boots Hotel in Carthage, Missouri, one of the best restored hotels from the period along the route. Ron Hart was busy restoring one of the rooms when we arrived, but took the time to show us everything including the rooms that Clark Gable stayed in when he would visit.
We pulled over in Caterville, Missouri, to shoot photos of relics sitting roadside at the Bulger Motor Co. and Auto Body, when owner Mickey Bulger came out to invite us in and show us pieces of history he's been collecting. The business was started by his dad and uncle in 1946.
John Hargrove runs a custom upholstery shop in Arcadia, Oklahoma, but you wouldn't really know it if you stopped in. He was stitching up an interior in a Model A when we visited, but what drew us there was his incredibly ecliptic collection of automotive collectibles strewn throughout his buildings and the surrounding grounds. He gave us a lesson in forming aluminum body panels in front of his B/A '34 Ford that has been converted back to street use.
Not far from Bulgler Motor Co. is the Route 66 drive-in. By far the best restored drive-in we saw during our drive, it had been converted to a junkyard during much of its recent life. It reopened in 1998 as a drive-in and plays movies for tourists and locals alike from spring through fall.
The Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, New Mexico, was our favorite period-correct motel. The current owners moved from Michigan to take the reins of the historic property, bringing their vintage Pontiacs with them. Another great aspect of traveling Route 66 is meeting the people who live there as well as the people traveling. Unlike staying at Holiday Inn Express, no one is there just for a pillow and a shower.
We talked the park ranger at Lake Valley, New Mexico, into letting us stay and shoot just one more photo in front of the abandoned Conoco fuel station on the edge of the ghost town. This town is completely unchanged from when I visited it 25 years ago.
As soon as the sun rose over the mountains in Pahrump, Nevada, the Optima challenge competitors were at the track and in line to get teched. This was the most thorough tech inspection the Chevelle had been through since I started road racing and autocrossing.
It was pretty hard to stay in one place for all of the SEMA Show after driving 3,207 miles to get there. From Facebook posts about the adventure, we had people from as far away as Australia stop by to see the car, and most people who were not familiar with our drive found it hard to believe that this car had just driven so far to get to the show.
Laps on the road course were akin to a fighter pilot trying to keep his plane airborne while still trying to take out a few enemy craft. An inconsistent loss of engine power kept us from pushing the car to its limits. After spending weekends throughout the year beating on the car hard at racetracks, this was not what we expected.
From The Passenger Seat
From the first time Cole mentioned the possibility of driving his Chevelle from Detroit to Vegas, I knew that I had to be in the passenger seat. Once Cole and I discussed the route, it was evident that we would be traveling along Route 66. What better way to see the country than by following the Mother Road as much as possible?
Even though Cole had written many features for PHR accompanying my photos, we hadn't really gotten to know each other. I didn't know how this trip would go, but soon discovered that we had much in common, and a friendship quickly ensued.
Much of the first few days it felt like we were getting nowhere fast. We weren't, but we didn't want to miss a thing. We didn't see half the history of Route 66, but we had a blast trying. And boy did I get good at getting in and out of a fully 'caged car.
As the time and miles rolled by, it gave me the chance to slow down a bit from the hectic pace I was working at. It recharged me both personally and creatively. We regularly posted to Facebook on the journey, but we only understood the impact of it when we hit Vegas. I was amazed how many people mentioned how they followed our progress. That in itself was pretty cool.
I came away from this with a great new friend and the appreciation of stopping and smelling the roses and how important this can be. You don't necessarily need a muscle car for this kind of a trip, but it certainly doesn't hurt! — Robert McGaffin
At The Optima Challenge
We pulled into the pits and sorted our way past tractor-trailer supported teams to find a spot where we could unload the trunk. Like many of the competitors, we had never raced on this track before. As soon as the car was teched, we lined up for guided laps on the track, which were offered up to let us get familiar with the track at moderate speeds. That's good, because the only other time you get on the track during OUSCI are the five laps that are recorded for the BFGoodrich Hot Lap Challenge. To raise the heart rate a little more, our group was selected for the hot laps first. That left us about 15 minutes to air down the tires and get the coilovers adjusted for the track, and we would have to guess at the compression and rebound settings as there would only be one session on the road course.
Our concerns about the shock settings soon evaporated, though. Before the warm-up lap was complete, the engine began cutting out unpredictably. I mentally worked through the checklist of possible causes while trying to hit a decent line on the track. I checked the gauges and found nothing out of the ordinary. The tank was full, so it wasn't fuel slosh uncovering the pickup tube. It wasn't happening at a specific rpm and it was a complete loss of power, not just dropping a few cylinders, which ruled out the ignition. Short on answers and limited in what I could do while on track, I did my best to complete the hot laps without risking a meeting a guardrail.
I pulled into the pits and opened the hood. We plugged in the handheld controller to check diagnostics. Nothing. Then we checked the throttle position sensor to make sure it was functioning correctly. Again, nothing. By this time, there were several people offering help and advice, but we were already being called to the RideTech Autocross Challenge. We held out as long as possible, trying to determine what was wrong. Then Optima gave us the message: Get out there now or forfeit your chance at competing in the autocross.
You only get three laps on the autocross. Our first pass was livable with only two or three episodes of power loss. The second pass was pitiful, with the car completely shutting down mid-course. I gave up my third time on the course and limped back to the pits. One thing was for sure: The longer I was on track, the worse the issue became.
This time, I had about an hour and a half before I had to go back on track for the Wilwood Disc Brakes Speed-Stop Challenge. At this point, any hope of doing well in the OUSCI was gone and my new goal was simply to complete the entire competition. This last driving event was a combination of a start-stop box and a slalom. The goal was to accelerate drag-race style to the end of the tarmac, make a 180, return through a slalom and then stop in a box that seems small at 60-80 mph. Like the autocross, you get three laps, and your best time is recorded. Unexpectedly, my Chevelle performed well on the first lap without even a sneeze from the engine! Unfortunately, I blew past the stop box by several feet, disqualifying the first attempt. On the second lap, the sporadic loss of power returned, but I nailed the stop box. That was it. I had finished. Much like a marathon runner, just crossing the finish line was victory enough.