Jim McIlvaine
June 20, 2016

OPTIMA's Search for the Ultimate Street Car, presented by Advance Auto Parts, is a ten-event series that runs on tracks from Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, all the way over to New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, New Jersey. Competitors battle it out on these tracks for a season-long points championship in four different classes, invitations to the SEMA Show in Las Vegas and the OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational (OUSCI).

The only prize money typically offered in the series is for the top rookie finisher at each event, but that's not really why anyone runs in this series. In addition to the valuable SEMA invites, there are very cool awards, contingency programs and valuable sponsorship relationships that are formed and developed. The bottom line for most folks is that it is the most fun they've ever had in their car and they are surrounded by an enthusiastic group of friends who enjoy doing the same thing. That doesn't mean competition is absent from this series, but it tends to be on a more friendly level.

Within that framework, what we saw (and didn't see) last weekend at NCM Motorsports Park shows us how obsessed these competitors are with running in this series. The NCM Motorsports Park event sold out for competitors months in advance and was the first of what is expected to be several sold-out events this season. One would think that with a sold-out field, there would be a heavy contingency of Fords, but the opposite was the case and perhaps, for good reason.

Aaron Sockwell brought his 2015 Mustang GT from the DuSold Designs stables up for a run at NCM Motorsports Park and placed third on the Detroit Speed Autocross and fifth on the Falken Road Course Time Trial in the GT class.
Ron Schoch is one of those rare guys, who builds a beautiful car, but isn't afraid to push it hard on a race track. The judges in the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering Challenge were impressed enough to award him the runner-up position in the GTL class.

NCM stands for “National Corvette Museum” and even though NCM Motorsports Park is a relatively-new facility, it became an instant bucket list track for any Corvette owner who actually drives their car on a racetrack. More than 20 Corvette owners signed up for this event, along with more than 30 of their F-body kid brothers. There were definitely Mustangs represented in Bowling Green, but many competitors knew the sold-out field would make valuable series points scarce for even the class winners and opted instead to focus their efforts on other upcoming events.

The top-15 non-qualifiers at the end of the season will receive invitations to the SEMA Show and OUSCI, based on points from their best three events. Points are distributed to the overall field before competitors are split into classes, which means plenty of strategy enters the picture in evaluating fields and sizing up the competition. That's also the reason why someone like Ken Thwaits could earn 484 points for winning the GT class at New Jersey Motorsports Park, but only 446 points for winning the same class at Thunderhill. With that in mind, we'll take a look at how the season-long points chase is shaping up, along with some updates from the most-recent event at NCM Motorsports Park.

The GTS class is for two-seat coupes and all-wheel drive vehicles that weigh more than 3,200 pounds. For now, that is largely the domain of GT-Rs, Corvettes and Porsches. However, several competitors plan to change that soon. Todd Earsley has been a top contender in the series for several seasons in a Mitsubishi Evo, but he is patiently waiting on his 2016 Focus RS to arrive. As soon as he gets the sticker off the window, he plans to campaign it at the remaining events this season. Matt Bacon is also planning on bringing out the same all-wheel drive Edge that Ford had in their SEMA booth last year and Brad Keselowski flogged in this video, which should shake things up.

Most pre-1990 vehicles will run in the GTV class in this series for vintage vehicles that weigh more than 3,200 pounds. There are a few exceptions, including Joe Escobar's 1974 Pinto, which is currently the only Ford in the top-ten in GTL points. Another exception is Ron Schoch, who brought his beautiful 1965 Fastback out to NCM and grabbed second place in the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering Challenge. More Mustangs are expected to run in the GTL class as the season rolls on, including series veteran, Juan Canales, who will run his 1993 Mustang in three upcoming events, starting with Charlotte Motor Speedway at the end of July.

The GTV class for pre-1990 vehicles has absolutely exploded to 125 entries and we're only mid-way through the third season. Nick Weber's 1969 Chevelle performed well enough at NCM Motorsports Park to move past Martin Pond's 1980 Mercury Zephyr station wagon in the GTV points chase, but Pond is still holding down the fifth-place position. Sean Fogli's 1968 F100, which received the Spectre Performance Spirit of the Event invitation to the OUSCI at Thunderhill Raceway also remains in the top-ten in GTV points. We do expect 2015 OUSCI competitor, Gregg Biddlingmeier's 1988 Mustang to make some noise in GTV, starting with the next event at Pike's Peak.

These events are a family affair for the Schoch family. Ron Schoch's son, Tim, runs a 2011 Mustang in the series and also garnered an invite to the 2015 OUSCI from its appearance at the SEMA Show.
Joe Escobar hasn't run his 1974 Pinto since Las Vegas, but he is still hanging on to 10th place in the GTL points chase.

The GT class is where most of the action takes place for Fords, as it is the home to Mustangs built after 1989, that weigh more than 3,200 pounds. It is in this class that we really see season-long strategy come into play. Cliff Elliott's 2016 GT and Andrew Nier's 2012 GT are both in the top-five in points, even though neither ran at NCM Motorsports Park. In Nier's case, that might have as much to do with him being in Southern California as anything else.

Elliott isn't afraid of making a long haul to compete, as proven by his recent trip from his home in Texas to New Jersey Motorsports Park, but may have other reasons for passing on NCM. Cliff knew NJMP wasn't going to sell out and he might have an opportunity to accumulate more season-long points, even though the GT class still had over 20 entrants. His gamble paid off, as he picked up 461 points for his fourth-place finish in New Jersey, versus just 401 points for the same finish at Las Vegas. NCM had a 30-car field in the GT class and the fourth-place finisher there, Jason Chinn, picked up 437 points.

Elliott won't pass up the opportunity to run at the Circuit of the Americas later this year, especially since it is the closest track to his South Texas home. He does know with 100 cars expected to compete, it might not be one of his best three events on the season. Fellow Texan, Aaron Sockwell will also be at that event and did make the trip to NCM, where his 2015 Mustang grabbed third place in the Detroit Speed Autocross and fifth place in the Falken Tire Road Course Time Trial.

How are these strategies playing out so far this season? Elliott & Nier are currently sixth and eighth place respectively in the top-15 non-qualifier spots, who are on track to receive Vegas invites at the end of the season. They are joined by Matt Alcala's 2006 Mustang, which sits in 13th place and Pond's Zephyr, which is on the hot seat in 15th place. We do expect to see significant movement after the series runs at Pike's Peak on July 9th and 10th and expect to see Pond on the outside looking in following that event.

The season isn't even half over yet, so there's plenty of time for you to get involved. If you'd like to learn more about this series, visit www.DriveOPTIMA.com or watch their TV Series every Friday night at 8pm Eastern Time on MAVTV. Here are the results from last weekend's event.

Juan Canales ran his 1993 notchback at Texas Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2015. His schedule for 2016 includes a return trip to CMS as well as runs at Circuit of the Americas and NOLA Motorsports Park.
Martin Pond added weight to his 1980 Mercury Zephyr to make sure he could run in the vintage class and did so in the first two events of the year. So far, his strategy is serving him well, as he still holds fifth place in his class and is on track with points to earn an invitation to Las Vegas.

GTV Class (pre-1990, 3200+ pounds)
1. Brian Finch, 1971 Camaro
2. Larry Woo, 1968 Camaro
3. Jim Stehlin, 1973 Camaro

GTS Class (post-1989, 3200+ pounds, two-seaters & awd vehicles)
1. Paul Curley, 2003 Corvette
2. Clay Shearer, 2015 Porsche 911 Turbo S
3. Curt Trawick, 2016 Porsche GT3 RS

GT Class (post-1989, 3200+ pounds, 2wd sedans, 4-seater coupes, trucks, etc.)
1. Bryan Johnson, 2013 Camaro
2. Ken Thwaits, 2014 Camaro
3. Jordan Priestley, 2016 Camaro

GTL Class (anything under 3200 pounds)
1. Danny Popp, 2003 Corvette
2. Karl Dunn, 2002 Corvette
3. Mike DuSold, 1967 Camaro

Spectre Performance Spirit of the Event Award- Todd Rumpke 2006 Corvette

Gregg Biddlingmeier is based out West and had a solid outing in Las Vegas. With just five events West of the Mississippi, he knows his local options are somewhat limited, so he'll be looking to climb the standings when the series starts back up at Pike's Peak International Raceway.
Andrew Nier doesn't have a fancy tow rig and often drives his Mustang to events, even if it means a cross-country trek with spare tires packed in the backseat. He's climbed the mountain and made it to the OUSCI before and hopes to repeat the performance in 2016.

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