I arrive in Ely, Nevada the morning after Friday the 13th, as the birds are cleaning scraps of roadkill off the freeway. I am in one of the most isolated parts of the country, more than 240 miles away from any major city. As it happens, I was in Ely exactly a year ago, unexpectedly, after my truck broke down on the way back home to Los Angeles from Idaho. This time, I’m here to experience the Silver State Classic Challenge.
According to the Guinness World Records, the Silver State Classic is the fastest road race in the world. In 2017, Robert Allyn set the world record after sustaining an average speed of 219 mph over 90 miles. The annual race—held the third Sunday of September—is one of only a few races in the world that completely shuts down a stretch of freeway.
The idea for the race originated 31 years ago in Mexico with Kelley Gibbs and a group of his friends while they were sitting around a table drinking tequila. “I’m the last remaining founder of this event, which gives me a distinct advantage because when I tell a story, nobody’s around to dispute it,” Gibbs says with a straight face that breaks into a smirk. While racing in Mexico, Gibbs and his buddies had the idea to bring a similar event up to Nevada.
To make the race a reality, the group partnered with the Showboat Casino in Vegas. “If you want to put together any kind of event in Nevada, you need a casino,” Gibbs says. “Nothing happens in Nevada without a casino.” The only way to shut down a highway in Nevada is for the purpose of public safety or for tourism, and the Silver State Classic qualifies as the latter.
The inaugural race took place in 1988 with less than 40 cars. “It’s a social event with an hour and a half of racing. That’s the real strength of the event,” Gibbs says. Today, car enthusiasts from all over the world flock to the high desert of Nevada for the weekend to socialize and race cars at varying speeds. This year’s event featured more than 100 vehicles.
In it for the coin
It’s midday and all the racers are showing off their cars at Steptoe Park. While some have their hearts set on winning, most come out to the desert just to have fun—and to see how fast they can drive.
I arrive the day after the Hookers Choice Awards, one of the race’s most coveted awards. This year, Larry Creighton from Las Vegas and his 2015 ZO6 Corvette won the honors. “It’s the award everybody wants to win because of the coin,” Creighton says. He fishes into his pocket and produces a one-ounce silver coin minted in 1995.
Mark Skwarek, a Connecticut resident, has been towing his 625-horsepower, 1973 De Tomaso Pantera across the country for eight years to race in Ely. “I just like going fast, plain and simple,” Skwarek says. He’s pushed his Pantera to more than 170 mph.
There are also plenty of rookies. A bright orange sports car with scissor doors looks like a cross between a Murciélago and a BMW i8. The car, called a Vision SZR, was custom-built by John Misumi. The Silver State Classic is Misumi’s first experience racing his creation. “We wanted this to be an all-American car, so we built everything in Southern California. We wanted to make it look like a literal muscle,” he says.
Drive fast and have fun
On race day, I arrive at a familiar parking lot 20 miles outside of Lund. Last year, when my truck broke down a few miles outside of Ely, I ended up towing it with a rope to this very same parking lot. Today the dirt lot is filled with race cars.
At the Silver State Classic, there are five different speed classes ranging from 95 mph to “unlimited.” Whoever crosses the finish line with the most accurate target time variance is the winner. Drivers can be extremely accurate: Gibbs says that one year, someone posted a time just 1/10,000 of a second off from their target time.
Some drivers ride with a co-pilot who is responsible for making sure the driver stays on target. Lori Simm, who works in a highschool cafeteria, has previously navigated for her father, Ray Alexander, in the 160 mph speed class. “When I navigated, there were 13 seconds between mile markers and I never got a chance to look out the window,” Simm recalls. “I flipped a page and said, ‘I’m out of paper’ and my dad said, ‘The race is over!’”
This year the roles are reversed: Simm is driving her father’s prized 2006 Charger SRT8 while he navigates. “This race is about spending time with my father,” Simm says.
It’s a perfect day for racing—partly cloudy but still sunny, warm but cool enough to wear long sleeves. It rained so much during one of last year’s events that the cars had to reduce their target speeds by as much as 20 mph, but the Silver State Classic happens every year, rain or shine.
The start line is exhilarating. One by one, cars take off at one-minute intervals. Some get up to speed gradually but others try to start as quickly as possible, often leaving the faint smell of nitrous oxide in the air. I never get tired of hearing drivers rev up their engines before taking off. Next year, I hope to be behind the wheel.
If you go
The Silver State Classic Challenge takes place on Nevada Highway 318 each year in September. Its sister event, the Nevada Open Road Challenge, takes place in May.