Jim McIlvaine
September 6, 2016

It doesn't get more iconic than the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas. It was built to bring an F1 race back to the United States, and it was going to take a special circuit to lure back the world's top racing series. Long straightaways, 133 feet of elevation changes, and wide turns that offer multiple lines and hairpin turns are just a few of the features that convinced F1 to schedule a race weekend, as well as OPTIMA's Search for the Ultimate Street Car, presented by Advance Auto Parts.

COTA has only just recently been more accessible to cars that aren't fielded by Petronas or Red Bull, so when the opportunity to add the track to the schedule came up, it was a no-brainer. It didn't really matter if the entry fee would be higher than other events or the air temperature was unlikely to drop below 100 degrees—this was too good an opportunity to pass up.

As we've seen with other events throughout the season, Bow Ties dominated the entry list by volume, but when the awards were handed out, Fords took home half of the class wins. Mike Maier's 1966 Mustang had only run in one prior event at the season-opener, finishing a distant third to two Camaros at Thunderhill. His car recently received new fender flares and a fresh paint job and responded well to those changes and others at COTA.

COTA was a local track for Texan Aaron Sockwell, and the home track advantage paid off. Sockwell's 2015 Mustang won the GT class, earning an invitation to the SEMA Show and the OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational.
A lot of trailers show up at these events, but the distances some of these cars are actually driven to events might surprise you. Chris Darquea has been running without a trailer all season and put more than 2,700 miles on his 2006 Mustang just driving to COTA and back from San Diego for this event.

Maier finished in the top five in every segment and took top honors in GTV on the PowerStop SpeedStop Challenge and the Falken Tire Road Course Time Trial. He needed the top finish on Sunday's time trial because he was trailing GTV class leader, Jake Rozelle, by four points going into Sunday's final event.

Rozelle had the tiebreaker in the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering score, so Maier needed to finish five positions ahead of Rozelle to get the class win. Maier would have received an invitation to the OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational (OUSCI) as the top-finishing nonqualifier in GTV, but he wanted the outright win and got it. When the final session ended, Maier had gapped Rozelle by exactly the five positions he needed.

Ten of the Fords that ran at COTA were Mustangs entered in the 27-car GT class, and they did not disappoint. Aaron Sockwell's 2015 Mustang previously ran well enough in timed segments at Pike's Peak to grab an OUSCI invite, but Cliff Elliott's 2016 GT edged him out in Design & Engineering, taking home the invitation. COTA would be a different story, as Sockwell came out strong, winning the SpeedStop Challenge and finishing no lower than third in any of the other segments.

It took Cliff Elliott 14 months to get his Shelby GT350. With his other Mustang already qualified for the OUSCI, he couldn't pass on a chance to take his iconic new ride on an iconic racetrack.
Jay Payson is only in his first full season in OPTIMA's Search for the Ultimate Street Car, but already he has run at New Jersey Motorsports Park, Charlotte Motor Speedway, and now Circuit of the Americas. His efforts have been met with an invite to SEMA and the OUSCI at Charlotte and a top five ranking in the GT class after seven events.

His GT class win punched his ticket to Vegas and moved him into fourth place in the season-long points chase. Jay Payson, who earned his Vegas invite the week before at Charlotte, also finished well enough to move his 2015 Mustang into fifth place, just two points behind Sockwell. Mustangs now occupy five of the top 10 spots in the Camaro-heavy GT class.

In the GTS class, Todd Earsley continues to carry the flag for the Blue Oval team in his 2016 Ford Focus RS. Even though the car is still nearly stock, it is already producing more consistent results than the Mitsubishi Evo it replaced. The average score in three events for Earsley's Evo was 335 points, while his average score in his first two events with the RS is more than 361 points.

The next stop is the other iconic “America” track is Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. That event is already sold out for competitors, but spectators are more than welcome, and 50 percent discounts on VIP Pit Passes are available at Elkhart Lake-area Advance Auto Parts locations. After Road America, the series will move to NOLA Motorsports Park in September, before heading out to Auto Club Speedway in early October for the regular season finale.

You can learn more about this series and how you can be a part of it by visiting driveoptima.com. You can also check out the TV series every Friday night at 8 p.m. Eastern on MAVTV (a new season begins September 2).

Mike Maier's 1966 Mustang has not been to many events this season, but when he shows up he makes it count. Maier produced a dominating performance that not only resulted in the GTV class win but showed that his old-school Stang could more than hold its own against modern muscle.
The competition in this series is fierce, but time on track is plentiful. Saroja Raman has qualified for the OUSCI before, but she is in a dogfight to get in this season. Her best three events in the five she has run have placed her ninth in the GT class. She still has three more chances to qualify, although the final event at Fontana is a long way from her home in Tennessee.

GTV Class (pre-1990, 3,200+ lb)
1. Mike Maier, 1966 Mustang
2. Jake Rozelle, 1969 Camaro
3. Larry Woo, 1968 Camaro

GTS Class (post-1989, 3,200+ lb, 2-seaters & AWD vehicles)
1. Curt Trawick, 2016 Porsche GT3 RS
2. Brian Hobaugh, 2003 Corvette
3. Andy Hollis, 2012 McLaren 12C

GT Class (post-1989, 3,200+ lb, 2WD sedans, 4-seater coupes, trucks, etc.)
1. Aaron Sockwell, 2015 Mustang
2. Jordan Priestley, 2016 Camaro
3. Jason Chinn, 2015 Camaro

GTL Class (anything under 3,200 lb)
1. Danny Popp, 2003 Corvette
2. Mike DuSold, 1967 Camaro
3. Ken Thwaits, 2006 Mitsubishi Evo

Spectre Performance Spirit of the Event Award
Kevin Tully, 1964 Plymouth Valiant

Juan Canales is a regular in the series and ran at Texas Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway last season. This year he ran at COTA and also has NOLA Motorsports Park on his list. Not a bad way to cross tracks off your to-do list.
As soon as Todd Earsley's 2016 Focus RS arrived, he put it right to work. Within a two-week span, he ran at Charlotte Motor Speedway and COTA and has yet to put it on a trailer, hence the bike rack.
They say everything is bigger in Texas. COTA sure seemed that way from atop the track's 251-foot observation tower. After spending several hours up there, we're convinced every track should have at least one.
Not everyone who runs in these events is overly concerned about getting enough points to make it to Vegas. Some just want to come out and enjoy their car on the track. Rick Sink has done just that with his Mustang the past two seasons, as the series has run at tracks in his home state of Texas.

Photo Gallery

View Photo Gallery