There are many settings in which you’d expect to find a Mercedes-Benz SL. Yacht clubs, country clubs, and prominent valet spaces are but a few of the native habitats of the species Mercedea Convertibula Flagshipius. But one place you don’t expect to see a Mercedes SL-and in particular the 604-hp, $179,000 SL65 AMG-is an environment to which it’s surprisingly well adapted: the nitrous-huffing, rubber-burning, mullet-combing land of the drag strip. Like a CEO who rips the sleeves off his Armani suit to enter a barroom arm-wrestling competition, the ‘roided-up SL65 is a muscle-bound meathead under its tasteful duds. But does a twin-turbo V-12 a drag racer make? On a balmy Florida evening, we head to the Friday Night Drags at Orlando Speed World to find out.Speed World might be the only place in the greater Orlando area where the parking lot is filled not with rented Caravans and bedraggled parents but with 700-hp Supras and motorcycles that hit 150 mph in a quarter-mile. If more kids knew about these thrill rides, Space Mountain would be as empty as outer space.
The SL65 AMG is the only Mercedes at the track. In fact, it might be the only German car at the track, save a lone Jetta or two. The lot is filled with a diverse enough array of cars, but they all fall into two major categories: American Iron and Sushi Sleds. Racers are grouped according to elapsed time, and the SL lands in lanes 1 and 2 (under 12.99 seconds) with the serious bad boys-over here, you’re not talking mere Corvettes, you’re talking Corvettes on nitrous. One such animal in front of me in line is adorned with a sticker on the rear window that says “Fuel Slut.”
Not that I’m driving a Geo Metro. Think of the SL65’s output this way: it’s kind of like having an SL500 with two engines, since its 604 hp conveniently (too conveniently?) doubles the 500’s 302 horses. Except that analogy isn’t quite accurate, because the SL65 actually more than doubles the torque output of that hypothetical twin-engine SL1000. Despite that silly power, the number of drive wheels remains the same, and hence, in the age of the all-wheel-drive Lamborghini, the SL65 is a throwback in that it is a complete and total bastard. Turn off the traction control, and try making a right-angle turn away from a stop with half throttle. Here’s what happens: there’s a split second when it pulls smartly away with no drama whatsoever. Then the turbos check in, and the next thing you know, you’re going sideways and fielding calls from shady art dealers who mistook your face for the one in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
Picture any given car doing a burnout, and you’ll probably imagine a high-revving engine as the soundtrack. The SL65 will incinerate its rear tires while turning 2000 rpm. Very disconcerting, that. All the way from 2000 to 3000 rpm, the hand-built V-12 hammers the pathetically inadequate 285-section-width rubber with 738 lb-ft of torque. That amount of torque isn’t uncommon-in fact, Mercedes itself makes another engine that cranks out 700 lb-ft. But that one goes in school buses. The SL65’s rear tires aren’t just bringing a knife to a gun fight, they’re bringing a pair of left-handed safety scissors to a nuclear war. So I know in advance that if I don’t want to be laughed back to the gator farm by the guy driving the V-8 Chevy S10, I’ll need to make like a Real World cast member and hook up every time I get a chance.
There are a couple of time-honored drag-strip traditions in which the SL65 just can’t participate. The first is pointless engine revving. Guys sit in a line for an hour with their hoods up, letting their engines cool. They push their cars forward in line rather than start them. Some pack dry ice around their intakes. Then they get near the front of the line, put their helmets on, and all of a sudden, it’s a deafening cacophony of unmuffled V-8s redlining in neutral. “Ah, crap,” they must think, “I could try to keep my engine as cool as possible and thus maximize my chances of performing an excellent run, or I could make a really loud vroom-vroom noise while I sit here . . . ah, the hell with it.”
When I try to participate in the pointless-engine-revving derby, I find I’m neutered by the car’s electronics-the V-12 climbs to 3000 rpm and won’t go any higher unless it’s in gear. Party over. Along with all the other idiot lights in the Merc’s gauge cluster, there ought to be one that reads, “No, I think not.” Instead, I get fired up listening to the Crystal Method’s “Born Too Slow” on the CD I burned to listen to at the track. Yes, I made a mix CD just for this occasion. Yes, I am a sixth-grade girl.
The “No, I think not” light would be blazing again at the next phase of the trip down the strip, the water-box burnout. When you try to brake-torque a car equipped with both brake-by-wire and throttle-by-wire, the end result is pathetic bogging as the computer realizes what you’re doing and cuts the revs on you. Oh, you can still do a burnout-738 lb-ft of torque will do that for you-but you feel decidedly wimpy choking on the cloud of tire smoke from the Camaro in the upwind lane.
I edge to the line, and the guy at the staging lights makes me put the top up. Fine. Is this a good time to mention that I’ve never driven on a drag strip before? Hey, if you don’t even know how the staging lights work, you may as well start out in something tame, like a 604-hp, $179,000 supercar. At least on this run, there’s nobody in the next lane to point and laugh at.
When the light goes green, I take off with such violence that the automatic roll bar pops up. The SL’s spring-loaded roll bar deploys at a threshold of 0.5 g, which is a pretty good shove in the back if you’re not being rear-ended by a dump truck. When I trip the lights, I find I’ve turned an 11.85-second quarter at 118 mph-with the air-conditioning on and the seat gently massaging my back. When I pull up to the booth to get my time slip, the track official is apoplectic. “You need to slow down. You just ran in the 11s. I think you need a roll cage.” I point to the deployed roll bar, but he says pop-up bars on hardtop convertibles don’t count. I get the impression he just made that up on the spot. Luckily, he continues improvising rules until I’m once again legal. “Wait a minute, no, you used to need a roll cage if you were in the 12s . . . but I think we just changed the rule to 11.49. So don’t go faster than that.”
Back at the pits, other drivers are scandalized. They want to look at the time slip. Curse words are uttered. This rich-guy luxobarge just ran in the 11s right out of the box. I attribute my time to pure driving talent, but that notion evaporates when people start asking questions about my setup and technique. “What’s your air pressure?” “Did you do a burnout before the run?” “Does this have adjustable suspension?” “Which ride height is it set at?” “Are you shifting it yourself?” I am quickly made to understand that if I can run in the 11s with full air pressure in the tires, the air-conditioning on, and the suspension set on firm (not ideal for load transfer to the drive wheels), then basically Cuddles the Miniature Seeing-Eye Pony could also snap off consistent sub-twelve-second runs.
I disprove that theory by doing much worse on subsequent runs. Launching the SL65 with the traction control off is about as easy as riding a unicycle up a ski slope. This might sound strange, but there is such a thing as throttle feel, and you don’t realize you’ll miss it until it’s not there. Between the electronic throttle and the nonlinear turbo power delivery, modulating how much juice you summon and when is a crap shoot. If you’re lucky, you spin the tires a little, hook up, spin some more when it hits second gear, and then it’s a simple matter of holding on. Apply too much gas, though, and you’ll not only waste time smoking rubber, but the traction control might decide you’re a man not to be trusted and cut the power. This being a Mercedes, there’s a stern German hiding somewhere under the hood, and that sneaky bugger activates the traction control even when you’ve got it switched off. When that happens, you may as well phone home, because your ET is in trouble. On one run against a stacked Mustang, I spin too much, and the Mercedes V-chip cancels my programming on the way to a relatively blah 12.6.
Back in the pits, I’m approached by a man wearing a leather racing suit. “Are you the guy running 11.9s?” he asks. I reply in the affirmative, and he identifies himself as Mark Fekany, the owner of the green ’68 440 Coronet that’s beaten me twice on the way to 11.5s in the left lane. Fekany bought his car new in ’68, and over the years, it has received a trick head and a few other goodies that make his car faster than anything originally sold by the Mopar boys. Fekany, along with several other seasoned racers, looks at my time slips and divines what’s been obvious to me since the first mile behind the wheel: I need more grip. On each slip, my 60-foot time corresponds directly to my quarter-mile time. Odysseus Vergos, the owner of a ’67 Camaro, looks at the 2.2-second 60-foot time on one slip and observes, “You weren’t hooking for shit on that one.” Fekany advises me to drive around the burnout box, since getting water on street tires only hurts your cause. I’m glad for the advice. Actually, I’m glad anyone is even talking to me. This car seems to inspire preconceptions among certain members of the Orlando Speed World crowd that aren’t entirely conducive to friendly banter. One example of a comment overheard near the SL: “F—ing rich kid.” And if I’d figured out who said that, you can believe they’d be hearing from my daddy.
On my final run, I’ve got the tires aired down to 20 psi and the suspension set to comfort. I avoid the water box, and the launch feels good. When I pull in to pick up my time slip, I find that I’m back in the 11s and have my highest trap speed of the night, just missing 120 mph. This despite a hot engine and a track that, since my first run, got bathed in both antifreeze and a motorcycle’s fluids (also possibly those of its rider, who was flung off backward but escaped serious injury). The consensus among the crowd is that the SL65 has an 11.5-second run in it with the right setup. And, um, the right driver.
So Mercedes has built a luxury car that can haul its suede headliner down the road about as fast as a straight-piped Camaro on nitrous. Of course, enough is never enough, and you know someone’s going to take one to RENNtech to get the boost cranked up even higher. But to the NBA star reading this who might be considering that, I suggest leaving the engine alone and focusing your dollars elsewhere. Because the Fuel Slut would have a hard time sticking even with an SL65 AMG 4Matic.