What It’s Like to Drive a McLaren 215 mph (Legally) on a Public Highway

Our writer put pedal to the metal in a 765 LT Spider and a 720 S Spider. Spoiler alert: It was awesome.

August 26, 2022 6:15 am
Driving a McLaren over 200mph at the Sun Valley Tour de Force on a real highway
The McLaren during the Sun Valley Tour de Force
Basem Wasef

Like any red-blooded, lead-footed, speed-addled driving enthusiast, I like to go fast. Something about moving through time and space breathlessly quick makes me feel alive. But the Herculean capability of modern supercars has a way of bellyflopping against the earthly realities of traffic, distracted drivers and the distinct possibility of losing your license because Officer Friendly caught you doing a buck eighty. Even race circuits aren’t set up for unfettered top speed runs — which is why I made the pilgrimage to an annual event that lures like-minded velocity freaks to the wide-open Shangri-La that is Idaho.

The Sun Valley Tour de Force launched in 2018 as a way to celebrate fast cars with the bonus of raising money for charities. While the event features group drives and evening festivities, the main attraction comes on Sunday morning when local police close off a stretch of State Highway dubbed Phantom Hill, suspending traffic laws so participants can attack the 3.2-mile section with free-spirited abandon. But it’s not quite full-tilt chaos. Ahead of the runs, rigorous tech inspections ensure the cars are mechanically fit for speeds in excess of 200 mph. Tires must be five years old or newer, and a mandatory safety meeting drills in proper protocols (mine was held on Zoom to accommodate my travel schedule). Because shutting down traffic only removes the vehicular enemies you know, spectators are kept at a minimum of 300 feet of distance, while 16 spotters with radios ensure that no wayward wildlife interfere with the trajectory of the fast-moving participants. 

My host for the event is title sponsor McLaren, which brought out a small fleet of dihedral-doored supercars for the high-speed task at hand. Up first: a run in the 765 LT Spider, an aggressively scooped and spoilered 755 horsepower sled which is actually slower than my other option, the 710 horsepower 720 S Spider. Why would the wilder looking McLaren reach maximum vibrations behind its less powerful stablemate? For starters, the 765 produces considerably more drag-creating downforce, and has shorter gearing which yields harder acceleration but lower top speed. Taking a solid gulp in acknowledgment of everything that could go wrong, I strap into the $400,000 convertible, cinch my borrowed carbon fiber helmet, roll the GoPro, and peg the throttle for as long as I can muster while entering the blind left-hander going into Phantom Hill.

It’s liberating, this unadulterated speed punctuated by lightning quick gearchanges. As the twin-turbocharged V8 punches through each of the 7 speeds, tiny undulations in the road are magnified within the cabin, going from small jarring movements to a continuous, high-frequency jiggle as the digital tachometer inches towards redline. By the time I let off the throttle (which sends the rear air brake shooting up for stability), I’ve broken 205 mph, a speed in which engine thrum and wind noise seem to infiltrate your very thoughts no matter how focused your mind may be.

The author’s POV of top speed

Next up is the 720 S Spider, a more familiar model in comparison to its newer, flashier sibling. Beneath its more flowing skin is an understated cabin whose Alcantara and leather convey a sense of functionality that’s well-suited for the task at hand. Pulse drumming, I attack the massive swath of tarmac at full tilt this time, the sound and fury crescendoing as the digital speedometer approaches 215 mph. The official speed trap confirms the speed, and my sense of relief is palpable. This assemblage of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Paganis, Porsches and the like has morphed from a car gathering into a clique of 200+ mph speed warriors bonded by the shared experience of adventure.

Later that afternoon, I traverse Idaho’s idyllic countryside in the 720 S at considerably saner speeds to celebrate cheating death once more, a quest that’s satisfied with a hearty cheeseburger and a root beer freeze. In an age where thrill seeking and danger is rapidly becoming an endangered species, my fully sanctioned flirtation with extralegal speed is an occasion to be celebrated. Silver lining? This year the misfit group of motorists raised a record $600,000 for the Hunger Coalition, a gratifying combination of speed and service.

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