Volkswagen Beetle LSR- Vanishing Point
The 322km/h+ LSR is the fastest and most frightening Beetle ever.
“Do I really want to do this?” That is the thought going through my mind as I sit in a stripped out Volkswagen Beetle in the middle of a dry lake, two men strapping me into the drivers 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, Volkswagen’s New 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 100mph (160km/h), under this yellow Beetle’s short bonnet is a 600hp motor proven capable of throwing the curvy Volkswagen towards the horizon at over 200mph (322km/h)!
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 205.122mph (328.194km/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 racecar squeezed under the factory bodyshell, with 600hp and 600Nm making it 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 roll cage, and fitted with five-point safety harnesses, an aluminium frame race seat with integral head side supports and a fire extinguisher system.
As this car is designed to go as fast as possible in a straight line its set up is different from a track racer. For starters, ride height is much lower than is achievable with any off-the-shelf aftermarket suspension, so a bespoke coil-over kit had to be commissioned from KW using a combination of modified Jetta and Golf GTI components. The anti-roll bars are standard Volkswagen.
This super low ride height also meant that the stock suspension arms would not 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 over 200mph (322km/h) were designed and made for the car.
Bespoke 5.5Jx15 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 300mph (482km/h)!
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 set-up in front that uses the factory rear discs clamped by compact two-pot Wilwood calipers, while the rear brakes are standard. The brakes are only used below 80mph (129km/h) with light application to avoid lock up since the ABS is disabled.
Aerodynamically, the low ride height is a good start, but as top speed is the goal, the car just has a USFRA class spec front air dam and the roof rails that are a first line of defense safety requirement in case the car flips at speed. The side and rear glass is replaced with shatter resistant plastic.
Extracting a reliable 600hp (around 550hp at the wheels) from the factory 2.0 TFI motor that makes 210hp and 285Nm 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 cylinder 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 con-rods. The cylinder-head was ported and polished by THR Manufacturing and fitted with bespoke stainless steel intake valves, Inconel exhaust valves and uprated valve springs, 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 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 bespoke 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 205mph Bonneville record run in 36°C ambient temperatures the system created intake temperatures of around 10°C 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 high octane racing fuel, with the redline set at 8,000rpm. The gearing is such that 205mph equates to about 7,100rpm since the varying traction on the salt surface causes fluctuations of around 100rpm or more.
Fuelling, spark and boost are looked after by a Performance Electronics ECU, precisely mapped on the engine dyno. “We did all the wiring ourselves,” said Tom. “We also beefed up the factory six-speed manual gearbox, fitting a Wavetrac Torsen-style limited slip differential to minimise wheel slip on the loose surface.”
The big moment approaches and I turn the ignition key to start the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine. In one second I go from being able to hold court with coherent thought to the feeling that I am in the middle 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.
And that is not the only component that must surely qualify as cruel and unusual torture. After a minute sitting here at idle, cabin temperature has risen to the point where I want to dive into the ice bucket that replaces the passenger seat to my right.