Race to 300 mph: Automakers compete for a major milestone

Automakers race to make a 300 mph car

Hennessey Performance Engineering is known for turning hot cars into super cars. One of its most popular cars, a modified Camaro called the Exorcist, goes from zero to sixty in less than three seconds and can reach a top speed of 217 mph. 

That's not even their fastest model.

Five years ago, founder and CEO John Hennessey set a new record for speed in a production vehicle with his 270-mph Venom GT – tantalizingly close to the magic number: 300.

"At some point in time, maybe 100 years ago, there was the first car that could hit 100 mph," Hennessey told CBS News' Don Dahler. "Then fast-forward into the late '90s and what was the first production car that you could go buy that could break 200 miles an hour."

"I think we're now kind of on the cusp," he said. "I know we've got a car that's got that capability."

That car is the Venom F5. It has a 7.6 Twin-Turbo V-8 engine cranking out more than 1,600 horsepower. Designers were told form had to follow function: the car had to weigh less than 3,000 pounds but still look amazing.

But there are other entrants in the race to 300 with a lot more resources behind them. Famed supercar makers Koenigsegg and Bugatti are also vying to be the first.

"I love being the underdog. I'd much rather be the underdog than the one favored," Hennessey said. "I don't think that we're gonna see a car break 400 miles an hour or break 500 miles an hour. So I kinda feel like a 300-mile-an-hour production series road car is kind of the automotive Mount Everest."

Travis Okulski, editor-in-chief of Road and Track Magazine, said Hennessey faces a "really, really big challenge."

What's so challenging about hitting that number? Okulski said, "Where do I start?"

"I mean first off, tire technology. Right? When you go above levels of 250, 260 miles an hour you're stressing the rubber and the tire and all the compounds and everything. So if something were to come apart and fail at that speed, it would be catastrophic," he said. 

"These cars generate an enormous amount of heat, so at those speeds heat management is huge. If it gets too hot, it can explode," he said. "And the final thing that I think is holding back is aerodynamics. So if, you know, when driving into the air, the air will act as a wall as it gets faster and faster. So it's either pushing the car into the ground … or it's possibly generating lift, and if you keep going faster, the car's gonna fly away. So you need the mixture of great aerodynamic packaging, heat packaging, and 1500 to 1,800 horsepower in order to make this sort of thing happen."

No less a factor is location, location, location. It takes a lot of straight road to hit 300 mph. Hennessey had access to a runway at Florida's Kennedy Space Center to reach 270 in the Venom GT, but he'll need more than that to reach this goal.

"To run 300 mph we're going to need to have a public highway that we can work with the state, whether it's Texas or Nevada, where we can close the highway to run. But I think with five or six miles that's what we need to run 300 and have plenty of room to slow down," Hennessey said.

Finding the right road, Okulski said, is going to be very difficult.

"The problem is when you're on a road the road has a gradient, right? And it's sloped downward. And then it's bumpy. So it's very unpredictable to do it on a road. So achieving that top speed is going to be very, very, very difficult for wherever they can do it," he said.

Building a car from the ground up that can go that fast is one thing, but you'd think finding people to plop down more than $1.6 million to buy one is another. But think again. Hennessey said his first production run of 11 Venom F5's are already spoken for.

"You know, you're paying for the bragging rights," Okulski said. "You're paying to have something that is incredible, not just by the standard of automotive, but by the standard of all engineering."

But for John Hennessey, whose love of fast cars started when he was a child, the Venom F5 means more than bragging rights. It means his family name could be considered among the automotive greats.

"We talk to our kids that the F5 is our legacy vehicle," he said. "It's the vehicle that 50 years from now when I'm gone, that's the vehicle that ... would be kind of the pinnacle of the vehicles that we've built."