Speed to Thrill: A place in the States where regular folks can drive 200 mph
The Mojave Air & Space Port, 80 miles north of Los Angeles, is best known as the birthplace of SpaceShipOne, the first privately built rocket to carry men into space. In 2004, Brian Binnie flew the futuristic craft to 69 miles above the earth, winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize for employer Burt Rutan.
Binnie and Rutan are now completing construction of and testing on their bigger SpaceShipTwo, scheduled to take wealthy clients suborbital starting in 2011. Virgin Galactic Airways, owned by billionaire Richard Branson, is selling the tickets.
But space travel is not why I'm at Mojave. Driving fast is. I'm part of an event organized by World Class Driving, an outfit that gives regular folks the chance to break 200 mph in a supercar. For perspective, that kind of speed means traveling the length of a football field in one second.
Astronaut Binnie has taken the afternoon off to meet me here. He will ride in the passenger seat while I drive on the very runway he used five years ago for his historic spaceflight. But instead of being at the controls, Binnie will have both hands free to bite his nails as I mash the gas pedal. While he has traveled three times the speed of sound in a rocket, he has never been 200 mph in a car. The silver Mercedes McLaren SLR (list price: $500,000) in which I'm about to drive Binnie is an impressive machine. With an eight-cylinder, 620-hp engine, it is capable of 208 mph in top gear--even faster with a tailwind. And boy, do we have a tailwind today--25 mph, with gusts of 40.
Jean Paul Libert, a Belgian businessman, started World Class Driving in Europe in the mid-1990s and, in 2005, relocated to the United States. Though the bulk of WCD's business is putting clients in exotic cars on public roads, the relatively new 200MPH Challenge program--the high-speed one in which we are participating--has taken off.
A $5,000 fee gets you a day of track time at private airport runways in Florida or California. That might seem expensive for eight hours of driving but it's cheap, really, considering how much these cars retail for. WCD's fleet of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, McLarens, Maseratis and Ford GTs range from $100,000 to several hundred thousand dollars each, and the cost of insurance to try a stunt like this, if you can get it, is astronomical.
Earlier in the morning, Belgian racer Didier Theys, who has competed in three Indianapolis 500s, led our group of 16 novices (participants need not be skilled racers because we are primarily driving in a straight line) through exercises familiarizing us with performance abilities of the supercars. The first involved a 90-degree turn at 60 mph, triple the normal highway speed. To have a chance at hitting 200 mph, we must get onto the 13,000-foot Mojave runway at a dead sprint, which requires this type of high-speed turn. In the second exercise, we took the car up to 100 mph, then hit the brakes--at first gently, then harder. Braking too hard too fast will throw the car's weight forward, which can make the rear-end step out and begin to spin. And nobody wants a spinout at 200 mph.
After lunch, at one end of the runway, we're all apprehensive. Theys gives us the plan. We will each get three attempts to hit the big number. "We're not in competition," he stresses. "If you don't feel comfortable, please slow down. This is fun, but it's dangerous."
Binnie and I are first up. We wait for clearance from the airport tower and then I make the high-speed turn onto the runway. In seconds we top 130 mph. With the pedal firmly planted on the floor, the McLaren's speedometer methodically ticks up, up, up . . . 150, 170, 180--ridiculous!
As we break through 190 mph, a kind of tunnel vision takes over. You stare so intently at the runway ahead that nothing registers peripherally but a background blur. For an instant, I think about what would happen if a tire blows or if an errant bird darts from the sky. But fear diminishes performance, so I put the thoughts out of my mind. As we near the end of the runway, I see the braking cones approaching. I keep my foot in it for an extra second to milk the speed, then back off and hit the brakes at the last possible moment, and hard. We stop a few feet short of the runway's end. Top speed: 202 mph. Whoa!
The McLaren SLR speedometer edges above 205MPH. At that speed, the distance of a football field is covered every second.
As we exit the car, Binnie jokes that he will reciprocate by taking me on a ride in SpaceShipTwo. I tell him that I'll hold him to it; I already plunked down my deposit for the $200,000 flight, putting me 610th in line to fly in 2013 if all goes according to plan.
Later in the afternoon, with a stronger tailwind, I take the McLaren even faster, 212 mph. In fact, all 16 participants hit the magic 200 number.
"We were lucky," says Libert. "If it had been a crosswind, we wouldn't have been so successful." Libert estimates that since the beginning of the 200MPH Challenge program, about half of the 150 attendees have hit 200 mph. Those who miss jump off the throttle out of fear, or have weather conditions that aren't right for top speed.
Back in New York, I e-mail Binnie a few photos of him in the McLaren. His response is priceless. "My children really think I'm cool now that I've been above 200 mph in a supercar," he says. "Never mind that I've been to space."
Kids. Go figure.
Author Jim Clash and the McLaren SLR he drove over 200MPH with World Class Driving.
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