May, 2014 – After our exciting slot canyon hike and our happy romps amid the beautiful wildflowers and “toadstools” just north of the Vermillion Cliffs in southern Utah, we put in some long hours on the road, driving north and west through Utah and into Nevada.
The roads in Utah were familiar and were loaded with memories as we passed through Kanab and the wonderful Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, on up through Panguitch and past its turn-offs for Zion National Park, Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks.
But when we got into Nevada we were in new territory. The roads were straight and deserted, and the vast valleys on either side of us seemed to go on forever. There wasn’t a building or car in sight all the way to the horizon in every direction.
“This is Hayabusa country,” Mark suddenly said. “This would be so perfect for a fast motorcycle!”
We puttered along at our usual 55-60 mph, but we both had visions of flying down these roads on something a whole lot speedier than a big ol’ truck and fifth wheel trailer.
We had planned an overnight in Ely, Nevada, a small and quiet town. When we got to town, however, and were at the gas station paying for our diesel and propane, I glanced at the local newspaper on the counter. The front page jumped out at me.
There was a photo of a fancy car and headlines about a car race.
I asked the clerk about it and he gave me a huge grin. “You’ll see the cars all over town,” he said. “The shootout is in a few hours out that road.” He waved and pointed out the door.
Our minds started whirring as we left the gas station. A zippy little silver sporty thing zoomed past us with a race number on its door.
Then a red one went by. Then a black one. They were all over the place!
“A Ferrari!” Mark exclaimed, whipping his head around. “Holy cow, that one was a Lamborghini!” They were revving their engines and driving up and down the streets.
We looked for the nearest place to ditch the trailer, unhitched as fast as we could, and jumped in the truck to chase these guys down as we listened to one loud engine after another roar past us.
A few were gathering near a park in the middle of town. We parked the truck and ran over.
These were gorgeous, truly exotic cars — the swoopy, curvy kind with wild shapes and bright colors that sit really low to the ground.
As each new car drove up, the door swung open and a normal looking guy got out like he was getting out of the family car. But these guys had to climb out of their cars, and they were all smiles and pride.
We started chatting with a fellow named Don Hoffman who was wearing in a cowboy hat. He had the most exotic looking car of them all.
It turned out to be an English made Radical, built on a Ford Mustang V6, that was painted white with wonderful blue and red trim.
A rep from the Radical car company was there — from England! — and another fellow was putting the race number on the car door.
It was just oh-so-casual…and oh-so-very-cool!
Don explained that the short distance Shootout today was a preliminary race on a nearby highway, but that the big race was on Sunday when all the cars would race 90 miles on the open road south towards Las Vegas.
A fabulous yellow car drove up and parked next to us. The door swung up and a friendly fellow named Bob got out and graciously stepped aside so we could ogle his car, an English-built Ultima GTR.
We peaked inside his cockpit. It was a maze of gauges and dials!!
The Shootout was just outside of town, and we rushed over there, jamming to Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” the whole way.
This is an all out race where each car goes as fast as it can for either a half mile or a mile.
The cars and drivers were getting ready to go, and our eyes popped out of our heads when we saw a red Lamborghini Gallardo parked next to a red McLaren MP4 in the lineup.
Off in the distance we could see the cars doing the half-mile race, and Mark grooved to the sounds of the engines.
“Listen to that,” he whispered dreamily as an orange Lamborghini Super Leggeria disappeared into the mountains on the horizon.
Mark counted the car’s gear shifts.
It was a sound like no other. That Lambo flew so fast I half expected it to take off into the air. It blew away its competition.
Not long after, the red Lambo was at the start line for the mile race, and it vanished down the road like greased lightning.
We were so thrilled to be immersed in this race, surrounded by beautiful cars out on this lonely Nevada highway.
Instantly, we knew our overnight stay in Ely was now going to become a four day weekend.
As the weekend went on, we mingled with the cars and drivers, got to know quite a bit about some of them, and became veritable groupies for our favorites.
That is the magic of the Nevada Open Road Challenge race weekend.
The owners and drivers are ordinary people who have a huge passion for cars and a deep need for speed.
They are eager to share their love with the fans and spectators who come to watch them race.
We couldn’t leave those Lamborghinis alone, and we soon found out that the Shootout races were won by a father and son this year.
Young Aaron, who had just finished a two year Mormon mission to Mexico, drove the orange 2004 Lamborghini Super Leggeria to a whopping speed of 206 mph in just a half a mile.
His dad, Mark, an ear-nose-throat doctor, got the red 2011 Lamborghini Gallardo up to a jaw-dropping speed of 233 mph in the mile race.
After the mile marker, he told us, he saw 236 on his speedometer!
My Mark was all over these numbers, and he talked at length with the drivers of his favorite Lamborghinis, Porsches and exotics about what they had done to their cars to make them so fast.
Half the joy of owning an open road race car is souping it up!
But what I loved about this weekend was that the cars and drivers and race events were so very accessible.
Most of the cars are street legal, and many had been driven from their owners’ homes in far away places to participate.
In many ways, it was like the very much smaller Sun Valley Road Rally that we had watched years ago, but massively bigger and easier for fans to be part of.
As we wandered about Ely during the down times between the races, the car parade and the car show, we saw exotic race cars parked all over town.
It is a tiny town, so the 150 or so cars that had descended on it for the weekend filled every possible parking spot in front of every casino, bar, restaurant and hotel.
The main sponsor of the event was K&N Filters, an after-market air filter company.
During a gathering of the cars and drivers at the high school before the big car parade through town, the founder of K&N, Jerry Mall, drove up in a white Lamborghini Aventador.
He parked it a little away from the crowd of race cars, but soon a wave of people began to drift over to admire it. What a beauty!
At the car show the next day, we mingled with the cars and drivers once again. Don, the owner of the rad Radical let me hop into the driver’s seat to check it out.
What a rush it was to sit there — not moving! I can only imagine what it would be like driving that baby at 150+ down a Nevada highway!
But Don is no stranger to thrills. Besides being a hugely successful businessman, his daughter, singer Abi Ann Hoffman, is following hot on the heels of Taylor Swift in the Country Music circuit.
He filled us in on some of the funny behind-the-scenes happenings that had been going on with the other race car folk at this event.
We learned that any town in Nevada smaller than 4,000 people is legally allowed to have houses of prostitution, and Ely has its share.
Well, these special ladies of Ely like to get in on the car race too, so they vote on their favorite car and bestow upon it the “Hookers’ Choice Award.”
Don had thought he had this award all wrapped up — he sure had a sexy car! — but two gents from England who were racing an Audi somehow stole that honor away from him.
All this wild racing on the highways and open flirtation with Ely’s ladies of the night may make it seem like the cops weren’t paying attention, but a little gaggle of highway patrolmen was huddled nearby, and I don’t think they missed a thing.
This was the 27th running of the Nevada Open Road Challenge, and on the big race day I ended up chatting with John Bigley, the assistant director of the race.
He explained to me that safety is the biggest concern in this race, and each contestant has to attend a one-day car racing school before entering.
All the racers race in a specific speed class, going off individually at timed intervals, and the winner is the car that averages closest to its class speed without going over the class maximum speed.
Beginners start in the 95 mph class, and they aren’t allowed to exceed 110 mph during the course of the race. The speed classes increase by 10 mph, and racers move up as they show competence at each speed.
The top class is unlimited, and John told me that the old record of 207 mph average speed held by a special 1969 Chevy Camaro called “Big Red” and driven by a 16 year old at the time, had been demolished two years ago by a 2006 Dodge Charger which averaged 217 mph and hit a top speed of 243 mph.
Bob Wood, the owner, engineer and driver of the phenomenal yellow English-built 2010 Ultima GTR that we had admired all weekend, was in the highest speed class on this day (170 mph) along with two other cars, a 1969 Ford GT40 driven by John Tiemann and a retired NASCAR 2001 Monte Carlo driven by David Bauer.
All three men and their cars had raced this race several times before (along with dozens of other races), and winning was nothing new to any of them.
Figuring that getting within a mile or two per hour of the class speed would be enough to win an event, we asked Bob how far off he had been from his class speed in previous races.
He shrugged, “Oh, about two 100ths” Of a mile per hour??!! Incredible! At that speed, that’s about one foot of distance!
The most competitive class in this race today was the 150 mph class.
What a shock it was to find out later that the winner was within two ten-thousandths!!!
As the race clock ticked the seconds past, we shuffled around in the hot sun watching the three final racers get ready.
After all the other classes had run their race, a cop car had to sweep the entire 90 mile course to make sure it was completely open.
At last the three final cars lined up to go.
I was surprised how nervous I felt watching them. This race is dead straight for most of the course, but there are some tight turns through a section called “The Narrows” that everyone had been talking about all weekend.
Watching these men put on their fire retardant head gear and push their cars while inspectors examined each tire looking for nails and lesions, I suddenly felt quite uneasy.
The helmets went on and the engines roared to life, and it hit me just how fast these men were going to drive their cars.
“The Narrows” has 45 mph turns, but taking them at well over 100 mph must make them feel like crazy switchbacks!
Race director John Bigley is a former police chief who has been volunteering at this race for 17 years.
He said he had been up the entire night before, driving the course up and down from midnight until 6 a.m., making sure there weren’t any animals, carcasses or other obstacles in the way.
He told of coming face to face with a coyote with a rattler in his mouth one year, and of finding a dead jackrabbits, dear and other critters over the years.
The small roadkill are the biggest problem because they attract the huge turkey vultures who don’t have the slightest concern about oncoming traffic.
They stand in the middle of the road and eat until full, no matter how fast your car is.
He said he’s herded cattle off the road, woken up truckers sleeping in their trucks to get them to move on down the road, and he’s even come across a whole family sleeping in a tent on the side of the road.
But all the safety efforts have paid off, and for 20 consecutive years the race ran without any fatalities.
While John and I were chatting, a hunched, white haired old man came up to him and asked, “If I want to race my car, can I enter the 95 mph class?” He waved over at his very ordinary looking car.
“Sure, of course!” John replied with a big smile.
The old man grinned and shuffled away, and you could see his excitement.
Bob’s exotic yellow Ultima finally took the start line, and my heart was in my throat. He’s a quiet guy, despite the flamboyant colors of his car and jumpsuit.
When the green flag waved, he tooted his horn and was off.
We had to wait 10 days before the race results were posted on the Internet, but it was no surprise to discover that Bob had won, within a little over a tenth of a second.
We happened to spot the special white Lamborghini Aventador race mascot sitting with its proud owner (and race sponsor) Jerry Mall up on the lift on the back of its transport truck.
To me, that image said everything about the wonderfully casual and friendly spirit of this very special event.
Not only can anyone enter, but anyone can volunteer to work the race too, from being the flag waver to being out on the course logging cars as they go by. In addition to being part of the inner circle of this race, they even pay the volunteers $50 for their time.
What a cool gig for a spring weekend!
For more information about the Nevada Open Road Challenge, click here.
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