Jim McIlvaine
April 27, 2016

Now in its third season, OPTIMA's Search for the Ultimate Street Car, presented by Advance Auto Parts, is visiting 10 tracks around the country. Their goal is to find the best all-around, street-legal cars and trucks. Once they've identified contenders at these qualifying events, they invite them out to the SEMA Show in Las Vegas to be on display all week, before heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the ninth annual OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational (OUSCI).

Even though two of these qualifiers have already taken place, both events were held on the West coast at Thunderhill and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That means most competitors in the other three time zones are all still chomping at the bit, waiting for their season to begin. As such, we'll take a closer look at how folks can get involved in this incredible series and maybe even snag an invitation to Las Vegas. We'll also preview some of the top early Mustangs on this year's circuit.

The primary focus of the series is a safe and fun experience that provides unique opportunities and great sponsorship exposure, while enjoying friendly competition. In addition to being a feeder for SEMA Show cars and OUSCI competitors, the Search for the Ultimate Street Car series also carries a fair amount of prestige in winning the regular season championship. While it is a national series, it's not set up to favor a rich guy who can run all 10 events and score a bunch of points. Rather, points from a competitor's best three events are counted toward their season-long total. That means someone in Los Angeles can run at Thunderhill, Las Vegas, and Fontana and still compete against someone who only ran at Road America, Circuit of the Americas, and NOLA Motorsports Park.

Even if a competitor doesn't win a qualifying event or their class outright, the top non-qualifier in each of the four classes at the end of the season, as well as the next 11 competitors regardless of class, all receive year-end invitations to SEMA and the OUSCI. There are also four classes in the series, so a '67 fastback doesn't have to try and keep up with a 2016 Porsche GT3. There are two main dividing lines within the classes: age and weight. Anything that weighs less than 3,200 pounds must run in the GTL class, while anything built before 1990 must run in the GTV class (unless it weighs less than 3,200 pounds).

The GTS class covers 1990 and newer two-seat production coupes, like Corvettes, as well as all-wheel drive cars over 3,200 pounds, like Nissan GT-Rs. The GT class is where the modern musclecars live, with late-model Mustangs squaring off against Camaros and Challengers. With that groundwork laid, let's take a look at the top contenders in 2016

Mike Maier's '66 Mustang has been a top competitor since the very beginning. Last season, the Californian made five events, including long hauls to Road America and Charlotte Motor Speedway. When the dust settled, Maier was the top Ford in the GTV class, finishing in third place overall. When the class distinctions went away at the OUSCI and Maier went head to head with all the competitors, he more than held his own, finishing 12th overall (highest among Fords) in the most-competitive field ever assembled.

So far in 2016, Maier has run at the season-opener in Thunderhill, where he placed fourth in GTV and he is also slated to run later this year at the Circuit of the Americas event in Austin. If Maier doesn't earn an invitation to the OUSCI in Texas, he'll likely need to run a third qualifying event to earn enough points to get into the OUSCI and contend for the GTV season championship. Fortunately, the final qualifying event of the year is in nearby Fontana, California, so Maier will have plenty of time to size up his chances after COTA and sign up for Fontana before that event sells out.

When a car in this series finishes anywhere in the top-ten in the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering portion of this series, you know the build quality is SEMA-worthy. Steve Murphy's stunning '66 Mustang proved that, finishing second in that segment at Thunderhill and ninth overall in the GTV class in his first event ever. The San Mateo native did not compete at Vegas and is not registered for any other events at this point, but he currently sits in 15th place in GTV points. If he decided to make a run at a Vegas invite, he'd definitely add Fontana to his schedule and likely one more event, but the next-closest would be at Pike's Peak.

Gerald Lee's '66 Mustang is another 2016 rookie, with his first event coming in Las Vegas. His top segment was the PowerStop SpeedStop Challenge, where he picked up a top-ten finish. Like many GTV competitors early in the season, Lee's Mustang missed several objective elements in the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering Challenge, which include requirements like functioning wipers, horn, and lights. His 16th place finish at Las Vegas places him 29th and he is not currently registered for any upcoming events. If he corrects all of his issues in Design & Engineering, he'll likely move up quickly in the GTV standings at his next event.

Bret Voelkel has run in the series since the very beginning and has competed in the OUSCI multiple times in a variety of vehicles. His latest weapon of choice is a '69 fastback that finished 17th in the GTV class in 2015. He is slated to run at Circuit of the Americas later this year, as well as NOLA Motorsports Park. Even though he is based in Indiana, if he performs well at those two events, he has the option to add the final qualifying event of the year at Fontana to make a run at a Vegas invitation. The car may end up being out West anyway, for the November Goodguys shows at Pleasanton and Scottsdale.

Ken Edwards '66 Mustang competed at the 2013 OUSCI, when the event was still run in Pahrump, Nevada. He also ran in a few qualifying events with his son during the 2014 season, but New Jersey Motorsports Park will be his first outing in quite some time. He's not only excited to be back on track, but pumped that a qualifying event was finally scheduled relatively close to his home on Long Island.

Even though a safe and fun experience is the primary objective at these events, competition often takes center stage for some folks. Marc Nemati's '65 Mustang reminds us that's not the case for everyone in the series. The Texan came out and ran at Texas Motor Speedway in 2015 and had enough fun to sign up again to run at bucket list track, Circuit of the Americas in 2016.

Ron Schoch's '65 Mustang is old enough to run in the GTV class, but because it weighs less than 3,200 pounds, it moves him into the ultra-competitive GTL class, where he squares off against lightweight Corvettes and all-wheel drive Mitsubishi Evos. He ran two events in 2015, finishing 38th overall last season. This year, he's signed up to return to NCM Motorsports Park, as well as Charlotte Motor Speedway and Road America.

Dave Tucci's '70 Mustang competed in the 2014 OUSCI and has run in qualifying events in each of the last two seasons. He's on the registration list for 2016, but hasn't identified where he will run yet. With New Jersey Motorsports Park being so close to his home in New York, we suspect we might see him here in May.

Lance Jackson is another competitor who ran last season at Texas Motor Speedway in his '65 Mustang. Demand was strong enough for another Texas event that the series is returning in 2016 to Circuit of the Americas, where the field is expected to reach a record of 100 entries!

In total, 40 Mustangs ranging from 1965 to 2016 are already registered to run in OPTIMA's 2016 Search for the Ultimate Street Car, including rookies Jim Crews, who will run his '67 Mustang at Road America and Chad Miller, who will run his '66 Mustang at NCM Motorsports Park. Others are expected to sign up in a series that is known for having the widest variety of production cars squaring off against each other anywhere in motorsports. If you'd like to join them or just take in the incredible variety, head over to www.DriveOPTIMA.com to see the full schedule of upcoming events. All events are also nationally televised, so you can catch up on the action by watching OPTIMA's Search for the Ultimate Street Car every Friday night at 8PM Eastern on MAVTV or on demand anytime at www.LucasOilRacing.tv.