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Posted: Jan 20, 2016

How To Get The Most Points at an OPTIMA Qualifying Event

Carl-Hansen-1973-Mercury-Montego-GT-Drive-OPTIMA-Pikes-Peak-2015_504.jpgThe schedule has been announced, the rules have been updated and the scoring system has been revamped. Now all that's left to do is go out and begin the 2016 OPTIMA Batteries Search for the Ultimate Street Car, presented by Advance Auto Parts. Having a safe and fun experience are still the top priorities, but we know folks enjoy the friendly competition as well. We're still five weeks out from the first qualifying event at Thunderhill Raceway, but we thought it would be a good time to provide some insight into strategy that some participants may want to consider, if they are looking to do well in the series and capture one of the coveted qualifying spots for the 2016 OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational and an invitation to the 2016 SEMA Show in Las Vegas.

As a precursor, if you haven't been listening to the OSUSC Podcast, we would highly recommend it, as there is a lot of great information in there, some of which will also be shared here. In order to qualify for Las Vegas, participants must either win their way in at a qualifying event or finish the season as one of the top-15 competitors in points, who has not previously-qualified (since there were only nine qualifying events in 2015 and there are ten in 2016, there are five more opportunities to make the field).

One of the big changes is the departure of double-point events. That means participants who could not attend multiple double-point events in the past will no longer be at a competitive disadvantage versus those who did have the time and resources available. However, we anticipate those looking to capture the season-long points championship or qualifying spots for Las Vegas based on point totals, will still need to compete in at least three events during the ten-event season.

While competitors can register for all ten qualifying events (and many have already registered for more than three), only the top-three finishes will count toward the season-long point total. Geography will play a role for many when it comes time to select which events to run and Jimi Day's team has put forth great effort to make sure the schedule is as balanced as possible between the Western, Central and Eastern United States and the time of year at which those events are run. With schedules being what they are for many folks and the allure of bucket list tracks like Circuit of the Americas, Road America and Charlotte Motor Speedway, many competitors will also choose to travel well outside of their "home" region, to compete in qualifying events.

For those who are still deciding on where to go or may have a little flexibility in their schedule, we can provide some insight based on historical trends, that might provide opportunities for competitors to accumulate more points in the events they do attend. Before we do that, we need to explain why some events might provide more opportunities to accumulate more points than others. In 2016, the points structure in all event segments (besides the road rally) will cascade down from 100 points for first place to 26 points for 75th place (one point per position). Additionally, those points will be distributed based on overall finishing position at the event, with finishing positions within classes being determined after points have been distributed.

This differs from the previous points system, which awarded first-place points in each segment to competitors in each of four classes. That previously meant competitors in each of those four classes could potentially receive a "perfect" score of 125 points in five segments last season. This season, only one competitor can potentially score a "perfect" 500 points by winning all segments.

That will likely lead all competitors to take a closer look at the potential competition in each qualifying event field. Those seeking the class and/or overall points championship may still try to run as many events as possible, to maximize their chances of scoring the most points in their three best events. Those looking to earn a qualifying entry at an event may look at the top competitors within their class, while those looking to score the most points over the course of the season may look at both the size and and strength of the field at a given qualifying event.

For example, Event A may have 24 cars registered in the GTV class and Event B may have 13 cars registered. However, if Event A only has two expert drivers registered in GTV, while Event B has eight experts signed up for GTV, Event A may offer the better opportunity to qualify at the event. Likewise, points may be harder to come by in a 50-car field that has 29 experts, versus a 75-car field that has 11 experts and 50 novice entries.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the ten events on the schedule and examine the potential opportunities to qualify for SEMA and the OUSCI and/or earn the most points available.

THUNDERHILL
Last year, six of the nine qualifying events sold out. The first event at Thunderhill did not sell out and as of five weeks out, the field this year has 56 entries and space remaining for 19 more potential competitors. OUSCI invitations are awarded at each qualifying event to the top finisher in each of the four classes, who has not already qualified for the OUSCI at a previous event. For example, Danny Popp is registered at Thunderhill, but as the defending OUSCI champion, he has already punched his ticket for Las Vegas.

Even if Danny wins the GTL class at Thunderhill, the invitation will go to the next-highest finisher in that class. However, no one else has qualified yet for the OUSCI, so every other class winner at Thunderhill will also receive the OUSCI invite. By the time the series heads to the West Coast at Auto Club Speedway, at least 46 competitors will have already earned their invitations to the OUSCI at other qualifying events, which could potentially make that event an easier one for competitors to win their way in on as the season wraps up.

That may make someone want to look past Thunderhill as a great qualifying opportunity, but that would be a mistake. If Thunderhill was set at 56 entries and someone finished in last place in each segment (and received 100 points on the road rally), the lowest possible point total they could earn would be 280 points. If they had the same last-place finish at a sold-out (75-car field) event, like Circuit of the Americas, they would only accumulate 204 points, which is 27% less. Experts also make up just 30% of this field (17 cars). Does that ratio of experts mean more or less points might be available? We'll find out as we look at other tracks.

LAS VEGAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY
The second qualifying event is at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. We're still nearly three months out from that event, so the mixture of the field can change dramatically between now and then. That event also did not sell out last season, in part, because it was a late entry to the schedule. It is also a significant distance from the vast majority of our participants, with even the Southern California competitors having a several-hour drive to Sin City.

As of today, the roster has just 38 entrants, but that is likely to grow as we get closer to the event itself. Still, if it were to run today, an absolute last place finish in a 38-car field would net 352 points. The expert ratio for that event is at 42%, which is also significantly higher than Thunderhill. However, since they are both considered West Coast events and will likely draw many of the same competitors, there's a good chance a few of those experts will have already qualified for the OUSCI at Thunderhill.

NEW JERSEY MOTORSPORTS PARK
New Jersey Motorsports Park is about four months out and only has 18 competitors registered. As a new venue and one that has the geographic limitation of the Atlantic Ocean to the East, this may be an event that holds the potential for more points, if the field does not sell out. The expert ratio is at 38% (seven competitors), but Danny Popp is one of those seven and currently the only GTL competitor registered. If only one other GTL competitor signs up and they finish the event, they will receive an OUSCI invite by default. Since we mentioned it for the other tracks, we'll also point out that an absolute last-place finisher in an 18-car field will earn 432 points.

NCM MOTORSPORTS PARK
The qualifying event at NCM Motorsports Park is five months out, but that event is nearly sold-out at 71 entries. This is worth noting for competitors in the central part of the country, because Circuit of the Americas is sold out already. When NCM sells out (which could happen any day), that leaves Road America, NOLA Motorsports Park and Pike's Peak International Raceway as the next three closest tracks to someone living in the nation's midsection. While one of those three tracks may be a reasonable drive from someone's house, that is unlikely to be the case for the other two.

If someone lives in the central United States and they want to run three events, they'll be doing a lot of driving if they don't sign up at NCM Motorsports Park while space remains. The field may be nearly full at NCM, but the expert ratio at that event is currently only at 26%. That suggests that although the field may be larger, it may not be as competitive as other fields. Absolute last place in a 71-car field will only net 220 points, however, that's still 8% more than absolute last in a 75-car field.

PIKE'S PEAK INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY
By the time we get to the fifth event in July at Pike's Peak International Raceway, we'll be midway through the season. PPIR was the third track that did not sell out in 2015, due in large part to it's geographically-remote location- equally inconvenient for just about everyone who doesn't live in Colorado. Even though twenty competitors will have already punched their ticket to Vegas, several of them will likely be signed up for PPIR, as was the case last year.

This track, along with NJMP and NOLA are projecting as of now, to be the least-likely to sell out, which could make them the most-attractive for competitors who typically run mid-pack and are looking for the most points per event. For everyone else, these tracks potentially have the best odds to earn OUSCI invitations and pick up the most points in the season-long points chase. The expert ratio at PPIR is currently at 32%, but that could rise or fall significantly between now and the event. If this field were locked at it's current registration number of 22 entries, absolute last place would earn 416 points.

CHARLOTTE MOTOR SPEEDWAY
The qualifying event at Charlotte Motor Speedway is still more than six months out, but after NCM sells out, Charlotte will likely be next on the list, as it is currently at 51 entries, with space for 24 more. As with NCM's looming sell-out status, competitors looking for venues in close proximity need to take a hard look at CMS before the remaining space disappears. There are only four qualifying events on the schedule after CMS and COTA is already sold-out. That leaves Road America, NOLA and Auto Club Speedway as the remaining opportunities.

Even though the event is held in July, this is essentially the last-chance qualifier on the East Coast, with Wisconsin or Louisiana being the next-closest events that still have space available. The expert ratio is just 21% at Charlotte and some classes may provide significant opportunities for some competitors, like GTL, which only has one expert signed up so far.

CIRCUIT OF THE AMERICAS
If you're not signed up for this event, you're welcome to join the wait list, as all competitors are required to be paid in full 45 days out and some may forfeit their non-refundable deposit, if they don't meet the deadline. Outside of that, if you're not already on the list here, you're probably not getting in. Will this prove to be just a bucket-list track, with little opportunity to earn an OUSCI invite or score significant points?

A field that has 29 experts will mean any points awarded will be well-earned. The expert ratio is at 37% and is fairly evenly-split among the four classes, with each one having at least six, but no more than eight entries registered. However, with six events already in the books, there's a good chance a significant percentage of those experts (and others) will have already qualified for Las Vegas. Points might be hard to earn here, but there's plenty of opportunities to punch a ticket for Vegas.

ROAD AMERICA
As we head deep into the schedule we arrive at Road America in late-August. The field only has 37 entries right now, but we're still more than seven months out. This event sells out every year, so don't wait too long to sign up and expect space to disappear quickly, after NCM sells out and competitors start looking at "Plan B" options for hitting three events and realize this is the final event East of the Mississippi.

The expert ratio is currently at 35%, but that can vary significantly by class. For example, Ken Thwaits is currently the only expert registered in the GT class and there's no telling if he'll even show up with a GT car. One thing's for sure- if someone wants into the OUSCI and they don't get into the field at Road America, their final two chances are both more than 1,000 miles away from Elkhart Lake.

NOLA MOTORSPORTS PARK
By the time OPTIMA's Search for the Ultimate Street Car, presented by Advance Auto Parts, reaches New Orleans, 41 competitors will already be on the list to head to SEMA and the OUSCI, which will be less than two months away and just two qualifying events will remain. NOLA isn't just the last qualifier East of the Rockies, it's the last qualifier east of the Mojave.

As we mentioned earlier, NOLA does have the potential to be one of three events that might not sell out, but with more than a third of the field already filled eight months out, even that may not happen. Although central in it's location, the Gulf of Mexico does limit the radius from which it can draw competitors. New tracks don't always sell out, but then again, COTA is a new track for 2016 and the first sell-out of the season. The pressure will be on here, as the points chase will likely have some clarity to it, at least in terms of who has a mathematical shot at making it to Vegas and who doesn't.

Competitors who suffer mechanical gremlins earlier in the year may look to this track for redemption. For others, the thought of having to haul out to the West Coast a month earlier than expected will send them to New Orleans for one last chance to punch their ticket early. The expert ratio at NOLA is just 25% right now and the GTV class doesn't have anyone at that level signed up right now. Plus, as the season goes on, the importance of the expert ratio will give way to the ratio of experts signed up, who have not already qualified for the OUSCI. That makes NOLA a track poised to be a great opportunity to gain valuable points and secure qualifying positions.

AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY
Fontana, California and Auto Club Speedway will be the final qualifying site for the 2016 OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational. By this point, at least 46 competitors will have been extended invitations to the 2016 SEMA Show and the OUSCI. With the new points structure, it will be anyone's guess how much will be left to decide after nine events. Modeling of previous years suggests the season-long points chase has the potential to be very close in all four classes. The outcome will likely determined by who signs up before this events sells out and how they finish relative to the other top contenders at the event.

If someone expects to be in the hunt for a class or national championship, they'll want to be on the roster for this event. Just ten expert cars are on the list so far (34% expert ratio) and half of them are GTL competitors. The other five are two GTL competitors, two GTV competitors and a single GT competitor. It would be a shame to have a points championship decided simply because a contender neglected to register in time for the final event.

The same scenario could be true for competitors looking to get to Vegas on points. Fail to sign up in time for Fontana and your fate could rest in the hands of someone else. Put your name on the list and you at least have some control over your own destiny. The top non-qualifiers from each class will be guaranteed entry into the OUSCI after Fontana, but as is the case with class champions, those positions could likely be determined at Fontana.

There are several registrants who have not designated their run group yet, but the real wildcard in this event and all the others is the KN Spirit of the Event award. When that gets handed out at each event, all the number-crunching goes out the window for some, while others who thought they might've been out of the running are suddenly back in the mix. Those competitors will probably not be focused on the expert ratio at events, but instead the "novice ratio," which might give them a good indication of how many cars they might be able to beat at a given event, which could impact their point total significantly.

It's going to be an exciting season, whether you plan on competing, spectating or watching on MAVTV. Don't miss a minute and make your plans today!

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