Braking, bad: how to set an electric world land speed record

Venturi broke the land speed record for an EV with its VBB3 last month. Ross Ringham was there to see history made.

It’s more than 500 miles from Sacremento, just outside San Francisco, US, to the Bonneville salt flats. I know because I drove that distance in a single day in September 2016, on the way to see Venturi make history by breaking the land speed record for an electric vehicle with its new title challenger, the VBB3.

Spacesuit Media artistic director and photographer Shiv Gohil had been commissioned by Venturi to document the record attempt and he, of course, needed company. Said company comprised a giant pick-up truck and I. We had hours of driving ahead, sunglasses at the ready and the perfect playlist loaded onto Shiv’s iPod.

“Gas” (as our American cousins refer to petrol) was around $2.50 a gallon, somewhere near a quarter of the price in the UK. The truck, with a 5.7 litre V8 lump and crew cab, averaged 18mpg over the trip out to Wendover, the town we’d be staying at next to the salt flats. That economy is considered good for the size of vehicle out here but hardly counts towards careful use of a dwindling resource; it served a stark contrast to the rationale behind Venturi’s push for EV tech.

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Venturi is a specialist maker of electric vehicles and associated technology. They’re a relatively small bunch of pioneers, engineers and thinkers, headquartered in Monaco. Company owner Gildo Pastor is an explorer of the old fashioned type, in love with the vast expanses of Africa (he used to race the Paris-Dakar rally back when it was very possible you’d never return) and passionate about advancing technology to improve life for future generations.

Shiv and I saw an opportunity to combine the trip to the VBB3’s campsite at Bonneville with a spot of sightseeing. Cue four states in six days, spanning the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Vegas, the Grand Canyon and the Pacific Coast Highway. That’s a story for another time.

For now, we pick up the tale after a day’s driving, singing to the Eagles at the tops of our lungs as we marvel at the stunning road winding through lakes and trees before heading out into the Nevada desert under wide blue skies, Bonneville bound.

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Arrival

We arrive in Wendover a little before eight on Saturday evening. Night has fallen. The interstate has shrunk from the eight lane monster of earlier in the day to a relatively narrow dual carriageway, winding through craggy, rust-coloured rock walls. The darkness is almost absolute, punctured only by the occasional red of taillights in front of us and, separated from us by a featureless black expanse, pinpricks of headlights on the other side of the road. We could be driving across the sea, so featureless are the night curtains either side of us.

Just as the signs point out that we’ve almost arrived, at eight in the evening, we spot the moon. It’s a huge, dim disc; it hangs heavy, orange and foreboding in the skies just over the ragged silhouetted crests of the nearby mountains, without appearing to cast any light over the landscape. It looks painted onto the sky.

Then, we round a bend and the cab is suddenly, shockingly ablaze with the glare of neon light, signs so bright they sear the back of your eyeballs. Before us is an oasis of casinos, seemingly suspended in the middle of nothing. We roll into the artificial dawn of blinking arcade-style billboards.

Wendover is a town of two halves, straddling the state line between Nevada and Utah like a cowboy on horseback. The casinos and neon signs are all on one side of the boundary; on the other, the buildings are much smaller, drab, and entirely without Sin City aspirations.

Our hotel is called the Nugget and is on the Nevada patch. It’s old Vegas in miniature, with a casino, poker room, restaurants and a pole dancer all wrapped in one floral-wallpapered package. It’s a slow atmosphere, though. No tuxedos, supercars or Eiffel Tower knock-offs here.

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We’re out of the hotel with our small change intact at 7.30am on Sunday morning. The access road for the salt flats is one junction along the interstate. This really is a road to nowhere, washed out yellow lines mounted on a strip of dishevelled, cracked grey. It runs parallel to the rearing rocks which thrust into the skies some distance away. To the right are the salt flats.

Those flats. Before you see them, you think the name describes all you need to know but your mind is not prepared for the vast expanse of whiteness shimmering under the low sun. It’s hard to get any sense of perspective, like looking out over the sea. Except that the sea moves. The surface of the salt flats does not. You feel that you can see all the way to the seam where the sky and horizon are stitched together.

The strip of weather beaten highway ends at a string of dayglow orange cones. A couple of local marshals stand outside a dilapidated caravan. They are the gate keepers, holders of insurance forms and yellow festival-style wristbands which show off your authorised status. To the left of the tarmac, the salt is churned up, brown mud showing through tyre tracks. It’s a visual warning that the ground is far from solid under the powdery white crust. The further away you get from the beaten, smoothed strip used for record attempts, the softer the ground becomes.

(How soft? Venturi boss Gildo Pastor took out his six-wheel-drive Mercedes AMG monster for a spin on the night we arrived. It got stuck. Up to it axles. The next day, in daylight, one of the camera crew bogged down on the way up to the access road. Both had to be extricated by a local tracked recovery vehicle.)

A mile or so from the entry point, a few congregated marquee-type structures and portaloos hove into view. It’s a temporary paddock area, a sort of campsite, in the middle of the vast blankness of the salt, next to the main course. There are 10 groups sharing the salt flats today, including motorbikes. Guy Martin is next door with Triumph.

The Venturi site has everything a group of around 25 people needs for a week in the desert. There are three main tents, with a BBQ and kitchen mounted on the back of a trailer taking pride of place in the centre of the camp. Stacks of tyres, hoists, tall tool chests, plastic tables and folding camping chairs sit on blue tarpaulin sheets which are held down by wooden battening screwed into the salt. A couple of coolboxes hold bottles of water and Powerade and bags of ice for the VBB3 cooling system. A shiny Airstream caravan is parked off to one side and serves as the executive office. A lorry trailer serves as the engineering centre. A cluster of pick-up trucks and a jacked-up A-team style van – the “push truck” – are parked along the back of the engineering truck.

The VBB3 itself takes up the longest tent, with assorted equipment dotted around the nude chassis. The black and red carbon fibre body panels sit off to one side, in the sun, while the canopy is open and tilted up and forwards, like that of a jet fighter. Shiv unpacks his camera gear on one of the plastic tables as we help ourselves to sausage sandwiches and cereal. Time to meet the crew; time to meet the machine.

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Meeting the legend

It’s Sunday morning, 18 September. There are bleary eyes but bright smiles. The crew was working until 5am this morning to get the car ready for its practice runs today. The car has a new clutch and shifting set-up which has yet to be properly tested. The team is therefore taking it slow and steady as they build up to their target of 350mph.

The atmosphere at the camp feels very like that of the race track. There are a small number of engineers swarming around the VBB3. The sleek carbon fibre body has been removed, one panel at a time, to reveal the black tentacles of the tubular steel chassis. It looks even longer and narrower when you can see all the components packed into the narrow track.

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The car effectively has two powertrains – one at either end, with the cockpit mounted in the centre, sandwiched between them. Each powertrain has two electric motors mated to a common shaft, together producing 1196kW. These each drive a two-speed transmission, built by Hewland; first gear is good for 275mph.

The lithium-ion batteries are arranged into four packs at the front and four at the rear, comprising 2000 A123 iron nano phosphate cells. The eight independent packs, which run at 900V, boast 95kWh capacity, 2.7MW potential delivery and weigh in at a combined total of 1540kg. Recharging is handled courtesy of a 200kW DC fast charger which simultaneously charges all eight packs.

Each powertrain comes equipped with three cooling pumps (one for the motor assembly, one for the gearbox and one for the four battery packs). Closed-loop cooling avoids the need for radiators, helping to contribute to the car’s sinuous, unbroken profile. An aluminium container for ice is mounted in the nose of the car and is used when the car is running. In the pits, an off-car system pulls the temperature of the cooling oil used in the motors down to around zero Celsius. After its 60 second run, the car’s fluids will be nearer 40 Celsius.

The bodywork covers the wheels, which are custom CNC-machined 16” aluminium items shod in Mickey Thompson 24.5” tyres.

From tip to tail with bodywork on, the VBB3 measures 11.6m long; race ready, with all fluids on board and batteries charged (but minus a driver) the vehicle is 3580kg.

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Despite being a long-running project spanning a number of VBB iterations, the VBB3 is still very much a prototype and the team is effectively learning on the job. The VBB3 has been four years in development. Its predecessor, the VBB2.5, was effectively a technology test-bed leading towards this vehicle.

(The VBB2.5 incidentally also holds the outright land speed record for an electric vehicle, at 307mph; it’s the crown the VBB3 wants to steal. VBB stands for “Venturi Buckeye Bullet”, in case you were wondering.)

This series of speed creations is all the more impressive given that it is essentially a university project, designed, built and run by students at the Ohio State University.

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“You do a certain amount of work on the dyno and test track before you get here,” says David Cooke, who’s in charge of this little desert camp. However, he goes on, the salt flats themselves throw up a very different surface which can’t be easily simulated, meaning a couple of days of test runs and data collection at the salt flats are needed in the build-up to the main attempt.

That’s been illustrated clearly in the team’s thwarted record attempts over the past few years. The salt has been water-logged and lumpy, meaning the team hasn’t been able to get close to the car’s potential. Last year, in fact, the surface was so rough that the car was damaged. Getting into the realms of these speeds is not as easy as it may seem, particularly without the resources of a Bugatti or similar.

The lead time for some of the more exotic and expensive parts also means that the team can’t always move ahead with testing as fast as they’d like. This is exacerbated with the limited budgets, which means the team is often reliant on sponsors for parts; those sponsors have paying customers’ needs to fulfil first, which can contribute to lead times.

The gear changing process is a case in point. Shifting from first to second gear when travelling in excess of 270mph on a surface with very little traction has to be very smooth to avoid upsetting the balance of the car. When there’s a clutch and motors up front as well as at the back, the synchronisation has to be perfect or the car risks spinning out at high speed. Parts arrived relatively late and fine tuning takes time and being on the salt flats at those sorts of speeds in good conditions. It’s quite some engineering feat and the whole team deservedly celebrates when things click into place later in the day.

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Another example of just how unusual this vehicle is can be found in how it slows down. Like many land speed records, the VBB3 has parachutes. Three of them, in fact. They’re vital. If you overshoot the end of the 11 mile run in one direction, you just keep running out towards the mountains until you bog down in soft mud. In the other direction, however, you’d hit the highway, which sits on top of a raised rock platform not far beyond the end of the track. That’s not something you want to encounter at over 300mph.

For added safety, the VBB3 also comes equipped with a foot-operated friction brake, just like your road car. Except, in this case, the brakes are adapted from a jet aircraft to provide the necessary stopping power from the car’s target 350mph. This sort of impressive innovation and concern for safety are echoed throughout the car.

The cockpit is a repurposed IndyCar chassis that, in a neat twist, was driven by Mike Conway back in 2012. (Conway raced for Venturi’s Formula E electric racing team in 2016.) Custom bulkheads attach the monocoque to firewalls at either end. The driver, long-time Buckeye Bullet pilot Roger Schroer, is held in place in his reclined, moulded seat by a nine-point harness; wrist straps prevent his arms flying off the steering wheel and a HANS-device protects his neck. There’s padding and a chunky skeletal roll cage above his head but otherwise the cockpit looks relatively similar to that of a single-seater racing car.

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The safety procedures here require the driver to be able to extract himself in 15 seconds. That’s quite an ask. Schroer has to get all the belts undone, push up the large canopy, duck under the roll hoop that’s right above his head while wriggling his legs out from under the steering wheel and jump out – all in 15 seconds.

The steering wheel holds far fewer controls than Venturi’s racing cars. There are three separate switches for triggering the parachutes, paddles for gear changes, two dials for shifting through drive modes and torque settings and a large screen. During a high speed run, the screen is used by Schroer to keep an eye on when to shift, status and warnings for the various powertrain components and, of course, speed.

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Sunday is spent in a seemingly endless cycle of engineering tweaks, meetings, adjustments and testing procedures. Nicki Shields, Formula E broadcaster and CNN presenter, grabs time with Schroer while he’s not in the car or in debriefs. So does Shiv, with both Schroer and Shields happy to pose for portraits. The sun beats down, glaring off every surface including the reflective ground.

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Finally, late in the day, Schroer is shoehorned into the car, which is loaded onto its exoskeleton-like trailer and ferried down to the end of the course nearest the highway. A test run proves that the day’s fiddling has worked wonders, with the car shifting gears well and working through its full power band while in all-wheel-drive mode for the first time ever. There’s an immediate sense of relief and achievement and a quiet sense of confidence that tomorrow’s record runs will be worth watching.

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The run

“Do I have a clear course?” The marshal, red snapback, blue hoody, shorts – a bear of a man – clasps the radio in his paw like a toy.

We wait. Three engineers, a photographer, a couple of media people and the boss. We wait.

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It’s 7.30am on Monday morning. It is 19 September. Today is record attempt day. We’ve been on the salt flats for an hour already. The crew arrived just after 6am for final prep; Shiv and I swung into camp half an hour later, checked the schedule and then joined the small convoy of team vehicles headed up towards the far end of the track. The course is only 11 miles long and yet it stretches away into the distance as if it goes on forever.

We’re behind the six-wheeled AMG and the team’s push van. Off to our right, on the course itself, the VBB3 is in its trailer being towed up towards the starting line. Shiv hangs out of the pick-up truck as we pace along at speed, capturing tracking shots as the sun rises over the distance mountains. The colours of the sky are beautiful; pinks and purples, yellows and blues.

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Just beyond the end of the track, which is marked with a neon pink “0” on a black board (as seen in this direction; it’s marked with “11” in the other), we circle the wagons. The VBB3 is unloaded, pointing down the centre of the course with intent.

In front of us, another speed machine is readying for a run. There’s some waiting around for it to get underway, which Shiv makes use of by grabbing Schroer for a photoshoot in the crisp morning light. “This is the Top Gun walk,” he shouts excitedly one minute; the next, “This is Gone in 60 Seconds, when Cage meets Eleanor.” Photographer heaven and, despite protestations that he simply isn’t cool enough for the shoot, Schroer comes out with the full Clint Eastwood. “Have you got everything you need?” he asks Shiv, shortly before a record-breaking run: what a pro.

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A record attempt is made up of two timed runs, which must both be completed within an hour. The course is 11 miles long, a dead straight line. Each mile is marked with black boards standing either side of the course; the half miles are marked with orange cones. The first six miles are for acceleration. The timing tower (which sounds impressive but which is, in reality, a little shed-like building occupied by the timing official, an FIA delegate and a couple of computer screens) is located at the 5.5 mile marker and measures speed between mile markers five and six. At six miles in, the parachutes are deployed; the remainder of the course allows plenty of time to come to a standstill.

In front of us, the first machine of the day roars off into the distance and the salt flats fall quiet again. The surface is like a ruffled carpet under our feet, the crystals much larger and looser at this end, away from the tents and trailers. We wait.

The radio crackles into life. “You have a clear course.”

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Team members arm the fire suppression system and turn on the master power. The electronic dash in the centre of the steering wheel lights up with the Buckeye Bullet logo. Schroer is firmly squeezed into the cockpit, lacquered carbon fibre helmet wedged against the cushioning fixed to the underside of the roll hoop. He pulls on his red gloves.

“Have a good one,” says Cooke simply, before pulling down the canopy and locking it in place. He pulls the arming pins for the parachutes, dangles the three red streamers in front of the windscreen to show Schroer that the system is live and then sprints to the push van with the rest of the crew.

The VBB3 moves off. Silent, gliding, like some sort of oversized red bullet or a submarine hovering above the sea bed. The car gathers speed like a wheeled Usain Bolt – smooth, controlled, assured. It vanishes into the white haze.

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Shiv jumps into the back of the pickup and we peel off after the other support vehicles. We barrel down the path just to the side of the main track. It’s like driving along a flat ski piste: wide, white, soft. We’re doing over a hundred and the truck feels like it wants to give more. Shiv, in the load bay, braced against the cold morning wind, doesn’t feel the same.

We pile back into the camp. The Buckeye Bullet is already here, canopy up, body panels half removed. The parachutes are deployed, trailing along the ground behind the machine. “45 minutes left – on the trailer in 30,” calls Cooke. The smell of bacon frying floats across the air as Cooke’s mum and Schroer’s wife work on breakfast a few feet from the crew. It really is a family affair.

The crew is moving as fast as their driver has just been. Mechanisms and systems must be checked, bodywork cleaned and inspected, data downloaded and analysed. The chutes must be restowed, fluids cooled and the batteries charged. The car must complete its return run within an hour of starting its first leg.

I ask what the speed reading was on the first run of the day. “342,” comes the answer. That’s world record pace, although the VBB3 must make the return run to qualify for a record.

The other speed machine completes its turn around and blasts past our camp. No battery charging needed there. After a helter-skelter few minutes, the VBB3’s umbilical cords are disconnected, the body panels are screwed into place and the trailer reverses up to the garage. It’s time to go again.

The VBB3 takes off again on its return run. The average speed of the two runs will count towards the record. Back at the camp, we wait for news. It soon comes: the average is 341mph. That’s a new world record. Before breakfast.

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Elation fills the air and breakfast is served. The job is done but the day is not. The engineers work flat out for another few hours before the car makes one more run at the end of the day. Shiv and I station ourselves at the middle marker this time, the point where the VBB3 will be moving at its fastest. On its first pass of the afternoon, the car exceeds 350mph. It whistles past in ghostly quiet.

The return run doesn’t go so well but the morning’s work is enough. The VBB3 has broken the record set by the team four years earlier and, I’m told, it still has another 50mph to give. Before the car is broken down and packed away, the team is already discussing how to reach that potential – and when. Losing weight, changing the gears or finding a longer track form the central discussion but the team has no doubt that this car and this driver can break 400mph.

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Venturi has already returned to action with its other electric speed machines, of course. The FIA Formula E season kicked off last weekend in Hong Kong. The squad is contesting the championship as one of the sport’s nine manufacturer teams and made a good start by scoring points with both drivers. Spacesuit Media and Current E were back in action too; the Spacesuit team comprised three photographers in Hong Kong, shooting for a range of teams and magazines, while Current E fielded myself, sports journo Luke Smith and our tech editor Craig Scarborough.

Against the might of manufacturer names such as Renault, Citroen, Audi, BMW and Jaguar, Venturi is something of an underdog but its Bonneville antics with the VBB3 and the Hong Kong racing result show that engineering innovation and a pioneering spirit go a long, long way.

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