Internet sleuths take down the SSC Tuatara's 316-mph speed record
America's Shelby Supercars has more or less abandoned its world's fastest car claim after eagle-eyed YouTubers pointed out a number of embarrassing, possibly costly discrepancies in its video of the SSC Tuatara making a claimed 316-mph two-way run.
Two weeks ago, the SSC team was over the moon, having utterly destroyed all existing speed records for production hypercars on a stretch of highway outside Las Vegas. The claimed speeds, read off a high-precision Dewetron GPS measurement device, were no incremental step.
The previous record, set on the same piece of road by the Koenigsegg Agera in 2017, was 277.87 mph (447.19 km/h). Bugatti's claimed 300-mph-breaking Chiron run was never going to count; it was only done in one direction, for starters, when all these kinds of records demand two-way measurement to cancel out the effects of wind assistance. So when the Tuatara hit claimed speeds as high as 331.15 mph (532.93 km/h), it was the equivalent of almost a 20 percent leap and an absolutely shocking figure.
The company then released the following video in support of its claims, and that's where things started out on the well-worn path to FUBAR.
For starters – and you can see it easily for yourself at around the 0:25-mark above – the GPS speed data appears to show the car doing more than 20 mph (32 km/h) before it even starts moving. But when YouTubers Shmee150 and Misha Charoudin, among many others, started digging further, things got a whole lot weirder.
Since the Tuatara run was done on the same bit of road as the Agera record, it's possible to put those videos side by side and clearly see, thanks to landmarks passed, that the Agera is going faster. Analysis of the SSC engine and gearbox ratios appeared to suggest it was literally incapable of doing the claimed top speed in sixth gear, by a long shot. Measuring the distance between known landmarks and measuring the Tuatara's time between them produced an average speed lower than the GPS data was reading at any point over that distance.
And things continued to pile up; in another 360-degree video, a helicopter can clearly be seen out the right side passenger window keeping pace with the car up to around 1:17, when the car is approaching 200 mph (322 km/h). This helicopter, an Airbus H125, has a fast cruise speed of 162 mph (260 km/h) – and a "never exceed speed" of 178 mph (287 km/h) that no sane pilot would get too close to, even without a big stabilized camera hanging off the front of the aircraft. There's no way that chopper could keep up with a car doing 200 mph.
SSC went into a kind of damage control, first saying the company that produced the video had messed up sync points with the GPS data, and secondly saying that Dewetron, the GPS speed tracking manufacturer, had validated the speed record.
This appeared to be news to Dewetron, which quickly put out its own statement saying it had, "neither approved nor validated any test results for the world record attempt by SSC Tuatara." What's more, Dewetron indicated that the equipment in question is highly sensitive to setup and calibration, and not only was there no Dewetron representative present to oversee the SSC run, but no employee of the company had been consulted with regard to setup in the lead-up to the attempt. So even if Dewetron received all the GPS data, they'd never be able to validate it.
Finally, SSC's founder and CEO Jerod Shelby released the three-minute "personal statement" below, more or less admitting he couldn't answer any of the pressing questions around this run: "The more we looked, the more we tried to analyze, the more we were concerned there were doubts in the relationship between the video and the GPS. I took that very seriously."
"The perfect view I had of this record is now gone," says Shelby. "And no matter what we do in the coming days to try to salvage this particular record, it's always going to have a stain on it ... There's just no way to now make this perfect. It hit me: we need to re-run the record. We have to do this again. And do it in a way that it's undeniable and irrefutable. So the next time we do this – and we'll prepare to do it in the very near future – we need to make sure we have multiple GPS companies' equipment in the car. I want to make sure we have their staff on site looking over our shoulders and analyzing every run, every detail of this."
So the speed record is off, for now, and if the YouTube sleuths' calculations are correct, there's a good chance the Tuatara may not even be as fast as that 2017 Koenigsegg. Mind you, it's possible the GPS calibration on previous records may have been off as well, and they just haven't been probed and analyzed to this degree. This kerfuffle has brought everybody's top speed records into question – were their GPS systems calibrated properly? Perhaps some kind of standard might come out of this that puts paid to all doubts.
While SSC hasn't released the raw GPS data, and probably hasn't done itself any favors in the way it's responded to this criticism, nobody's accusing the company of flat-out lying or deception in this case. It seems more likely to be a simple calibration mistake that's been blown way out of proportion due to the extraordinary numbers involved.
And in some senses, who cares? There's no denying the Tuatara is a fiendishly fast and powerful car, whose owners will likely never get the chance to push it to five times highway speed. Hypercar speed records are now so dangerous, and so far removed from regular Earthly use cases, that the whole thing can easily be viewed as a petrolheaded engineering circlejerk that'll one day have lethal consequences for some gallant test driver caught by an unlucky gust of wind.
But to buyers of these multimillion-dollar toys, prestige is everything. Reputation and excellence matter. Cars like this can sell for 10 times their original price with the right story attached to them; a famous owner, a movie appearance, a moment in the global headlines as the fastest car of its time. This controversy has already tarnished the shine on the Tuatara, and buyers are no doubt absolutely incensed by what this has done to their investments, not to mention the simple disappointment of knowing every car person that sees a Tuatara out on the road will have this unsightly incident in their heads.
We have no doubt SSC's next attempt will be completely above board. Lord knows it'll be done under intense scrutiny from every conceivable angle. If the Tuatara manages to hit a similar high score or better, this will be a tiny blip on the radar and the car world can get back on with bowing down to its new god of speed. If it only just pips the Agera's record, it'll be about the least exciting "world's fastest car" in history.
And if it turns out to be slower than the Agera, which seems to be a distinct possibility, then honestly, this is the sort of thing that can sink a small company. SSC's brand will never be the same. Shelby must be acutely aware he's dancing with the devil right now, this could ruin an extraordinary reputation built over many decades, not to mention throwing some shade on the Guinness World Record he achieved back in 2007 with the SSC Ultimate Aero, which was measured as the world's fastest car at 256.15 mph (412.2 km/h) using ... a Dewetron GPS system. Yikes.
The whole thing has been a heck of a circus to watch, and certainly a powerful lesson to the likes of Koenigsegg and Hennessey, who can now look at that 300-mph barrier and consider it unbroken again. We await the next attempt with eyes on stalks.