Get Your Motor Running

The Nevada Open Road Challenge summons your inner speed demon

The dream: a sports car, an open road, no police. The reality: gridlocked Interstate commutes, cops hiding in nooks and crannies running radar, SUV drivers too busy gabbling on cell phones to pay attention to their driving. What’s the point of buying a fast car at all?

That sort of rational thinking has no place in Nevada, because while we have surpluses of all the bad stuff that makes everyday driving an irritating chore, we also have two of the best opportunities in the country to unleash our inner Walter Mitty: the Nevada Open Road Challenge, May 12-15, and the Silver State Classic, Sept. 15-18.

Both events happen along a 90-mile stretch of Nevada state Route 318 just south of Ely between Lund and Hiko, and both allow you to go as fast as you care to drive along a cop-free, traffic-free public highway, no race-driving experience necessary.

Other than impressing your neighbors, isn’t that why you bought that car in the first place?

“These guys have all these cars, and they don’t know what to do with them,” says Nat Hodgson, the Nevada Open Road Challenge’s team challenge coordinator. “They know it’s cool to buy them, but then what do you do with them? When they find out about this event, they’re ecstatic.”

The events began as a single vintage race-car rally in September 1988. After putting up enough cash for a $1 million insurance policy, organizers convinced the state to close the road for a few hours by arguing that it would draw tourist dollars. It was the first legal open-road rally of its kind in the United States in decades. A Ferrari Testarossa set the pace that year, averaging 163 mph.

In 1990, organizers came up with the system of classes still in use today. Rally participants chose a speed category based on their car’s safety equipment and their own driving experience, from 95 mph to more than 200 mph. The speed record stands at almost 208 mph, set in 2000 by Chuck Shafer and Gary Bockman driving a highly modified Chrysler LeBaron. That mark got them into the Guinness Book of World Records in 2003 for the highest speed on a public highway.

Most drivers, though, run the course against the clock, trying to get as close to a theoretically perfect time for a particular speed as possible. The higher the speed class, the more safety equipment required, but street cars with original equipment safety belts and a fire extinguisher mounted inside the car can qualify to run as fast as 124 mph.

“You don’t race another car,” Hodgson says. “You race yourself. The idea is to be precise.”

Both events draw entrants from as close as Las Vegas and as far away as New Zealand, Norway and Saudi Arabia. Many drivers form teams, which combine the scores of individuals, with the winner being the team that comes closest to that “perfect” run time in each class.

Teaming up adds to the camaraderie and competitiveness, says Hodgson, whose own team, made up of Las Vegas businessmen with a taste for fast cars, is called Legal2Speed.

But driving at triple-digit speeds on a public road is only part of the event’s appeal, he says. “We hit the bars, the casinos, the houses of ill repute—but only for drinks. We’d rather spend our money on the cars.”

Kickin’ the Tires in Ely

There are no spectator areas along state Route 318 during the Nevada Open Road Challenge on May 15, so the best opportunities to see the cars and meet the drivers are the parade through Ely, 5:30 p.m. May 13, and the car show and judging, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. May 14 at Broadbent Park, 501 Mill St., in Ely. For more information and a complete schedule of events, visit