277 -- The Way I Saw It
By Matt Sexton
Photos by the author
November 16, 2017
World’s Fastest Car. It’s the kind of thing that even non-car people can ooh and aah about, and it’s the kind of thing that gets little boys (and girls) excited about cars for the first time in their lives. World’s Fastest Car isn’t necessarily about what someone can practically use it for; it’s about exceptional engineering, it’s about mankind testing its own limits, it’s asking what is possible? Two-hundred-seventy-seven means a lot to us hardcore fans of the brand. But this is bigger. Koenigsegg has captured the imagination of everyone.
A production car top speed record attempt on a public highway is not something that someone just throws together. This particular one had been in the works for about a year. It takes a lot of effort from a lot of people. One of them, multiple Koenigsegg owner Jeffrey Cheng, turns out to be a bit of a fan of this website I’ve put together. So a few months ago when I received an email from Jeffrey titled “Koenigsegg High Speed Run”, I realized I was about to be part of something really special. You’ve probably already read everything you can get your hands on regarding this record. Hopefully this article will give you some tidbits and insight the others might have missed, and give you an idea how it felt to be there. If nothing else, I have to share my take on this event simply because I’ve never experienced anything like it.
Not only is Jeffrey one of the people who put the top speed event together, he was the one who hatched the idea in the first place. But it was Joel Oscarson of Spring Mountain Motor resort in Pahrump Nevada, who acted as Jeffrey's man on the ground. He was instrumental in handling a myriad of details including countless meetings with the various governmental agenices and departments. Everyone from the Nevada Department of Transportation to the Federal Aviation Association to even the Fish & Game Division and on and on. Joel coordinated support personnel from Spring Mountain and Jeffrey arranged for the logistics there as well. Jeffrey admits that none of this would have been possible without Joel executing on Jeffrey's vision, and the generosity of Mark Stidham, the owner of the record Agera RS #143.
In the email invitation Jeffrey had explicitly requested that any talk of this top speed event be kept off social media. It was going to be hard enough to pull this attempt off without having to deal with a press storm, to say nothing of hordes of spotters showing up unannounced. The problem with this is, how on earth do you stay quiet for two months about something this exciting? I didn’t even tell my co-workers the real reason I was headed to Las Vegas.
Ultimately, everyone involved did a great job keeping quiet. By November, pretty much no one outside the invited group had any idea what was set to happen out on Highway 160 between Las Vegas and Pahrump. As evidence, see John Hennessey’s bit of spectacularly bad timing regarding his namesake company’s new Venom F5 hypercar (which was revealed at the SEMA show in Las Vegas on November 1), as told by Top Gear: Hennessey isn’t concerned with getting involved with this new 0–249mph–0 battle. “I think that’s a number that the guys from Bugatti and Koenigsegg came up with because they couldn’t beat our top speed number.” Oops.
So on the evening of November 3, I arrived into Las Vegas for an opportunity to witness history being made. I got my rental car and headed out, picking up Highway 160 off Las Vegas Boulevard. Just outside the suburbs, 160 winds up and over the mountains to the west of Las Vegas, and then back down to the desert floor on its way to Pahrump. This is where the record attempt would take place. There, Highway 160 is laser-straight for about 20 miles; however, it’s not exactly level. It’s also not 100% smooth, either. Don’t get me wrong, Nevada highways are largely in terrific shape given they don’t have winters to deal with. But let’s face it, public highways aren’t laid down like race tracks are. There are ripples and undulations that might be acceptable at 70mph, but record-breaking speeds are another matter. It certainly wasn’t the billiard-table-smooth surface I’d been hoping to encounter.
I got into Spring Mountain a bit after 9pm, and while at the main gate signing in, I spotted #143 driving by in the darkness. I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently the Koenigsegg techs had discovered a minor issue with the fuel pumps, and were still working it out. I drove to my building and parked the rental car right next to #103, because when else are you going to park a Sentra next to a Koenigsegg? Several local Koenigsegg owners (and some not so local) had brought their cars to the event, and had spent some time in Las Vegas the day before. Even in jaded Las Vegas, a Koenigsegg causes a stir. Out here at Spring Mountain in the dark, it was just another casually parked car. That happens.
The alarm went off at way-too-early the next morning, as Jeffrey had invited me to 5am breakfast. I met Jeffrey at Spring Mountain’s clubhouse before anyone else even arrived, and he already looked like someone with 1000 things on his mind. This was the only time the entire day I didn’t see him talking with someone, or on a phone, or on a radio. I’m not certain he had slept. He told me then about the concern with the fuel pumps from the night before. Shortly after, the other members of the critical team arrived, including Christian von Koenigsegg; Niklas Lilja; a small team of people from Koenigsegg AB; two representatives from Michelin; Mark Stidham; and a few people from Automobile magazine. It was a small group, and since there was already work going on, I just tried to stay out of the way for the time being.
At breakfast I overheard a discussion regarding the tires between Christian, Jeffrey and Eric Schmedding of Michelin. The tires in use that day would be the same Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 model that you or I could buy at our local tire store. Eric said that they had taken examples of these tires to 280mph on their machines ten times, and it was Michelin’s opinion that after four runs to 280, they would need to be changed for new ones. The tires on the car already had some testing miles on them when they arrived in Nevada, so keeping the them under constant observation would be critical.
Since I had arrived so late the night before, Jeffrey still had to give me my wristband which would allow me access to the site where the attempt would take place. We took a short ride across Spring Mountain’s expansive facility to a large garage. Inside were five Koenigseggs, a few stacks of tires, and pretty much nothing else. Cars in attendance were CCXRS #043, Agera RS #’s 135, 136, 137 and the record car #143. Now, anyone who knows me well knows that I prefer black cars. But I will say that #143 is drop dead gorgeous. The color is just stunning in person and the paint is simply flawless – that car looks wet pretty much all the time. This world record car is now my favorite Agera, displacing #099 from the top of my list. By the end of the weekend I wanted this car so badly I couldn’t stand it.
Jeffrey’s #135 sat with its driver’s side door open, and for a moment I thought about asking him if I could sit inside. To a man however, he still looked frantically busy, and anyway there’s always that thought of act like you belong here. So perhaps another time. The Koenigsegg techs were fiddling with a laptop connected to #143, and everyone was eager to see whether the fuel pump issue was resolved. I’d seen three Koenigseggs in person prior to this weekend, but never had the opportunity to hear one running in person. So when they finally did crank up the record car, not only was I filming with my phone, but I was grinning like a schoolboy on Christmas morning.
In person, a Koenigsegg sounds pretty much like it does in videos, only more immediate; you feel it in your body. Ferrari garners a lot of praise for the sound of their V12s. A Koenigsegg is no slouch however, with the trilling sound of the turbos singing in harmony with the rumbling V8. It’s unique in the automotive world. I need more of this, I thought.
After a short warmup period, Niklas got into the car to take it out for a few laps on Spring Mountain’s track, to make sure everything was in order. So out into the predawn darkness he went, under a full moon with headlamps blazing. The group of us walked up to the top of a control tower to watch and listen as he took a couple laps. Fire shot from the tailpipe; echoes of that monstrous V8 rang out across the desert. Soon he came back to the building, and in a few short moments it was confirmed that everything was working properly.
Around 7:30am everyone started to get ready to set out for the event location, and there was a short discussion about getting the record car there. It was quickly decided that there was no need to trailer it, why not just drive it there? So that’s what they did. Jeffrey told me to be at the garage at 8am for the shuttle bus to bring me and other invited spectators. I asked where they were all going, and he said that only the key personnel were heading out now, to set up and prepare. So after they left, I was the only one remaining behind! Somehow, the only guy in the garage that morning who wasn’t “key personnel”, had been me. I’m not sure how that happened, but looking back on it now, it was pretty cool to have been in the building with the others that morning.
So I hung around with Mark’s other Koenigsegg, CCX #055, which was parked out back, until the busses arrived. I got on the first one with some other folks who had gathered, and we set out nine miles down 160 from Spring Mountain to the event site. Upon approach, we saw large lighted signs that were alerting motorists to a “SPECIAL EVENT” and to “EXPECT LONG DELAYS”. Highway 160 is a divided four-lane setup, and for the record attempt, two-way traffic was being directed onto one two-lane side of the highway for a period of 11 miles. This required 11 miles of traffic cones down the center line of that side of the highway, as well as a constant police presence on both ends of the diverted section of highway. When we arrived, there was already multiple fire trucks and emergency vehicles stationed at the ready. There was also an enclosed Koenigsegg trailer, a VP Fuels tractor-trailer, porta-potties and a fenced off area for us spectators.
During the speed attempts, all traffic was stopped at either end of the 11 mile section of highway in public use. This meant that traffic would be halted for at least 10 minutes while the road emptied out. I almost felt bad for the people in the stopped cars. But we had business to get to. Cars #135 and #137 had been driven there already with #143, and all three of them were sitting in formation. Some support vehicles were finishing performing reconnaissance on the stretch of 160 that would be used, including a jet blower to clear any debris off the highway. At 250-plus mph, even little stones could cause big problems.
Since I was in the first group of spectators, I had plenty of time to take in the scene, and walk around the cars. There were two helicopters flying about for filming, and a drone or two. Police and fire officers mingled with the crew; everyone was in good spirits. I took a look inside the cockpit of #143, with its roll bar and cameras and data acquisition hardware. I gazed down the highway, the same highway I had just driven down the night before at a sedate 75mph, and I realized that Niklas was going to get into this car and drive down that road at close to 280mph. And that’s when it all hit me, and I said to myself,
This is fucking insane.
I mean, all of it. Closing the road and the police and the helicopters and this ridiculously powerful car and these terrifying speeds and the significant personal risk and all the effort it took to make this happen, all for the sake of setting a record that would be nearly unduplicatable without all this attendant preparation. I’m trying hard to convey the scope of this thing, because it went beyond what I thought it would be. Yes, it was a small team of people that worked on it. But I’m telling you now that no one is going to be setting another record like this on a public highway, on just a whim. Perhaps it had to happen in Nevada, a State where the Wild West still sort of exists, and absurd things like this can happen.
I’ll tell you something about Koenigseggs. I’ve seen a bunch of them now in person, but before that weekend, all three that I’d previously seen were at dealerships. At this event, seeing them out on the highway, they cast an entirely different aura. They look impossibly wide; seemingly taking up an entire lane. They’re low of course, and especially with the Agera, they have a face that kind of glowers at you. It’s not a mean-looking car necessarily, but it’s a serious damn bit of machinery, and you’re put on notice when one spots you. And what I’ve always loved about the design is that it does not seem derivative of anything else. Even the folks driving by, most of whom probably had no idea what a Koenigsegg is or what was going on, would slow down to see just what these wild looking cars were.
There was a bit of waiting for the sun to come up and conditions to be ideal. There was a good bit of breeze blowing against us that would continue throughout the day. What I didn’t know then, was that before me or any other spectators had arrived, there had already been a few slow runs done, in order to get a feel for the road. What we were all expecting was a number of runs throughout the day, ramping up the speeds to where everyone was comfortable going all out. The road was allocated to the attempt until 3pm, and then was available again the next day from 6am-3pm, should it be necessary. So there really wasn’t any rush.
It was not until quarter to 10am that traffic on the road was first blocked. Niklas set out for his first run to the other end of the road, to complete a speed run with the wind at his back, towards us. The helicopters went with him, as they would for all the runs. There was a particular undulation near the top speed point that was of concern, so no one really expected a big number on this run. As far as all of us spectators knew, it was just a test run. So much so, that I never heard the top speed of this first run until later that night. It turned out to be 271, which means that on the first real run at speed, Koenigsegg had already claimed an unofficial top speed world record in one direction. So much for slowly ramping up.
About 20 minutes later, traffic was stopped once again and Niklas headed out the far end for another downwind run. You could barely see the car at that distance; there was about 8 miles of road in use that we could see from our vantage point. By my guess however, it really only took about 3-4 miles to get the job done. So by the time the car came well into our view, it had slowed considerably. Thus, there was no way for us spectators to tell how it was going. However, a couple guys near me had radio scanners that were set to the frequency in use by the Koenigsegg team. Suddenly, at least two of these guys let out a WHOA! And then someone called out…
If ever there was a holy shit moment, this was it. As it would turn out, that widely quoted figure was obtained from a radar gun, which was not 100% accurate. But it was at that point I knew this record was going to be special. If you recall, the 0-400-0 record set in Denmark was done without shifting into seventh gear. I had always figured top gear should be worth another 20-30 mph, and since 400km/h equals about 250mph, I figured high 270’s was fairly probable. But 291? That was ridiculous.
As you all know by now, the downwind run was actually 284 and some change. Which is still faster than anyone’s ever driven a car on a public highway. Apparently Niklas knew it was good at the moment also, because if you watch the video of that run, you can pretty clearly hear him whoop while coasting down. There would be no more downwind runs.
Jeffrey would tell me later that at this point in the day, the Michelin guys were suggesting a tire change. But inspection of the tires showed they were holding up better than expected. It was decided to run the upwind run immediately in the interest of a fast turnaround (official two-way records must be set with both runs in a 60 minute period). Around 11:30am, #143 headed into the breeze, and it was quite some time later that we learned that the record average was 277mph, meaning an upwind run of 271.
There were cheers and congratulations all around. Koenigsegg had smashed the production car top speed record by 12mph, and had done so before lunch. Since they had the road for three more hours, everyone wanted to see if the 0-400-0 record time could be improved upon, with the more favorable pavement available here. But I’ll tell you this, in my opinion, the road was less than perfect at this point. There’s a lot of loose dirt out there in the middle of the desert, and as I’ve mentioned there had been a breeze all day. Without all the usual traffic “clearing” that stretch of road Koenigsegg was using, it appeared to me that the road was dustier now than it had been all day. For example, by this time I could see a coating of dust on the black fencing I’d been leaning up against all morning.
As proof of my suspicions, there were at least 2, if not 3 aborted attempts at the acceleration record that I saw. Each of these times, the traffic had been stopped (again for at least 10 minutes, sorry folks!). Niklas was having trouble getting traction. Let’s face it, with 1360hp to only two rear wheels, first gear is pretty much just for the valet. The car makes all sorts of strange noises, the traction control doing what it can, but it’s just so much power. A Bugatti will always launch harder than a Koenigsegg because of this (the Koenigsegg will catch it soon enough).
Finally, the launch conditions were good enough that a successful run was made, but the data logger showed that Niklas had missed the mark, and had actually run 0-396-0. Naturally, this did not really satisfy anyone, so another run was attempted. It was good. By this time of the day, no one was really paying attention to who was part of the crew and who was invited spectators, so everyone including myself had left the spectator area and gathered around the car as the techs downloaded the data. It was 33.29 seconds from 0-400-0, knocking a full three seconds off of Koenigsegg’s own record.
And here’s something you need to know: the record 0-400-0 run was set into the wind. Sure it’s an acceleration record, but you still need to go 250mph. And as we saw with the top speed numbers, the effect of the wind that day was significant, causing a 14mph difference in speed in the two directions. Additionally, the conditions in Nevada necessitated a shift into seventh gear, whereas in Denmark the record was set topping out in sixth. Why the new 0-400-0 record was attempted into the wind, I’ll never know. But I’ll throw this thought out there: With clean pavement and calm air, and a fresh set of tires, it’s my opinion that a Koenigsegg Agera RS with the 1360hp engine option could knock even more time off that 33.29 figure. That’s pretty startling, and makes Bugatti’s 42 second run with the Chiron look a little silly.
Soon after the top speed record had been set, Paul Ames from Master of Barriers (the company that had provided all the fencing and traffic control barriers for the event) set about making up some authentic “Speed Limit 277” signs. These were presented to Christian, Niklas and Jeffrey by Joel after the day’s activity was completed. Each of them autographed the signs and posed for photos.
As the crowd was dispersing, and everyone getting set for a late lunch at Spring Mountain, I caught up with Christian von Koenigsegg walking alone. We chatted for a few minutes about the day. I asked him if there would be any more runs the next day, but he said no, everyone is satisfied and things had gone well. Besides, he said, “It’s just so much to do all this, with the traffic and blocking the road and everything.” I asked him if, when he started the company, he ever expected it to get to this level of success. He paused for a moment and replied, “Well I did not really expect to fail either. But it is getting to the point where the cars are so expensive, I cannot even afford one for myself!”
Finally I asked him about the impetus for this record attempt. If you recall, years ago Christian was quoted as saying top speed was not a focus anymore. Apparently he recently got tired of people (cough *Bugatti* cough) saying “others are satisfied with theory” rather than results. He told me, “I had been trying to find a place to do it. After 10 years I had gotten frustrated and gave up on it. These guys came to me and said why don’t we do it? I said, find me a road, and we will do it. So they did.”
There was a lot of information that came out in the days after these records, but there are some key points that might have been glossed over that I want to point out:
- The performance of the Michelin tires was remarkable, even to folks from Michelin. The set of Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires that were STILL on #143 when it drove back to Spring Mountain that afternoon, had three speed runs to 270-plus mph, and then two more 0-400-0 attempts. That’s a considerable amount of abuse, and there was minimal wear evident to my eyes at the end of the day.
- Jeffrey informed me a few days later that the boost on #143 had been set to 1.48 bar rather than the usual 1.60 bar, so as not to over-stress the engine in the thinner air of the 3300 foot altitude. You read that right – the world record was set without using full boost.
- The first official in-car video that appeared online showed two of the speed runs. Some folks correctly noted that both of those runs were made in the same direction. This video shows runs 1 & 2, both of which were run in the northwest direction (downwind). However, the 277mph record comprises runs 2 & 3, which were done in opposing directions, within an hour. You can also clearly see in this video how uneven the road gets at 250-plus.
- Anyone who might assume that the top speed record was set with special gearing, had better be prepared to explain how it was possible on the same day, with the same car, to also take three seconds off Koenigsegg’s own 0-400-0 acceleration record.
- The new 0-400-0 record was set in the “slow” direction, relative to the top speed results. That is, into the wind.
- Anyone who might doubt a Koenigsegg’s reliability, might want to think about five runs in one day to above 250mph, and then driving back to the hotel. I’m not even sure why the trailer was there.
Someone will probably break this top speed record. The most likely suspect is Bugatti, with their Chiron. However I can't come up with a reason why they are waiting, so I have my doubts. But if someone does, I’m okay with that, and I think Christian is too. I don’t believe Christian ever set out to build the fastest car in the world; if he did, the car would probably have been designed differently. The top speed record is a happy byproduct of the extreme engineering Koenigsegg puts into their super sports cars. What makes World’s Fastest Car most special to me (and probably to Christian too) is vindication for all the years I had to read from doubters how Koenigsegg’s speed estimates were just bogus claims. Koenigsegg wasn’t shying away from its claims, they just never had an opportunity to prove them. Thanks to a group of dedicated people like Jeffrey Cheng and Joel Oscarson, Koenigsegg was put upon the world’s stage. And in that defining moment, Koenigsegg rose to the occasion and delivered, putting their stamp on the record books with authority. And they made it look easy. I know because I saw it happen myself.
And if the day ever comes when Koenigsegg decides to have another go, I sure hope Jeffrey remembers my email address.