The Spectre 341 Challenge is one of those peripheral motorsport events car enthusiasts frequently come across. The concept seems interesting and the cars astounding, but somehow it gets lost in the fog of everything else that’s going on.
Formerly known as the Virginia City Hillclimb or the Nürburgring of Nevada, we were invited to attend this year’s event because of the increasing European car presence in what has become something of a musclecar affair.
We were delighted to visit because we’d always wanted to witness it firsthand: to tick it off the bucket list. We hoped for an entertaining weekend, and could never have predicted the unforgettable experience that will remain with us forever.
The highlights are a low-key event that’s fun for both participants and spectators, with epic machinery tackling a mountain course that’s claimed too many victims over the years. It’s set among old mining towns dating back to the goldrush era, and the venue revives its past with cowboy re-enactments to entertain tourists.
Before we could discover the delights of Virginia City, NV we needed to scope the competition. We’d seen some BMWs and Minis in the paddock area that occupied the parking lot of the Silverland Inn. But as we started poking around, nothing grabbed our attention.
There were several Porsches, a Ferrari California, Aston Martin Vantage and a single Mini, but all were relatively stock and, if we’re honest, rather uninspiring. Furthermore, none of the M3s were running and we began to lose hope.
But as we kicked the tires in a row of Camaros, Mustangs and Corvettes, we spied an ungodly sight. Being unloaded at the far end of the paddock was the Porsche 911 from heaven (or perhaps hell, depending on your perspective).
Decked out in cartoon-size fenders and spoilers, it had the feel of the Rauh Welt 911s from Japan (et 11/10) and was similarly rough around the edges. Yet it looked battle hardened and we were confident we’d found our Euro champion to tackle the Detroit denizens.
We couldn’t decide whether we were more enthralled by the ’74 911 or its 57 year-old owner Duck Fuson. “It’s a long story but the nickname was given to me by a Hell’s Angel,” he explained at the sight of our furrowed brows.
His 911 had been upgraded with ’98 993 body panels and modified 3.6L turbo engine to make it more potent. And when it’s not racing, the fenders, side skirts, rear wing and front spoiler are removed, giving Duck a road-legal Sunday driver.
It looked utterly spectacular despite its age but we were rather concerned that by concentrating on one car we’d put all our eggs in one basket: gambling on a Duck, so to speak.
He certainly knew his way up the hill, having raced the course many times in the ’90s. Being local and canny, he would occasionally drive over to Virginia City to re-acquaint himself with Route 341’s many corners, even using Google maps and in-car videos for assistance.
With predominantly amateur drivers and mildly-tuned cars, it quickly became apparent who would be fighting for the lead. Yet in order to avoid competitors pushing too hard, times weren’t officially released until the end of the each day.
After Saturday’s runs, it was basically a two-horse race. Our gamble had paid off. Duck was knocking on the door of last year’s winner, Lou Gigliotti in his 742whp ’10 Corvette ZR1. With the two cars parked alongside each other in the paddock, the mind games began.
Realizing he was in with a shot at the title, and remembering a slight misfire on his later runs, Duck woke early on Sunday to collect spare parts. His participation, finalized at the last minute, meant he was rather disorganized.
We found him changing plugs to stop “shooting ducks” – his reference to the misfire. He also added spacers to the front wheels in an effort to increase both grip and stability with the wider track.
Increasing the tire pressures to 30psi, he toyed with “hooking up the rear sway bar to calm the nervous rear end,” although wider rear tires were top of his shopping list for next year – having run the same car on the hill with slicks under different regulations, Fuson missed their security.
“It felt good to see my name in second after the first day,” we finally got him to admit. “I didn’t expect to be beating all these cars,” he said, gesturing toward the rows of modern Porsches and musclecars bristling with go-fast parts.
His performance had obviously caught other drivers off guard, and we witnessed a few brave souls nervously saunter over to pick his brain. One driver had the temerity to ask what lines he used.
“I found a shortcut,” Duck declared in his deadpan whisper. The poor sap leaning in closer to see if he’d heard that correctly. “There’s a shortcut,” he confirmed. “It’s halfway up the hill. I can’t tell you where it is, but it saves loads of time.” He then turned his back and continued preparing the car, while the driver looked to our grinning faces to establish he wasn’t going to get any hints from the silver fox.
Duck does everything by the book. He starts slowly, knocking out his first run in 3min 42.4sec. Each of his remaining 11 runs were quicker than the last, as he methodically worked on his lines, played with entry speed and adjusted boost.
Positioned on the hill, Neill had been photographing cars into a particular corner and braced himself as Duck came into view. Staring through the viewfinder, he missed the money-shot as Duck took an utterly different line to everybody else. He was looking to preserve corner speed and avoid unwanted wheelspin on the way out.
By Sunday afternoon, he was ready to go for the full 1.1-bar boost pressure. His last run then knocked 3sec off the previous time and with the road surface breaking up under the forces generated by modern R-compound tires, he decided there wasn’t much more to come.
With a time of 3:15.225 at an average speed of 95.89mph, Duck’s 37 year-old 911 had come within a whisker of winning the event. He was exactly 0.776sec behind Gigliotti’s Vette, which ran 3:14.449 having only completed four runs all weekend. Lou was clearly delighted to repeat his victory, but you’ve got to imagine there was a lump in his throat when he saw how close he came to finishing second.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think an American V8 was the only way to make the 1216ft ascent from the bottom of Route 341. As gearheads, we can appreciate the sound of a bellowing V8 whether it’s our Project M3 or a C6 Corvette LS9. And while the assembled throng of musclecars caught our attention, not even the winning Vette could compete for sheer aural excellence with RJ Gottlieb’s “Big Red” ’69 Camaro.
As we explain elsewhere, this car has legendary status in the domestic scene, having won numerous road races and been clocked at 222mph. The ungodly sound from its 900hp 540ci motor bouncing off the rock walls could wake the ghosts in the Old Washoe Club at the top of the hill.
The car’s mysticism heightened as it emerged around a turn with scaffold bars covered in cameras, being tracked by a helicopter as a film crew documented its every move.
The Camaro’s sheer power seemed to work against it on the unforgiving hill. The car suffered a number of problems that were quickly rectified by its crew, but the driver didn’t always appear to enjoy the experience. The pressure of keeping it rubber-side-down and the film crew satisfied almost appeared to overwhelm Gottlieb at times.
He couldn’t have been happy with fifth fastest. With a time of 3:29.994 (89.15mph average) he was beaten by an Evo!
Clearly, if RJ decides to return, he’ll pose a major threat to the track record because he appears to do nothing by halves…
For ourselves, we were happy Duck performed so well. We had a great time with wonderful people, got to dress as cowboys, photographed some ghosts and had a taste of the wildwest. It was an epic weekend we plan to repeat next year, and we’re inviting experienced Euro teams and drivers to join us at the Nürburgring of Nevada.
Duck will also be returning. In fact, his car will be rebuilt on these pages over the next year, so look out for updates in Garage Projects. We’re convinced that with some minor tweaks, the man who finishes every conversation with a “quack” can take home the gold from this gold-mining town.
There’s something about the early Porsche 911 that strikes fear into competitors, yet is so familiar it endears itself to everybody. That’s how we felt when we first saw Duck Fuson’s ’72 911.
With its giant 72" rear wing, complete with saw-tooth vortex generator on its Gurney flap, the car was literally dangerous to anybody in its vicinity.
The missing rear panel was a testament to flames that licked from its open exhaust in years past, melting the panel, burning the bumper and leaving scorch marks up the wing. “The turbulence used to pull flames through the wing until I changed the injection system. It was spectacular but it’s a shame I don’t have any photos of it,” he lamented.
Fellow competitors eyed it with distrust, a brave few venturing close enough to hurl questions at its tight-lipped driver who did nothing to dispel their concern.
Yet in private, the Truckee, NV resident confessed it was “smoke and mirrors”. Away from the track, with the stickers, spoilers and fenders removed, the 911 returned to its job as a semi-daily driver. Although it weighed a lithe 2300 lb with fuel, the owner confessed he was “lucky if it had 500hp at the crank with the boost turned up to 1.1-bar!” He was up against cars twice that figure, yet he’d already won the psychological warfare.
Dressed for battle, the 911 was undoubtedly intimidating. It’s later 993 panels made it look considerably younger than its 37 years. Its 2.7L motor had given way to the 993’s 3.6L turbo with some select mods. These included a bigger turbo with a custom intercooler as well as a Haltech ECU controlling larger injectors fed by three fuel pumps, with MSD handling the ignition.
While it may “only” have about 500hp at full boost, the 315/35 BFG R1 rear tires on 17x11" Bogart wheels were struggling to cope. After each run they’d need cooling down as traction became a problem proportional to boost levels.
Although the driver complained about power, grip and suspension, times on the hill contradicted him. In addition to club racing, Duck had spent about five years on the hillclimb during its Audi club period, quitting after a friend was tragically killed.
He didn’t return until ’09 with the Ferrari club, choosing to spectate in ’10. Liking the new organization, we became drinking buddies this year, where his knowledge of the course clearly helped him. As did his position at Sport Haus – an exotic car specialist in Reno, NV where Duck is Parts Manager (sporthausinc.com). The company chipped in with tire sponsorship and loaned him its trailer for the event. In fact, Sport Haus organized a small car show in the paddock on Saturday, with some stunning classic and modern sports cars.
Duck Fuson 1972 Porsche 911
Engine: 3.6L air-cooled flat-six with custom 9.5:1 compression JE pistons, Innovative GTS67 P-trim, plain-bearing, big-shaft turbo, twin wastegates, 50mm TiAL blow-off valve, custom intercooler, Haltech F9A engine management, 975cc injectors, three Bosch fuel pumps, 4-bar pressure regulator, MSD AL6 ignition and coil, Champion spark plugs, custom exhaust system with removable street muffler
Brakes: Porsche 928S4 front calipers with 930 floating 12" rotors, 944T front calipers on rear with 930T 12" rotors, Hawk pads, 23mm master cyclinder, ATE blue fluid
Suspension: Porsche 911 RSR front struts and rear dampers with Eibach springs, Tarett front sway bar, chromoly strut brace
Wheels & Tires: 17x9" front, 17x11" rear Bogart RT wheels with billet centers, 245/40 R17 front, 315/35 R17 rear BFGoodrich R1 tires
Exterior: ’98 993 body conversion with GT2 Evo nose plus splitter, carbon fiber rear bumper, aluminum side skirts, GT2 fender flares with vented fronts, GT2 rear wing base with 72" spoiler, Gurney flap and vortex generators, glass windows, plastic roof panel
Interior: Racetech carbon/kevlar seat with head restraints and harnesses, Hans device, full rollcage, coolsuit system, custom tach and boost gauge, Porsche 935 boost controller, Momo steering wheel and DTM shift knob, Contour HD camera
LGM Corvette ZR1
One of the favorites going into the ’11 event was Lou Gigliotti from LG Motorsport in his 2010 C6 ZR1. The defending ’10 champion, LG had carried out some strategic mods to push the output of its 6.2L supercharged LS9 V8 to 742hp and 778 lb-ft at the wheels. These included LG-manufactured long-tube headers, cams and ported heads. The company also CNC’ed its own drop spindles and built sway bars.
Along with additional aero parts developed in ALMS, the Vette matched last year’s winning 3:21.7 on its first run, eventually hacking another 7sec off that time to take the overall victory. It was by the narrowest of margins though, and Duck almost had him at the end!
Undoubtedly, Lou’s driving talents were a factor. As a former World Challenge GT champion and a competitor in the 2011 ALMS series, he clearly knows how to tackle the turns.
If cars can be stars, then “Big Red” is an A-lister. Widely known for its 222mph runs on the Silver State Challenge road race, this ’69 Camaro can trace its roots back to ’87 when Dan Gottlieb and son RJ wanted to build a musclecar to beat modern production cars.
After its first race ended in a crash that totaled the car, it was rebuilt on a tubeframe with a 9" rear end and ’69 Camaro body. It uses a 589ci V8 for high-speed events but was fitted with its smaller, 900hp 540ci motor for its first attempt at the 341 Challenge.
Big Red was the center of attention. Festooned in cameras and tracked by a helicopter, the team was shadowed by a documentary film crew. According to driver RJ, the considerable horsepower combined with its weight and long gearing “made Big Red a real handful on the hill.”
We’re unsure if he’ll return in 2012 since the car wasn’t built for this sort of event. However, RJ vowed to alter the gearing if he came back.
Despite its problems, the Camaro finished fifth overall with a time of 3:29.994 at an average speed of 89.15mph.
The Virginia City hillclimb takes place on a 5.2-mile stretch of public road on Highway 341 in Nevada. The two-lane road links Silver City in Lyon County to Virginia City in Storey County, climbing from 5000ft at the start line to 6200ft at the finish. The route includes 22 corners (or up to 30, depending on your definition) and over the years there have been a number of tragic deaths, so it definitely isn’t for beginners.
The hillclimb dates back to 1972, when German Hans Tanner, president of the SoCal Ferrari Owners’ Club (FOC), was looking to create a European-style hillclimb for members. Working for a newspaper in Virginia City, the town is served by two roads – Highway 341 and 342. Having obtained permission to close Route 341, the club started running the event the same year, allowing everything from classics to racecars.
An indication of the sort of machinery used was the ’85 course record of 3:24.57 (91.5mph average) set by Bobby Donner Jr in a Ferrari 512BB/LM racecar, which was beaten in ’88 by Reg Howell in a Lola T-70 with a time of 3:23.78 (91.9mph). This encouraged the appearance of full-blown, open-wheeled racecars until the State of Nevada insisted all cars be street-legal in order to return to the start line on Highway 342 after each run.
In the 1990s, the Ferrari Club joined forces with the Audi quattro Club to keep the numbers high. The FOC then broke away to join forces with the NorCal Shelby Club, and their event still takes place in September.
In 2002, the quattro Club canceled the original event, but Spectre Performance resurrected it in 2010 as the Spectre 341 Challenge.
The scheme was the brainchild of Spectre’s Amir Rosenbaum, who had competed on the course first in a Ferrari Testarossa and later an
F40. Fitted with slick tires, the F40 set the course record in ’02 at 3:10.53 that still stands today. This is the same F40 he took to Bonneville in ’07, hitting 221mph to become the world’s fastest Ferrari, gracing the cover of et 2/08.
Today, competitors use DOT-approved tires, so Amir’s record looks safe, but with speeds creeping up he’s threatening to return.
The Spectre 341 Challenge is run by FM3 Marketing, with Jimi Day the race director. They emphasize safety given the event’s potential hazards: “Unlike a race track, there’s no run off, few barriers to protect the cars, many turns are off camber, it can be dusty, has gravel in some corners and there’s a crown in the road which can affect corner entry,” he told us.
Therefore, they look for entrants with some racing experience rather than novices. Cars must be street-legal, licensed and insured. They can accommodate up to 60 cars, ensuring competitors get lots of track time.
Cars are released onto the course at 30-45sec intervals, depending on the speed of each car to avoid problems up the hill.
In case of an emergency, there are fire, paramedic and ambulance crews at each end of the course. Major hospitals are 8min away by air but fortunately, the 2011 event saw no injuries and only one lightly-damaged vehicle after impact with the rock wall.
Comically, the action stops whenever a large truck or RV feels unable to tackle the sharp turns on Route 342 and insists on taking 341. Compared to the 3min times of the faster cars, the quickest RVs have been recorded over 8mins to date. We also had a go in our Nissan Sentra rental car when nobody was looking. Carrying two people and all our gear, we might not have placed last if we’d given it a second run!
Formed in 1983 by Amir Rosenbaum, he began selling hose coverings from his parent’s garage to save for his Camaro restoration. Twenty-seven years later, the company is based in Ontario, CA with an in-house dynamometer, flow bench, fabrication shop and prototyping machines plus a giant warehouse for its inventory of air filters, intakes and V8 billet accessories plus dress-up parts primarily for domestic cars.
As its figurehead, Amir is an enthusiastic envoy for his company (as you can witness in our online video), involving it in a number of events throughout the year. They have a fleet of musclecars used for road course and autocross events, and were made available to people at the Spectre 341 Challenge. These are high-performance cars, built to the highest standards and easily capable of completing the course in respectable times. (spectreperformance.com)
|Driver||Car||Time||Average speed (mph)|
|Lou Gigliotti||Chevrolet Corvette ZR1||3:14.449||96.27|
|Duck Fuson||Porsche 911||3:15.225||95.89|
|Jeff Rosen||Porsche 911 GT3 RS||3:22.273||92.55|
|Jeremy Kappus||Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX RS||3:24.173||91.69|
|RJ Gottlieb||Chevrolet Camaro||3:29.994||89.15|
|Randy Harris||Chevrolet Corvette||3:31.340||88.58|
|Justin Schuh||Nissan GT-R||3:31.791||88.39|
|Aaron Pfadt||Chevrolet Camaro||3:32.093||88.26|
|Edward Hugo||Dodge Viper||3:32.845||87.95|
|Justin Wilson||Porsche 911 GT3||3:33.538||87.67|
Located in mountains 23 miles from Reno, NV, the 19th century mining town was once the most important settlement between Denver and San Francisco. Its reputation was such that Mark Twain began his writing career here as a reporter. With both gold and silver being found, millionaires were created and, in turn, they built mansions and hotels.
Today, it’s a time capsule, with wildwest Sheriffs strolling the boardwalk and Stinky Pete the prospector wandering with Dorothy the mule. There’s a gunfight corral, a steam train, stagecoach ride and old mines to explore.
From its 19th century buildings to wildwest saloons, Virginia City is a friendly place to visit. Having explored the souvenir shops and taken our obligatory olde tyme photo, we fell into a bar that looked eerily familiar.
Made famous by Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures TV shows, The Old Washoe Club was an exclusive venue for 19th century millionaires looking to meet, drink and rendezvous with the ladies. However, its dubious past and temporary morgue has given it a reputation for spirits of another kind.
Our first round of drinks entitled us to free entry to the ghost museum. As fans of the TV shows but skeptical believers, we paid a visit to the
museum and its creepy back room. Lined with towering stone walls and topped by a dark staircase, the room wasn’t for the fainthearted. However, the ghosts are bringing new activity to the town, with curious tourists flocking to the infamous surroundings, with tours of the Old Washoe Club to the Mackey Mansion, the suicide table and local cemetery.
During our visit, a group showed us recent photos that appeared to include a haunting face in the overhead staircase. Skeptical, we fired off our own photos and later inspection revealed the worst – we were being watched!
We captured three ghostly faces that night. It’s hard to explain what they could be, but get chills looking at them. If we can summon the courage, we’ll post the images in the blogs at eurotuner.com There’s also video of a group of ghost hunters we terrified in the morgue, which is worth watching!
We were a slightly disappointed to discover the 341 Challenge was dominated by domestic muscle. This hillclimb was originally devised for European performance and its time we took it back!
With Porsches finishing second and third, it seems like the ideal opportunity for a powerful Audi S4 or VW R32 turbo to make an impact. A well-prepared M3 could also do well, but AWD might be an advantage…
It’s undoubtedly a dangerous event, so the organizers don’t want rookies on the hill. That said, if you’ve done a few track events and your DOT tires are less than two years old, you’ll be welcomed.
We intend to return in 2012 with Duck and would like to bring a small contingent of European tuner cars to either take on the hill or simply spectate to understand what it’s all about in preparation for an assault in 2013.
If you’re interested, visit spectre341challenge.com. You’ll find directions, hotel info, event rules and sign-up details. The basic package costs $341 and includes tech, orientation, plus two days racing for one car and driver.
Cars like Stephen Murphy’s ’10 Evo or Jeff Rosen’s 911 GT3 had more than 15 runs up the hill, making it good value and a great weekend.
For full details about the Spectre 341 Challenge, visit spectre341challenge.com