Tom Wilson
November 1, 2003
Jim Hodge, Pete Morley, and Ray Newton had American GT covered in the Open Track Challenge in their flame-job '03 Cobra. Here Ray gets ready in Las Vegas while we prepare to follow in our open-track project car. As usual, our car didn't miss a beat and handled like a dream.

Horse Sense: We would have liked to taken off the entire week and had some real fun. If you have the $2,000 entry fee and want to give it a go, visit www.opentrackchallenge.com.

A year ago in our coverage of the inaugural Open Track Challenge ("Open Track Ecstacy," Dec. '02, p. 90), we noted how finding an entire week to go hot lapping was beyond the scope of magazine writers. To prove the point, this year not only did we not make the entire seven days, but we couldn't even match last year's five-day effort. A bare two days of track action was all we could muster, but, as always, what a great event in which to participate, even if for a short while.

For those new to the OTC, it's seven different open-tracks in seven days. Classes are available for trailered race cars and road-going Touring class machines, the latter being required to drive from track to track (no trailering).

Jack Hidley had a winning combination with his lightweight Fox and the ace driving of partner Brian Shugg. Hugely reduced on-track time due to mechanicals and a lack of horsepower compared to Jim Hodge's Twin-Screwed '03 Cobra held them back. With no engine rules in open-tracking, major horsepower combined with great handling is a must.

This year the Open Track Challenge scrambled the schedule for variety and made a few rules adjustments. Thus, the layover date (when the event stays at the same place two nights) was moved later in the week when the circus camped at the invigorating Thunderhill, running it backward the second day. The major rules change for the Touring cars was a mandated 140-treadwear rating on their DOT tires, the better to have tires last the week. Our Nitto 555 R rubber carries a 100-treadwear rating, and seeing how we couldn't go a week anyway, we asked to run as interested bystanders and stay out of everyone's scoring races while we covered the event. You can do that when you're with the magazine.

As it was last year, Touring American GT was where the Mustangs were, all 3 of them. In fact, with 58 cars entered and those 3 Mustangs all of American GT, the '03 event was going to be a Blue Oval intramural of sorts.

There was little doubt which car was going to win. Beginning with an '03 Mustang Cobra, Jim Hodge and partners Ray Newton (owner of PTeazer) and Pete Morley (owner of restyling specialist Kaminari) assembled an eye-catching, tire-frying showpiece. Blaming our articles for making him do it, Jim swapped on a Kenne Bell supercharger (with hands-on tuning help from KB) to arrive north of 550 hp, along with a complete Kenny Brown suspension, a Kenny Brown cage, Brembo four-piston brakes, Bilstein shocks, 9.5-inch Cobra R wheels, Kaminari body panels, and-like us-a working CD player and air conditioning.

This stuff is supposed to be fun. Jack Hidley and Bryan Shugg change the in-tank fuel pump at Buttonwillow. It was like this for them the first three days.

Ray and Pete were sharing the driving, and both have racing experience. It's a good thing, too, as with the combination of relatively hard tires and big horsepower, they said pedaling Jim's car was like driving on ice.

For the first five events the colorful Cobra dominated as expected. But on Thursday night, while simply cruising down the freeway at maybe 65 mph (as did many teams, the Jim Hodge team drove their Touring entry behind a motorhome hauling an empty trailer), something in the valvetrain let loose, hashing the engine and forcing the team out the remaining two days. Even so, their five-for-seven score was enough to clinch the American GT win.

After sorting their brand-new Fox-based entry, Jack Hidley and Brian Shugg, both of whom are associated with Maximum Motorsports, took second. You may recall Jack was our OTC co-driver last year, while Brian is the '02 American Iron East champion. Aside from the ace driving talent, the team's other advantage was a light, near full-race Maximum Motorsports chassis combined with moderate pushrod 5.0 power. Their Achilles' axle was the car was being finished as the OTC got underway. This meant wrenching under the car for the first three days with precious little track time as the new-car gremlins were exorcised. Once the car was running as designed, however, Jack and Brian closed the gap to the Hodge team, then lost an alternator at Thunderhill, which kept them in second that day. Of course, when the Cobra burst its gizzard, Jack and Brian were there to take the final two wins.

Bryan Sheldon and Chris Petersen drove like pros, had a blast, and at least avoided on-track trouble with Bryan's '98 Cobra. It's amazing how fast the Four-Valve cars can be when kept revved-up on track. When it was over, Bryan's take on OTC was he was thrilled it was seven days, but glad it wasn't eight!

Bryan Sheldon and co-driver Chris Petersen were in third place, and theirs is an amazing story. For starters, both Bryan and Chris are the real thing-enthusiasts with no professional association with the performance aftermarket (read "no free parts"). It's no surprise then that Bryan's '98 Mustang Cobra was lightly modified, with just Maximum Motorsports camber plates, Eibach springs, Hawk HPS brake pads, 4.10 gears, and 220-treadwear-rating Kumhos (which is the same hard tire as Jim Hodge's '03 Cobra, while Jack was on the trick tire for the class, 140-treadwear BFGoodrich KDs).

Given their car's limited modifications, there was no way Bryan and Chris were going to post the fastest times, but they did a superb job of wringing all the speed possible from it. In fact, it's arguable their car was the fastest-driven machine, considering how stock it was.

But what really got everybody's attention-especially Bryan's-was when his trailer jackknifed on I-15 south of Las Vegas on the second afternoon. The gyrations launched Bryan, the new F-350 dually, and the new twin-axle box trailer atop the freeway divider in a construction zone, such that the high-centered pickup ground the concrete divider like a baggy-panted kid on a school handrail.

When the bad sounds stopped, the truck was totaled, the trailer was totaled, and Chris' BMW M3 sedan inside the trailer had a floor jack enter the backseat through the rear window. No one was even scratched (thank goodness). About 20 fellow competitors stopped to help or offer, "Hey, I've got an empty trailer!" Bryan quickly decided there was no use going home as he had already arranged the vacation time and there was nothing he could do except wait for the insurance to come through. His track car was completely unharmed, as Chris had been driving it. Bryan never lost his cool or his temper, but maintained his cheerful good humor throughout-a real class act.

Jack Hidley was testing an interesting new part for Maximum Motorsports. This replacement power-steering pump will offer adjustable steering effort using replaceable orifices. It sounds useful for both drag- and road-race 5.0s.

While a long and expensive proposition even for those who don't sacrifice a truck and trailer, the Open Track Challenge offers a year's worth of track time in a week, along with a gypsy-camp sense of community unlike any other. Maybe next year we can install some real horsepower in our track car and go for it.

OTC is scored using a points system based on the number of cars entered, each car being worth five points, and track times determining finishing position. With Jim Hodge's '03 Cobra out mechanically and Jack Hidley's Fox strong at the end, the finish was razor thin-75 to 70 points in Jim's favor. The clincher was Thunderhill, where Jack lost an alternator and didn't post enough fast laps. Bryan Sheldon amassed 55 points.

Below is the '03 Open Track Challenge schedule. With around 300 miles between tracks, the schedule is demanding without being brutal. Competitors are free to run as many laps as possible during five track sessions each day, the fastest three laps being added up for scoring.

Track Notes
Spring Mountain Motorsport Park Pahrump, Nevada
Las Vegas Derrick Daly school track
Buttonwillow Opt. No. 14, counterclockwise
Thunderhill Counterclockwise
Thunderhill Clockwise
Willow Springs Raceway The big track
Las Vegas Derrick Daly school track