May 13, 2024

Driving a McLaren at 200 mph is a thrilling, dangerous experience

Here’s a fast fact you may not know: the Brits have dubbed driving 100 mph “doing the ton.” So it is perhaps appropriate that the British supercar-maker McLaren provided me with the opportunity to go two tons—yes, that’s 200 mph—in the company’s Artura hybrid-electric V6 model.

You remember the Artura from my test drive; it’s a $289,000 mid-engine supercar with 671 horsepower and 531 lb.-ft. torque. McLaren says it’ll accelerate to 60 mph in 3.0 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 10.7 seconds. For reference, if a car can do that run in less than 10.0, drag strips require a protective roll cage.

But when people look at a supercar and ask, What’ll it do? they mean top speed. Could the Artura reach the two tons of 200 mph?

It is hard to achieve top speed because, well, it is illegal on public roads outside portions of the German autobahn, and most race tracks don’t have straights long enough to achieve terminal velocity.

Enter the Sun Valley Tour de Force. This is an annual fund-raising charity event in Idaho’s Sun Valley ski region. With a hiatus for Covid, this year’s event was the sixth running of the Tour de Force, which, in exchange for a $2,950 entry fee, lets drivers take a blast along about a mile and a half of state route 75 just north of Ketchum to see how fast they can go. GPS transponders provide official results. The organization raised $1,000,000 this year for the benefit of The Hunger Coalition in Idaho.

I don’t know about you, but when I envision top speed runs, I think of the vast, desolate salt flats in Nevada and Utah. That’s not this. Route 75 is a rural two-lane highway, the sort that adventurous travelers seek out when avoiding the monotony of interstate driving.

The road is relatively narrow and has little in the way of a shoulder on either side. The surface is old and uneven. The route isn’t even straight. Or flat!

Instead, the cars launch from a start line and drive about half a mile up a slight hill into a fast, gentle left turn that ends with a quick blind crest and then a drive onto the slightly downhill mile straight that is called Phantom Hill to the finish line. The checkered flags marking the finish are in a place called Frostbite Flats, which sounds like where your game piece goes for punishment in Candyland.

The prospect of driving faster than I’ve ever gone before in this setting is daunting. However, the event’s speed record is 253 mph, set by a driver in a Bugatti Chiron, so it is possible to go very fast on this road.

It is the sort of drive I’ve long since decided I wouldn’t do. Cars tend to become like aircraft with no control surfaces at speeds higher than about 150 mph. A generation ago, Car & Driver magazine senior technical editor Don Schroeder was killed during a 200-mph run on a test track, maybe due to a blown tire or seized wheel bearing.

I’ve briefly touched 180 mph at the end of the front straight at Estoril, former site of the Portuguese Grand Prix, in a McLaren Senna and a Lamborghini Aventador SVJ. Both of those cars have thoroughly sorted aerodynamics that kept them stable and on the ground at those speeds. The McLaren engineers were similarly thorough with the design of the Artura, which gave me confidence that the car wouldn’t take flight. This, and the chance to hit 200 mph, sealed the deal. I’d do it!

There is no practice run, though I did have the chance to drive on the highway the day before to scout the lay of the land and the condition of the asphalt. Talking it over with retired Formula 1 driver Stefan Johansson, who McLaren has brought in to drive another one of their cars, I set the powertrain mode to “Track” and put the suspension model on “Comfort” for compliance on the bumpy two-lane highway.

Event organizers station spotters along the route to watch for wildlife or spectators getting too close to the route and provide me a radio for reports of any trouble ahead. The police close off the road at both ends of the course long enough for each run. Mine will take 52 seconds.

Sliding into the Artura’s driver’s seat, I realize the benefit of gull-wing doors, which open the space above the seat when the door is open so it is easier to get in and out while wearing a helmet. I struggle to get my helmet-clad noggin under the roofline, but I’m comfortable once inside.

I’ve made sure to drive the car in the battery regeneration mode on the way to the event, so the hybrid-electric drive system’s battery pack stands at an 80 percent state of charge for the run. As a plug-in hybrid-electric, the Artura’s battery pack could have been fully charged ahead of time, but I couldn’t get a place to plug it in in the hotel’s garage. The ambient temperature is 50 degrees, perfect for making maximum power from the combustion engine.

Sitting behind the wheel, I can see spectators watching from the boundary 100 yards back from the road. In the tall grass, they look like wildlife photographers on the African savanna. By tradition, the first car away is the fellow with the vintage Volkswagen Rabbit pickup truck. He gets close to 90 mph every year and keeps coming back for more.

Next away is a woman in a modified McLaren 720S, whose 218-mph top speed proves to be the fastest time of the day, as warmer temperatures later prevent her father, the car’s owner, from topping her speed.

Then is Johansson, in the brand-new McLaren 750S. He hits 200 mph on the official scoreboard. Two tons!

Then it is my turn. Officials wave me off from the start line, and the Artura squirms, fighting for traction on the launch. It is at triple-digit speeds almost immediately and I ease off the gas as I bend into the left turn, looking for a clear view when I top the peak of the blind crest.

As I clear the hilltop and mat the accelerator pedal, I can’t even make out the finish line flags in the distance, out there on Frostbite Flats. But I do steal a glance at the speedometer: 172.

That seems like a solid foundation for building speed over the next mile. In the cockpit, the Artura sounds great. A hundred yards away from the road, McLaren Houston general manger Pablo Del-Gado is watching. After my run he excitedly reports that from the sidelines, the Artura’s 120-degree V6 was the best-sounding car of the day.

Now at serious speed, I place the Artura in the center of the road. Fortunately, as an arid area, Idaho builds very little water-draining crown into their roads, so there is no concern about getting too far from the centerline and having the car tug its way toward the ditch.

The Artura’s suspension absorbs the bumps and the steering tracks true, with the car going exactly where I want, but things have gotten busy. The drive plays out like a scene from the original Mad Max, when budget-limited director George Miller sped up the film for dramatic effect.

Modern sports cars are programmed to deliver maximum performance for the situation, so I’ve left the transmission in fully automatic mode. Most cars do not achieve their top speed in top gear because that takes the engine rpm out of the peak of the power band. I didn’t realize the Artura would shift to top gear when my foot was on the floor, seeking more speed, so in retrospect, I wish I’d shifted manually and left it in sixth gear rather than letting it upshift to seventh.

Hammering down the straight, the Artura pulled quickly from 172 mph to 199 mph on the speedometer. And stayed there. Thanks to what felt like time dilation in my situation, the digital display seemed to sit maddeningly near 200 mph for minutes. Finally, “199” flickered to “200.”

The speedometer stayed at 200 mph all the way through the finish line. That seemed sufficient to ensure the official results captured that outcome.

Coasting down from 200 mph, previously ludicrous speeds now seem pedestrian. Organizers have warned us to make extra effort to shed speed so that when we approach the parking lot at the end of the run, we are at a speed that is actually safe rather than one that seems safe to a driver who is pumped up on adrenaline and whose perception is distorted by having recently hit two tons.

I get to the parking lot, where attendants point me to my parking slot. Heading over to the official timing and scoring display, I get crushing results from the GPS: 194.98 mph. Not two tons. Dammit. Apparently, the Artura’s speedometer is slightly optimistic. By 2.5 percent, it looks like.

But the in-car GoPro captured the dashboard display, which shows “200.” I have photographic proof of having achieved that speed, even if it comes with a really big asterisk.

Weeks later, organizers whimsically sent me an official-looking speeding ticket from the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office, citing me for my official top speed of 194.98 mph. It is the first time I’ve ever wished for a bigger number on a speeding ticket.

Watch a video of my drive, below:

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