2021 Sandhills Open Road Challenge
Here I stand, looking at a row of cars that includes a Lamborghini, a Porsche, a Pantera, a bunch of Corvettes, and a few classic American muscle cars. No, I’m not in Beverly Hills or Monterey. In fact, looking down, I realize I’m actually standing in a cow pie, in the middle of a pasture, in the middle of nowhere. How can this be? Welcome to the 2021 Sandhills Open Road Challenge.
The SORC is an event like no other. An open road race that happens on the tricky, curvy, and sometimes sketchy two-lane roads surrounding Arnold, Nebraska. It’s a three-day event that brings out a wide variety of machinery driven by the hardcore few who are willing to risk life, limb, and racecar to let it all hang out on a public, two-lane highway. Some folks have been attending the event for the entirety of its 21-year history. Some are first timers, lured in by the challenge that the event presents.
I attended Friday for the Mile and Half-mile Shootout event. Basically, a straight stretch of road is closed off and you’re allowed to run wide open for either a half-mile or mile, with top speed being recorded at the end.
Seems pretty simple, but standing at the big end is a bizarre experience. You may be used to seeing cars going 150-plus through the lights at the dragstrip or Bonneville, but it’s jarring to see them hauling down a road that’s barely wide enough for two grain trucks to meet without swapping paint. All in the middle of the aforementioned cow pasture. There are no safety barriers to keep racers from crashing off course and into the local scenery.
Saturday is the big event, this one a race against the clock. The winning car in each class will be as close as possible to the theoretical perfect time. Classes are divided by target speed, starting at 80 mph and going all the way up to 120 mph. So, for example, the winner of the 95 mph class will be the driver and navigator team who come closest to the time that it would take if you were able to cover the whole course at exactly 95 mph. Sound simple? Well, don’t forget that this is not a smooth, straight ribbon of interstate highway. Instead, it’s a stretch of two-lane that snakes its way through an unforgiving landscape. There are blind corners, sudden elevation changes in the worst possible places, and rough stretches that you’d better be ready for. If you slow to 20 mph in a sketchy corner, then you have to make up for it on the next straightaway by running way over the target speed, lifting just in time for the next sketchy corner. And repeat, over and over. The navigator had better be paying close attention to the GPS or stopwatch, because there’s almost no margin for error. In fact, this year’s winner of the 95 mph class was Speedway Motors’ very own Senior UX Designer Mike Schultz. He and navigator Garrett Mohr put his 2003 Mach I through the ringer and came through the final set of lights .028 seconds off the ideal pace. That’s about as close to perfect as it gets. These guys are good.
Our own head of R&D Bill Schneider also competed in a…ahem…2006 Pontiac Grand Prix. From the pictures, it will be pretty clear to you that Bill’s car started its life destined for the high banks of NASCAR. What’s it doing at an open road race, wearing a license plate? According to Bill, he saw the opportunity to have a safe, fun car for events like this without the time and effort to upgrade a regular production car. We’re not going to ask how he got it registered and plated, but it’s fun to think about Bill driving this thing to the grocery story to pick up toilet paper. Bill posted the fastest speed in his class during Friday’s Mile Shootout at 158.0 mph.
Since Bill can only drive one car at a time, he turned over the keys to his ’86 Corvette to Brian Martin. Brian has been tearing up the Goodguys Autocross circuit in the ‘Vette this season and went 148 mph in the Mile Shootout. The car lost its original L98/Doug Nash combo a couple years ago in favor of a Tremec 5-speed behind a BluePrint 454 small block that formerly did battle in the Team Speedway ’65 Nova. It hauls way more than a C4 Vette is supposed to and shows the potential of the platform once you get rid of the archaic 80’s tech.
The trusty old Corvette once again hit the track on Saturday, this time with Speedway Motors Machine Shop Manager Dave Wallace behind the wheel. Dave’s navigator was Machine Shop Team Lead Matt Allen. Dave and Matt finished 21st in the 90mph class. And what about Bill and his stock car? He finished 7th in the 80 mph class. Before you’re too hard on these guys, realize that Dave was only 1.8 mph off. Bill was .38 mph off. The difference between first place and 21st place is less than 2 mph. That’s how competitive and challenging this race is.
Upon my return to civilization and cell phone service, I spoke to Bill on the phone about what I missed on Saturday. In true racer fashion, he already has plans to be more competitive next year. And what about Mike, our web developer whose amazing run was almost perfect? Well, even he has plans to improve for next year. If racing is in your blood, almost perfect isn’t good enough. As soon as the car is back on the trailer and the truck is pointed toward home, you’re already planning improvements.
As for me, I may well have been bit by the bug. Watching and listening to these cars running flat out across the prairie, I couldn’t help but daydreaming about what my own entry might look like. This is one of those races that, once it gets into your system, it’s hard to get rid of it. That explains why I saw entrants from all over the country, there to put themselves and their machines to the test. We saw out of state plates that read “SORC”. This is a special event in an unlikely place, and I’m glad I finally got to experience it.