I like big racing like a lot of other people reading this, but I found something special when I attended my first Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car event. For those of you somewhat familiar with the series, you may think its all pro touring muscle cars or strictly an american car only event. I’m here to tell you it’s for all cars. Hell, there was a late model Toyota Camry running the first day. Even though he knew he wasn’t going to place, he was having one hell of a good time. To add to it all, what I ended up finding was the pure essence of why we become car enthusiasts in the first place. The attraction of man and machine with the community that encompasses it all. The key factor here is that it’s obtainable for almost any gear head. You see, that’s the one problem with larger race series. While it’s cool to see what the limits of technology, deep pockets, and gobs of talent can get you in the racing industry, it is simply unobtainable for most people. Like wanting to become a rockstar or famous actor, possible but not probable. With the Optima series, accessibility, fun, and passion are the foundation of what makes this series so good.
I saw all walks of life joining in the fun. Everything from the one guy that drove his car to the event, all the way up to the big rig hauling two cars with a small support team. I took some time to talk with a lot of them and it brought me back to why I enjoy the car community. The comradery, the respect, and the passion that each of these individuals share. There was no animosity… some good natured rib jabbing, of course, but no drama, no BS. It was really nice and something I could see myself running a car in next year.
The idea originally started when I was talking with Bill Hurd on the Camaro forums, inquiring about his car, a 2014 Camaro 1LE. I had come across some of his posts, watched a few of his videos, and liked what he had done to his car. Long story short, we got talking about the Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car event being held at New Jersey Motorsports Park (NJMP). We decided to meet there, so I could follow along with his involvement in this series and get to know him, and his car, a little better. It ended up being one of my more memorable experiences in some time.
After a 10 hour drive down from Maine, (over 2 hours of that was going 10 miles through NYC, in a manual transmission car no less), I finally made it to NJMP. It was Friday and late in the afternoon. I picked up my credentials and made a quick pass through the track area to get an idea of the layout before going to meet with Bill. I then headed to a restaurant not far from the track where I met him and his father for dinner. It was finally nice to put a face with a name and have an actual conversation in person, versus over the forums or through texts. We decided to get an early start on the next day, as the weather forecast was not ideal, and Bill had a newly built engine and brand new suspension he wanted to get dialed in prior to the first event. With nearly 600hp at the crank, getting as much of that power to the ground is key.
Next morning, we meet up in the paddocks and got his car over to JJ working with Raymond’s Performance to get a baseline set for his suspension for the coming events. During our walk over there, we were met by a deep, thunderous rumble emitting from the infamous Showtime Motorsports‘ Z/28, driven by owner Ken Thwaits. Not long after that, the paddocks become alive with the sound of small block V8’s, sprinkled over with some old american iron, big blocks, turbo 4 cylinders, and a lone flat 6 out of the only Porsche here today. The sounds are intoxicating. Not to mention the lingering smell of race fuel. I swear, if I could somehow make an air freshener to replicate that smell, I could retire within a year.
After final preparations were completed, the morning Drivers’ Meeting was held were host Jimi Day went over the day’s events, as well as what to expect over the next coming days. Today was going to be the autocross and the design and engineering judging. With the weather predictions of rain looming over the day, everyone was anxious to start getting some autocross runs in.
All participants line up for the autocross. Bill got suited up and ready to roll. Other than a track day session the day prior, this would be the first time he had been to an event since his engine and suspension were installed. And the first day on the suspension after being calibrated appropriately. Bill admittedly is more of a road course guy than an autocross guy, but that is why this event is set up they way it is. A fair mix of everything, to test the car and driver’s ability in various situations, while still be able to drive comfortably on the streets. At the end of the day, these are street cars and not full race cars, even with the level of modification that some of them have. Anyways, back to the story.
Bill and I were talking strategy. Most autocrosses are a one and done scenario. Meaning only one lap around. BUT, since this autocross course is limited to size constraints, participants would be going around the course twice. Talking with Bill, this might work to his advantage as normally the tires and brakes would be rather cold making it difficult to put all that power to the ground. One thing Bill jokingly says is he wants to make sure he only does two laps and not more. It turns out, he may have forgotten his own advice, because on the first run, he accidentally did an extra lap. In all fairness though, there were quite a few people that did this as well. Especially on the first attempt.
Bill exited the course with his time slip and immediately realized what he had done. The silver lining to it all is more familiarization of the course layout. After all, this course is tight and not very 5th Gen Camaro friendly, considering how low, wide and powerful those cars are. While not all cars being run were Camaros, they made up a large portion of the entry list.
After lining back up to wait for his next run, Bill and I talked with some of the other participants about the course. Ken Thwaits was running two cars in this event. His 5th Gen Camaro Z/28 and his Mitsubishi EVO. Quite the undertaking, not leaving a lot of time in between, but he managed to do it pretty well. On a short, tight course like this, the all wheel drive will have a distinct advantage. Especially when the Z/28 has over 720hp.
The line moves forward towards the starting grid of the course and Bill gets suited up once more. I get in position to get some photos. As I waited, I jokingly sent a friendly text reminder to only do TWO laps this time. And he did, regardless of my text, because not surprisingly, he didn’t read it until after he had completed his run.
By this time, the clouds were looking pretty ugly. Mist had begun to spew from the air, a precursor of what was to come. Most people had come to the conclusion that these few dry runs were going to be the best run times of the day. While a lot of people were now making their way over to the Design and Engineering tent for judging. This is the portion where the cars are judged on their performance upgrades, innovation, fit, and finish, as well as their balance for daily use.
In between sessions, Bill and I spent some time with Bruce Raymond from Raymond’s Performance, as well as Ken Thwaits. Bruce was kind enough to let us hang out in the lounge area of his trailer where we spent some time talking, in addition to giving me a chance to edit some photos. Again, the hospitality and sense of community surrounding this event was very inviting.
As the rain moved in, it was nice to see that a lot of people were still driving the autocross. You would be surprised how much car control you can actually learn in the wet. There were a few people that even improved their time in the wet over their dry time just due to the back to back runs. But as the weather continued even those last remaining cars stopped running. Later in the afternoon, all the drivers gather again for the announcement of the Road Rally stage. This is a portion where all the participants follow some predetermined directions to a destination. Where being a street car comes into play.
The original route was estimated at about 2 hours one way. Our destination being Wildwood, on the New Jersey shoreline. I hopped in Bill’s 1LE for the ride down. First impression… this car is friggen awesome! No, seriously. To me, it is nearly the perfect blend of street car and track car. It looks mean as hell. Low, wide, and with vicious exhaust note. The ride, even with the new track oriented suspension, was surprisingly compliant. If we were going on an extended trip, you might want to soften it up a bit with the compression and rebound, but overall it really wasn’t that bad. This was the first real time I was able to be in the car for any extended period of time. And Bill, I have to say, you have built your car very well. It mirrors my own thoughts in regards to how I would upgrade the car if this 1LE were mine. My hat is off to you. I can’t wait to see what you do with your Z/28.R.
As we cruised down to the coastline, it was really quite fun seeing all the other cars from the event mixed into the traffic. Taking what on a normal day would be a mundane commute full of normal cars in various shades of black, white and silver, and liven it up a bit with the motley crew that ensued.
We finally made it down to our checkpoint, where I hopped out to take a quick photo. Then we got a bite to eat before our ride back to the track. All in all, even with the weather, it wasn’t a half bad day.
The autocross was fun, but the road course is what both Bill and I had been waiting for. It’s kind of funny that after talking with a lot of people at the event, most people have a preference of one or the other. Meaning they like the road course portion, but don’t care for the autocross portion. Or vice versa. It was rare to find someone that liked them both. I personally enjoy autocross, but given the choice between an autocross event and a track day, the track day will win out every time. One benefit, as friend Dave Tyo pointed out about autocross, is if you start out doing that first, what you learn can transition well out on a road course, but the reverse doesn’t seem to be the case. Interesting.
Today’s weather was supposed to be a bit more agreeable than the day prior. There were to be 5 sessions on track for each of the three running groups: novice, intermediate, and expert. In between those sessions, drivers would be competing in the speed stop challenge. Basically a short course, designed around acceleration, tight turns, and stop box. Best time receives the most points. This day should provide ample runs in both events.
Bill was set to run in the expert group for the road course, so he had some time before he would need to be at the gridline. We walked the speed stop course prior to running it. The course shape was a large “U” but the first and second corners were more of a 90 degree angle with not a lot of run out space. The margin for error was very small. After the second turn, you had to time where you started to brake as you entered the stop box. If you hit the cones at the end, you DNF. Luckily, multiple runs were available to fine tune your run and give yourself the best possible time. This was an event where the all wheel drive cars should have had a distinct advantage, due to the short nature of the course and their ability to launch hard. In fact, a Nissan GTR ended up winning the event. What was surprising was how well some of the rear wheel drive cars were doing in comparison.
As time marched on, Bill, along with the rest of the expert group, got to go out for their first session on the road course. It was really neat to be able to see the little battles taking place within the run group. I know it’s a time trial based run, but you had several small groups of drivers who seemed to find each other on course and have their own little mini battles. Some laps, one particular car would be in front, then a couple laps later it would be reversed. So on and so forth. There were a pair of black Corvettes, a C5 and a C6 that were wickedly fast. They were both excellent drivers and the cars were set up very well. Then you had Ken in his beast of a Z/28. He was fairly untouchable most of the time. You also had the two white Camaro 1LEs. One was Bill and the other was Darren Reed, a purpose built monster of a car, built by Pete Basica of JPSS. This too was Darren’s maiden voyage in the event with his new car. It was a real treat to see both of these cars on course trading places every few laps. They seemed to be fairly evenly matched in both car and driver.
The first track session ended and the plan was to go straight to the speed stop with warm tires and brakes to help with the launch, overall grip, and braking force for the stop box. It was a good theory and would have worked well, if a participants car hadn’t puked coolant on the course. By the time it was all cleaned up, any advantage was lost, but hey, that’s how it goes sometimes.
The day continued on and Bill got another track session in before the weather started to turn around again. The mist rolled back in and before long there was a light rain. The weather would continue to tease us with brief sightings of the sun, only to be followed up with a hope crushing rainfall shortly there after. Ken had an off course during one of the track sessions, where he had been doing a hero run for a best time and went a little too hot into turn one on the Lightning course. Turn one is a bit tricky as it is a blind crest, off camber right hander, notorious for upsetting the suspension. Especially with a bit too much speed and greasy conditions. Luckily Ken wasn’t hurt but the car got it’s lower jaw, aka front splitter, ripped off. I still don’t know if he ever found the GoPro that had been attached at one point.
Not long after towards the end of the day, Bill’s 1LE suffered some minor electrical issues with insufficient charging. Eric from Raymonds Performance swapped out the alternator in record time and then a battery from Optima themselves was used to continue testing the system. It seemed to be in good working order, but a short trip around the paddocks proved differently. Not wanting to risk anything, Bill ended up calling it for himself. It was suspected that there may have been a loose ground somewhere in the circuit causing issue. After all, the whole powertrain had been out of the car being overhauled prior to this event. Its very likely that with all the vibrations, something could have worked loose or caused a poor connection.
As the afternoon moved into early evening, the weather conditions worsened. The rain became more steady and people’s tolerance of the weather seemed to be reaching its limit. That is, all except for one fellow. Rick Hoback and his turbocharged C5 Vette. He was the last person to come off course in the last session of the day. In fact, he was the only one out on course in the rain for the last session of the day.
After talking with him he said “I knew I wasn’t going to be any faster, I was just out there having fun!”
Awesome answer, Rick.
The award ceremony came at the end of the day, where 5 people were invited to the the national event held in Las Vegas. Even though the rain continued to soak us all, spirits were back in good shape. Laughs were had and new friendships forged. I would personally like to thank Bill Hurd and his father for their hospitality and invitation to join them. I am happy to have met several people in person for the first time, after months or more of online conversations. Ken Thwaits, Pete Basica, Dave Tyo, Darren Reed and more, you fall into this category. And to all the other people that I met for the first time and befriended. I will definitely be back for more. Optima, you have an awesome event going and I will do my best to help promote something that seems to capture, so organically, what it means to be a car enthusiast.
Televised coverage can be found at MAVTV. Don’t have MAVTV? No problem, these episodes will be available on lucasoilracing.tv as well.
Below you will find the rest of my photos from the event.