Update January 27, 2021: After a much-publicized and highly scrutinized initial top-speed record run in October of last year—you can read about that run below, and the controversy here—SSC has announced a new top-speed record for production cars at 282.9 mph with its Tuatara hypercar. It was the third attempt for the company after the initial run and a December effort thwarted by mechanical issues; professional racer Oliver Webb was the driver in October, while the car’s owner, Larry Caplin, took the wheel for tries two and three.
The Tuatara hit a two-way average speed of 282.9 mph using 2.3 miles of a three-mile runway at Kennedy Space Center, with the data being captured using Racelogic VBOX equipment, as well as hardware and/or software from Life Racing and Garmin. The International Mile Racing Association is also touted as validating the speed. The first, northbound run registered 279.7 mph, while during the second, the Tuatara hit 286.1 mph in 1.9 miles before Caplin began to decelerate. The runs were made 50 minutes apart. SSC still plans to attempt to break the 300-mph mark, extending its own record and becoming the first production vehicle to reach or exceed that speed. Video of the latest runs can be viewed below:
Nobody needs to go 280 or 300 mph. Hardly anybody has the space available (or the fortitude required) to drive those speeds. But everybody wants to know which car is fastest. The followers of such achievements will tell you that in 2017 the 277.9-mph Koenigsegg Agera RS snatched that record from 2010’s 267.9-mph Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Super Sport. Well, on Saturday, October 10, a team gathered alongside a closed, seven-mile section of Highway 160 near Pahrump, Nevada to attempt—and set—a new record, with U.K. pro racer Oliver Webb driving a supercar hailing from Richland, Washington, the SSC Tuatara. The new speed? A staggering 315.7 mph!
Best Two Runs in Opposite Directions
The SSC team spent a week acclimating Webb to the car, starting out on a 3,800-foot runway achieving speeds of up to 204 and 205 mph; then decamped three hours away to a longer, 7,000-foot runway, where Webb managed to hit 270 mph, at which point the whole team felt comfortable attempting the run. SSC North America founder Jarod Shelby (no relation to Carroll), who has done nearly all of the test driving prior to bringing Webb on for the record, rode shotgun for some of these runs and was humbled by Webb’s F1-driver comfort level regarding proximity to the end of the runway before initiating braking. “I’m thinking, ‘when in the world is he going to get on the brakes?’ He braked way later than I would have.”
Then on the morning of the big run, following a few modest 100-mph passes to warm the drivetrain, with crosswinds just slightly under the 10-mph limit the team had set for itself, the team instrumented the car and sent Webb off for his first run.
That run achieved 285 mph—comfortably above the official 278-mph record bogey. On his return he hit 301.07 mph—nearing the unofficial 301-mph Hennessey Venom F5 and 304-mph Bugatti Chiron Super Sport claims, but neither of those times were officially witnessed as an average of runs in opposite directions within close timing to account for wind. (The record is currently in the process of being officially certified by Guinness, whose procedures and requirements SSC followed.) The crosswind was picking up, but Webb agreed to do one more run and one more only. That pass, replacing the 285-mph one, managed to hit 331.15 mph, for an official 316.11-mph (508.0-kph) top speed. And Webb is said to have acknowledged that the car had more top speed in it, but that was as fast as he was comfortable going.
What Powers the Fastest Production Car?
When we covered the SSC Tuatara back in 2011, the plan was to upsize the 6.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 engine it designed for the SSC Ultimate Aero, the Tuatara’s predecessor, to 7.0 liters. But founder Jarod Shelby wanted to fit a flat-plane crank to the engine, and there’s just no getting an engine that big to live in a production car capable of achieving 300-plus mph while still remaining drivable around town or at a track. So in 2013 the 7.0-liter engine was abandoned in favor of a 5.9-liter version with a meticulously balanced crank and exotic engine mounts filled with a proprietary gel.
The engine is rated at 1,750 horsepower and 1,280 lb-ft of torque when running on E85 fuel (as it was for the speed-record run—top speed is projected to fall to 295 mph running on 91-octane pump gasoline, which drops the power rating to 1,350 horsepower). The engine spins to a lofty 8,800 rpm and requires an impressive 11 different heat exchangers, including two whoppers for the dedicated air-to-water intercooler system, which is said to be capable of dropping boosted air temperatures by 160 to 200 degrees. Four more radiators cool the engine, two cool the gearbox, and one each take care of the engine oil, power steering, and air conditioning. The gearbox, by the way, is a seven-speed auto-clutch manual by CIMA/Automac Engineering, which has its basis in a helicopter transmission.
The Aerodynamics of a 315.7-mph Car
The roster of aero tricks is remarkably unremarkable. Naturally there’s a full-body belly pan incorporating venturis that direct air out a rear diffuser while creating downforce, air curtains for the front wheels, small fins ahead of the front wheels, and modest little rear winglets. The drag coefficient is 0.279, and the front/rear aero-weight balance remains at a constant 37/63 percent from 150 to 312 mph. Air flows so efficiently over former Pininfarina designer Jason Castriota’s bodywork that with the side windows open at 200 mph, barely any air comes in unless you stick a hand out to scoop some. Italy’s Potio Engineering assisted in designing the elaborate ductwork that conducts air efficiently through all those radiators and coolers, drawing on their its extensive F1 simulation experience.
Not Just a Speed Machine
While achieving speed records grabs great headlines, Shelby is keen to point out that the Tuatara (named for a lizard indigenous to New Zealand that purportedly has the fastest molecular evolution of any living animal) is first and foremost a daily-drivable car designed to tear up a road circuit. The steering system provides some evidence of this assertion—it uses electricity to vary the ratio, but the assistance is purely hydraulic and it gets its own oil cooler, which clearly could only be useful on a handling circuit, not on a seven-mile arrow-straight closed highway. And a big driver of the flat-plane crank design was its unique sound signature. Shelby realizes cars like this are emotional purchases, and they need a visceral sound to connect with buyers. He wanted something less howling than a Ferrari, but also nothing like an American muscle car. The company worked with muffler experts to tune out some low-frequencies and ended up with a unique engine note.
A Production Car? For Real?
After showings at Pebble Beach in 2019 and at the Philadelphia Motor Show in February 2020, the first customer car has been delivered—it is in fact this very record-setting car—and there are plans to build 99 more at the company’s purpose-built facility in Washington. We very much look forward to assessing Shelby’s claims of the Tuatara’s track prowess. We will not be probing its top speed.
UPDATE: After SSC announced its record speed, various internet commenters video personalities cast doubts on its veracity, in some cases even alleging it was faked. In response, SSC released a statement on October 26 confirming the record-claiming runs were validated by Dewetron, a manufacturer of GPA data loggers whose equipment, SSC says, was used for four of the last five world records. The full statement is as follows:
“Dewetron, a globally respected GPS data-measurement manufacturer, has validated SSC North America’s claim that its Tuatara hypercar had averaged a top-speed run of 316.11mph (508.73 km/h) as recorded on October 10, 2020 near Pahrump, Nevada. That average speed was determined based on two runs, of 301.07 mph (484.53 km/h) and 331.15 mph (532.93 km/h), traveling in opposite directions.
Dewetron has worked with SSC since the hypercar manufacturer utilized its GPS measurement systems for the Ultimate Aero top speed record in 2007. Four out of five of the last world top-speed records were measured and validated on the same Dewetron system.
“Dewetron’s DAQ Hardware is based on the latest ADC technology combined with cutting edge technology in resampling and oversampling,” said Christoph Wiedner, Dewetron Chief Product Officer. “ISO and NIST calibration certificates ensure our equipment meets the highest level of quality for industrial and military standards. Dewetron’s GPS measurement systems are used in numerous industries that require precision telemetry data. Dewetron systems are modular in design allowing delivery of reliable measurement data and provide flexible, needs-based data acquisition capability to the Energy, Automotive, Transportation and Aerospace industries.”
“Our planning process for the record run was extensive, and required thorough validation to ensure everything was captured accurately and legitimately,” Jerod Shelby, CEO of SSC North America, explains. “SSC was committed to using Dewetron’s measurement system; we have been incredibly impressed by the accuracy, as well as the direct support that their team has provided to ensure proper implementation and data verification.”
SSC also released the following from company founder Jerod Shelby:
“Here at SSC, our focus is on building hypercars that break world records. At Dewetron, their focus is on tracking and verifying hypercars that break world records (among other things). They’ve done that for four out of five of the last world records. We’re thrilled that Dewetron has just validated the Tuatara’s record-setting run.
I know it’s hard for people to wrap their minds around the idea that SSC has built a car capable of our average top speed of 316 mph. The swirl of anticipation and speculation about our record has continued since we first blocked off Route 160 in Pahrump, and we don’t mind, because we have the numbers on our side.”
UPDATE TWO, 10/28: Dewetron released a statement today refuting SSC’s claim the Austrian company validated the attempt. In addition, SSC has released a lengthy statement in response to the controversy, which can be read here.
This story was originally published in October 2020. It has been updated to reflect SSC’s third attempt, which has seemingly set a new record.
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