Two gusts of wind cut across the Nevada desert, sending Oliver Webb and the SSC Tuatara across two lanes and onto the roadside rumble strips. That’s what happens when an unexpected cross-breeze comes by, and the speedometer’s needle is north of 300 mph.
Let’s hit rewind on the drama-meter real quick, though.
SSC, an American hypercar company owned and founded by Jerod Shelby, set out about 10 years ago to build the fastest car in the world. We covered the concept’s reveal back in the early 2010s, and we’ve kept tabs on the company’s progress ever since. Just this year, the first owner’s car made its debut at the Philadelphia Auto Show. Funnily enough, it’s that same car that SSC used on October 10 to set the record for the fastest production car in the world.
This record was supposed to be set a year ago. SSC had secured an initial location months in advance, but the state decided it wanted to do some road work at the same time, meaning SSC would have to wait until Spring 2020. Just like everybody’s spring plans this year, though, SSC’s were also wrecked. Covid-19 hit; the world shut down, and SSC was forced to wait once again. Shelby and company decided to aim for a fall run, and that’s exactly what happened.
A seven-mile stretch of State Route 160 outside of Pahrump, Nevada, was chosen and completely closed down. Prior to the record attempt, Webb made test runs on multiple airstrips with shorter stretches of pavement than what he’d experience in the full run. With everything turning up aces, the SSC team and Webb proceeded to the big day with high hopes.
Three levels of “success” were possible for the crew. For starters, they could break the Koenigsegg Agera RS’ record of 277.9 mph. Secondly, they could break the 300 mph barrier. And lastly, they could meet or surpass the Tuatara’s original project goal of going 500 km/h (311 mph).
Weather was the biggest obstacle. The 5.9-liter twin-turbo V8 had been operating as it should, reaching 270 mph in one of those airstrip test runs. All 1,750 horsepower were present and accounted for. With blue skies above, an unexpected light breeze was the only worrisome roadblock. SSC had mapped the whole road previous to find every last seam, imperfection or potential trouble spot Webb might encounter. With this knowledge in hand, Webb could have total confidence in where he decided to crank up the speed.
World record officials loaded the satellite equipment into the Tuatara. Camera crews stood at the ready. It was an event, but up until now, it was also being held in relative secret.
Webb lined up for his first pass. He proceeded to hit 287 mph.
“A good first sign,” Shelby tells us. Yes, beating the world record on the first attempt isn’t half bad.
Webb then takes the second pass, and he hits 301 mph. Just like that, SSC accomplished goal number two of breaking the 300 mph barrier. After this second pass, Webb voiced concern about the wind. He told Shelby that a cross-wind was hitting him in the middle of the desert, and also said that the next pass would be the last of the day for fear of the wind becoming worse. Safety, after all, is the number one priority.
So Webb hits it, and speeds off for his third and final pass. Shelby and his crew followed behind, but they were not ready for what was awaiting them at the end of the road.
“By the time we get there, he’s obviously out of the car,” Shelby said. “And he was sitting on the ground with his head down. And it didn’t look good.”
As he walked up, Jared said that Webb told him this: “I’m done Jared. I’ll never do that again. I got hit with two different blasts of cross winds, and it moved me two lanes over and into the rumble strips. I had a really close call.”
Shelby told us that Webb was truly shaken by the experience … but right after that, Webb said that he “saw a big speed on the display.” The crew immediately got into the data, and saw that he had hit 331 mph.
“It went from this emotion of we’re in trouble, to you’re kidding me,” Shelby said. “And it was just a really emotional moment. It was the culmination of 10 years.”
Hitting 331 mph meant that the average of the two consecutive runs was 316 mph, surpassing the team’s third and final goal of hitting 500 km/h. It completely shatters the current record and makes it that much tougher for anybody to beat the Tuatara in the future.
Shelby went on to tell us that he believes Webb’s close call was due to the winds picking up and being higher than the 10 mph they had decided was the cutoff zone. Thankfully, Webb kept control of the car and brought it down from speed safely.
Given perfect conditions, Shelby thinks there’s another 15 mph in the car. At least that’s what computer simulations show. Webb himself said the car was still gaining speed at a good rate as he approached 330 mph, too — the speed increased by 20 mph in the last five seconds before he let off. The crazy-low 0.279 coefficient of drag can be thanked for its ability to keep pushing through the air with anger.
The big question that remains is, what’s next? It’s a question that even Shelby doesn’t have a perfect answer for. This took a decade to accomplish.
“To me, what I love about this, is let’s just keep pushing the bar,” Shelby says. “Not that this is a challenge, but I think it’s great for innovation. And let’s see where it goes. I feel really good about what we have just achieved. I do think the car is capable of some more. I am satisfied with where we’re at right now.”
He finishes, “If somebody down the road pushes that top speed bar up, maybe we give it another go. We’ll see.”
Koenigsegg, you’re up.