Uh oh, asterisk. Don’t tell me this guy didn’t actually hit 200 miles per hour…
Okay, yes, this story starts with a technicality. According to the digital gauge cluster inside the McLaren 765LT I drove, I hit 203 mph. However, the GPS tracker suctioned to the windshield only recorded a top speed of 196 mph. Believe whichever number helps you sleep at night. Either way, it was f**king fast.
It’s also par for the course at the Sun Valley Tour de Force. Now in its sixth year, this fundraising event allows speed freaks to drive their cars as fast as they want down Phantom Hill, a three-mile section of Highway 75 north of Ketchum, Idaho. It sounds like some kind of grassroots, cannonball-style event, but it’s actually very well organized. Cops close the road, spotters watch for obstacles (you do not want to hit a deer at 200 mph), and for $2,950, you can take a run down the hill – plus attend a number of other neat automotive events throughout the weekend.
All the proceeds go to benefit Idaho’s Hunger Coalition food pantry, and in 2022, the Tour de Force raised $600,000. This year, event organizers say they surpassed that number. McLaren sponsored this year’s event, and the company used it to run a prototype of the new 750S supercar with retired Formula 1 driver and 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Stefan Johansson behind the wheel. (Incredibly nice guy, by the way – we watched the IndyCar race on his iPhone at the airport.) McLaren also invited a few schmucks like me to come test our lead feet, bringing along the greatest hits of its recent arsenal: the 720S, 765LT, and Artura.
Gallery: Driving 200-MPH McLarens In The Sun Valley Tour De Force
200 MPH? No Pressure…
All the participants were really there to have a good time, sipping coffee and talking about old rich person things in between runs down Phantom Hill. But there’s a special level of recognition for people who break the 200-mph barrier, which is exactly what I aimed to do.
Weirdly, despite having the most power and downforce (and a documented history of exceeding the two-century mark), the 765LT was not the best car for the job. Both it and the Artura have top speeds of 205 mph, while the 720S can hit 212 mph. Why? The 720S might have less downforce than the 765LT, but its body is more aerodynamic. Its twin-turbo V8 engine is also geared differently, making it easier to reach and exceed 200 mph.
At this point, I really need to stress the fact that Phantom Hill is a public stretch of road that anyone can drive at any time. That means it’s not a smooth, wide strip of tarmac like an airport runway. This is a bumpy-ass two-lane road up the side of a mountain in rural Idaho. There are cracks and frost heaves. When I drove up Phantom Hill the day before the event to get the lay of the land, I was like, there’s no way it’s this road. Oh, and there’s a slight turn. And a small crest. A blind, sweeping turn with a crest. For a 200-mph speed run. What the...
That means hitting 200 mph isn’t just as simple as flooring it in a straight line. Folks who previously ran the event cautioned me to stay to the right as I came into the turn, as the southbound lane of Highway 75 was slightly smoother, and then move toward the middle and straddle the double-yellow line before cresting the hill. I was told that if you can exit the turn doing about 170 mph, reaching 200 mph shouldn’t be a problem. In theory.
When you’re sitting in your car in the staging area at the top of the hill, you’ve got about 10 minutes of alone time with just your thoughts swirling around in your helmet. That’s when the whole gravity of the event made me sink into my seat. At 200 mph, if anything went wrong, that was it. I’m toast. All of a sudden I recalled the parts of the registration form where I needed to list two emergency contacts and provide my blood type – you know, just in case.
But it’s not like I was driving some rickety old shitbox trying to set a land speed record. The 765LT’s 205-mph v-max isn’t some kind of “if you dare!” challenge. This car was engineered so that anyone who can afford one can realistically exceed 200 mph. It’s literally what the 765LT was made for.
Fast Doesn’t Begin To Describe It
One by one, I watched the cars in front of me take off down Phantom Hill. Each car completed a full run and crossed the finish line before the next vehicle was cleared to go. As I inched up to the start line, I tried to decide if the sweat on my brow was from nerves or the fact that it was sunny and 90-something degrees, and that I was wearing a full-face helmet. The call came over the radio. The starter gave me the thumbs-up. Time to go.
I shot away quickly and made sure the tires had traction before really pressing harder, and I kept my eyes up towards the long left-hander ahead. I followed the advice I received earlier that day, staying to the right, letting the car move around a little bit, not keeping my hands too tight on the wheel. Through the turn, I moved toward the center of the road, and the car started to feel lighter as I got toward the crest of the hill. After that, it was a straight shot down to the finish, the wide open expanse of Idaho’s Sun Valley on full display. I kept my eyes focused way, way down the road to avoid the warped sensation of high-speed tunnel vision. All I could do was keep my right foot floored – and breathe.
It’s not easy for a car to reach 200 mph. It’s fighting the grip of the tires on broken pavement, a headwind, and the sheer thickness of the hot air. McLaren’s engineers said the 765LT had a better chance of hitting its top speed in sixth gear, not seventh, simply because of the way it's geared. (Seventh is basically an overdrive.) “Floor it in sixth and just bang against the rev limiter,” one guy suggested. Okay, sure thing.
It’s not easy for a human to reach 200 mph, either. You are putting a ton of trust in a machine to do something your brain knows is inherently not okay. It takes a lot of concentration to actually keep your right foot all the way down and to trust the little jolts you feel through the steering wheel. It’s also loud. It’s so loud. The engine noise, wind noise, road noise… not to mention the voice in your head wondering what the hell do you think you’re doing?
But then it’s over. Taking my foot off the gas, I let out one of those awkward sigh-laughs as I slowly applied the brakes. I got one mile of braking zone before I had to pull into the pit area, and while that might seem excessive, slowing down from 200 mph took a sec. There’s a weird speed disconnect, where you slow down to what you perceive as a crawl, but then you look at the speedometer and you’re still doing triple digits. I pulled into the pits, grabbed a cold bottle of water, and then stood around the leaderboard with the other participants to watch the speeds roll in.
No matter if you use my 196-mph recorded speed or 203-mph observed speed, I was not the fastest person that day. Several people crested 200 mph, with top honors going to the driver of a tuned McLaren 720S who hit 219 mph. Johansson in the 750S prototype saw an even 200 mph, though he told me earlier that day he wasn’t going to push it too hard because – no offense, McLaren – British car prototype.
Tour de Force creator Dave Stone said the event was born out of his long-time desire to drive a car as fast as he could down Phantom Hill. And as the head honcho, Stone completed the first run of the day. But he didn’t do it in an Audi, McLaren, Ferrari, or Porsche. Stone sped down Phantom Hill in a modified 1981 Volkswagen Caddy pickup. His top speed? 112 mph. The Tour de Force is all about thrill, no matter the car.
2021 McLaren 765LT