Tom Wilson
December 1, 2002

It's curious how all auto-crazy concepts seemed like good ideas at the time. With a spanking-new, full-boat Maximum Motorsports suspension under our '96 GT project open-tracker, when word of the Open Track Challenge was whispered in our inlet, the idea of Seven Tracks in Seven Days appeared the perfect fit. And it was, except that we can't take seven days to do anything with a magazine deadline breathing down our necks.

But events such as the Open Track Challenge are not designed for people with mortgages and three bosses to match. Not particularly, anyway. The idea was to hold open-track events at seven different tracks on seven consecutive days, with the requisite travel taking place sometime in between. Think of the One Lap of America enduro, but considerably shorter, with more rest and more emphasis on track time.

Sanctioned by NASA and Open Track Motorsports, the OTC roughly divides the cars into the trailered Unlimited class and the drive-'em-there sorts called Touring. Both Unlimited and Touring groups are further divided by speed potential, so you end up with Unlimited 1, 2, and 3-ditto in Touring. Hoping to attract a horde of Mustangs, the organizers then opened a specialized Touring class, American GT. Aimed at all the usual GM and Ford ponycars (no Corvettes), NASA invited us to bring our newly minted project car in hopes of drumming up interest in American GT.

It didn't take long for us to hear the exotic drumbeat of distant tracks and tons of seat time. The event started in Parhump, Nevada, on a Sunday, jumped nearly due west to the big track at Willow Springs, then rested a night in the same hotels before attacking the Street of Willow Springs on Tuesday. The gung-ho portion then began with a run up to Buttonwillow Raceway Park on Wednesday, followed by another 350-mile haul north to Thunderhill for Thursday's lapping. No sooner off the track at Thunderhill than the gaggle retraced its tracks back to Buttonwillow to run it in the opposite direction on Friday, and as if feeling lucky, finished by traipsing over to Las Vegas to run the road course inside the big oval there on Saturday. We figured on an easy 2,000 new miles on the odometer by the time it was all over.

While the slick-tired Unlimited entries were expected to trailer to each event and bring whatever spares needed, Touring cars needed to run on DOT-approved tires, and you had to drive on the same tires you ran on-track. You could change individual tires all you wanted, but you had to use the same-type tire for the entire event.

Scoring was tabulated by adding the three fastest laps posted at each track, with the timing provided via transponders for easy, no-hassle scoring. Competitors were free to run as many laps as they believed necessary, then move on to the next track. As track time was divided into four 20-minute sessions per run group per day, everyone talked about driving just the first or second run groups, then hitting the road for a more leisurely transit, but it rarely happened. The siren's call of "just one more lap" inevitably kept the field busily orbiting throughout the day and traveling into the evening.

All teams were expected to have two drivers-one typically the car owner who would provide the racetrack heroics, and the other a co-driver to turn on the headlights and tune the radio on the highway. A handful of teams posted three drivers, as we did. Needing to excuse ourselves for a couple of days midweek to keep up with other magazine work, we left the northern loop on Wednesday and Thursday to the Maximum Motorsports crew. Thus, our car was registered with Maximum Motorsports personnel Jack Hidley and Ehren Van Schmus as primary drivers, and yours truly as tagalong. In reality, Jack and I split all the driving-track and road-when I was around, with Ehren sliding behind the wheel on Wednesday and Thursday.

Amazingly, it all came off with minimal mayhem. A cozy 61 cars answered the call at Spring Mountain Raceway in Pahrump, where we learned American GT was a party of two, the other machine being fielded by Paul Mashouf and Bruce Griggs of Griggs Racing. Never one to bring a knife to a gunfight, Griggs had prepped Mr. Mashouf's '94 Mustang GT with everything short of a Gatling gun in anticipation of knocking off Unlimited cars with Paul's 351-powered, six-speed, GR-40-equipped Mustang. Unless Paul's car pulled one of its massive muscles, there would be no mystery in who was going to prevail in American GT.

In the end, Paul and Bruce had a nearly trouble-free run, as did we, so it was as it should be-just for fun. And brother, it was a blast. Consider the Open Track Challenge packs a year's worth of lapping into a concentrated week, and besides the obvious speed orgy, unforeseen benefits crop up. Most importantly, our rusty driving skills were approaching respectability after a week of continuous practice, and the camaraderie of seemingly endless track time and traveling together in between was palatable.

NASA, true to its laid-back reputation, didn't play the school marm. Brief drivers' meetings started each day. The scoring magically appeared within hours and without shouting. And the lectures against turning expensive sporting machinery into highly inefficient but spectacularly visual agricultural implements were administered without riding crop or threat of license revocation. We had to report to the pits to have a nice, long talk about the weather only once, and that was after dirt tracking with all four tires around the outside of two entire turns at Las Vegas, so we might have even deserved it.

The B side of reconstituting an entire can of Open Tracking Concentrate is the mechanical wear and wallet excoriation. After four opening days of textbook lapping, the funny stuff began failing throughout the paddock on Thursday. Our contributions were alternator seizure, several rounds of weird sparkplug failures, and plug-boot blow-offs (really-go figure). Ready money and a couple of Pep Boys alternators ultimately yielded an alternator that would live near redline for several days, while a new set of spark plugs helped immensely for one day. After that, mental sloth allowed us to admit we would rather find the pesky misfire in the comfort of our home garage than under the Las Vegas sun, allowing us to ignore our misfiring engine on the final Saturday. There was, after all, nothing to win, and-hey-it was hot.

Expense-wise, everyone gave up counting as soon as the lapping started. The entry fee was $1,750 or $2,000, depending on how early you signed up, followed by however many hotel rooms and meals you thought your tire and fuel budget could spare. Man, can a Mustang guzzle fuel on a road-racing track. Making but 220 or so rear-wheel horsepower, we went through a tank of fuel on each track, and at least another hopping to the next venue.

And tires? Had we been in a stock-suspended, nose-plowing Mustang, The Tire Rack would have run dry supplying us with fronts. However, with our superbly balanced Maximum Motorsports suspension, we were pleasantly surprised to go four days on one set of Nitto-supplied 555R2 rubber, then oversteer to the finish as we could find but two fresh tires on the front. Seems the nationwide supply of 555R2 Nittos dried up just before the OTC, so our second set of tires didn't arrive until the last day of the event. Jack Hidley bought what must have been the last two Nittos before we took off, so those were what we put on Thursday. On the final day, we traded Bruce Griggs the use of some tools from Maximum's burgeoning chest (Maximum chased the entire event with a service truck, while Griggs relied solely on the credit-card method) for the use of two tires, and that helped immensely.

Heading home from Las Vegas on Sunday morning, we were definitely sorry to have the OTC end. By then we figured we had traded family, dog, and mortgage for a life of lapping with our new gypsy friends, and we had grown rather used to it. Still, we've always come home when we got hungry. NASA promises another OTC next year, and we're hoping to see you there. The mortgage and three bosses can wait.

Getting StartedWe have to say thanks to Maximum Motorsports for continuing to undo the ravages inflicted on our open-tracker in its former life as magazine drag-car project. Going over the striped wonder in preparation for the OTC, Maximum found a 111/42-inch crack in our Ford Racing Performance Parts headers, which were hauled out and repaired. Maximum was dreading the job, but with the company's new K-member in place, the task didn't require the hours and hours of labor to swap the header as with a stocker because the access was so much more open. It took only 30 minutes for two guys to remove the header.

Other replacements included a dry and squealing belt tensioner and idler bearings. As for the stock oil-pressure gauge that has never worked, the bad guy was determined to be the gauge itself, but time constraints meant we'd rely on auditory rod knock for low-oil-pressure indication.

Tires, Always TiresGet around road-course folks and all they seem to talk about are tires. That's because tires are (1) the fastest thing on the car, (2) the most expensive consumable, and (3) definitely consumable. Nothing helps a car get around a road course better than a good set of tires, and it doesn't matter if it's a race car, an open-track machine, or simply a new-car test. Tires matter.

For Touring class OTC partici-pants, the tire question was partially answered by the rules. NASA required DOT-approved tires at all times, with a treadwear rating of at least 60. Just as there are DOT drag slicks, DOT road-course tires can become aggressive, and so the 60 treadwear rating helped keep out the slicks-disguised-as-street-tires in favor of ultra-high-performance street tires that just think they are slicks.

Nitto was kind enough to supply us with two sets of its latest 555R2 road-course specialty tire. Nitto's 555R2, 555R drag radial, and 555 street tires all share the same tread pattern, but they offer different internal construction specific to their use. We found the 555R2 predictable at the limit when run at full tread depth, and most importantly for the long OTC, consistent during a large number of heat cycles. Each day we heated and cooled the Nittos four times on track and on the long freeway jaunts. They hung in there nicely for four days, or at least 16 heat cycles, before finally baking into low-grip stones. As the tread was just about worn off by then anyway, it's clear the Nittos give good grip for the entire life of the tire.

The Nittos also worked well with moderate air pressures, which shows they have good structure built into the tire carcass, and they are priced competitively. None of this would matter if the Nittos didn't grip, but they do. Comparing notes with other Mustangers, it seems the Nittos may be just behind the stickiest track-happy DOT tires, but those "faster" tires are faster for only one or two heat cycles, then they settle down to at or below the Nitto's grip level. That makes the Nittos a good choice for open tracking, where the last ounce of cornering traction isn't absolutely necessary, but a long, consistent lifespan is.By the way, those are 275/40-17 Nittos under our car.

That's a real steamroller, which resulted in light, acceptable rubbing with our combination of ball-peen fender-lip massaging, tire spacers, lowering, track and wheelbase increases (the Maximum Motorsports K-member moves the wider front suspension forward). Ultimately, the inevitable off-roading excursions meant the right front inner fender liner came adrift and now rubs during sharp turns, but that's road racing. Reattaching the liner will eliminate the rub-until we go off-roading again.