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Jay Leno on driving amazing cars at amazing speeds.
I’ll never forget the first time I experienced speed and motion without the guidance of an adult. I was nine years old and a friend of my Dad’s came over with what I now realise was a Whizzer. In America it was a kid’s bike, but it had a 49cc engine and a hand throttle. You moved a lever and you could go down the road self-propelled. So I get on and I turn the throttle. And it pulls away so quickly because nobody told me where the brakes are.
I go sailing down the driveway, off the driveway onto the grass. I’m bouncing, my mother’s screaming and my Dad’s yelling, ‘Grab the brake…!’ Luckily I managed to slow down and not hit anything. But that was my first true sensation of unabated speed and it felt like I was on a superbike. It only had three horsepower but it was pretty amazing.
The really interesting thing is that, for humans, there’s no evolutionary fear of speed. Put a baby in a room, turn out the light, and the baby will cry. Put the baby on the hood of a car going 70mph and he’ll laugh hysterically. Obviously I haven’t tried it, but I think it’s true because there’s no evolutionary fear of speed. We get a real kick out of it.
Today, I’m not sure I don’t prefer torque to speed. Torque is a whole different thing. I have a 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Stanley steam car and when you open that throttle you can get 0-60 in… well, I don’t know what the number is, but it feels extremely quick because you start with zero revs. I call it the Hand of God. It’s a phrase I use to describe steam all the time. You open the throttle and it’s as if your back is given a mighty shove. The Stanley probably has 600-700lb ft from zero and you just open the throttle and pull away very quickly. Electric cars do the same thing.
But I don’t know if it’s speed I necessarily enjoy or the sensation of speed. For example, you go down the road in the McLaren F1 and you look at the speedometer and you’re doing 110. Then you slow down to 60 and you feel as if you could step out of the car. In fact, that’s something that actually happened quite a bit at Indianapolis when they had two men in the race car. They’d go round the track at 100mph, pull into the pits at 40 and jump out, thinking they were only doing 2mph because the sensation was so much lessened. So I think I’m more taken with the sensation of speed than with the actual speed itself.
At some point though, speed does tend to become uncomfortable. In America, when they started to put the super highways in, what they did to come up with the speed limit was put people in passenger cars and cover the speedometer with a towel. They asked them to say when it started to feel uncomfortable. Eighty percent of the people said – at 65mph – ‘this feels fast enough’. That was in the cars of the ’40s and ’50s and so they were moving fairly quickly. That was the scientific logic behind speed limits back in the day.
On the public road, anything above 140mph is no longer fun. It’s just out-and-out reckless. I think top speed is irrelevant now. It’s the acceleration that will always be paramount.
The fastest I’ve gone in a vehicle was 278mph in a jet car on the dry lakes as a passenger. The fastest I’ve gone on a public road was 178mph in a Corvette on the autobahn. The fastest I’ve gone on a track was just a shade over 200mph in a Mercedes SLR. I did about 80 or 90 laps at Talladega in a Porsche Carrera GT, where the fastest I reached was 190mph.
I found the amount of concentration needed to go around Talladega a lot of work. I come to the corners and can feel the Porsche moving and sliding under me at 188mph. I was like, ‘Oh jeez…’ Then, coming down the straight, one of the crew guys in the pits gave me the thumbs up, and I lifted my foot off the throttle and the car spun about five times. It made me realise how much incredible concentration it takes to go fast.
Top speed is not everything. One of the most fun ways to enjoy speed is on a good two-lane road in a Lotus Elan. You hear the revs, you’re seeing 7000rpm on your tach, you’re looking at between 80 and 110mph on the speedo, you appear to be flying because you’re low to the ground. After a while the telephone poles look like picket fences. That’s the real sensation of speed – the one that I, not being a professional, can take in.