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The SSC Tuatara world-record controversy and why it exposes the global media

man with a pointing finger

(Photo by Zarko Zarahov)

Blog |   01. Dec 2020

Zarko Zaharov

On October 19, 2020, the world was set alight by the publication of a video of some car going fast. When I say the world, I mean the car-community geeks like me who care for this stuff. Which is a grand total of five or six people these days. But what happened next tells you something rather worrying about the state of the media world that we live in.

It’s basically a modern-day virus, and I don’t say this lightly given recent events. I will get back to this in the last paragraph called “How it exposes mainstream media”. First, let’s start with the storyline and then get into the nitty-gritty details of the evidence against SSC. Unless you’re as numbers nerdy as me, you might want to skip this part.

The story

The run happened back on 10 October on a closed-off stretch of highway outside Las Vegas, Nevada, that is known for its very straight and true construction. In fact, Koenigsegg won a world record on the same road just last year going at an average speed of 287 mph. But SSC felt it could do better than that – in fact a whole lot better. Racing driver Oliver Webb, who sat behind the wheel of the Tuatara, accelerated up to 200 mph on part throttle, keeping the pair of turbos cool, rested and ready for the final stretch from 200 mph and into the history books. What sort of equipment does one need for history?

Well, the Tuatara is powered by a heavily turbocharged 5.9-liter V8 engine that, when given the finest, most potent fuel available, which is E85 (bio-ethanol), produces a whopping 1750 horsepower or around 17x more than your average family saloon. Couple that with its incredibly aerodynamic-looking body, which should fly through the wind like your favorite germs, and low weight of around 2700 pounds, it sure is a recipe for going fast. Really fast.

When the car reached 200 mph, Oliver stomped on the throttle and what happened next left the car community in awe. I couldn’t quite fathom what I was seeing. The rate at which the car was gaining speed was unlike anything I’ve ever seen – certainly, anything that does not have wings and jet engines strapped to them. 220, 240, 260, 270, 280, 290, 295, 300, 305, 310 … The car is now traveling at 140 meters or more than the length of a soccer field, *every second*. 320, 325 … 331.

The final number was 331.15 mph or 532.8 km/h. Something with four wheels, a windscreen, two comfortable alcantara leather seats, and a stereo, just drove faster than some intercontinental planes fly.

The way a speed world record works is, you must set an average of two runs. One going in one direction, and the other run going back the other way. In this case, the Nevada state road 160 has a slight decline going south-east which is why the car will go faster in this direction. For the record to be valid, the car needs to do a re-run going back in the north-west direction within a set time stamp – which I believe should be within 60 minutes.

The car managed a 301.07 mph run going back, giving an average of 316.1 mph or 508.4 km/h.

A new world record that shattered the old record previously set by the Koenisegg Agera RS by a scarcely believable 38.2 mph (from 277.9 mph).

Except, there is a little problem. The car didn’t reach 316 mph … Not even close. 

The evidence against SSC

Allow me to explain. The video that SSC, in cooperation with Top Gear, posted online, showed worrying evidence that the vehicle never hit this speed despite the overlay of GPS data showing 330+ mph speeds in the posted video. Some more clever people than me, Youtube’s own version of “A Few Good Men”, Tim Burton aka Shmee150, Robert Mitchell and Misha Charoudin, did some calculations based on geographical data to support distance / time = speed formulas, gear and tire ratio, sound frequency analysis and other geeky stuff, and were able to prove that the car did not achieve this speed.

screenshot of comments
(Photo by Zarko Zaharov)
sreenshot of comments
(Photo by Zarko Zaharov)

To put it shortly, Tim and the gang put forward some of this evidence, or at least some discrepancies which remain to be answered, against the record.

What sort of discrepancies?

First, by measuring the geographical points on the road, you can measure the exact distance between the turn-around spots on the highway. You can then work out how long it takes the SSC Tuatara to cover the distance between these spots and work out a mathematically proven average speed. The result is an average speed that is so below the claimed speed that it isn’t even funny.

Second, the same time and distance calculation works to prove that the previous record set by Koenigsegg is correct, and when you overlay the two videos (remember, it’s the same stretch of road), the Koenigsegg reaches various points on the road faster than the SSC, despite covering ground at a “slower” speed on the GPS overlay.

Third, if you calculate the lane markings, which are exactly 10 feet long and 20 feet apart on every highway in the country by US standards, you also get a similar calculation.

Fourth, the record was supposedly made in 6th gear out of the total 7. But the problem with that is that the ratios of each gear are available on the internet to be interpreted. All you have to do is multiply it by the size of the tire and you get a theoretical highest top speed possible in each gear. The 6th gear of this particular car would never get the car past 296 mph. Still no slouch, but far from the record-breaking speeds it claims to have hit.

Then there is also the matter of the Airbus H125 helicopter following the car with a camera rig on it. The H125 has a normal top speed of 180 mph and is limited to around 150 mph when mounted with camera equipment. Yet it keeps up with the Tuatara while it’s claiming to be surpassing a speed of 200 mph. Lastly, the car speedometer in the video is blurred for no obvious reason.

The evidence and the math behind it doesn’t show the car exceeding 240-250 mph at any point. Still fast, but the “distance” between 240-ish and 331 mph in automotive progress is like someone claiming they climbed Mount Everest when they barely made it to the first base camp.

For a spot of context, 240 mph was a speed that was impressive some 22 years ago when the McLaren F1 back in 1998 went exactly that – 240.1 mph, which was a Guinness World Record at the time and continued to be until 7 years later when the Bugatti Veyron dethroned it. The latest record that Bugatti ran was last year and was set at 304.77 mph. While the McLaren coaxed a mere 618 hp from its BMW-derived V12 naturally aspirated engine, the Chiron had 1000 hp on top of that, 4 giant turbos, better rubber, and the might of the entire VW Group behind it to go just 64 mph faster 21 years later.

And here comes a small company outsider that leapfrogs everyone and 21 years of automotive advancement in less than one year, and no one bats an eyelid? No one asks questions? No one does any research or factchecking? Well, all but some “dumb YouTubers”, which is what they were called by mainstream media – more on that in a bit.

All in all, the evidence is overwhelming. What followed next is that the GPS tracker company, which SSC was using to track the speed of the car, distanced itself from the record by releasing a statement that it had no personnel at the location and could not verify that the data is correct. SSC turned off comments on all its social media for days. Top Gear renamed the video from “SSC sets a new world-speed record” to just “SSC Tuatara hits SOME SPEED”.

It’s not about speaking the truth; it’s about barking up a story that will get a response from the audience

SSC and its CEO, Jerod Shelby, finally released a statement that there is something here that is not quite right, and they will have to re-run the record. He apparently didn’t want to admit wrongdoing, but I do him for at least addressing some of these speculations and setting out to do the only honorable thing and rerun it.

Why did it happen? Was it contrived? Did SSC know and try to cheat its way to a record? I am not sure about that, and I will not go that far. Maybe the car wasn’t running properly. Something was up.

How it exposes mainstream media

I understand that, in some sense, there is a lot more important stuff going on right now involving world elections, pandemics, economic crises… all in all, 2020 has been a kidney-shot of a year.

But this is also important in a way that people may not realize. Do we need cars that can go at 300+ mph? No, of course not. Do we need media that we can trust to bring our news factchecked and correct to us? Absolutely. Did they deliver on it? No.

Journalism is dying and this is an example of it. I am sure there are a lot of good folks out there who want to do real journalistic “let’s get to the bottom of this” work, but their bosses are pressuring them to deliver click-baity title after title to get the clicks, to get the views, to get the advertising income, to keep their jobs; And if they can just tag along, jumping on the bandwagon of a new hot story – a new world record – without factchecking it, that’s even better for business.

It’s a vicious circle and it results in this corrupted sense of journalism that strives not to be right but to be first. It’s not about speaking the truth; it’s about barking up a story that will get a response from the audience. Don’t check it, don’t question it, just GET IT OUT THERE AND DO IT QUICK.

screenshot of race
(Photo by Zarko Zaharov)

Even worse, is how they then defend their links with this dishonest practice to their readers – by attacking the questioners and their evidence, calling their evidence a “dumb YouTuber controversy” etc., disclaiming it in subsequent articles, dropping the mic with a “case closed” at the end of it, and now keeping very quiet when the jig appears to be up and the case was not at all closed.

That is the most disappointing part of all this. The magazines and the media outlets that I have followed for so many years, and looked up to as respected sources I can trust, are showing their true colors.

This leaves us with a feeling of, what else have I been reading and sucked up that they did not check and verify before passing it on to me and other readers? Do I have to do my own due diligence every time I read or hear of something these days? To quote Arthur from Joker, “Is it me or is it getting crazier out there?” It’s certainly easy to feel like a bit of clown in a situation like this.

If these were some general media, I would sort of forgive them, but this was published and somewhat defended by two of the biggest automotive magazines and authorities, and then all the smaller ones down the chain. These are people who should know better, and we should hold them to a higher standard.

Anyway, I am excited to see what the future holds for SSC and whether it truly has the speed it takes to win a world record. Although I think I already broke that land-speed record last week when I stepped on a Lego brick and ran out of the house hollering in pain. Too bad I don’t have video and GPS evidence of it. I feel like it was at least 340 mph.


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