Time Bandits

A pair of distaff drivers tackle open-road racing in a C5 Z06

Photo: Time Bandits 1
June 22, 2023

If time is a thief, then what do you call a couple of women who beat the clock against their male competitors? Well, in the case of Helen Landis and her co-driver/navigator Mim Petersen, they’re fittingly dubbed “Team Adrenaline.” That’s because in May of 2022, this high-energy pair took First Place at the Nevada Open Road Challenge (NORC), averaging exactly 130 mph while manning—sorry, driving—an ’04 Z06. Note the sign on the bumper that proclaims, “Just got passed by a girl!”

For those not familiar with this event, it’s held each year by the same outfit that puts on the better-known Silver State Classic Challenge race. In the NORC, cars participate in classes at five-mph increments, ranging from 95 mph to 180 mph, as determined by the vehicle’s safety equipment, the driver’s experience level, and the comfort level of the driver and navigator. There is also an Unlimited Division for very experienced drivers with fully race-equipped cars. Vehicles start one at a time, in one-minute intervals against a GPS timing clock, and attempt to break the beam at the finish line in as close as possible to the target time of their speed class.

Billed as the “World’s Fastest Road Race,” these timed runs are conducted on 90 miles of Highway 318 in remote eastern Nevada, from Lund to Hiko. Closed to public transportation during the event, this two-lane road features long straights, dips, and whoop-dee-doos, plus twisty sections known as “The Narrows,” with steep drop-offs on both sides. 

“You have to slow down to maneuver safely through this section, so you have to ‘bank’ time before you get there,” explains Landis. “There are only 17 miles to the finish after the Narrows, so it is difficult to make up time at that point.”

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Landis has a solid record of experience with open-road racing, having run in 14 events since 2013 (the Silver State Classic Challenge 10 times, and the NORC four), culminating in the aforementioned win in the 130-mph class. How did she get into such a high-speed pursuit? 

Landis comes from a Corvette family: Her husband Bill has a 2007 convertible, and the couple owned another Vette together previously. (By the way, both of them are former police officers, so they obviously have some other experience with high-speed pursuits.) Her NORC participation dates back to 2012, when she and Bill were coming home from a cross-country trip to Yellowstone National Park with 15 or so of their friends from the Diablo Valley Corvettes club. They decided to stop in Ely, Nevada, which they all thought was “just a wide spot in the road.”

“We were astonished to see so many sports cars driving around,” Landis recalls. “As we pulled into the hotel parking lot, we were met by another [club] member, Dick Benne. ‘What are you doing here?’ we asked, and he said, ‘I am your welcoming committee.’”

Benne explained that he was entered in the Silver State Classic Challenge, scheduled to take place the next morning. Landis found the concept sufficiently intriguing that she did a bit of research, talked things over with her husband, and entered the following year’s SSCC in the 110-mph class.

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“I was able to con a friend of ours into navigating for me, and we were off,” she relates. “That first race was fun. We finished way ahead of time, almost catching Dick, who just happened to start in front of me. We were 53 seconds [too] fast, averaging 113 mph.” This is where ace navigator, and now co-driver, Mim Petersen, came into the picture.

“Mim and I have autocrossed together with Western States Corvette Council for about 15 years,” Landis recalls. “She and her husband had done open-road racing in the 1990s, having won their class in the Pony Express a couple times. Not only was she a great autocrosser, she was not afraid of going ‘just a bit over’ the speed limit.” The pair entered the Silver State Classic together in September 2014, moving up to the 120-mph class, and have been together ever since. 

As for Landis’s ’04 Z06, she bought it in late 2006 at Bud’s Chevrolet in St. Mary’s, Ohio, trading in her ’98 Corvette convertible for it sight unseen. The purchase followed a less-than-rewarding experience in the ’98 at Fernley 95A Speedway in Nevada. 

“The ’98 was an automatic, and I wanted a car that was more responsive on the track,” Landis explains. “I had just completed a weekend HPDE event and was steaming about the hesitation and lagging shift points.”

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She complained to her husband on the phone while he was returning from his trip to pick up his new ’07 at the National Corvette Museum. “Little did he know that when he left, we would be buying two cars in two weeks!” she laughs. Bill Landis called his salesman at Bud’s Chevrolet, who said he had the perfect Corvette for her. They wrapped up the deal over the phone.

“We trucked my white convertible out there [from northern California], and they sent my red Z06 in an enclosed trailer right to our driveway,” Helen Landis relates. “We ended up financing about $25,000 for the Z06.”

The Z06 looked “as new,” with only 2,900 miles on it when delivered. The story was that the previous owner originally purchased the Corvette from Bud’s, and then a little over a year later traded it back to Bud’s for…a Viper.

“I believe I got the better deal,” Landis notes drily. The Z06 is basically still factory original, except for required racing gear (Cobra racing seats, a harness bar, purple Crow six-point harnesses, and a Hurst shifter). She added a differential cooler, an APR wing and splitter, a vinyl wrap, and some lighthearted graphics.

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Regarding the latter item, Landis obviously likes to have fun with her car’s appearance, as evidenced by the “My Bad” (with a knocked-over autocross cone), “Adrenaline Junkies,” and other decals. The license plate, meanwhile, reads “Vettgal.”

For race events she has at least three different wheel/tire combinations: street-driving Continentals, racing Continentals, and autocrossing Hoosiers. Helpfully, the Z06 has a rear bumper hitch for towing a tire trailer. And there’s one other custom feature that effectively personalizes the car to her very specific requirements.

“Since my driver-side race seat is fixed [in place], it is pretty hard for most guys to get in it,” Landis notes. “My husband has not been able to get into my car for several years, so it really is my car. It’s always a treat to see which mechanic tries to get in it when it needs to be worked on. Or better yet, when they try to get out!”

Landis’s thrilling experiences with her Corvette are not limited to competition events. “I have met so many great people because of owning the car,” she relates, in part through Diablo Valley Corvettes, where she’s been a member of since 1998. “We do many trips, gatherings, car shows. You join the car club because of the car, but stay in the car club because of the people.”

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In addition, Landis has found that car enthusiasts in general will go above and beyond to help others who share their interests. “I don’t worry too much about breaking my car at an event I’ve gone to without my husband,” she says. “If something happens, there are also lots of knowledgeable people around that will gladly help you out with tools, equipment, advice, trailers, etc.” 

While acknowledging that being a female sports-car driver is still a bit unusual, Landis points out that the car cannot tell who is driving it. “Don’t let being a woman prevent you from driving a fun car,” she advises. “Get out there and drive your car the way it was meant to be driven—go fast, be fearless!” Having autocrossed in the Z06 for 15 years, she feels it handles great.

“It has been proven that the C5 Z06 is one of the best-balanced, best-handling cars out there,” she notes. “They are still sought after, even after 20 years. Just look at how many of them have been upgraded to T1 track cars.” Even so, she doesn’t minimize the risks involved. 

“You are limited by your skill and fear,” she observes. “Mim and I have not had anything really scary happen to us. The car is set up well, and [that section of Highway 318] is fairly easy to navigate.” Even so, in 2014 there was a fatality in one of the SSCC’s faster classes. The car could not to be removed from the location of the crash, so all the remaining drivers had to pass it before reaching the finish pits—a reminder of the dangers inherent in motorsports.

Not every race is a win for Landis and Petersen, either. They competed again in September of 2022, also in the 130-mph class, and came in Second. “I am pretty sure I had the wrong course notes,” Landis. “We finished 12 seconds off perfect over 90 miles, averaging 130.65 mph. I appear to have had a bit of a lead foot.”

But you can be sure they’ll be stealing time from other drivers at upcoming events. In fact, they are planning to move up a speed class, to 135 mph, for the next race. 

“Just don’t tell my husband,” Landis says with a wink.

Also from Issue 163

  • 427/425 ’59 Restomod
  • Restored ’63 Split-Window
  • Market Report: C5
  • Fuelie-Swapped ’55
  • "ZR/GS" ’95 Coupe
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