Pilots who fly above Mach 1 sometimes speak of a supersonic moment that causes the instruments, ever-so-briefly, to blur. Charging down a track in the 1,200-hp Henessey Venom GT there's a moment when my eyes pull the same trick. This isn't a car, man, this is the best way to die.
Bill Clinton famously said "There's nothing wrong with America, that can't be fixed with what's right with America." John Hennessey — who I'm guessing didn't vote for Clinton based on things he says on Facebook — has his own version of this: there's nothing wrong with the Lotus Exige that can't be fixed by what's right with an American V8.
In this case it's a GM-sourced 6.2-liter V8 boosted with a pair of giant, earth-spinning Garrett ball bearing turbochargers sitting below a massive engine cover lined with NASA-spec gold foil that looks like it was borrowed from an exhibit at the NASA Space Center down the road from Hennessey's main campus in Sealy, Texas.
The Texas prairies and plains have a way of screwing with a man's brain. All that possibility. It's why movies about Texans have names like Giant and Big Jake. I'm not sure what they call movies about people from Delaware. I'm not even sure they make movies about people from Delaware.
So you'll have to take it on my authority, as a Texan, that John's not bullshitting anyone when he tells them this whole thing started as a joke. A wouldn't-it-be-funny-if sort of proposition. Fortunately, when you've got a shop full of Texans used to playing with 1,000-hp Ford GTs and Dodge Vipers, it's not hard to turn a joke into reality.
"One day I joked about putting the Venom 1000 Twin Turbo engine in the back of a Lotus Exige," says Hennessey. "Then I thought, let's do a sketch and see what that might look like.
When I drive out to visit Hennessey HQ, the Venom's sitting in the shop undergoing some fine-tuning. This gives me a chance to appreciate the engineering work that goes into taking the internal combustion equivalent of Patrick Warburton and stuffing it in the vehicular equivalent of British Olympian Victoria Pendleton.
What starts as the recognizable Lotus Elise aluminum monocoque quickly disappears into the sort of chome-moly steel and carbon fiber contraption hiding beneath the skin of Transformer if Transformers were real. This allows that glorious powerplant and the Ricardo 6-speed manual transmission to sit far back over the rear wheels for optimal traction (the weight balance is 37/63 with no driver, 44/56 with both seats filled, about 48/52 after a heavy lunch).
Traction's an important goal when you're putting down 1,200 horsepower and 1,155 lb-ft of torque in a car that weighs 2,685 pounds, which Google tells me is the exact weight of a 2005 Ford Focus. This brings us back to how the car looks. The entire body was extensively wind tunnel-tested and fine-tuned at Hennessey's hi-tech engineering arm in England to achieve maximum don't-kill-any-super-rich-dude stability.
To that end there's a massive, movable wing out back. For the first model this bit of aerodynamic magic isn't programmed to adjust at high-speed, but that is something being worked on for the next model.
Speaking of the "next model," this is it. These are exclusive first photos of the second production (third total) Venom GT in an unmissable stallion red undergoing final fine-tuning before being delivered to a customer in the United States. I did not drive in this version, but isn't this more exciting than the one we've all seen a million times?
The Venom GT sounds exactly like you'd expect a supercar to sound when it starts up. There are a lot of tired metaphors for cars with massive power idling, usually involving power tools in washing machines. They all apply here. But I'm lazy, so I'll just show you.
Out on the 1/4-mile track behind the shop I'm setting up to watch John and his crew make a few passes to properly dial the car in, but there's a problem. The car, somehow, is stuck in limp mode.
Unfortunately, even the best of American engineering can't overcome the quirkiness of English electronics. In order to properly start the car you've basically got to open the door, raise your right hand, pray to Colin Chapman, hold down the button on the key, and turn the ignition.
"There's still some Lotus in here, somewhere," jokes Hennessey.
We all laugh, but it underscores a weird reality about the Venom GT. Though it's essentially a $1 million supercar, much of the car is cheap and easy to repair by those standards. Crack a windshield or bust a tire in a Bugatti and you'll be selling off stocks to get the replacement money, but the car uses a lot of Lotus parts you can order straight from the dealership and the rubber's more common and less expensive Michelin Pilot SS tires.
With the British bugs placated and the car warmed up, Hennessey takes a gentle first pass. This is on a relative scale, so a "gentle" first pass is about as wild as anything a blown 5.0 Mustang might accomplish.
The tires, though 345/30/20 out back, still spin in the first two gears as they battle with the Category 5 hurricane levels of torque. The Venom GT makes the long trip back around, they tinker with it a bit, and off he goes again. This time it's faster, though wheelspin is still noticeable.
Now it's my turn. The reason I came out here. I'm going to be one of a handful of people to get a ride in the super supercar.
I take a deep breath and drop into the passenger side of the cockpit, which still feels Lotus-like and remarkably comfortable. Any fears this might be the product of good intentions but poor engineering are quickly dispatched as soon as right foot meets gas pedal.
Speed can be measured, and the measurements say this car goes to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds, the 1/4 mile in 9.9 seconds, and 200 mph in 15.9 seconds (about eight seconds faster than a Bugatti Veyron).
All of this is abstract when you're actually experiencing it. I'm going fast. I know this. I'm at the edge of recognition as I try, mostly unsuccessfully, to focus on the track markers going by. The gut-punch of G-forces to the stomach can best be described as the feeling you get when the plane you're in suddenly drops one hundred feet in heavy turbulence.
As we slow down at the end of the track, running maybe 75% of full-tilt, I gather myself (and maybe let out a big "wahoo!"). Did that just happen? The most noteworthy feature of going this fast in the Venom is you feel the speed but, at least as a passenger, you don't feel the car.
In a Viper or a tuned Camaro or other big, V8-powered cars there's a sensation of feeling the car as you speed forward. Even in something as refined as Porsche Turbo you can feel the wheels thrusting back-and-forth as it crab walks down the track.
The Venom GT makes you feel like you're floating down the track untethered to anything behind you… until a gear shift nails you to your seat.
Thus the many contradictions of the Venom GT. It's a supercar you can afford to drive every day, but if you can afford a $1 million supercar do you really care about the price of tires? It's a big, mean, driver-focused, balls-to-the-carbon-fiber performance car without all the electronic interference of the competitors that feels (at least in my brief time in the car) as stable and competent as anything you'll find.
This is a long-term project for Hennessey, a life's work, and he's in no hurry. He'll build a few of them each year, tweaking them as he goes. Eventually, there will be high-speed oval testing and a run at some famous track times.
Ultimately, I can give only the smallest impression of what it's like to be in and around the car and even that was a bit of sensory overload. Now I'm just sitting here, wondering what I can do to get into the driver's seat.
I'm suddenly tempted by the many opportunities an enterprising young autojournalist might have to get $1 million in cash. Seems like a Baja run would be the perfect cover for drug smuggling. I could tell people I changed my mind and suddenly love the Toyota Camry.
Oh, what's that little red thing hovering over my shoulder? It's just the Venom GT.