"Do I really want to do this?" That is the thought going through my mind as I sit in a stripped-out VW Beetle in the middle of a dry lake, two men strapping me into the driver seat so tightly that I can hardly breathe.
They have even put safety restraints on my hands, limiting their range of movement to the point where I can just about steer the car. In the periphery of my vision, I see one of the men stretching the safety net across the door window, a diabolical grin written across his face. "Do I really want to do this?"
In the grand scheme of things, VW's Beetle is a Golf-based lifestyle car to which owners usually give cuddly nicknames. But while most are virtually strangers to the far side of 100 mph, under this yellow Beetle's short snout is a 600hp motor proven capable of throwing the curvy VW toward the horizon at more than 200 mph!
That mythical horizon in front of me is the vanishing point of the very long and very wide straight that makes up the El Mirage speed course in Southern California.
I walked part of the course at daybreak when the spectacular desert light broke as an orange line in the far distance. As that line grew wider, bathing the barren terrain in the kind of mystic light that puts mere humans in awe at the power and glory of Mother Nature, I mused to myself just how far and fast I would have to go before I ran out of real estate and punched a Beetle-shaped hole in a fixed part of California.
The Beetle in which I will shortly attempt to chase the aforementioned horizon is as far from a street-legal shopping car as it gets. Officially clocked at 205.122 mph (328.194 km/h) over a flying mile during the USFRA (Utah Salt Flats Racing Association) 2016 World of Speed event at the Bonneville Salt Flats last September, it is the fastest Beetle ever. No surprise then that the LSR in its name stands for Land Speed Record.
It is a proper race car squeezed inside the factory body in white, with 600 hp and 443 lb-ft making it quite possibly the most powerful Beetle of all time. Built by Tom Habrzyk and his team at THR Manufacturing Inc. of Camarillo, California, this Beetle is the third car he has built for his company, the first two being a Suzuki Kizashi and a Jetta Hybrid. Prior to that, Tom built and supported numerous car, motorcycle, truck, and streamliner car projects for privateer Bonneville and El Mirage entrants.
The base car is a Beetle 2.0 TFSI R line, stripped down and reinforced with a full rollcage and fitted with five-point safety harnesses, an aluminum frame race seat with integral halo-supports, and a fire extinguisher system.
As this car is designed to go as fast as possible in a straight line, its setup is different than a track racer. For starters, ride height is much lower than what you would choose for any other type of racing, so a bespoke coilover kit had to be commissioned from KW using a combination of modified Jetta and GTI components. The antiroll bars are standard VW.
This super-low ride height also meant the stock suspension arms wouldn't have the range of adjustment required for the correct geometry. Thus, custom tubular suspension arms able to incorporate the castor and camber settings necessary for stability at more than 200 mph were designed and built for the car.
One-off 15x5.5-inch alloy wheels fitted with classic Moon racing caps for better aerodynamics are shod with Goodyear Eagle 24-inch diameter drag racing rubber rated to 300 mph!
Since the straights are so long and the DJ Safety twin parachute system does the heavy lifting on the retardation phase of each speed run, there was no need for high-performance brakes. However, the small 15-inch wheels required a custom setup in front that uses factory rear discs clamped by compact two-piston Wilwood calipers, while the rear brakes are stock. The brakes are only used below 80 mph with light application to avoid lockup since the ABS is disabled.
Aerodynamically, the low ride height is a good start, but as top speed is the goal, the car has a USFRA class spec front air dam and roof rails that are a first line of defense and safety requirement in case the car gets sideways at speed. The side and rear glass is replaced with shatter-resistant plastic.
Extracting a reliable 600 hp (around 550 hp at the wheels) from the factory 2.0 TFSI engine that makes 200 hp and 207 lb-ft out of the box required some serious re-engineering. That said, the stock EA888 four-cylinder is a robust unit, so the block, crankshaft, and head are used, albeit modified where required.
The high-performance upgrades start with a set of Mahle racing pistons married to the fully balanced crankshaft by a set of Integrated Engineering forged steel connecting rods. The cylinder head was ported and polished by THR Manufacturing and fitted with bespoke stainless steel intake valves, Inconel exhaust valves, and uprated valvesprings, with timing overseen by a pair of high-lift camshafts specially ground to spec by Schneider Racing Cams.
The engine is fuelled via a custom-built port injection intake manifold, and the twin-turbocharger system mandated by the rules of the class this Beetle runs in. This uses a Garrett GT25 and GT35 turbochargers in a parallel arrangement that relies on critically positioned merger tubes to work properly. "The layout is dictated by BGC class rules for SCTA that stipulate that a factory turbocharged car must have an extra turbocharger installed or be converted to use a mechanically driven supercharger," Tom explained. "We chose to stick to turbocharging simply because it yields more power per PSI of boost applied."
The big twin-row water-to-air intercooler is also a custom-built design and facilitates the use of ice water as an additional charge air temperature reduction medium. "The 'ice bucket' has proven hugely effective in practice," Tom explained. "During the 205-mph Bonneville record run in 97-degree ambient temperatures, the system created intake temperatures of around 40 degrees despite the 2.8 bar of turbo boost." The exhaust system uses dual 3.0-inch diameter tubing with a crossover pipe running all the way to the rear.
Both test and actual speed runs were done using racing fuel, with the redline set at 8,000 rpm. The gearing is such that 205 mph equates to about 7,100 rpm since the varying traction on the salt surface causes fluctuations of around 100 rpm or more. Most people think wheelspin at 40 mph is exciting.
Fuelling, spark, and boost are looked after by a Performance Electronics ECU, precisely mapped on an engine dyno. "We did all the wiring ourselves," Tom said. "We also beefed up the factory six-speed manual gearbox and fitted a sequential shift mechanism and a Wavetrac differential to minimize wheelspin on the loose surface."
The big moment approaches and I start the turbocharged 2.0L engine. In one second, I go from being able to hold court with coherent thought to the feeling that I am in the bucket of a cement mixer. The vibration from the solidly mounted engine shakes the Beetle and its driver to the core, my auditory senses overwhelmed by the raw, unfiltered roar of the machinery up front, which appears to have found its perfect resonance frequency in the Beetle's spartan cabin.
That, believe it or not, isn't the only component that must surely qualify as cruel and unusual torture. After a minute sitting at idle, cabin temperature has risen to the point where I want to dive into the ice bucket that replaces the passenger seat on my right. Sadly, the ice in that bucket is dedicated to making more power and not my comfort.
As I look around the cabin, the two levers hanging down from the roof gain increasingly magical appeal. These levers release the parachutes attached to the rear of the Beetle and should, in theory, bring salvation in place of my anticipated long scream!
The marshal beckons me forward, putting an end to my trepidation. The only way out now is to floor the throttle and go hell for leather for three dusty miles. The crew pushes the car to the starting line, the door opens, and one of the guys yanks at my harness yet again until I feel the very last bit of air squeezed from my lungs. I flip down my helmet visor and wait for the wave that will send me off on my uncertain journey.
From here on out, everything happens in a rehearsed and practiced sequence. I push on the heavy race clutch and select first gear. As I let the clutch bite, I feel like I am in a pinball machine, the 443 lb-ft of turbocharged torque ripping the narrow tires across the sand, leaving dark, scraggly lines on the loose surface as the Beetle launches.
Inside the cabin, all hell breaks loose. The vibration has been joined by a rising opus of induction, combustion, and exhaust noises, but I hardly notice this as I am too busy fighting the steering wheel just to keep this bubble-shaped missile going in a straight line.
The car has started bouncing, as what was just a solid and flat track has suddenly become bumpy. Only at the very last moment do I see the flickering red lights that tell me 8,000 rpm has arrived and I am about to run out of first gear.
Clack, second gear, roar, clack, roar, third gear! The whole car is bucking and bellowing, and a quick glance in the mirror tells me a big cloud of dust is rising behind the Beetle as I hang on to the steering wheel like grim death. Never before has 4.0 seconds from 0 to 60 mph felt as dramatic as this, and we have barely covered the first few hundred feet!
As the numbers on the digital speedo go ballistic, the car becomes a virtual vacuum cleaner on steroids, sucking up the loose surface and creating a growing dust cloud that blocks more and more of my view aft. If not for the fact that my direction of travel is horizontal rather than vertical, I feel like I am hitched to a Saturn V at Cape Canaveral.
Scant seconds later, the digital speedo shows 200-something mph, and I yank the parachute deployment levers for all I am worth. I remember to come off the throttle progressively to avoid locking the wheels at big speeds, and forward velocity drops off like we have hit a brick wall. Simultaneously, the harness straps bite into my tortured shoulders, while my eyeballs seem determined to continue their lunge toward the horizon without me!
I use the brakes to bring the car to a dead stop and kill the ignition to silence the banging of pots in the mad cook's kitchen. Suddenly, I am sitting in an oasis of calm again. My ears are ringing ears, but my senses are heightened to the point where I imagine I can see and hear every displaced grain of sand slowly returning to earth around me in slow motion.
As my addled brain finally catches up with reality, I gratefully come to terms with the fact that my short but wild ride is done, and I have actually exceeded 200 mph-in a Beetle!
Later, the crew tells me it was all over in just about a minute, but with the endless horizon giving me no reference point whatsoever, the fact is that I did not even see the finishing line. While this might seem like an anti-climax, one thing is for sure: 600 hp in a VW Beetle is anything but boring. Herbie would be proud!