SSC's Jerod Shelby On The 331mph Tuatara, Koenigsegg, And What's Next

We had a debrief Q&A with SSC founder Jerod Shelby following the Tuatara's sensational record-breaking run

Update: As we now know, these high-speed trials weren’t what they originally seemed. This interview was conducted and published before doubts started to emerge about how fast the Tuatara was actually going in SSC’s footage. SSC admitted something was amiss after GPS tracking company Dewetron distanced itself from the endeavour, and it’s since been announced that the Tuatara will run again but with more stringent tracking measures in place.

Original article:

It’s Oliver Webb’s second high-speed run in the SSC Tuatara. With a 5.9-litre, 1750bhp twin-turbo V8 roaring away just behind his head, he reaches a top speed of 331mph. He’s traveling 149 metres, or the length of a football pitch and a half, every single second.

It’s 47mph more than the top speed achieved by the Koenigsegg Agera RS on this same road three years ago, and a whopping 90mph higher than the top speed record held by the McLaren F1 for 12 years. It’s not even that far away from the cruising speed of the Lockheed T-33 filming the run from the air.

Whether you’re a petrolhead aged eight or 80, the World’s Fastest Production car is surely the most important automotive milestone. A changing of the guard doesn’t happen all that often, so the combination of Webb’s two runs and the record-breaking average of 316.11mph (503.73kmh) is a huge deal.

SSC - SSC's Jerod Shelby On The 331mph Tuatara, Koenigsegg, And What's Next - Features

The man behind the incredible piece of history-making machinery is Jerod Shelby. He’s a dab hand at this sort of thing, with his company’s SSC Ultimate Aero TT snatching the production car top speed away from the might of VW Group and Bugatti in 2007. 13 years on, SSC is back in the headlines for smashing through 300mph more convincingly than we ever thought possible.

Naturally, we felt a debrief was in order. Catching up with Car Throttle just under a week on from the effort and a few days before the big reveal, here’s what Jerod had to say.

Car Throttle: How does it feel to beat Koenigsegg and Hennessey to the punch?

Jerod Shelby It feels good - it feels like this is a relief. We wanted to do it down in Nevada, where Koenigsegg had done it in 2017. And we found out last fall they were repaving it, so it pushed us into the Spring. And of course, right when we were preparing to go through the process with the Department of Transportation, the world shut down.

There was a concern with this delay that I was going to wake up one day and there’d be a press release from somebody else that the 277[mph] record had maybe been bumped up a little. It was quite a relief and it felt great on many levels.

CT: Who do you see as the greater threat to the record that you’ve set?

JS: I really respect Christian von Koenigsegg. I think he’s an innovator, and I like that he pushes technology in all areas of the vehicle. I’d say their latest entry [the Jesko] probably has the best chance and is the most similar to the Tuatara.

SSC - SSC's Jerod Shelby On The 331mph Tuatara, Koenigsegg, And What's Next - Features

CT: You referred to the 277 which was from Koenigsegg - do you not see the Chiron Super Sport’s top speed as official?

JS: When we broke the world record in 2007 with the Ultimate Aero, we were an unknown company, and if we came out and just said we’d broken this top speed record, we knew people wouldn’t think it was valid. So we really went the extra mile; we worked with Guinness back then to write that world record criteria, doing it in two directions, doing it with a certain certified satellite, exactly the way a customer could buy a car.

Bugatti followed our criteria in 2010, Koenigsegg followed in 2017. I think people should follow that same criteria because it really makes sure it’s a level playing field. The last time someone followed that criteria was Koenigsegg in 2017. That is, until Saturday.

"We know internally there's more there, but I don't think we need to prove anything at this point"

CT: Is the record Guinness certified this time?

The way it works with Guinness is you apply for it. They give you the criteria you have to follow, and you step through that and provide the entire package. It’s two to three months before you hear back. Since we’ve been through this before, we know we’ve done exactly what is necessary.

CT: What tyres did you run on the car?

JS: Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s, the same tyres that our customers run on the vehicles. We independently tested those tyres, spun them up to speeds that we knew this car could achieve under a load, and we felt we were safe with those tyres being used at a higher limit than they’re rated for. We used one set of tyres for the entire day of the record attempts. We run nitrogen instead of air, and we run a higher tyre pressure.

SSC's 'Little Brother Project' will result in a $400,000, Tuatara-derived supercar
SSC's 'Little Brother Project' will result in a $400,000, Tuatara-derived supercar

CT: Oliver Webb said that there was more to give and that it would have been possible to hit the theoretical numbers - what are they?

JS: We’re keeping those close to our chest, but what I will say is that there is still some room before the theoretical limits. We want to leave that open, just so there’s room for down the road if we need to come back. We were very, very happy with the numbers that we posted. The Bugatti record from 2010 was 268, seven years later Koenigsegg goes 277, so they pick up 9mph in seven years - we’re quite happy that we’re over 30mph.

The exciting part to us was the lead-up to this and Oliver - his seat time gave some amazing feedback. We’ve not done a lot over 240mph, just because it’s really hard to find stretches of road to do that. The feedback from him that the car was so stable and continued to get more stable - and then when we laid down this big number in that last run, he talked about the fact that it was still climbing. He got hit with a blast of crosswind, and one of the first comments he said was “the car wasn’t the limit, the limit was me”.

We know internally there’s more there, [but] I don’t think we need to prove anything at this point. It’s nice now we can go off and start focusing on highlighting other characteristics of the car, knowing that if the day comes, we can come back and step back up.

CT: You’d only do that if someone improved upon the speed?

JS: This is a highly risky record to run for. You control as many things as you possibly can, but little things like wind, or a small animal coming across the road - all these little things are out of your control. When we complete a test like we just did, there’s a relief that everything was a success, Oliver was safe, so I’d see no reason to go back out to see if we can go an additional X mph. If it’s necessary down the road we’ll address that.

SSC - SSC's Jerod Shelby On The 331mph Tuatara, Koenigsegg, And What's Next - Features

CT: That’s an interesting point about the safety. Surely beyond a certain speed if something goes wrong, there’s only so much you can do.

JS: You’re exactly right. When you get over 200, 250, 300mph, it can be the safest car on the planet, and I’m not sure someone’s going to walk away from that. We did some testing the previous week on a 150-foot-wide runway - all kinds of room if something were to happen. Then on Saturday, we’re on a narrow two-lane road - you have 12 or 15 feet either way…you could have a catastrophic event. It was a big relief when it was over - Saturday night was the first time I’d slept well in about 15 weeks!

"It's going to be hard to find a driver who's going to want to get on a shut-down public road for one of these records"

CT: How did Webb get involved with the project?

JS: We looked at interviewing different drivers for this position, and someone said “here’s a European race driver, very accomplished guy - how about interviewing him?

They flew him to Los Angeles and sat down and spent an afternoon - basically like an interview - asking him a lot of questions. I really felt good about his approach to this type of record, [and] all of his answers. I walked out of it saying I don’t need to interview anyone else - he’s the right guy.

CT: He’s got quite a big online following as well…

JS: I didn’t even know that at the time! But now I’ve spent some time with him, he’s quite witty, I see why he has a following. He’s a good guy - he’s genuine.

Pronounced 'Too-ah-tar-ah', SSC's latest hypercar is named after a lizard
Pronounced 'Too-ah-tar-ah', SSC's latest hypercar is named after a lizard

CT: If a customer decides they would like to have a crack at a high speed, perhaps beyond 300mph, is that something you would support?

JS: We’d have to take that on a case-by-case. It is such a risky endeavour. We’d want to think long and hard about how that would work.

We did use a customer car [for the record], the customer was actually there. That’s a little different - where the customer is allowing us to use his car and we can check all the boxes for safety. To answer your question, yes, we’d definitely entertain that, but all the areas of concern would have to be addressed before we’d sanction something like that.

SSC - SSC's Jerod Shelby On The 331mph Tuatara, Koenigsegg, And What's Next - Features

CT: Surely we’re getting to the point where it’s not going to be possible with a normal car on road tyres to go any faster than this?

JS: It’s going to be hard to find a driver who’s going to want to get on a shut-down public road and drive for one of these records. We had something happen on our last two passes, and both of them were wind-related. We’ve been told behind the scenes the same thing happened to Koenigsegg in 2017.

Is it possible? Absolutely. In 2006 when we were preparing the record with the Ultimate Aero, we were preparing a car to beat the McLaren F1 speed of 241. During that time and before we broke the record, the Bugatti [Veyron] comes out and it goes 253. And I remember the year-long project it took to change the design of our car to go from 245 to break 253. At that time if somebody would ask me “could you guys go 300 in the future?” I would have said, “I don’t think that would even be possible”. And now we’ve gone 73mph faster.

I think somebody could probably hit 350mph - I don’t know if that’s a year from now [or] five years from now. I love everybody pushing the bar and pushing each other - it’s good for the industry.

SSC - SSC's Jerod Shelby On The 331mph Tuatara, Koenigsegg, And What's Next - Features

CT: Did you look at many other locations or was it pretty clear it would need to be a closed road down in Nevada?

JS: Back in 2007 when we did the record, we looked all over the United States. We even looked at runways where the space shuttle lands and all these different surfaces. What people don’t understand [is] it’s really hard to find a section of asphalt that is that smooth and is safe and the state is willing to let you shut down. It’s a lot of liability.

When Koenigsegg used this section of road in 2017 it was a two-year process to work with the government before they would allow them. The state in Nevada finally decided “we have a section of road, we would be proud to say this is the fastest highway in the world”. That’s going to be one of the only spots in the US where you can legally do this.

CT: Can you give some idea of how much it costs to close it?

JS: It’s quite expensive. They were not donating the road! It’s substantial - you want to make sure you’re not going to attempt this three different weekends.

SSC - SSC's Jerod Shelby On The 331mph Tuatara, Koenigsegg, And What's Next - Features

CT: The Aero was in production for many years - do you see the Tuatara lasting as long?

The whole idea when I started the company in 1999 - I wanted to follow the business model of Koenigsegg and Pagani. They had the first car, they did 15-20 of those as an exercise and then came out with the legacy model that could be the future of the company. We did the same thing with the Ultimate Aero - we did 16 from 2007 to 2011, and then the Tuatara, it is that legacy model we see being the foundation of the company for years to come. We have a 100-unit production run for the coupe model, we’ve already started a high downforce package, track packages, and we’ve already taken orders for all those iterations.

CT: Are electric cars something that interest you? Could you ever see yourself going for an electric top speed record?

JS: I’m a bit of a spectator right now in that world. I’m enjoying pushing the limits of a combustion engine in a two-wheel drive car - I think there are still a lot of enthusiasts out there that love that feel, that sensation, that sound, but I think there will be a time down the road where the electric technology gets to a stage where I can enjoy including that in the future of the company.

SSC - SSC's Jerod Shelby On The 331mph Tuatara, Koenigsegg, And What's Next - Features

CT: What’s your daily driver?

This is always a funny one! I drive a [Chevrolet] Suburban. The reason is I have two sons who play baseball, so in the summertime, we’re always hauling baseball players around.

I still own car number 2 of the Ultimate Aero production run, and I own the car that held the world record. I do almost all of the test driving for our development, so three or four days a week I’m out in a Tuatara. I get a lot of time behind the wheel.

CT: You mentioned admiring the work of Koenigsegg, are there any other companies or products out there that stand out to you?

JS: I’ve always been a fan of the Audi R8. I’m not sure why - I’ve loved the aesthetics of that car from 2010 on, and I’ve always been impressed by their engineering. I’ve had a lot of people ask me when we’re going through the development phase - did I used to drive a Ferrari or some sort of car that I based something off, but I never have. I wanted to start with a blank sheet of paper.