Pedal to the metal, but not too fast
ELY, NEVADA—State troopers and town police love busting speeders on Nevada Hwy. 318. It’s an empty stretch of asphalt with a 70 m.p.h. (115 km/h) speed limit that just begs to be ignored.
There’s a farm town at the top end and another at the bottom, and, in between, more than 160 kilometres of pretty much nothin’. A couple of dirt side roads, a bunch of gates into the ranchland, the occasional curve and some twisting turns through a mountain pass at the south, and that’s about it.
If you don’t set the cruise control, you’ll be paying a fine before you know it.
But on two Sundays per year, the cops close off the road, volunteers spread out at dozens of observation posts, and 318 becomes the fastest public highway in America.
Muscle-bound Mustangs, Corvettes and Challengers take on the best the Europeans can offer. To heck with 70 m.p.h., the big guys just fly.
I’m here with my English buddy Peter to drive the highway as fast as we can go. We’ve borrowed an Audi S4 from Audi’s U.S. press fleet, we’ve boned up on the rulebook, and we’re ready to race.
Pete and I flipped a coin to decide who would drive and who would navigate. He won. Bah.
There are a lot of rules, which is probably a good thing at these speeds.
Rule Number 1: This isn’t just a pedal-to-the-metal race to be first across the line. Oh no — this is a “speed challenge,” which means cars in different classes compete to drive the 145-km stretch of road as close to a specific average speed as possible. That’s the excuse, anyway.
Pete and I have never done this before, so we paid the $560 entry fee and entered the fastest class allowed for rookies: 110 m.p.h. The slowest possible is 95, but we reckon that’s for wimps. Most of the experienced racers are driving in the 150 m.p.h. class.
According to our notes, we have to cross the finish line 49 minutes and 5 seconds after we leave if we’re to have a 110 m.p.h. average speed. Should be a cinch. Last year, the top five finishers in our class were all within a second. How tough can it be?
Rule Number 2: The car and crew must be certified as safe. That means passing a basic test first at the Motor Speedway back in Las Vegas, and wearing a helmet and race gear, as well as properly equipping the car for its speed classification.
At our speed, the only special equipment we need is a fire extinguisher in easy reach mounted to a fixed metal bracket, but any faster and we’d require five-point harnesses, window nets and even roll cages, plus fire-suppression systems for the over-150 m.p.h. cars.
All kinds of people come to Nevada to drive the Open Road Challenge and, in September, the Silver State Classic, which is the same race with a different name, and the granddaddy of them all.
There are only a few such races in the U.S., all held on public roads as some form of time challenge.
The Sandhills Open Road Challenge in Nebraska is shorter but trickier with its 90-degree turns; the Big Bend Open Road Race in West Texas uses the Silver State for inspiration.
In Mexico, the Chihuahua Express takes a week to run its course, driving on different roads each day.
The Silver State is the original, though, founded in 1988 as a non-profit event to keep fast driving safe. It holds the Guinness record as the fastest legal road race in the world, and its highest official average speed is 350 km/h (217 m.p.h.), set two years ago.
Local authorities approve it because it brings tourist dollars to the area and they’re not really using Hwy. 318 anyway. There’s another road between Vegas and Ely that takes only an extra hour.
There have been accidents and some deaths, mostly from tire blowouts at high speed, but the organizers have it figured out by now and the cars are as safe as they can be. It can’t be driven flat out all the way because of the twisting section through the southern pass. Everyone knows the risk.
Most of the 115 participants have enough money to indulge their cars with extra road-legal performance parts. Some are truly rich: Mark Capener, an ear, nose and throat surgeon from Idaho, has entered two Lamborghini Gallardos this year — one of them a Super Leggeria with aftermarket twin-turbos that makes a claimed 2,000 horsepower.
“My son’s driving it this year — he has faster reactions than me,” he explains at the shoot-out event, where cars enter on the Friday to hit top speeds over a half-mile and a mile stretch of closed highway near town. “Me, I just pick snot for a living.”
His son Aaron takes the prize for the fastest half-mile: 200.3 m.p.h. (322 km/h). Capener enters the mile with the other Gallardo and blows past the line at 232.3 m.p.h. (374 km/h). That’s a lotta snot.
To put it into perspective, Peter drove the doors off our S4 in the half-mile shootout and hit a very respectable 123.8 m.p.h. (199 km/h). Most stock performance cars were in that range.
A couple of “food brokers” from North Carolina turn up at the last minute in a Ferrari 458 and a Lamborghini Aventador. Their expensive racing shoes, still in the box, are disallowed because they’re not fire-proof, and they’re told to wear leather dress shoes instead. They look like they’ll be trouble.
There are several Corvettes, Camaros and Vipers. A couple of Ford GT40s and a vintage Jaguar E-Type mix it up with BMWs and Porsches. There’s an Ultima and a Radical, both built for nothing but speed. There’s even a pair of Tesla Model S electric cars, whose owners have worked out their range and optimum speed to the last kilometre.
And then there are drivers like Blue Offutt, from Phoenix, in his 1993 Mazda RX-7, bought used with 50,000 km on the clock.
“I like to drive fast, and you can do it here legally,” he tries to explain. “On a track, you’re eating up tires, you’re eating up brakes, and you don’t get up to very high speeds very often. But out here, 90 miles averaging 150 m.p.h., where else am I going to do that without going to Germany?”
And then there’s us, and our Audi. With a car like the S4, we thought we had a great shot at the prize. We had no idea how wrong we were.
Peter and I should not have been nervous as we edged the car to the start line, but we were.
Many of the more experienced racers had already left, shooting away from the start line at one-minute intervals in the higher speed classes. The 150 m.p.h. cars were long since finished and it was not yet 10 a.m.
Peter and I were nervous because we knew that at the southern end of the course were The Narrows, where the mostly straight and occasionally gently curving two-lane highway suddenly twists like a snake through 4 kilometres of high hills. We would not be able to drive at 110 m.p.h. through The Narrows.
The start clock ticked to the top of our minute and we were off.
It didn’t take long for the S4 to get up to speed. Since there’s only one road and one direction, my job was to tell him to slow down or speed up so we would pass the finish as close to 49 minutes and 5 seconds as possible.
We had a secret weapon, though. Peter pushed one of the Audi’s buttons just before we left and it displayed our average speed right next to the odometer. We’d just take it up to 110 and leave it there. Hah!
My original plan to just floor it all the way and then park in front of the line, ready to cross at exactly the right time, was nixed after reading the rule book. Different classes have different maximum and minimum speeds permitted.
In our case, we were not allowed to exceed 124 m.p.h. (200 km/h), or drop below 80 (129). Hidden radar along the way would keep an eye on us. If we went over 124, we’d be disqualified and the cops could give us a ticket for exceeding the posted 70 m.p.h. limit.
So we floored it to just below our maximum speed and waited for the average speed display to hit the money.
I read off the mile markers as we sped past and compared them to the notes Peter prepared the previous day. I’d been in the small-town bar while he did this, socializing with other drivers.
We wanted to have some extra time in the bank before hitting the slower stretch through The Narrows, so we could emerge onto the straight and then finesse the time exactly at every marker.
We also argued, which we do a lot. Despite holding the speed at 120 m.p.h., the average speed display wasn’t reading more than 103, thanks to the half-minute it took us to accelerate at the start.
Coming into The Narrows, we were a minute ahead of where we should be, and Peter slowed to be cautious through the tight turns. Cars with really fat tires can take its curves at about 185 km/h, but we slowed to 150 to be on the safe side. The Audi’s body rolled a little, but not much.
Coming out of The Narrows though, we seemed to be going way too fast for our planned speed and I told Peter to slow down. He dropped the speed to 135 until I could take another reading at the next mile marker.
We were still too fast! We must have overdriven The Narrows. He held the slower speed for mile after mile as I struggled to make sense of matching my stopwatch times to the times in his notes.
Until I realized I was reading them wrong!
Math was never my strongest subject. We weren’t ahead at all — we were behind and dropping back!
“Floor it!” I yelled through the helmet and the S4 surged like a thoroughbred through the gates. But we’d lost too much time. We were too late.
At almost two minutes behind the perfect time, our time was the worst of any of the 115 cars.
Peter blamed me, although it was obviously his fault for making unclear notes. The overall winner was the ’89 Firebird with the software engineer navigator, which came over the line 0.02 seconds off perfect, beating the second-place car by three-thousands of a second.
But nobody really cared, because it really doesn’t matter. We got to drive fast and safely without fear of a ticket, and we felt the rush of the road in a powerful car for close to an hour. That’s what we came for, and the desert delivered.
Transportation for freelance writer Mark Richardson was provided by the manufacturer. Email: email@example.com.
The Toronto Star for Wheels.ca
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