The Book of Acts: The Tale of the World-Record-Setting Koenigsegg Agera RS Speed Run
Felling an 80-year-old-record in the Nevada desert
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 cars like the Agera RS 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."
"I'm most worried about the tires," Niklas LILJA says, "because they are the most critical part of the car. It's the only thing connecting you to the road. "
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 power-to-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 mo-dels 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], basic-ally 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."
"We put a lot of hours in to find the best setup to punch through the air. 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. "
There was a mountain of paperwork and plans to submit. Permits from a half dozen Nevada regulatory and law-enforcement 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 iron-flat 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 con-necting 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 off-throttle 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. Watching them go off into the distance, nothing about the car seems dramatic. It's speed on the geological scale. When they return, someone asks Stidham how it went. He says it was a pretty good test run. They hit 220 mph.
The idea was for Lilja to slowly build up speed. Take a stab at 160 mph, then 180, then keep jumping up, run after run until he beats the record. But the man has no patience for that. It's like he doesn't want to spend too much time near that teetering edge.
"I'm relieved. This is dangerous stuff, you know? We'd never driven faster than 250 anywhere. We're pushing the boundaries. "
The wind never settles, but on his first official run Lilja heads uphill into the sporadic gusts and rips off an average speed of 271.2 mph over the flying kilometer. He leaves the helicopters filming the event well behind. It's stunning, almost unbelievable to be there to witness the thing. When Lilja gets out of the car and removes his helmet, someone tells him his speed. He nods. "Then I will try for 300."
Later, he'll say the headwind gusts had the car drifting a few meters left and right as he approached his top speed.
The day warms up. Lilja heads for the requisite return run over the same distance, and when the car finally appears over a swell in the pavement, a crowd gathers as he opens the door, and a tech pulls the Vbox data. There's a snow-day excitement. A flurry of hushed numbers whispered among the crowd before the official word comes down. He's averaged 284.6 mph this time for a combined speed of 277.9 mph. It isn't just the fastest anyone's ever officially gone on a public road. It's the fastest anyone's gone in a production car, period.
The Department of Transportation permit is good for all day, and Lilja's keen to make the most of it. Earlier this year, Koenigsegg set another record, beating the Bugatti Chiron's previous benchmark in the 0-400-0-kph test on a broken concrete WWII runway. With all this perfect pavement on hand, Lilja can't help but take another run at that feat. Someone asks if they should consider changing tires. The driver eyes the fronts. "We don't need to change the tires," he says, "because we're not going that fast."
For the record, 400 kph is around 250 mph.
There is some drama this time. The traction-control system overheats, and on his first run Lilja loops the car. After a cooldown, he takes another stab at it but doesn't quite reach the magic 400-kph mark. On his last run, he blasts from a standstill to 401.7 kph and back to a stop in 33.29 seconds, putting more than 8 seconds between the Agera RS and Chiron. Von Koenigsegg is smiling.
"There's probably something left in it, but I think we're done for the day," he says. "I'm relieved. This is dangerous stuff, you know? We'd never driven faster than 250 anywhere. We're pushing the boundaries."
Indeed. Their efforts have gained them five production-car records: the highest top speed for a production vehicle at 277.9 mph (beating the 267.8 mph achieved seven years ago by Bugatti's Veyron Super Sport); the 0-400-0 kph record at 33.29 seconds; the flying kilometer on a public road at 276.9 mph; the flying mile on a public road at 276.9 mph; and the highest speed on a public road at 284.6 mph (besting the Nazis who set the previous record of 268 mph in 1938 with a Mercedes-Benz W125).
Maybe this is the point of these cars. To be unburdened by racing's regulatory bodies. To grasp at the uniquely human pursuit of going faster for the sake of saying we've done so. To take the measure of ourselves not against our competitors but against the very fabric of physics. Von Koenigsegg could not have picked a more perfect name for his world-besting car. The Agera. In Swedish it means "to act."