Bound­ary Smasher

Automobile - - Contents - By Zach Bow­man

It started out as a “what if” con­ver­sa­tion among a group of Koenigsegg own­ers. It turned into a grand pur­suit of a world speed record on an 11-mile stretch of closed Ne­vada pub­lic road in one of Chris­tian von Koenigsegg’s Swedish hy­per­me­gacars— the Agera RS. Noth­ing about the runs was easy, but the re­sults were bet­ter than any­one imag­ined.

EV­ERY­ONE WOR­RIES ABOUT the wind. They cast their glances out the open garage doors and into the early morn­ing black to­ward the sound as it whips its way across the Ne­vada desert, a thin moon and a scat­ter­ing of stars the only light to be seen. It’s quiet in­side. Chris­tian von Koenigsegg, owner, founder, and CEO of Koenigsegg, pries his eyes from those dark gusts and gets back to con­fer­ring with his driver, Nik­las Lilja. The two aim to put their mark on his­tory at dawn by claim­ing a record that’s stood for nearly 80 years: the fastest speed over a fly­ing kilo­me­ter on a pub­lic road.

It’s easy to dis­miss hy­per­cars as el­e­ments of ob­scene fan­tasy, ma­chines that ex­ist en­tirely in the the­o­ret­i­cal, their ca­pa­bil­i­ties rel­e­gated to spread­sheets and sim­u­la­tions. Rare is the mo­ment when they make that breach into re­al­ity.

“It’s some­thing we’ve been dream­ing of do­ing for many years,” von Koenigsegg says, “but we’ve just not found a venue long enough to stretch our legs. We ba­si­cally gave up two years ago.”

That was when the Agera RS made its de­but at the Geneva Mo­tor Show. The car bor­rowed heav­ily from the com­pany’s One:1, a track-fo­cused model with a lu­di­crous 1:1 pow­erto-weight ra­tio cour­tesy of an in-house twin-turbo 5.0-liter V-8 good for 1,341 horse­power and 1,011 lb-ft of torque. Koenigsegg only built seven ex­am­ples of the One:1, all sold by the time the car made its de­but. The com­pany wanted to of­fer buy­ers a softer, more ap­proach­able ver­sion. The re­sult was the RS.

“It’s an ev­ery­day kind of hy­per­me­gacar,” von Koenigsegg says.

The stan­dard en­gine pro­duces 1,160 horse­power, though an op­tional pack­age up­grades that to One:1 spec. With less down­force and the same mus­cle, von Koenigsegg re­al­ized the Agera RS was likely the fastest car the com­pany had ever built. It could be the fastest pro­duc­tion ve­hi­cle in the world.

The scene in­side the garage at Spring Moun­tain Mo­tor Re­sort in Pahrump is dizzy­ing. There are only 25 Agera RS mod­els in the world, each with a price tag in ex­cess of $2 mil­lion, and four of them sit here un­der flu­o­res­cent lights. Th­ese cars are time­pieces. They are de­tailed in ways that would make a Ferrari 488 GTB seem com­mon by com­par­i­son. The wheels are hand-laid car­bon fiber, their spokes and hub hol­low to save weight. The doors hinge up­ward in a lu­di­crous and per­fect salute, re­veal­ing wide car­bon-fiber sills. It’s hard to com­pre­hend just how tidy th­ese things are un­til you’re stand­ing next to one with the roof at hip height.

Of all the cars here, only one will make the sprint, and it isn’t some com­pany pro­to­type. Agera RS 143 be­longs to Mark Stid­ham, and he saw it for the first time yes­ter­day. He’s soft-spo­ken and quick to smile, with white hair and a goa­tee to match. He’s more ap­proach­able than you’d guess for some­one who’s about to gam­ble $2 mil­lion on a maybe. He says the idea to ante his car be­gan like so many other per­fect no­tions.

“It started as one of those late-night con­ver­sa­tions: ‘You know what would be cool?’” he re­veals. “That was prob­a­bly a year ago, and now here we are.”

Stid­ham makes it sound easy. It wasn’t. Those con­ver­sa­tions spurred a bliz­zard of ac­tiv­ity from a coali­tion of sup­port­ers and the strong South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Koenigsegg owner con­tin­gent. Of the nine Agera RS ex­am­ples headed to the U.S., seven call the Golden State home. First, they had to find a venue. The Bon­neville Salt Flats is a log­i­cal lo­ca­tion, but von Koenigsegg knew the car would have re­quired too many mod­i­fi­ca­tions to safely run on the dry lake bed.

“A rear-wheel-drive car with 345 [tire width], ba­si­cally at 250 mph you spin around,” he says. “So, OK, you can put on nar­row tires, you can put weight in the front, but that is not the car [we make].”

The solution came in the form of a stretch of Ne­vada’s State Route 160. Just out­side of Pahrump, the four-lane pours out onto the plain be­tween the Nopah Range across the Cal­i­for­nia bor­der to the south­west and the hills around Charleston Peak to the north­east. For 16 miles, the pave­ment does noth­ing but run dead straight—if not per­fectly flat.

Jef­frey Cheng was the first Koenigsegg owner in Cal­i­for­nia, and he has been a Spring Moun­tain mem­ber for al­most eight years. “It’s al­ways been one of those things where I thought it’d be great to take one of th­ese cars to top speed on this road,” he of­fers. “It’s al­ways


been in the back of my mind. … Ob­vi­ously, we could try to go boot­leg it at 5:30 or 6 on a Sun­day morn­ing, but it would be cooler if we could of­fi­cially have the bless­ing of the nec­es­sary par­ties.”

There was a moun­tain of pa­per­work and plans to sub­mit. Per­mits from a half dozen Ne­vada reg­u­la­tory and lawen­force­ment agen­cies in­clud­ing the Ne­vada Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, the state’s Di­vi­sion of Forestry, and the Ne­vada High­way Pa­trol. It took months of wad­ing through meet­ings and let­ters volleyed be­tween at­tor­neys, but along the way the idea gained the sup­port of the gover­nor’s of­fice. That helped, and when it was done, Stid­ham, Cheng, and their friends had le­gal ac­cess to 11 miles of pub­lic pave­ment.

Mean­while, as the own­ers bat­tled Amer­ica’s unique form of bu­reau­cracy, von Koenigsegg and Lilja fo­cused on ready­ing the car for its run. “We put a lot of hours into sim­u­la­tors, tweak­ing ev­ery­thing to find the best

setup to punch through the air,” Lilja says. “It’s not about horse­power, it’s not about weight. … It’s about push­ing through the air. That’s the most dif­fi­cult part of the car.”

The com­pany kept the changes min­i­mal, in­clud­ing an op­tional lou­ver on the rear lid bor­rowed from the One:1. “It’s cre­at­ing down­force, but we also see that we get more clean air in the rear of the car, and we’re not fill­ing up the en­gine bay with a lot of air,” Lilja ex­plains. “It’s some­thing we’ve seen driv­ing the car over 370 kph.” There’s an op­tional, bolt-in safety cage in­side, along with a dif­fer­ent driver’s seat that ac­com­mo­dates a race har­ness. Oth­er­wise, the car’s the same as the other Agera RS ex­am­ples roam­ing the globe.

But for all the sim­u­la­tions, Lilja and the car face an ocean of vari­ables. There’s that damned wind, for one. And the fact Route 160 runs into a bowl, gain­ing or los­ing some 300 feet in el­e­va­tion over 11 miles de­pend­ing on your di­rec­tion. There’s the road sur­face, too. It’s not some iron­flat test track. It’s run-of-the-mill Amer­i­can tar­mac. When we ask Lilja what he’s wor­ried about, he doesn’t hes­i­tate.

“I’m most wor­ried about the tires,” he says, “be­cause they are the most crit­i­cal part of the car. It’s the only thing con­nect­ing you to the road.”

He says that at top speed, the tire-pres­sure mon­i­tor­ing sen­sor in each wheel ex­pe­ri­ences 30,000 g. The force causes the 30- to 35-gram part to weigh the equiv­a­lent of 150 kilo­grams, or 330 pounds. “Ev­ery­thing,” he says, “is pushed to the ex­treme.”

He’s right to worry. The Agera RS wears Miche­lin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, 265/35R-19s up front and 345/30R-20s in the rear. They’re off-the-shelf con­sumer rub­ber, the same ones

you can or­der on­line from the com­fort of your desk chair. This set has been to 250 mph a few times al­ready, but it’s a wide gulf from 250 to the record of 268 mph and be­yond.

“Any­thing be­yond that is brand-new ter­ri­tory,” Stid­ham says as Lilja fires the Agera RS and rolls out of the garage. “Man wasn’t meant to go 276 mph. We’re built to run. The idea that we have this much in­flu­ence over our en­vi­ron­ment is kind of cool to me. That’s what drives me. What can we do when we ap­ply our in­tel­lect and our re­sources? This is the re­sult of that. To me, it’s a thing of beauty.”

The car sounds un­like any­thing you’ve heard as it moves through the pad­dock and onto the Spring Moun­tain road course. Lilja takes a few laps in the dark­ness, shak­ing the thing out, dust­ing him­self off for later. The ex­haust snaps and snarls, light­ing the as­phalt with brief flashes of offthrot­tle fire, the sound of so much air get­ting sucked through those ex­otic lungs echo­ing off the build­ings be­hind us.

The tem­per­a­ture hangs in the lower 50s by the time we make our way to Te­copa Road, the stag­ing area for Lilja’s run. The sun is barely up, light­ing the swirled stone hills to our north­east. There’s noth­ing out here, just sand and scrub and tele­phone poles like gal­lows strung straight for miles.

Traf­fic’s been rerouted onto the north­bound lane, but the high­way pa­trol stops driv­ers on both ends while Lilja makes his at­tempts. Street sweep­ers have scoured the pave­ment since day­break, at­tempt­ing to clean the sur­face as best they can. Lilja and Stid­ham take a re­con run, head­ing south while the cam­era­men clean their lenses and check their bat­ter­ies.


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