Those of you that know me know I like cars. Specifically, I like driving fast cars. More specifically, I really like driving exotic cars, as fast as possible, without the risk of jail time. Unfortunately, I don’t own any exotic cars. Fortunately, I learned about World Class Driving a few years ago, and they’ve recently managed to address my need for extremely high speed.
I should start by saying I have a history with World Class Driving. On two separate occasions, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in their US Tour, where I drove 5 exotic cars on the back roads of Washington State on separate half-day events. I learned to appreciate the drivability of exotic cars in a touring environment, but it lacked the eminent danger of high speed crashes, yet still offered envious members of law enforcement opportunities to hand out tickets for “5 over” the posted speed limited, just because.
I recently flew down to Miami to meet up with the World Class Driving team for a very special experience: The 200MPH Xtreme Event. On December 13th, 2009, I and 15 other lucky individuals drove deep into the Everglades to drive 7 exotic cars to their limits. We would later use of those cars to try to break the 200 MPH barrier, all without the prying eyes of law enforcement.
If you’re not familiar with the necessary tools to achieve a somewhat dangerous and absolutely exciting milestone of the 200 MPH barrier, let me explain. For starters, you need a few miles of flat asphalt, as racetracks typically lack a straightaway long enough to hit 200 MPH (without NASCAR sponsor dollars and equipment). Lacking asphalt, salt flats or high desert will suffice (which are alternative locations for 200 MPH Xtreme events).
For this event (their 5th thus far) World Class Driving secured the Dade-Collier Transition and Training Airport, which was built in the 1950s for the supersonic passenger program that never quite materialized. The two primary landing strips offer more than 11,000 feet with which to achieve the day’s goal. We later found out that even more space would have been appreciated and needed. At 200 MPH, these cars cover a football field in length every second.
The second key ingredient in achieving 200 MPH is the proper equipment. In our case, it involved a handful of exotic automobiles, 3 of which were used for high speed runs, while the others were used for training. On the unseasonably hot and humid day (which unfortunately isn’t exactly conducive for high speed), the World Class Driving Team supplied us with a host of super cars:
· Bentley Continental Supersport
· Ferrari F430
· Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano
· Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera
· Lamborghini Gallardo LP560
· Maserati GranTurismo
· Mercedes McLaren SLR
The day was broken into two parts, morning and afternoon. Event attendees were put into 3 groups and rotated among 3 different sessions. The objective was to give the opportunity for event instructors (all having professional racing experience, lead by LeMans Champion Didier Theys) to evaluate driving skills, bond with drivers and give attendees the necessary skills to safely achieve the 200 MPH goal.
The first session (in an ideal world) is the braking and handling workshop, where participants drove a Ferrari F430 or Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera on a short course with many turns, to get a feel for the handling of super exotic cars. Even with the short course limitations (3 or so gears to work with), the cars are able to hit close to 100.
The second session was the high speed cornering workshop. This was particularly important in order to get a good start and safe finish to the high speed run. In order to hit 200 MPH on the runway, a quick entrance was absolutely essential, particularly on this hot and humid day. Just as importantly, knowing when and how to brake safely in order to make the critical turn at the end of the runway, was a focus.
The third and last morning session was originally meant to be a break time in the hospitality tent, but World Class Driving partnered with Bentley to give participants a unique opportunity to drive the new Bentley Continental Supersport. Known as a premier luxury brand, Bentley isn’t historically synonymous with high-performance. That misconception disappeared in about 3.5 seconds, which is how long it took to hit 60 MPH from a standstill. The other participants agreed with me: The Supersport can’t be dismissed, once driven.
Although I was able to hit 165 in back-to-back high speed runs (using less than half the runway), the power and speed wasn’t nearly as impressive as the entire package. When you see a new Bentley Supersport for the first time, you know it’s something special. Once inside, the unmistakable scent of high-grade leather and classic English fit and finish is nearly outshined by the extensive use of weight-saving carbon fiber throughout the interior. My only disappointment about the Bentley Supersport was that it wasn’t going to be used for the high speed runs in the afternoon (due to prior engagements).
After a hearty lunch and briefing, the group drew numbers to determine order for the 200 MPH runs. In turn, each participant would have 2 test runs and 2 top speed runs, with the option to evaluate all three featured cars: Lamborghini Gallardo LP560, Ferrari 599 GTB and Mercedes McLaren SLR. Theoretically, participants have 3 opportunities to reach 200 MPH, but this would prove to be more challenging than anticipated.
For my first run, I was assigned the less-popular Lamborghini LP560. Although rated with a 200+ top speed, many participants (and a few instructors) were skeptical it was going to do the trick. Even on a test run, where I wasn’t encouraged to go flat out, I managed a 195 MPH top speed (the highest speed for that car in the first round). With big ceramic brakes and feisty transmission, the Lambo was a thrill to drive, despite the lack of enthusiasm from the crowd.
On my second run, I took the Ferrari 599 GTB out for a spin. The favorite of both participants and instructors as the 200 MPH favorite, the $400K super car certainly delivered. Although my initial entry to the straightaway was lackluster, I still managed a tantalizing 199 MPH. The transmission was silky smooth, power endless, but the brakes didn’t have the same grab as the Lambo, which caused me a bit of stress at the end of the runway.
While everyone else scrambled to get time in the Ferrari, I was happy to test out the Mercedes SLR, also not quite as popular, but unarguably capable of crushing the 200 MPH barrier. Fortunately, I drew the Ferrari again. This time, my initial entry was so bad I aborted and I quickly returned for a second try. The next entry attempt was decent, but I still wasn’t able to break 200 MPH. Instead, I nearly broke the car when unable to slow down in time for the exit corner and came to a full stop 5 feet from the end of the runway (where the lights act as teeth that eat exotic bodywork).
I had a tough choice to make for my fourth and final run. The McLaren was unable to break 197 MPH thus far, even with instructors driving. Meanwhile the Lambo picked up favorability as the first of the 16 participants hit 200 MPH behind the wheel. The next 2 Lambo drivers followed suit, hitting 201 MPH respectively. Meanwhile, the 599 GTB seemed to fade, particularly its brakes. The driver that followed my run in the 599 ended up clipping a runway light with the front end (easily a $10K+ mistake) when cornering at the end of the runway.
That left me with an opportunity for a “sure thing” run with the Lambo, or an “almost sure not to get there” run in the McLaren. In a moment of truth, I decided to go the route of the overall “experience” by driving the McLaren, instead of the “200 MPH” guarantee with the Lambo. I also counted on the afternoon cooling to give me even a small chance at breaking the barrier in the SLR. Regardless, what I would get was a very unique driving opportunity in all three world-class exotics, of which the McLaren was the only one I had yet to drive.
Unlike the 599 and LP560, the Mercedes is a big, heavy touring car with a true automatic slush box. Despite that, it has massive horsepower, and was surprisingly quick to speed as I rounded the entry to the straightaway. Pensive about stopping in time to avoid the $200 runway lights at the end of the course (and more expensive auto repairs), I was quick on the brakes and ended up with a 198 MPH speed. The big disappointment was that the brakes on the SLR are so fantastic (particularly in comparison to the 599) that I could have used the critical extra runway to hit 200 MPH.
Despite ending the day a hair short of 200 MPH, I had an absolutely amazing time. I built friendships with participants and instructors alike. I even had the pleasure of hanging out with Ezra Dyer, columnist for Automobile Magazine, whose coverage of the Xtreme event should appear in the March issue. A second highlight came about when one of the instructors (whose name I will protect) confided that he’d evaluated all participants driving ability and gave me 8 out of 10, the highest overall participant score (the average was 5.5).
World Class Driving’s 200 MPH Xtreme event is truly an once-in-a-lifetime experience and worth every penny. In the span of one day, I was able to drive seven exotic cars to their limit in a safe setting, with the help of professional racecar drivers as instructors. Essentially, I became a better driver, not just the driver of a fast car in a straight line.
Although I enjoyed the Lamborghinis and Ferraris to no end, I was surprised by my pleasurable experience with the Mercedes SLR, and even more so, the Bentley Continental Supersport. If I had to choose a daily driver, it would probably be the Bentley Supersport, regardless of the size and weight. The German performance engineering and English luxury heritage makes the Supersport a very comfortable and competent car. It should be noted, in case any manufacturers are reading this, that I would not kick any of the exotics out of my garage, given the opportunity to own one.