Well, I’ve been home less than 24 hours as I begin to write this and I’m still sort of flipping through the week in my head.
The last time we made it to the OUSCI was 2018. Pre-COVID, SEMA was a full-strength show with nearly 200,000 attendees. Fast forward to this year, and attendance was down quite a bit, as were the number of exhibitors. COVID cut out most of the international traffic and some big name companies elected not to come.
But it still happened. Even a 3/4s scale SEMA is still a MASSIVE trade show. Having a car in the show is still a MASSIVE honor, and getting there is still a MASSIVE undertaking.
Our trip by the numbers:
- 4,030 miles round trip towing in Johnny Bravo
- 11 states traversed
- 5 days with the car at the Las Vegas Convention Center
- 2 days at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
- 8 Peak Performance Challenge runs made at the SEMA Show
- 6 QA1 Autocross Runs at LVMS
- 4 track sessions
- 54 miles put on the race car for the entire event.
- 1 32 ounce tomahawk steak consumed
Now, one would be unwise to undertake a trip of this magnitude alone. In 2018, my father made the trip with me. This time around, his health made that unwise, so my girlfriend, Jenni, stepped into the breach.
Our outbound leg was taking the southern route via I-40 through the high desert of the southwest. We made Amarillo by the first evening, and pulled into the parking lot of the AirBnB in Vegas the next evening.
Optima Batteries had secured much of the Convention Center Bronze Lot for their portion of the event, which had many benefits. We all had an outdoor landing place, a very good thing to have in a COVID world, and it made load-in a breeze. When loading into the previous Optima Alley location between the North Hall and the WestGate hotel in 2018, we didn’t get finished until well after midnight. This year we were out of there and sitting at a Bahama Breeze drinking mojitos by six.
The show opened Tuesday morning, and I managed to make it to a pretty important (to me) event – the unveiling of Freddy “Tavarish” Hernadez’s restored McLaren 675LT. I follow Freddy’s Youtube channel because the dude has made a habit of fixing junk other people won’t touch. His compatriot, Jared Pink, from WrenchEveryDay was also on hand.
After they pulled the cover off the car and finished their social media bit, Jenni and I got to talk to Jared for several minutes. He’s exactly like you see in their videos, and it was really neat talking to him about welding a new mounting boss onto the block of an $80,000 engine just a hair’s width away from the head gasket.
Later that day we spied Matt Farah and Zach Klapman of The Smoking Tire at the Valvoline booth, and we got to talk to most of my suppliers about how awful supply chain issues were currently.
D&E judging for us happened Thursday, right before we set out on the Peak Performance Challenge. We were the third-to-last car judged, right before Brian Hobaugh’s killer Camaro and a booth car they had to go find. I think the presentation went pretty well.
The Peak Performance Challenge turned out to be the highlight of the event for me. We had a CROWD. Thousands. Usually at SEMA, they have a couple of lots fenced off and groups like Hoonigan do donuts and destroy tires. This year was no different. In fact, Hoonigan made so much tire smoke on Friday they set off the smoke detectors in the monorail station nearby.
But our thing was different. We were competing. There were clocks. There was the stop box. The crowed ooo’d and awww’d and cheered and sighed. nail your stop and hit the box with less than an inch to spare? HUGE cheers. The place would erupt. Punt a cone and you could hear them respond in disappointment. Walking behind the crowd during the event, I heard something to the effect of “These guys really beat the crap out of this stuff, and I love it!” a half dozen times. People were picking favorite cars and talking about them. I hope this layout is something Optima can carry forward. I think it was a huge success.
Friday night was the Road Rally, which at OUSCI means getting out of the show. We were part of the SEMA Parade.
Once we got through the stands, the rest of the cars were directed into SEMA Ignited!, while the Optima Cars were directed away from the facility and made our way to LVMS on our own.
With D&E and now the Peak Performance Challenge out of the way, that set up what would hopefully be a more relaxed weekend at LVMS. The crew took advantage of the relaxed schedule, too. The group photo was moved to Saturday evening. This was daylight savings time switchover weekend, so we had an extra hour of daylight Saturday.
The autocross was actually quite busy. At OUSCI, since this is pretty much the national championship, we only get six runs. So the heats moved quickly. The course was another trackcross, with cones on the road course. It was quite long, and very fast. I was approaching 90 crossing the finish lights. The car performed well, but I had trouble adapting to doing slaloms at 70mph and left a lot on the table.
Still, it wasn’t a disappointing performance.
The group photo went off without a hitch, and dinner was at the steakhouse on top of the Rio. 32oz Tomahawk dinner for two. mmmm.
Sunday was Hot Lap Challenge day. Much like the autocross, the sessions were abbreviated. We were to get four sessions, but each session was three flying laps, not 15 minutes. My first morning session was a refresher on a course I hadn’t seen since 2018. My second morning session saw me shave four seconds, but the car started having some issues. It was knocking and low on power, so after my first flyer, I headed to the pits.
The morning sessions for others weren’t so tidy. We had a lot of people getting red misted and going off course. One poor soul’s truck had an engine failure right in front of me during the second session. I went out for my third and fourth, but the car wasn’t happy and I came right back in both times.
We got packed and loaded and stuck around for the awards. Jake Rozell won, which was well deserved. That kid’s been working very hard and missed it last year by a single point. This year he won it by a single point.
Then began the long trip home. I had planned to drive the Buick up and down gateway canyon the next day, so we had a hotel reserved in Grand Junction, Colorado. With the car misbehaving, the canyon run was out, but we still had a reservation and it was too late to cancel without penalty, so the northern route home was set. We got to Grand Junction by 2am and crashed.
The next day saw us heading east on I-70 through the Vail pass. This piece of road is no joke. My truck, Johnny Bravo, is a relic. It’s a 1990 F250 with the legendary 300 inch inline six. What it may lack in overall power compared to modern trucks it makes up for in simplicity, reliability, and off-idle torque. I was confident the truck would get up the mountain, even if we drug down to first gear to do it.
Well, I was almost right. It pulled up to Vail with little trouble, but once we crossed about 10,000 feet of elevation, the single belt-driven fan couldn’t pull enough of that thin air through the radiator to keep the engine cool. We had to pull over and let it cool down. Then we pulled out and made it probably another mile, and had to pull off again.
At that point, we took the car off the trailer to reduce the load on the truck, and it easily crested the mountain at the Eisenhower Tunnel and we headed downhill towards Denver.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. We stopped in Colby, Kansas for the night, then made it home the next day.
How did we finish? Well, despite doing objectively better in every element than I did in 2018, we finished lower. 71st of 98 overall, and 17th of 23 in GTV. Everybody has just gotten so fast. We did have a huge surprise with the D&E score, we were 39th!
All in all, it was a massively successful trip. It was good to see a big show like SEMA back after the year we’ve had. It was good to hang out with all the Optima crew and our friends. We really lucked out this year with a strong contingent of Mid-westerners that made the invitational. Fun people like the Farrington’s from Indiana and the Bulski’s from Wisconsin, the Brittons from Florida, and the Laughlin and Johns clans from Tennessee.
Now we turn to next season. I have to figure out what’s up with the Buick and fix that (I think it’s an exhaust leak, I can hear it), and by late December parts for the Probe should finally be here enough to get that motor back together and get that project moving.
And lastly, but most importantly, HUGE thanks to Jenni for coming along. I couldn’t have pulled this trip off without you. Thank you.