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What is it really like to drive 200 miles per hour?

What is it really like to drive 200 miles per hour?

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This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

One hundred miles an hour comes on easily, effortlessly, a tenor clearing his throat, Usain Bolt stretching his legs. The engine thrums richly, full of power and promise. Another tick of a second, maybe two, and the car breaks the 120-mph barrier. Stretch a pinky and neatly trigger the right-hand paddle shifter. Bang! Upshift.

Road noise begins to drown out the sound of the engine at 145 mph. It’s a clatter, rubber clawing into asphalt in a frenzied rotation. Things can go hinky at this velocity, so try to stay relaxed. Allow your eyes to dip down briefly to the tachometer. Wait ’til the needle gets near the redline… patience… shift. The engine relaxes, and the car’s momentum begins to build again.

The rules: keep the car centered in the lane. Stay relaxed. Don’t space out. Hands consciously light on the steering wheel. Eyes far ahead of you, looking to the horizon. (That horizon better be far away. If you are approaching a kink in the road turn or debris or animals or, well, anything, abandon this absurd exercise immediately.)

At 165 mph, the wind noise drowns out everything else, and suddenly the density of the atmosphere is tussling with the engine’s torque and horsepower. The once-soft air is now an ever-sturdier wall; any gentle zephyr a gale, volatile and tricky. The oxygen cools the engine, yes, but it’s also tunneling underneath the car and causing lift — the same thing that causes a jumbo jet to take off. You really, really don’t want to go airborne.


Jaguar's 200 mph F-Type SVR. (Jaguar)

At 175 mph, it seems like you’re nearly there — but you’re not. The car has to claw for every additional mile per hour, taking longer and using additional yardage to do so. The speedometer needle (or digital readout, depending on the car) is moving slowly… slowly… 194, 195, 197… and then it just seems to stop. That thump you hear is the blood in your brain. And did the car just go quiet?

At 200 miles an hour, you’re basically in the death zone.

At the end of all this, by the way? You’ve got to leave enough room to stop. That’s the truly tricky part. Wait too long and you’ll run out of road — and luck.

Don’t ask why you would put yourself in this position in the first place, because it makes no damn sense. Two hundred miles an hour is an arbitrary number, an asinine goal. Yet it’s always been a benchmark for carmakers, the promise that engineering can beat physics. And while it’s one thing to hit 200 in a land-bound rocketship like the ones that have blasted over Bonneville Salt Flats since the early 1900s, it’s quite another to be able to do it in a car that’s street legal.

Don’t ask why you would put yourself in this position, because it makes no damn sense

But what was once extraordinary has become the expected. In a recent issue of Automobile, the magazine counted 16 modern cars that can go 200 mph or more. Along with the Ferraris (the F12, 211 mph) and Lamborghinis (Aventador, 217 mph), some were nearly prosaic, including a Cadillac (CTS-V, 200 mph) and a Dodge (Viper, 206 mph). More examples are being added all the time, like Jaguar’s recent announcement of the 200-mph F-Type SVR.

This naturally brings us to the new Bugatti model, the Chiron, which has been reported to cost $3.5 million and potentially attain a top speed of up to 290 mph. Details will come at next month’s Geneva Auto Show. What won’t be forthcoming is any real rationale. No owner is likely to get within 90 mph of that, so what’s the point?

There are few places in the world where you can drive 200. The first car that broke 200 mph did so on the hard-packed sands of Daytona Beach. Banked oval tracks like Italy’s Nardo Ring also have great potential. Bugatti is owned by the VW Group, which runs a huge testing facility in Germany known as Ehra-Lessien. It has two 5-mile-plus straights connected by banked turns. That’s where Bugattis are tested.

To put this all in perspective, I turned to a few professional racers for their views on stupendous speeds. Colin Braun, 28, races a prototype in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship. In 2013 he set a record at Daytona International Speedway with an average speed of 223 mph. Asked if he would consider taking a regular production to 200 mph, the answer is a definitive no.

"I felt like I was risking life and limb doing those speeds in a well-prepared race car at a very safe track like Daytona. I can’t imagine doing that in a production car on a street. The fastest I’ve been in a production car was at Miller Motorsports Park in a friend’s Porsche 918. We went about 180."


British racer Kaye Don takes his Sunbeam Silver Bullet for a 250 mph practice run at Daytona Beach in 1930. (Keystone / Getty)

Still, he certainly understands the siren call. His first time was while testing a NASCAR Sprint Car at an Arizona proving ground. "I was doing a lot of runs and we were right around 199 mph. I wanted to get over 200 mph so bad, I convinced the guys to trim the car out a bit. I remember watching the dashboard speed and doing a mini celebration when it climbed above 200," he says.

Few people have experienced more time at 200-plus miles per hour than Derek Bell, the celebrated British racing driver (and master storyteller) who won Le Mans five times and Daytona 24 thrice. Now in his mid 70s, Bell once clocked 246 mph on Le Mans’ infamous 3.4-mile-long Mulsanne Straight. "That was just surreal," he told me recently over a glass of wine. "On the Mulsanne you’d be at speeds for a full minute and a half, just sitting there. The engine is roaring, but it actually felt very quiet, especially at night." He told me that he rarely worried, because he had such faith in the Porsche race cars. "Still, it’s dangerous as hell. If a tire blows, the body of the car is going to rip off and you’re going up in the air — and coming down someplace else."


Derek Bell races a Porsche 956 in 1982. (Heritage Images / Getty)

I’ve visited the realm of 200 three times. Last year, I broke the barrier on a closed race course in France in the $2.5 million McLaren P1 GTR. The McLaren is a non-street-legal hypercar, with a racing harness, but no roll cage. On a very long back straight, going up a hill, I brushed 202 mph. I’d never even conceived of going that fast on a non-oval, and I wasn’t even giving the car its full go. It almost felt like cheating.

The fastest I’ve ever been was in a modified Nissan GTR, a street-legal sports car. An Illinois company called AMS Performance had pumped up the car to an absurd 1,500 horsepower, and I’d traveled to a decommissioned Air Force runway in northern Michigan to test it. No helmet, no special safety equipment, and AMS’s sales manager declined to ride along on my high speed run. It wasn’t comforting. In 24 roaring seconds, where my mind was resolutely focused on one thought — "Please, don’t blow a tire" — I blasted past 200 mph all the way to 214.

That was four years ago. I’ve had a son since. And I don’t think I would do it again.

The time that most mattered, the one that impressed me the most, was the first. It was 2009 and I was taking part in a $5,000 program (now defunct) called the 200 MPH Xtreme Challenge, arranged by a company called World Class Driving. I knew some of the instructors, and the cars were proper production supercars of the time, including the Ferrari 599 and a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. The location was a former airport in the Florida Everglades called Miami Dade Collier. But at 2 miles long, it wasn’t long enough.

On a very long back straight, going up a hill, I brushed 202 mph

My girlfriend, Miranda, was with me for the event. And I was prepared for the scariest leap of faith in my life: I had a yellow-diamond engagement ring stuck in my front jeans pocket.

After several runs in the Ferrari, and not quite hitting 200, I stepped into a Lamborghini Gallardo and vowed to keep my foot on it until I hit 200 mph. "If I survive this, I’ll ask her tonight," I told myself.

And so, with the Lamborghini flat out and the seconds ticking away, I was stuck at 199. I waited, and waited, and the end of the asphalt approached. Forget it, it’s not worth it, my mind whispered. I ignored that, too. And then the needle touched 200 and then, maybe, 201. My eyes scanned the horizon, an end approaching far too quickly. I breathed out, took my foot off the gas, and the car quivered, unsteadied. I set my foot gently on the brake, putting weight on the nose of the car, and then shoved the pedal all the way down. The seatbelt snapped tight, the wind lessened, the air became soft again, and the smell of hot brakes seeped into the cabin. My skin prickled with adrenaline.

I drove back on a side road at a serene 50 mph, all smiles, glowing. Arriving back at the staging area, I asked for Miranda. "Oh, she’s out in the Koenigsegg with Didier getting a ride-along." Didier was Didier Theys, a longtime pro driver, and the Koenigsegg was the CCX, a 800-horsepower hypercar.

And so that same day that I hit 200 mph, my wife-to-be managed 216 mph as a passenger — a speed I’ve never achieved to this day. I’d never been so sure that she was the one for me.

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