by James M. Clash
Just northeast of Los Angeles lies the Mojave Air & Space Port, best known for SpaceShipOne, the first privately built rocket to carry a man into space. In 2004, Brian Binnie flew the 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 and testing of their bigger SpaceShipTwo, scheduled to take wealthy clients suborbital starting in 2011. Virgin Galactic Airways, owned by billionaire Richard Branson, is selling tickets.
But space travel is not why I'm at Mojave today. Driving fast is. I'm part of an event organized by World Class Driving, an outfit that gives folks the chance to break 200 mph in a super-car. That kind of speed means traveling the length of a football field every second.
Astronaut Binnie has taken the afternoon off to meet me. 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's never been 200 mph in a car.
The Mercedes McLaren SLR in which I'm about to drive Binnie is an impressive machine. With an eight-cylinder, 620-horsepower engine, it is capable of 208 mph in top gear -- faster with a tailwind. And boy do we have a tailwind: 25 mph, with gusts of 40 mph.
A $5,000 fee gets you one day of track time in WCD's 200MPH Challenge program run at private airport runways in Florida or California. That might seem high for eight hours of driving but it's cheap, really, considering how much these cars retail for. WCD's fleet of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and McLarens range from $100,000 to several hundred thousand dollars each, and the cost of insurance to try a stunt like this is astronomical.
Earlier in the morning racer Didier Theys, who has competed in three Indianapolis 500s, led our group of novices (participants need not be sk
illed racers because we are primarily driving in a straight line) through exercises familiarizing us with performance abilities of the cars.
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 spin. Nobody wants a spinout at 200 mph.
After lunch, 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, then I make the high speed turn onto the runway. In seconds we are above 130 mph. With the pedal firmly planted on the floor, the McLaren 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 a bird darts from the sky. But fear diminishes performance, so I put the thoughts out of my mind.
As runway end nears, I see the braking cones. I keep my foot in it for an extra second to milk the speed, then back off and pump the brakes hard. We stop just short of the runway's end. Top speed: 202 mph.
As we exit the car, Binnie jokes that he will reciprocate by taking me on a ride in SpaceShipTwo. He knows I'm passenger #610 on the waiting list, having put down my $20,000 deposit for the $200,000 space flight. If all goes according to schedule, I will fly in 2013.
Later that afternoon, with a stronger tailwind, I go even faster, 212 mph. In fact, today all 16 program participants hit the magic 200 number. "We were lucky with the tailwind," says Theys. "Had it been a crosswind, we wouldn't have been so successful."
The next Mojave program: Oct. 28, 2010. See www.worldclassdriving.com for details.