Jim McIlvaine
April 27, 2018

Real street cars are supposed to be driven in all types of conditions, from bumper to bumper traffic jams that tax the cooling system to arctic conditions that wreak havoc on batteries. OPTIMA Batteries' Search for the Ultimate Street Car travels the country and runs in just about any type of conditions, from blazing-hot Texas heat to snowflakes flying in Pennsylvania. There aren't many series that will run under such conditions and even fewer that give regular people a chance to square off against cars from nearly any manufacturer on the planet.

When the field converged on NOLA Motorsports Park in New Orleans for the second stop during the 2018 season, old rivalries of Ford versus Chevy versus Dodge were renewed. However, there were also opportunities to take on iconic supercars with names like Porsche & Lamborghini. Most of those supercars found their way into the RECARO GTS Class for two-seat coupes and all-wheel drive vehicles built after 1989, that weigh at least 3,200 pounds. The Corvettes and Vipers end up there, but many of the Porsches will slide in there as well as the Lamborghini Huracan that showed up at NOLA. What Fords fit into that mix? Primarily the Focus RS and on this weekend, Mike Gallagher's 2016 RS was tasked with taking on the giants.

Coming in with a disadvantage in weight, aerodynamics and horsepower to many of the cars that run in this class, Gallagher seemed to have the odds stacked against him, but this series is unlike any other where cars square off against each other. The top competitors in this series all go on display at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, so the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering portion of the competition ensures SEMA-worthy show vehicles have a distinct advantage over race cars with license plates.

Even though the series is in it's fifth full season, there are still plenty of rookies like Bill Haynie, giving the series a try for the very first time. Fun can still be had in spades, but as the collective experience of the series grows, the competitive learning curve gets steeper.

Gallagher is a regular competitor in this series and knows what it takes to do well in this segment. As a result, no one was surprised when Gallagher's Focus RS scored the highest in his class, giving him a three-point advantage on the first day of competition. The other competitive segment that ran on Saturday was the Detroit Speed Autocross, which also ended up playing into Gallagher's favor. The run order of classes was determined at the first event in Las Vegas through a random drawing and the RECARO GTS Class went first. That meant at the next event in New Orleans, the GTS cars would be last in line.

Being first isn't always met with enthusiasm, as times often drop throughout the day, as the track heats up and rubber gets laid down onto the surface, but that wasn't the case in New Orleans. Heat wasn't the focus of everyone's attention, but traction was a priority, given the forecast of heavy rains. With rain literally on the horizon, the Saturday schedule was moved up in an effort to get dry runs for as many competitors as possible. The rain held off for a while, allowing most of the competitors to get in at least a few dry runs. However, by the time the RECARO GTS class had their turn in the staging lines, the ground was already wet.

That proved to be a blessing for Gallagher's all-wheel drive RS, as nine of the 13 cars running in the class were either rear-wheel drive Corvettes or Vipers and the tenth was a 2018 Lamborghini Huracan. That left three all-wheel drive competitors with a distinct advantage over the rest of the class. While Gallagher's Focus RS couldn't keep pace with an 800-horsepower Nissan GT-R, he was within 36 thousandths of a second of the twin-turbo Porsche 991 that was prepped and campaigned by Michael Levitas, who also fields cars in the Porsche IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge Racing Series. The Lamborghini came up short on the RS and finished fourth.

Hurricane Harvey recovery sidelined Cliff Elliott's 2016 Mustang GT for the first event of the season, but the Texan was back for NOLA, where he finished seventh in the Franklin Road Apparel GT Class.
Jeff Peoples' 2016 Shelby GT350 ran two events during the 2016 season, but took last year off. NOLA marked his first of three-scheduled events this season, with NCM Motorsports Park and Barber Motorsports Park also on his list.

The class win in the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering Challenge and the strong finish in the Detroit Speed Autocross actually gave Gallagher the overall lead heading into day two. While Gallagher managed top-ten finishes in both segments on Sunday, it wasn't enough to hold off the competition and he ended up a very solid fifth in class.

The largest class of the weekend was the Franklin Road Apparel GT Class, which features late-model muscle cars and sedans, weighing at least 3,200 pounds. Three-time regular season champion, Bryan Johnson, was signed up to run, but when he didn't show, the door flung wide open for someone else to take the win and the points lead. Jonathan Blevins's 2008 GT500 stepped forward on the first day, turning in strong performances in both Lingenfelter Design & Engineering Challenge and the Detroit Speed Autocross.

Jonathan Blevins is looking to make a move toward a championship this season in the Franklin Road Apparel GT Class. His GT500 scores well in the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering Challenge and he has the chops behind the wheel to make it happen.

Blevins turned up the heat even more on the following day, posting the sixth-fastest time of the weekend on the Falken Tire Road Course Time Trial and tops in the Franklin Road Apparel GT Class. However, he struggled to find his groove on the PowerStop Brakes Speed Stop Challenge and ended up second in class to Chad Langley's 2018 ZL1 Camaro. Langley also assumed the lead in the points chase, but only because his is the only car to finish both of the first two events.

Blevins is signed up for four more events and with his best three counting toward his season-long point total and Johnson seemingly out of the picture at this point, Blevins could be setting his GT500 up for the first Blue Oval regular season GT class championship in series history. It won't be an easy path though. In addition to a gaggle of ZL1s, 1LEs and R/Ts gunning for the title, the Mustangs of series veterans Cliff Elliott, Vernon Jolley and the Schoch brothers all figure to be in the mix.

Two dozen cars are signed up to run in the Franklin Road Apparel GT Class at NCM Motorsports Park on June 2 & 3, as part of a massive, 89-car field. If you're in the area, make a point of checking it out. Admission is free and the action will be non-stop.

Starwood Motors may be better known in the world of off-roading, but they know their way around performance cars too. They also know this series is a great way to let customers know they can build a car that can handle whatever someone might throw at it. Karl Williams made an impressive debut, finishing seventh in his 2017 Mustang.
Last year, Matt Givens made his series debut at NOLA in his Vorshlag-prepped 2015 Mustang GT, finishing eighth. He moved into a top-five finish in 2018 and may have what it takes to not only earn an invitation to the SEMA Show and OUSCI in Las Vegas, but contend for a regular season championship, if he finds his way to a third event.
Five Focus RS competitors ran in the series in 2017, but Mike Gallagher's RS was the only one to finish inside the top ten (eighth) in the RECARO GTS Class. Gallagher is back in 2018, looking to make another run to Vegas and continue carrying the blue oval torch.
Sons become rivals in this series, as Ron & Tim Schoch square off against each other in the Franklin Road Apparel GT Class. Ron emerged victorious in the family battle on this weekend, finishing eighth to Tim's 13th-place finish.
Vernon Jolley is one of a handful of competitors slated to run the full series in 2018, but he suffered a bit of a setback on the Falken Tire Road Course Time Trial. The smoke barely visible here increased significantly two laps later and was accompanied by flames, as he attempted to exit the track. Fortunately, Vernon emerged unharmed and the Mustang can be fixed.

QA1 GTV Class (Pre-1990, 3,200+ pounds)
1. CB Ramey, 1984 Cheveolet Corvette
2. Dusty Nixon, 1979 Chevrolet Camaro
3. Ed Michalak, 1969 Chevrolet Camaro

RECARO GTS Class (Post-1989, 3,200+ pounds, two-seaters & awd vehicles)
1. Steve Kepler, 2009 Nissan GT-R
2. Michael Levitas, 2014 Porsche 991
3. Eric Fleming, 2016 Chevrolet Corvette

Holley EFI GTL Class (Non-compacts under 3,200 pounds)
1. Ken Thwaits, 2006 Mitsubishi Evo
2. Feras Qartoumy, 2008 Chevrolet Corvette
3. Ryan Mathews, 2002 Chevrolet Corvette

GTE Class (BEV electric vehicles)
1. Karen Thomas, 2018 Tesla X P100D

GTC Class (Two-wheel drive compacts, 107-inch wheelbase or less)
1. Andy Hollis, 2000 Mazda Miata
2. Troy delaHoussaye, 2009 Mazda MX-5
3. Jason Goodick, 2004 Toyota MR2

Franklin Road Apparel GT Class (Post-1989, 3200+ pounds, 2wd sedans, 4-seater coupes, trucks, etc...)
1. Chad Langley, 2018 Chevrolet Camaro
2. Jonathan Blevins, 2008 Mustang
3. Keith Lamming, 2011 Chevrolet Camaro

*SPECTRE Performance Spirit of the Event Award: Tina Thompson, 2015 Chevrolet Corvette

2018 OPTIMA Search for the Ultimate Street Car Schedule

New Orleans Motorsports Park: April 14-15
National Corvette Museum: June 2-3
Pike's Peak International Raceway: July 7-8
Barber Motorsports Park: August 4-5
Auto Club Speedway: September 15-16
Road America: October 6-7
OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational: November 4-5

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