Running the Numbers in OPTIMA's Search for the Ultimate Street Car


Three events are in the books in OPTIMA's 2018 Search for the Ultimate Street Car Series, presented by Advance Auto Parts. While many competitors have only competed in one or two events, the first three competitions have given us a glimpse into how tight the competition has gotten in the series' fifth season. These three tracks (Las Vegas, NOLA Motorsports Park & NCM Motorsports Park) have also been on the schedule for the past three seasons, which gives us an opportunity to take a closer look at how competitive the fields are over the past few years in the various segments. For the purposes of this review, we compared results from the 2016 and 2018 events. While this data isn't an exact comparison, as the fields change from year to year and the cars themselves are modified and altered from event to event, it does help give us a broad overview and identify some trends.

In addition to acknowledging the different fields and cars, we also acknowledge and accounted for different course configurations in the PowerStop SpeedStop Challenge, the Falken Road Course Time Trial and Detroit Speed Autocross in these comparisons. We also tried to minimize the impact of outliers on the overall analysis, like Danny Popp's Corvette on the Falken Tire Road Course Time Trial or Brandon Williams' Nissan GT-R on the PowerStop SpeedStop Challenge, while still trying to understand if the top cars are pulling away from the rest of the field or the field is closing the gap on the leaders. Without preference to class, we compared the raw scores ( or times) of the first, tenth and 25th place overall finishers in all these segments at all three events in both the 2016 and 2018 seasons.

The one exception is the Road Rally, in which nearly everyone scores the maximum 100 points available. We won't be comparing the very consistent results of that segment, but they are a sponsor of the series, so they're worth mentioning and reminding everyone to watch episodes of OPTIMA's Search for the Ultimate Street Car TV series on on-demand anytime.

As an example of these comparisons, we can look at the Detroit Speed Autocross at NCM Motorsports Park. Everyone knows the field was extremely tight this year, as evidenced by the top-five overall finishers:

PositionDriverTimeDifference% of 1st
1Ken Thwaits29.151

2Danny Popp29.1520.001100.003%
3Mike DuSold29.1610.010100.034%
4Eric Brown29.1620.011100.037%
5Scot Spiewak29.1770.026100.089%

Following that trend, Garry Walsh's 2004 Corvette finished 10th overall with a fast time of 29.693 seconds (101.86% of Ken Thwaits' fast time). Further back, the 25th-fastest overall time was Ron Schoch's 2016 Mustang with a 30.713 (105.35% of Ken's fast time). That's obviously a very tight field, at least through the top-25 overall finishers. How does that compare to the 2016 event? The time of 10th place was 104.31% of the fast time and 25th place was 106.84% of the fast time. Both of those outcomes were far tighter than what we saw in the Falken Tire Road Course this year, where Danny Popp laid down a 2:09.470 and the next-closest competitor was Eric Fleming's 2:13.186 (102.87% of Popp's fast time) and the tenth-fastest time was 107.23% of Popp's fast time).

As we look across the four segments, three tracks and two different seasons, the most-obvious trend is that the overall competition is definitely closer in 2018, than 2016 in all segments and nearly every track. In the Falken Road Course, 1st through 10th and 1st through 25th were tighter in 2018 at both Vegas and New Orleans and while Popp's incredible lap time opened up the margin slightly more within the top-10 at NCM (107.23% in 2018 vs 107.12% in 2016), 1st through 25th at NCM were still closer than they were in 2016. The same is true in the Detroit Speed Autocross, where the fields were significantly tighter at both Vegas and NCM and nearly-identical at NOLA.

The only segment to really buck this trend was the PowerStop Speed Stop Challenge at Las Vegas. In 2016, the margin from 1st to 10th was 102.52% and from 1st to 25th was 106.02%. By comparison, the margins in 2018 were 105.63% and 107.55% respectively. Still very close in both regards and on a much longer course, where the fast time in 2018 (27.366 seconds) was more than double that of 2016 (12.988 seconds).

The most dramatic change in the four segments came in the Lingenfelter Design & Engineering Challenge, where across the board, the raw scores throughout the field have tightened up significantly. The average difference in raw points between 1st and 10th at these three events in 2016 was 110.95%, with Vegas coming in at just under 115% (47.1331 points for 1st and 40.0664 points for 10th). By comparison, the average difference between 1st and 10th in 2018 is just 104.7% (at NCM 1st scored 93.1997 points and 10th scored 89.3997 points).

The gap between 1st and 25th closed by even more between 2016 and 2018, where the average dropped from 116.63% to 106.97%. Once again, in Las Vegas 2016, where the raw score for 1st place was 47.1331 points, that was 121.21% of 25th place, which was 37.1331 points. At Vegas this year, first place scored 91.5998 points, which was just 106.76% of 25th place, which posted 85.3996 points.

We believe there are multiple factors that contribute to this, one of the biggest being the elimination of bonus points from the D&E judging. In the past, judges were allowed to award bonus points at their discretion and the manner in which that was done varied significantly. Some judges gave everyone a little bit extra, while other judges only awarded bonus points to a single competitor and the reasons for those awards varied as well.

Another factor was the adjustment made to deductions for objective (non-judged) elements in Design & Engineering, such as non-functioning turn signals, taillights, etc... In the past, a single burned-out bulb could send a top-10 overall car deep into the field, outside of the top-30. While the penalty now is still significant in terms of a car's chances of winning that segment, it doesn't completely knock them out. For example, in 2016, the highest-placing vehicle in Design & Engineering at Las Vegas that lost objective points finished 39th overall. By comparison, the highest-placing vehicle with missing objective points in Vegas this year finished 8th overall. If they had those points, they would've won that segment in their class and finished fourth overall, so it stung a bit, but didn't knock them out completely.

The other significant factor contributing to this scoring trend in Design & Engineering is that the build quality of cars in these fields is just getting better. As more time passes and competitors identify areas for improvement (often in the repair or restoration of objective elements like carpeting, headliners, door panels, etc...), the scores at the top end of the field have improved as a result. The same is clearly true on the track, where the cumulative experience of series veterans increases with each event and we're finding series rookies are also entering into the fray with more prior experience than in past years. The overall result is an extremely competitive series from top to bottom and one that makes for exciting competition throughout the weekend. See what it's all about by checking out OPTIMA's Search for the Ultimate Street Car TV Series anytime on the OPTIMA Network on Roku. It's free to download and watch as many times as you like!