History of bi-annual race shows just how much it’s grown

Special to the Ely Times

It happens every May and September. The State of Nevada closes down 90 miles of Route 318 and more than 200 drivers from around the world converge on the little town of Ely in the central high desert of Nevada. Why do they come? To experience first-hand the adrenaline rush of driving flat-out on a public highway. Not just professional racers, but men and women from all walks of life, pursuing the Walter Mitty dream of speed, horsepower, and high performance. Yes, there’s a place for everyone in the Silver State Classic Challenge events.

As the Silver State Classic Challenge Series of Open Road Rally Events celebrates its 27th Year, we thought it might be interesting to trace the history of this unique American auto rally event.

It began simply enough in 1988, as a showcase for vintage racing cars. Along with Ferrel Hansen, then President of the White Pine County Chamber of Commerce, the organizers received approval from the State of Nevada to close the highway based on the event’s potential for pumping money into the local economy. That left less than two months to organize the event, which meant getting the go-ahead from all three counties, formulating a traffic control plan, lining up the Nevada Highway Patrol to secure the highway, and arranging liability insurance of one million dollars. After Steve Waldman, one of the original organizers and then Marketing Director of the Showboat Hotel in Las Vegas, agreed to make the Showboat the official host property, everything was in place.

When the Silver State Classic Challenge debuted on Sunday, September 25, 1988, it was the first legal open-road rally of its kind in the U.S. in a half-century. In addition to vintage autos, it pulled in a mixed bag of late model, high performance vehicles and muscle cars. Among the 50 odd entries were six Ferraris, thirteen Porsches and four Corvettes. The oldest American car was a ’56 Dodge D500, which blew its engine after just twenty minutes into the event. Overall, three cars failed to finish, but fortunately nobody was injured. For the record, a red 1988 Ferrari Testarossa, driven by Jim Liautad, Jr. of Elgin, Illinois, which averaged 162.58 mph, clocked the fastest time.

After that rather hastily arranged beginning, the Silver State Classic Challenge has seen many changes and refinements over the years, while retaining its original flavor and reputation. In 1989, Las Vegas businessmen (and racing buffs) Phil Henry and Rick Joyce were brought in to handle public relations and merchandising, giving the event a more polished identity.

Thanks to favorable press in nationally known publications like “Motor Trend” and “Autoweek”, the next event drew over one hundred competitors, including a 19-year old phenomenon name R.J. Gottlieb blasted through the course at 197.99 mph, hitting speed in excess of 220mph, a record that has only recently been broken. However, it was later determined that the course was 2 miles shorter than originally thought.

Therefore, the old record was retired and a new mark of 186.73mph was set in the May, 1996 event by veteran open road participant, Kelly Seivers. Again in 1999 the course was re-measured by an independent civil engineering firm and found to still be about 2,000 feet short, and so that record was retired and the new Public Highway Land Speed Record was established after moving the Start Line to bring the course to exactly 90 miles in length. On May 21, 2000, Chuck Shafer and his navigator Gary Bockman set a record of 207.7801 mph (334.3894 km/h) in a NASCAR Chrysler LeBaron.

In 1990, the basic formula for today’s series was established. Rather than the loosely configured categories of the first two years, brackets were created based on average speed. Through the efforts of an informal Advisory Council, made up of participants and other interested parties, the Silver State Challenge tightened safety regulations, and instituted practice and qualifying sessions, as well as tech inspections, at Las Vegas Speedway Park.

1991 saw the participation of a major sponsor, Blu-Blocker Sunglasses, to underwrite much of the operating costs. At this time the event was also expanded to its current twice-yearly format, consisting of the original Silver State Classic Challenge in September and the new Nevada Open Road Challenge in May. Among other enhancements was the formalization of the Advisory Committee, made up of Steve Waldman, Phil Henry, Rick Joyce and Richard Forman, as well as representatives from White Pine, Nye and Lincoln Counties. 1991 was also the year that course security provided by the Nevada Highway Patrol was replaced by local sheriff’s departments at a substantial savings in cost.

In 1992, the caravan from Las Vegas was established. Led by off-duty Metro Police Officers in their DARE Car, the caravan served to make the event even more enjoyable. The highlight of the trip was a Dutch oven cookout in Pioche, Nevada, as well as an official reception in Ely, made possible by the participants arriving all at the same time.

It was business as usual until 1994, when the Advisory Committee officially incorporated as a non-profit corporation, headed by President Steve Waldman. This meant that professional promoters would no longer be a part of the organization of these events. The event was also sanctioned, for the first time, by the American IndyCar Series, raising it to new heights of respectability.

South of the border, international flair was added in 1995 with our affiliation with the organizers of La Carrera Internacional de Ensenada. This event started with La Bufadora hill-climb, qualifying run and culminated the following day with 105-mile rally on Mexico Route #1. The event was recognized by Federacion Internacional de Automobile.

In 1999, after struggling to get at least 100 entries, the events suddenly started to exceed 230 entries on a regular basis and a waiting list had to be established for the first time. Today, these events are well known worldwide attracting competitors from countries such as Canada, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia and other nations.

The year 2001 was a year of big developments in the SSCC history. We were accepted into the Guinness World Book of Records for two records, Highest Speed on a Public Highway and the Fastest Road Rally. The record was awarded and held by Chuck Shafer and Gary Bockman from their run in May, 2000.

This year also saw the creation of Speed Week, with two open road races running back to back. The first is the Silver State Gold Rush Challenge on State Route #278 followed one week later by the original Silver State Classic Challenge on Hwy #318. Each road offers different challenges to the driver.

In May, 2004 for the first time we created the High Noon Shootout which takes place on State Route #490.  This is a unique road that is 1.9 miles long which makes it ideal for this event.  The High Noon Shootout is an acceleration contest where participants can see how fast they can go either within ½ mile or 1 mile.

Always trying to find ways to bring more excitement to participants on race weekend, in May, 2005 we introduced the Speed-Stop/Z1Z & Z2Z Challenge also taking place on State Route #490.  This allowed participants to test their car’s acceleration and stopping power.  Acceleration distance is limited to a maximum of one mile, allowing nine-tenths of a mile for safe stopping.  Cars that can easily reach 100+ mph at sea-level found this to be a “challenge” as participants tried and achieved the same speed at the higher elevation of 6,500 feet!

In 2007, the inaugural Chihuahua Express took place in April.  It is a three-day rally event in the City of Chihuahua, Mexico and became part of the SSCC’s International Point Series.

World renowned motorsports artist, Hector Cademartori, began designing the artwork that is used on our commemorative t-shirts and posters.

In our efforts in continuing to improve on the events, a few years ago, we began providing all participants with GMRS radios to immediately communicate with our Course Workers and Ham Operators during emergencies.  In 2011, we had developed a very sophisticated portable repeater system that will enhance our current communication system.

As we celebrated our 25th Year in 2012, we experienced a few unexpected surprises.  The first took place at the Nevada Open Road Challenge on May 20th.  Jim Peruto, driving a modified 2006 Dodge Charger, made history as he broke both Guinness World Records.  His average speed was 217.5570 mph (350.1240 km/h) and his 90 mile drive took a mere 24:49.2649 minutes.

A few days later, the Nevada Dept. of Transportation Board of Directors voted unanimously to officially rename Highway 318 as “The Silver State Classic Challenge Highway”.

Celebrities the likes of John Schneider, Marsha Mason, Jim Caviezel, Perry King and a Russian Cosmonaut, Boris Grechko, to name a few, have run in these unique automotive rally events.  Major sponsors and contributors, such as K&N Filters, Optima Battery and Suncoast Communications, are behind the SSCC and providing another avenue for growth and expansion for the events and the corporation.

The organization’s many dedicated volunteers work hand-in-hand with the State of Nevada to boost travel and tourism in the region.

“We are all very lucky to have an event like this that allows us to live our dreams in the company of great people who support and encourage us,” said Peruto, current Guinness World Record holder.

(Courtesy photo) Participatns in a previous year’s Silver State Classic Challenge line up their sports cars and make their final pre-race adjustments.

(Courtesy photo)
Participatns in a previous year’s Silver State Classic Challenge line up their sports cars and make their final pre-race adjustments.