By Matt Weiser
The Ely Times
For car racing enthusiasts, the Silver State Classic Challenge may seem too good to be true. An open-road race on a closed public highway? And you can drive your street car as fast as you want?
But it’s true, and car enthusiasts from around the world flock to Ely every year to live that dream. In many ways, the town offers a dreamlike setting for this very unique event.
“When most people think of Nevada, they think of Las Vegas. And they think about it being in the desert. And that’s great,” said Berry Lowman of Round Rock, Texas, who has raced Corvettes in the event for 11 years. “But Ely is a beautiful, small mountain community. The scenery is breathtaking. I look forward to spending time in Ely, honestly, as much as I do participating in the race itself.”
The Silver State Classic celebrates its 30th anniversary this weekend. For some of the founders, that’s an incredible thing to contemplate.
In 1988, the idea of closing an American public highway for a pay-to-play top speed race seemed impossible. But with the blessing of the state of Nevada, it became a reality.
In fact, the race has grown to become two events: the Nevada Open Road Challenge, held in May; and the Silver State Classic Challenge in September. Both are held on 90 miles of State Route 318, a scenic two-lane highway that passes through three counties.
Ely has always been the host. The city becomes a hive of activity each race weekend.
Ferrel Hansen, who helped launch the event when he was president of the White Pine Chamber of Commerce, recalls meeting with some of the other organizers a couple years before the first race in 1988. They stood in the middle of the empty Highway 318, just south of Ely, to kick around ideas and get inspired.
“I can remember looking both directions up and down the highway — and there wasn’t a car in sight — and thinking ‘Oh hell, this is never going to happen’,” Hansen said. “I thought we were all crazy and the whole idea was completely impossible, quite frankly.”
The first few races were pretty loosely organized, and most participants were hard-core racers and car nuts. More recently, that has changed. Anyone can enter, and a dedicated race car isn’t required.
Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Corvette and other exotic cars swarm the town during race weekends. But many participants have raced in pickup trucks and passenger sedans. Even a Toyota Prius hybrid has competed.
At the 2017 race, a retired NASCAR stock car set the Guinness Book world record for fastest speed on a closed public highway: 219.64 mph. To put that big number in perspective, that is substantially faster than the top speed of a Cessna 172, the most common private aircraft.
To make the racing accessible to more people, the competition is now divided into a dozen speed classes. The slowest class is 95 mph, which is accessible to most modern production cars. The goal is to maintain an average speed as close as possible to the target speed in each class over the entire 90-mile distance.
In the early years of the race, competitors needed a navigator who knew the road. So they recruited local residents, including many high school students.
Hansen’s own son rode as a navigator when he was a teenager. Today, many racers come back year after year and get to know the road intimately on their own. Locals continue to volunteer as course workers, which remains the best way to see the racing itself. Ely also hosts a car show and parade for the competitors each weekend.
“It continues to be one of the few places a racer or a non-racer can run their vehicle at top speed on a public highway anywhere in the world,” Hansen said. “We’re kinda known for doing very unique things in White Pine County. There are a lot of things we do here that very few people can pull off anyplace else in the country.”
For more information on the Silver State Classic Challenge open-road race, visit: https://sscc.us/.