Meet the doctor who did 455kph in the SSC Tuatara

“I went from never having an exotic supercar to having the fastest car in the world”
by TopGear.com | Feb 13, 2021
PHOTO: TopGear.com

In the latest installment of the ever-controversial ‘fastest car on the planet’ debate, the team at SSC revealed the Tuatara had reached a claimed combined two-way average speed of 455.28kph (282.9mph) at the Kennedy Space Center. While the speed is impressive, the fact that the record was achieved by the owner of the first Tuatara spiked our interest.

We caught up with entrepreneur, philanthropist, and world’s fastest healthcare professional Dr. Larry Caplin to talk about all things speed.

Where did your love of cars start?

Cars were always an important part of our family. We didn’t have a lot growing up, but my father always had a relatively new car that he washed every single day. Literally every day. We had some of my most memorable conversation with my father over the open hood of these cars. So, it started when I was a kid. I grew up sweeping the floors of an auto repair shop when I was 12—that was my beginning. Then I began doing brake jobs and building exhaust systems and bending pipes.

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What’s in the garage at the moment?

Well, on the racing side of it, my FXX-K Evo, my 599XX—I absolutely adore to be on the track with those. In addition to that, I have a pretty interesting collection of American supercars. I have the last SSC Ultimate Aero ever built, I have the last Mosler ever built—which is the only Raptor GTR—I also have one of the three Saleen S7 Twin Turbo competition cars. Then I have a couple of Ford GTs (one that I drive every day) and a brand-new Ford GT Heritage.

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And I’ve got some cars that are just meaningful from a family perspective. Firstly, I have a ’67 Impala SS—I did my first ever restoration on it back in 1990, and it’s been in the family since it was brand-new. My wife’s first car was a ’77 Trans-Am, so I have an original Smokey and the Bandit ’77 Trans-Am from the Bandit museum. Then my wife wanted a ragtop Beetle, so I got her a ’73 Super Beetle. After that, I built a rock-crawling ’70 Bronco with my son. And I have a ’68 Camaro that my other son and I did work on together. Every single car has a reason for being there.

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It seems the American angle is really important to you as a collector. When did you buy your first SSC?

The very first exotic or supercar I ever bought, before I bought a Ferrari or a Lamborghini or anything, was the Ultimate Aero. I went from never having an exotic supercar to having the fastest car in the world. Nothing like jumping into the deep end of the pool.

What is it about the Tuatara that makes it so special?

I knew that the Ultimate Aero was an extremely well-built car, so my expectations were that the Tuatara would have been built with that same build quality. Drivability is also very important to me. I drive all my cars because I never thought as a kid, sweeping floors in the shop, that I would ever own anything like them. It’s important to me to be able to drive them. Also with the Tuatara, the aero and design work that Jason Castriota did on this car is incredible. From a performance standpoint, Tom Nelson (engine builder) is well-known for being able to put together a powerplant that will give you power that you want. So, the combination of all of that made sense to me.

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How important is the title or its aim to be the fastest car in the world?

The SSC Tuatara on the track

It didn’t really matter to me. The car fits in with my collection of American supercars, and it satisfies my desire to be able to have a car that I can drive. If it turns out to be a world-record-holding car, fantastic; if not, it’s a really fast, really cool car that I plan to drive.

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Were you at the first record attempt?

I was.

What went wrong?

As a spectator at that event, I can’t definitively say what went wrong, but I can tell you how I believe we got there. The car, on paper and to everyone’s belief, is capable of hitting a number well in excess of 300mph (482.80kph). None of us at the time anticipated 331mph (532.69kph) as a number, which is why you see the shock and exuberance of everyone when that number flashes on the screen when we’re looking at it. But because we had a belief that the car was capable, and we were seeing this come across the screen from the telemetry, we all believed that the car did it.

Then when things started to get called into question, it was disappointing. By communicating unverified information when it was not properly authenticated, was a misstep. I felt terrible about the whole thing, and I felt like it let the car community down. It was extremely important to me to make things right, and that’s why I decided to be more involved with the second run.

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So how have you gone about that?

I wanted more control of the information and the accuracy of everything that went on, and the best way for me to do that was to take full possession of the car and be the one in the seat. That way, I could definitively say to anyone that this is what the car did.

We started working with Johnny Bohmer, who is based at Kennedy and has a ton of experience of high-speed runs. He was instrumental in talking to me about the best approaches for driving the car to meet Vmax on that particular stretch of runway. He has done hundreds of runs in the 270-290mph (435kph-467kph) range. So, Johnny was instrumental in those discussions. Then we had the SSC team, of course: Jason Castriota (leading on the aero) and Tom Nelson from the engine side of things.

From a data-logging point of view, Racelogic had two systems of their own running. There were also three Garmins in the car. Then there was the on-board system and the Life Racing system, and then all the additional IMRA timing equipment that Johnny Bohmer has at the facility.

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Blurred SSC Tuatara

And this time, for obvious reasons, we had an independent third-party observer present. I think that for future speed runs, it should be a requirement that independent third-party observers are present. There must be transparency in the process.

So, you had the team; how many times have you been to Kennedy?

The first time in December was a bit of a washout, and there were a number of challenges at that time including that the team didn’t want me to drive the car. They all wanted Johnny to drive the car because of Johnny’s experience and their concern that I didn’t have experience, which wasn’t accurate at all. Additionally, there were two things that caused me to want to drive the car. Firstly, I wanted to be able to raise money for charity with the car. That’s one of my primary goals, and with the unanswered questions and concerns around that run, I wasn’t able to do that. Secondly, I felt that I owed it to the car community to make sure that everyone got it right.

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Okay, so what are your driving credentials?

I’ve done some runs at the proving grounds previously. In the Mosler, I did runs that were actually pretty interesting because the car became pretty unstable at about 180mph (290kph) and started oscillating badly—that’s a pretty solid pucker factor. The Ultimate Aero broke into the 200s (320kph+)... With the Tuatara, I had expected to hit 300 in the car at Kennedy. And I still do.

But my experience is an interesting combination of things. You go all the way back to me working in a shop on cars, building cars with my kids, and understanding the mechanics and the geometry and the setup of the car, to being part of Ferrari’s Corsa Clienti program, where I’ve had five seasons of race events and one-on-one training with Ferrari factory drivers at circuits all over the world, be it Spa, the Nürburgring, Monza, Barcelona, Daytona, Hockenheim… Ironically, I believe that I was the only person on the team with a competition race license.

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What changes did you make to the car during testing?

When we went to Kennedy last year, we found that the car was actually lifting itself up on its suspension, and taking longer for the aero to replant the car to ideal height. This was because of all the torque the engine was delivering and because I was getting into it so hard out of the hole.

So, Jason did the math and when we returned earlier this year, we ran with a change in the ride height, rake, and wing angle. I ran the car in testing with the wing down, which made the car much less stable and required a lot more input from me to keep it pointed in the right direction. But what Jason gave me through the aero he designed was a car that is absolutely stable at those upper speeds—that gave me the confidence to drive the car at those speeds.

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Things get quite different, very quickly at those extreme speeds. What did it feel like?

Oddly calming. It’s sort of a peaceful place because I’m completely present, completely in the moment and aware of everything that I’m doing and everything the car is doing. I don’t think my pulse ever elevated above my normal pulse while I was doing it. But that’s all about preparation. And if I didn’t feel prepared, I would have felt much more uncomfortable. The preparation isn’t just preparation for me—it’s understanding that the car is prepared, knowing that the tires are right, that the runway is correct, that the braking is doing what it’s supposed to do. So, we did runs at 244, 250, 252, 265, 270. I actually had a run at 270 were where the door opened in the car...…at 270.

Talk us through the run.

 The SSC Tuatara on the road

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I’ll break it into sections. First, there’s the acceleration out of the hole. We only used part of the apron because it was literally only the width of the car. Had it been perfectly smooth, I would’ve used all of it; I’d have been fine with hitting the runway at 150mph (around 240kph) if I could’ve, but we used a small section with the best surface.

On some of the earlier test runs, I was driving the car like I stole it, but that created a lot more wheelspin, a lot more heat, and wasn’t nearly as effective at reaching higher speeds. I couldn’t get to full throttle in the car until the top of third going into fourth, that’s when I could finally put the pedal down to the floor. Before that, it’ll spin its wheels all the way through to fourth...so I learned that I was getting better top speed if I didn’t have as much wheelspin in the beginning.

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Second is when you’re getting blown around the runway and you’re aiming the car more than steering it, and then the car really starts to plant itself between 180mph (290kph) and 200mph (320kph). When the aero works, it’s magic. And that’s when, once we got the aero dialed in, the car just sits down and is stable for the rest of the run. Next time, when we run with full power in all of the top gears, I’m confident I’ll stay in it all the way to 320mph (515kph) if it gives it to me.

Do you think it’s possible to hit 320mph at Kennedy?

I think 320 is probably a stretch. I’m certainly comfortable with the fact that we’ll break 300—I had almost 2,000 feet before the flag at 286mph.

What people misunderstand is what it takes to get a car to do those speeds in that space is a very different set of strains than doing it on Rt160 in Nevada, or even what Bugatti did. They were slowly building the car up to speed over a greater distance. Bugatti came off the banking at Ehra at 170mph (274kph), then took three miles or more to get up to the terminal speed. We needed to get to speed as fast as possible, and that builds heat much earlier in the run than the other approach. Even with that at full boost and full throttle at 270, I went from 0.2g to 0.8g of acceleration—we were climbing at 5mph (8kph) per second. So I know that there’s a fair bit more to come...

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Clearly, you’re aiming to claim the title of the fastest car on the planet—that title must matter to you.

I truly believe that the power of the car has nothing to do with the horsepower or the aerodynamics or the speed. The power of the car is what we’re capable of using it for to help other people. Our ability to use these cars to raise money for charity or build awareness where necessary, is the true power of these cars, and that’s really the motivation behind my collection. My wife Kelli and I founded our charity more than a dozen years ago. It brings healthcare to children who don’t have access to care across the country, including the family members and dependents of the military, and also provides scholarships for those children to go into healthcare as a profession and be part of the solution.

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We have our large supercar event in June this year in Philadelphia. We have a car show, a track day, and we shut down the streets and run race cars through the city, all to raise funds for these programs around the world. Right now, we have set a goal to raise $283,000 (P13.6 million) for CF Charities based on the current world record, but it would be nice if it was $320,000 (P15.4 million).

The SSC Tuatara doors and hood open

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NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: TopGear.com
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