The Hair-Raising, Record-Setting Race to 331 MPH

When SSC North America boss Jerod Shelby reached race driver Oliver Webb after Webb attempted to set a speed record in the company’s new 1,750-horsepower SSC Tuatara, the 29-year-old Brit was sitting on the ground with his head in his hands. “He looked at me and said, ‘Jared, I’m done. I’m never doing this again,’” says Shelby. “During the drive a blast of wind had knocked him completely over to the side of the road, onto the rumble strips. He was shaking. His first baby is due soon, and he was all emotion.”
Shelby assumed the wind had ruined the October 10 attempt to break the current production-car speed record of 277.9 mph, set by a Koenigsegg Agera RS in 2017 on the same 7-mile stretch of Nevada State Route 160 near Las Vegas. Last year, Bugatti set an unofficial record of 304 mph with an enhanced version of the Chiron, and SSC wanted to beat that too. But at those speeds, a puff of wind that wouldn’t lift a paper umbrella from a piña colada on the Vegas Strip could send any hypercar spinning into the desert scrub, with potentially deadly results.

But the driver looked up at him and cracked a smile: “I saw a big number on the display.”

In fact, it was bigger than Webb thought—and far bigger than what the team itself had expected. The last time Webb had glanced at the speedometer, he was hammering along at 310 mph, and the supremely aerodynamic machine was still accelerating hard. At that point, though, he really had to concentrate. “We were covering one and a half football fields each second, so I needed to keep my eyes on the road,” Webb recalls, wryly. “My vision stayed far in the distance, and the dotted white line became solid, which was the weirdest thing. When I finally decided to lift off and back down to a safe speed, I looked down and was still doing 280 miles per hour.”
Nerves aside, he had pushed through the crosswind and achieved what he was hired to do. After the satellite data from the onboard GPS system had been analyzed—the devices tracked two runs in opposite directions and calculated the average—Webb’s last dash came in at a staggering 331.15 mph. The final verified average was 316.11 miles per hour, handily beating both the Koenigsegg and the Bugatti records and cracking the metric milestone of 500 kilometers per hour just for good measure. In addition, the morning’s effort garnered records for the fastest flying mile on a public road (313.12 mph) and the highest speed achieved on a public road (331.15 mph). For Guinness to certify the achievement, the defacto keeper of world records sends two sanctioned witnesses and stipulates a variety of criteria, including production-vehicle specifications, the use of street tires and non-race fuel, and the averaged runs, to account for wind and road-grade factors that might favor a particular direction of travel. The record is likely to stand for a while, but it’s not unbeatable. Both Hennessy Performance Engineering and Koenigsegg are working on new 300-plus mph cars that could punch through yet again—though of course SSC would only need a calmer wind day to boost its time.

The Tuatara's engine is a collaboration between SSC and race specialist Tom Nelson, of Nelson Racing Engines. The twin-turbo V8 includes a crankshaft with razor-sharp edges that allow it to move seamlessly through oil, preventing the oil from accumulating on the shaft and slowing down its movement. Photograph: James Lipman/SSC North America