This month we take a close look at some of the most badass Pro Touring machines on the planet. And by badass, I mean the guys who build and own them are not afraid to drive the crap out of them. The cars in this issue are all from the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational, which took place right after the 2011 SEMA show in Las Vegas. What I believe we’re seeing here with these cars is a reinvention of Pro Touring that reminds me a lot of its early days.
When Pro Touring cars first appeared in any numbers, they didn’t even have a name for it. There weren’t any preconceived notions of big tires, big wheels, big brakes, tons of billet, or a slammed stance—it was solely about guys wanting to get a certain level of performance out of their cars. Where current aftermarket parts didn’t exist to improve handling, grip, or braking, hot rodders built their own stuff, or adapted Stock Car or road racing hardware.
Over time, however, wannabes coveted the cool look, and began cribbing the build style. And just like how Pro Street morphed from the true function of Pro Stock two decades earlier, Pro Touring also stopped being about performance. Before you know it, cars were festooned with all the familiar poser trappings. Billet, boom stereos, stupidly huge wheels, and monstrously overpowered but mostly underutilized engines became the norm. Fueled by more cubic dollars and less common sense, Pro Touring now had a credibility problem.
…the most exciting kind of car to me is the one you can hammer on, hose off, and put away wet. "
That said, there’s always been a core group of guys who never lost sight of the real goal: to show muscle car taillight to the world’s most exotic sports cars. Here’s where I point out that no matter what your feeling is about Pro Touring, you’ve got to appreciate guys who can get out there and walk the walk. Guys like Mark Rife (the ’63 Corvette on p. 34) and Martin Sokulski (the ’68 Charger on p. 28) both come from racing backgrounds, so when it came time to build a car, they were less focused on the look, and more interested in kicking ass on the track. One thing you’ll notice about both their cars—and this is no coincidence—is that although both their engines are powerful by family car standards, they are by no means over the top. Like the rest of their cars, engines like theirs are designed to operate reliably and repeatedly in a harsh environment.
The Pro Touring hobby has grown to encompass many niches; you have everything from cars as art, to cars as sports equipment. If you’re like me, you’re lucky enough to appreciate all (or most) of Pro Touring in its varied forms. Nevertheless, the most exciting kind of car to me is the one you can hammer on, hose off, and put away wet. For my tastes, there’s a distinct line between having presentable paint, and having paint that’s too nice. The same goes for the interior, the wheels, the engine, and more. If it’s too prissy to park at the mall for a few hours, I’m probably not going to want it.
My own wheels reflect that ethos. My ’75 Chevy Laguna might be hideous to some guys, but I like the rough-and-tumble vibe of the satin black paint and ’70s NASCAR graphics. It’s got a throwback Pro Touring feel, and when I drive it it’s like wearing a comfortable pair of old jeans. My take away from the Optima event is that to get in the zone where you can really start enjoying your car on a high-speed track, you’ve got to be comfortable with it. I’ve already driven it several times to Vegas, even autocrossing and drag racing it, but my only road course outing so far has been a local event. Someday, I’d like to run Optima with the Laguna (competitively or otherwise)—but I’ll need to gain a little more confidence this year before diving all the way in.
To the rest of you, I hope you’ll use this issue as the inspiration to get more actively involved with driving your own hot rod. Join with me in making 2012 the year of the “driver.” Do something crazy and fun with your car that you’ve never done before! Maybe Optima, or Goodguys, or an open-track day. We’ll be coming back for more PHR Street Machine Autocross Challenge events at Goodguys (see the schedule on p. 10), plus we’ll be working to put on our own Pro Touring challenge event this summer. I hope I’m not premature on that one, but if all goes well, we’ll have something to announce for you in the next issue!