USCA Road America: Racing for the Whole Family
Wisconsin in the fall with 100 of the nation's hottest car builds is about as picturesque as it gets—and Optima's Search for the Ultimate Street Car, USCA Series, brought this stunning scenery to the historic Road America track.
Optima's USCA is a grassroots, amateur racing series that provides a safe and educational environment to push your build to the limit. Everybody is welcome to participate, regardless of age or skill level. The same is true for the types of vehicles, you name it and it has probably been entered.
As a participant for a few years now, with my own '09 Nissan 370Z Sport, what always blows me away is that series founder, Jimi Day, along with Jim McIlvaine and the rest of the organization, go out of their way to personally welcome each participant and ensure they're enjoying themselves.
This Road America event was the final one of the regular season, before the OUSCI Invitational at SEMA. Road America, USCA's crown jewel, is also Optima Battery's home track—this year, for the first time in the series' history, USCA would be running all 4 miles of the fastest road course in North America. For those unfamiliar with the Road America track, imagine 4 miles of dramatic elevation changes, 14 unique corners, 3 triple-digit straights, all nestled in the hills of the Kettle Moraine forest area of Wisconsin. For 62 years, legends such as Andretti, Villeneuve, Fittapaldi and Penske have battled here.
Make no mistake, as serene as the track is, it is equally daunting. Series organizer Jimi Day summed it up this way: "You had better be nervous about this track. You need to be mentally prepared for the speeds you will be doing. The track is by far the fastest and most demanding on the schedule and demands your full attention." There was a bit of chuckling at that, but it soon died when Jimi emphasized the demands of the track. "Three straights where you will be flat out, putting many cars on their speed limiters, demanding braking zones that destroy street pads in 2-3 laps, and the famous carousel—a 190-degree corner that can starve a motor of its oil supply."
2017 saw an eclectic mix of entrants, if a bit heavy on the Corvette side. Though the series has grown, with a lot more sponsors and businesses involved, it is still a participant-focused affair. After talking to a few participants a common theme appeared, it seems most are in it for the fun of competing and simple bragging rights.
Gallagher's '16 Ford Focus RS
Mike Gallagher, an industrial designer from Ohio, has been entering USCA for a few years in his Cadillac. This year, as his Cadillac was experiencing electrical gremlins, he upgraded his '16 Focus RS with goodies from KW Suspension, Steeda, Mountune and ETS to go racing. He also designed a very detailed wrap job... all of which was done in his garage. Touring the series with his wife, Mike enjoys competing in USCA because it allows him to showcase his design skills while honing his race craft. The relaxed and friendly atmosphere keep the Gallaghers coming back year after year.
Lichtenberg's 900 hp '91 GMC Cyclone
A similar perspective came from Ray Lichtenberg of Minneapolis. He brought what started out as a rare '91 GMC Cyclone, an AWD platform. The engine has been dropped in favor of a built LSX swap featuring a Magnusson supercharger. The tire-melting 900 hp is fed through the custom paddle shift system to the AWD setup. Its body and interior are subtle, with stock panels and interior trim—what is remarkable is most of this build was completed in a trailer while touring the Hotrod Power Tour. What brings Ray and this one-of-a-kind Cyclone to the Optima series is that it is one of the few events that feature Street/Show builds without the restrictions found in other series. He also enjoys the challenge of the five different events that take place in each Optima weekend. However, enough cannot be said about being able to tour some of the country's most iconic tracks.
Thomas' '16 Corvette Z06
On the opposite side of the spectrum lies David and Karen Thomas from South Carolina. They've been volunteering at Optima events for a few years, as well as organizing the Saturday evening dinner. After totaling their previous Corvette in a highway incident, they built a 2016 Corvette Z06.
It's rare that their car is trailered, as over the course of two weeks they've clocked 6,000 miles! This year, they were the only entrants to compete in all 7 Optima events. David and Karen stay involved with the USCA to network for their sponsors and promote their business, all while enjoying the community feel that USCA creates.
Kepler's Family Race Affair
Nothing says "family event" like seeing the Kepler family on track. For a decade, Mike Kepler has been involved with Optima and is a common face at these events. His brother, Steve, also works for Optima Batteries and has been tracking his Datsun-themed GTR for years. It was convenient that all three of them competed in the GTS class: Mike with his 2000 Corvette, Logan in Steve's Focus RS, while Steve brought his subtle yet potent 2013 GTR.
The GTR's Datsun scheme is cool enough, but it has special significance to the Kepler family. Steve and Mike's father ran a #26 Corvette against Datsun's during the '60s and '70s in SCCA, so the graphics are in honor of him. Each one of them are skilled behind the wheel, it was great to see the coaching (and the ribbing) going on between the three of them. At the end of the day, after all of the competition and track activities, they were there simply to have fun.
Most of the competitors would agree that the biggest appeal for the Optima series is that it truly is for anyone and everyone. Few other series offer the opportunity to experience the country's most iconic and revered race tracks in a setting that promotes education and fun. Yes, there are some heavy hitters competing in USCA, but they are also a wealth of information. Plus, registration in an event is usually cheaper than a track day entry fee. So what are you waiting for?