The Annual Sandhills Open Road Challenge - Ticket To Drive
We head to Nebraska to check out one of the best-kept secrets in performance driving
From the January, 2012 issue of Camaro Performers
By Steven Rupp
Photography by Jim Mcllvaine
T-minus 10 seconds in Arnold,...
T-minus 10 seconds in Arnold, Nebraska. Nothing like the pressure of having Kyle Tucker in your review mirror. Look for full coverage on an upcoming episode of Hot Rod TV.
Overall, the state of Nebraska is a pretty quiet place. In fact, it’s where people from Kansas go to “get away from it all.” But in the town of Arnold, it’s far from peaceful when the annual Sandhills Open Road Challenge (SORC) takes place. Since 2001, this yearly festival of petrol-fueled mayhem has turned narrow ribbon roads and cornfields into one of the coolest racing venues we’ve come across. In the first year, 34 drivers showed up for the party, but today the grid of 120 spots sells out in just a few days. Why? Because its mix of Americana and automotive culture is unique and very addictive.
The main event is the road rally-styled race held on Saturday, which consists of 55 miles broken up into two legs. The idea is to run each section in a given time with the two legs added together to get the combined time. The team closest to “perfect” in their class wins. It sounds easy, but trust us, it’s far from it. The other speed event is a one-mile and half-mile shootout. There’s also a car show, a burnout contest, and a few BBQs. The place is just overflowing with hospitality.
After arriving in Arnold,...
After arriving in Arnold, Nebraska, we headed over to one of the local businesses to get “stickered up” for the race. We then drove down to the town’s mechanic for a thorough tech inspection. We passed easily, but the lack of a fifth harness meant we could only do the ½-mile shootout and not the full-mile run. Bummer.
Given the event’s popularity, it’s actually pretty hard to land a spot on the grid. Luckily, Optima Batteries presented us, and more than a dozen others, the chance to haul our rides halfway across the country to see what all the excitement was about.
Now the town of Arnold is small, real small, so there are no motels. Instead, the townsfolk open their homes to the competitors, which is something you don’t see in the “big city.” The event is a big deal for Arnold with all the proceeds going into the town. Since 2001, the SORC has donated over $350,000 to the local fire department and community center. We call that a win-win for everyone.
As event newcomers, the Optima group would have normally been assigned to the 90-mph class, but to make it fun, we were all put into a special 91-mph group. The target speed was 91, but the drivers could go as low as 71, and no faster than 120. Our tech editor Steven Rupp was there with our ’68 project car, but no navigator. As luck would have it, Shane Wagner, owner of Proven Wicked Motorsports, was at the event as a volunteer and was happy to jump into the passenger seat. Now, 91 mph may not seem fast, but the road is narrow and windy with more than a few blind hills. Combine wildlife with the road's utter lack of shoulder, and the pucker factor ratchets up a few notches. It’s also hard to get used to the idea of negotiating blind curves in the oncoming lane at 100 mph.
One of Friday’s festivities...
One of Friday’s festivities was the mile, and half-mile shootouts. There’s no VHT, no burnout box, and no guardrails – just a straight shot of ribbon road through some Nebraska corn. The road itself is the typical Midwest mix of slurry and rocks. Saying it’s not optimal for traction would be an understatement. We blew the first run when we mistook the quarter-mile timers for the finish line. On our second run, we blasted through the half at 146.5 mph, and then bettered that with a 148.9-mph pass. That was just enough to edge out John Parsons (148.6 mph) in his modded ’07 Z06 and grab the top spot for our group of Optima cars. In fact, of the 43 cars, only four were faster than our ’68.
Our group of first timers...
Our group of first timers and others, looking for some hot tips, drove out to reconnoiter the road with some race veterans. The seasoned racers pointed out some of the more dicey turns and challenges of the course. Besides wildlife on the road, the other thing to keep in mind is that there really isn’t any run-off room if you leave the pavement.
Local racer Dustin Sabatta...
Local racer Dustin Sabatta brought his ’94 Camaro out for some racing action. In the mile shootout, his best pass was 154.0 mph, and on the road course he took Seventh Place in the 110-mph class.
This event is all about time....
This event is all about time. Some cars were equipped with thousands of dollars in high-tech gizmos, but most of us just relied on a simple stopwatch (or two) and some course notes for the navigator. The road race event is made up of two legs: north and south, which are added together for the final time. The theory is that you drive the first leg then use the return run to adjust for what you might have missed on the first leg.
If there’s a driving event...
If there’s a driving event going on, chances are you’ll find one of the Detroit Speed cars lurking about. Kyle and Stacy Tucker came out to have some fun amongst the corn with the rest of us. Typically, they just try to get from point A to point B as fast as possible, so this whole hitting a specific time deal was a new concept. Their first leg was good with an average speed of 91.807, but they bled off too much time on the second leg and didn’t finish in the top of the pack. Still, they had a great time, and that’s what really counts.
So how did our team fair?...
So how did our team fair? Well, a stopwatch malfunction on the first leg left us clueless of how much we missed the mark by, but thanks to our countdown timer, Wagner knew we were a touch on the slow side. Without knowing our exact time, we decided to run the second leg and try to cross the line just a bit early. The good news was that Wagner nailed the second leg with an average speed of 91.031 mph, which was the closest in our run group. The bad news was that we were off almost six seconds on the first leg, which resulted in a Seventh Place overall finish. You can bet we’ll have a backup stopwatch the next time.
In our 91-mph class of 17...
In our 91-mph class of 17 cars, the man with the time closest to perfect was Brad Granger of Cummings, Georgia. With David Sloan working as navigator, the team had an average speed of 91.237 mph, and their combined times for the first and second legs missed the mark by just 0.354 seconds. They had run a couple seconds fast on the first leg, but managed to slow down on the second leg just enough for it to all average out. In the half-mile shootout, he managed a best pass of 135.0 mph in his supercharged LS-powered ’67.