Posted: Nov 13, 2015
How Danny Popp Won the OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational for a Third Time
Danny Popp's 2003 Z06 Corvette rolled into Vegas with the number "1" on the door and headed straight to Champion's Corner of the OPTIMA Batteries' booth at the 2015 SEMA Show. As the defending champion of the 2014 OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational, presented by KN Filters, Popp had already secured his spot in the 2015 field, as well as earning a coveted display location inside Hot Rod Alley in Central Hall of the SEMA Show. The target was painted on his back as soon as the 2014 event ended and competitors spent most of 2015 taking their best shot at him and his Corvette throughout the regular season of OPTIMA's Search for the Ultimate Street Car, presented by Advance Auto Parts.
Popp split time during the regular season between the Lingenfelter L28 Camaro and his own Corvette, never accumulating enough points with either vehicle to win the regular season championship, although he still had a mathematical chance to win the GT class in the Camaro, so he ran that car at the final qualifying event in Fontana. All the while, he was tweaking, testing and honing his Corvette for competition in Las Vegas. Everyone knew the Corvette would look better and have the potential to run faster in 2015, but questions remained about how much improvement would be made from one year to the next.
A growing influx of import and all-wheel drive competitors have made things very interesting in recent years, but the fact is that all of Popp's OUSCI victories have had a significant amount of drama involved. His first win in 2011 almost never happened because of a master brake cylinder issue. Fortunately for Popp, Pete Callaway (who might've stood the most to gain by Popp's mechanical issue) offered up the unit out of his Corvette, allowing Popp to run in the road course portion of the event and securing his first victory.
Last year, the mechanical issue plagued Popp's main competitor, Dr. Brandon Ranvek, who had engine issues that didn't allow him to run the full day on the road course. As a result, seven competitors were able to put enough space in between Popp and Ranvek, that Popp was able to make up the ground he needed to cover. Ranvek had not only won the Wilwood Disc Brakes Speed Stop competition and RideTech Autocross, but his Mitsubishi Evo also scored better than Popp's Corvette in the Lingenfelter Design Engineering Challenge. The final score showed Popp with 105.867 points and Ranvek with 105.4 points- a margin of less than half a point.
With two such narrow victories, one might start chalking Popp's success in the OUSCI up to luck, but the fact of the matter, he has consistently put himself in a position to win each of his three championships. The margins may be close in each instance and mechanical bullets may have been dodged at times, but there is simply no denying the car and driver earned each victory.
As the all-wheel drive competitors zeroed in on Popp's title and stacked the field with worthy adversaries, speculation was rampant that 2015 would finally be the year an import would win or at least the first year since 2009 that something other than a Chevrolet took the title. Some even thought RS Motors would place six vehicles in the top eight spots (they ended up with three). Ronnie Soliman and Andy Smedegard teamed up for a runner-up performance in the One Lap of America and each had Evos entered in the competition. Brandon Ranvek was also back again with as close to a bulletproof Evo as RS Motors could build and other all-wheel drive newcomers in Clay Shearer's Porsche and Hugh Bate's GT-R also surfaced and threatened to spoil the Evo's coming out party or shine the spotlight away from Popp's Corvette.
Popp knew he left points on the Design Engineering table in 2014 and made sure he tightened everything up in that regard as much as possible. Even though Ranvek finished 13 spots ahead in that competition, the margin was only .533 points. However, Popp knew that was more than enough to make the difference between first and second place overall and really made sure his Corvette showed well in every aspect to the judges.
The effort paid off, as Popp's Corvette finished in 21st place in the Lingenfelter Design Engineering Challenge this year. However, Ranvek wasn't the only competitor Popp needed to be concerned about, because Brandon's RS Motors teammate, Andy Smedegard, also emerged as a serious contender. Andy's Evo finished 30th in the Lingenfelter Design Engineering Challenge, which gave Popp a lead of eight tenths of a point going into the timed track events and a 1.5-point margin over Ranvek.
On the Wilwood Disc Brakes Speed Stop, Popp managed a podium finish in third place, which was good for 20 points, but Smedegard moved ahead in the overall standings with a second place finish and 22 points. Clay Shearer came out on top in the Speed Stop competition in his all-wheel drive Porsche, nabbing 25 points for the victory and Ranvek gave up two more to Popp, finishing in fourth place.
Ranvek erased that deficit and gave himself a very small lead after winning the Detroit Speed Autocross and it was beginning to look like 2014 all over again. However, this year, Popp also had to contend with Smedegard, who notched another runner-up finish in the autocross and relegated Popp to third place. Smedegard now had a 3.2-point lead over Popp going into the final day and the Falken Tire Road Course Time Trial.
Popp was a favorite to win that event, but with a 3.2-point lead, Smedegard could finish second to Popp on the road course and still capture the OUSCI title by two tenths of a point. Ranvek's lead was such that he basically had to finish ahead of Popp on the road course, if he wanted to claim the title. Popp came out guns a blazin in the first session and laid down two lap times that would not be equaled or bested the rest of the day, except by him. Smedegard on the other hand, had wastegate issues early on. He still posted times good enough for the top-10 in the road course, but knew he needed to gain more positions in the subsequent sessions.
Meanwhile, Ranvek had fired off a 1:43.193 lap time in the first session, landing him in second place. Impressive as that was, Ranvek was off nearly three seconds to Popp's best time and the gap continued to grow as the day went on. Danny finally laid down a lap in the third session that put him nearly 3.5 seconds ahead of Ranvek. Brandon had already sliced more than five seconds off his best time from 2014, but it was doubtful he could find another 3.5 seconds to beat Popp. That shifted the focus to Smedegard, who now wasn't just trying to find out how to catch Danny Popp, but he had to find enough time to get ahead of his own teammate, in case he couldn't catch Popp.
Only those who were closely monitoring the real-time updates on LapTimer app knew what was at stake in the final session. It didn't seem like anyone was going to catch Danny Popp on the road course, but the one person who could catch him in the overall results, Andy Smedegard, had to find a way to get around his own teammate in Brandon Ranvek. Smedegard dug deep and posted a lap time just 19 thousandths of a second faster than Ranvek, but good enough for second place in the segment and first place overall...until a wild card entered the fray.
Hugh Bate, who won the GTS class during the regular season and many had considered to be a top contender for the OUSCI title came in and simultaneously saved the day for Danny Popp, while spoiling it for Andy Smedegard. Bate stumbled badly the day before on the Detroit Speed Autocross, landing in 36th place and taking him out of contention for the overall win. However, Bate was still a very accomplished driver on road courses and had the potential to play spoiler in the Falken Tire Road Course Time Trial.
Bate was in the top-five after three of four sessions, but James Forbis was close behind him and Smedegard Ranvek were both in his sights. In his first and only lap of the final session, Bate laid down a 1:41.959, leapfrogging him ahead of both Ranvek and Smedegard in the segment. That also made the math play out in Danny Popp's favor once again, giving him the victory by just 1.8 points over Smedegard.
In the end, Popp didn't need the advantage he held over Smedegard in the Lingenfelter Design Engineering Challenge, but it's incredible to think that after five segments that all have very different points of emphasis, the championship was decided by a single lap in the final session of the last day. That's how tough the competition is in the OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational and we applaud all the competitors for their tremendous effort this season!
We want you to be a part of the action in 2016. Registration will open before the end of the year and all qualifying events are expected to sell out. Learn more about OPTIMA's Search for the Ultimate Street Car, presented by Advance Auto Parts at www.driveoptima.com