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Rumble Seat 

BLACK ROCK, Nev.--Three years ago, on these paper-white alkaline flats, Richard Noble's Thrust SST did something many experts said couldn't be done. The hulking twin-engine jet car, with an RAF pilot at the wheel, broke the speed of sound on land, the shock wave ricocheting between the mountains that ring the playa.

The spirits were amused. At least so says Ruth, the Bureau of Land Management volunteer who is the keeper of the playa's secrets. Ruth is the organizer of Burning Man, a yearly pagan celebration held here, 90 minutes east of Reno. Every year thousands of New Agers, occulists, suburban shaman and other tassels of the fringe religious life come together on the pale expanse, where no law and no law enforcement holds sway. Burning Man is a symbolic purifying fire--the participants build and burn a giant human figure made of wood--but before that, there is a week-long festival of druggy and oversexed indulgence. Sounds like fun.

Ruth is a thin, diminutive woman of about 60 in a skin-tight nylon minidress and cowboy boots. She is beyond leathery and rounding the home stretch for mummified. But she couldn't be nicer as she tells us about the energy vortex that presides over Black Rock Desert. Apparently, Black Rock is a third point on a magical pyramid or triangle that looms over the United States, giving the country its unique good fortune. The New Age exegesis for capitalism.

Today I have come out with Porsche Cars to conduct a top-speed run in the new 911 Turbo, a 415-hp, all-wheel-drive supercar costing about $111,000. The 911 Turbo has a putative top speed of around 190 mph. The exercise is a terminal velocity test, a rare thing for journalists to participate in. Ruth says the speed demons who practice their craft on the desert bring good energy to the place. I'm hoping for lots of good energy.

Porsche has always built fast cars. In the 1990s, the cars grew so overwhelmingly powerful that it became hard to demonstrate, with mere mortals at the wheel, exactly how powerful, and moreover, why so powerful. Few people can extract even half the performance out of such cars--a 911 Turbo can go from 0-150 mph in about 20 seconds with the air conditioning on. And for those who can drive them well, there is a battery of necessary and well-meaning traffic laws that keep Porsche drivers in check. Organized racing is an option, but relatively few Porsche buyers ever take their cars to the track.

So why bother building a car that will go so much faster than anyone will drive it? It is simply and obviously a question of bragging rights. People who would buy this car want to be able to say, "My car goes 190 mph, and yours doesn't." Is that a noble sentiment? Not really. But it is the reality of sports-car ownership.

However, for Porsche to lay claim to such a prodigious number, somebody, somewhere had to drive the car to the maximum. And that's why I'm here.

The scene: Black Rock is a dry lakebed, so imagine the biggest lake you've ever been on--say, Lake Erie--then imagine the surface cast in concrete. This is the largest, flattest expanse of nothingness on the planet, far bigger than the more famous salt flats at Daytona. It is 40 miles--40--of absolute sterility, gravity-flat, retina-burning and incandescent white, holding up a dome of brilliant blue sky. The mountains to the north are Oregon.

The United States Auto Club--the keeper of records in America--has laid out, with the help of a surveyor's transit and a GPS, a line of orange cones stretching into the curved horizon. Originally, the idea was for selected drivers to ramp the cars up to top speed, then complete two flying miles, then turn around and go through the laser traps in the other direction. The speeds would then be averaged to cancel out the effects of the wind.

But a couple of days before the actual run, the test engineers discovered something disquieting: The playa was loose--it had rained on parts of the desert. Also, there were fierce crosswinds, causing the cars to buck and sway at speed. Understand that a passenger car with no wing generates precious little aerodynamic downforce to hold it to the surface of the road. Cars have an ugly tendency to get airborne at such high speeds. The engineers were reasonably concerned that a bad crosswind on a loose section of track could induce a sudden pitch--a pitch that could easily be transformed into a spin by a twitchy driver. There would be no surviving such an accident.

The decision was made to scale back the course: one mile for ramping up to speed, one flying mile and one cool-down mile. No turnaround lap, and every run would be downwind, to minimize aerodynamic lift.

I am first in the car. My borrowed helmet is tight, and the visor drastically restricts the wide-open views of the desert. All of a sudden, it seems a very small place. I ramp the engine up to around 70 mph, and a wicked vibration shudders the car. Doing a 70 mph U-turn, I circle back to the caravan of trucks and ambulances that is the staging area. The problem is that alkaline sand has collected on the alloy wheels, throwing them out of balance.

That fixed, I return to the starting line, looking into the mountains of Oregon. Dropping the clutch at about 3,000, I move out quickly, gaining speed as if I were falling. One hundred goes by in third gear. The playa is thundering beneath me, but visually the effect is like crossing a mirror-still lake in a speedboat. Serene. One-hundred-fifty. The surface that once seemed eternally flat reveals itself at speed to be full of undulations and bumps and inch-high hillocks. I barely touch the wheel, letting the car do all the work. Past the first timing cones, I glance at the speedometer: about 165. My left thigh flexing hard to push the pedal down, I count the seconds. About 20 seconds--a long 20 seconds--and the finish line flashes by. As I watch in the side mirror, the timing lights disappear in my 100-foot contrail of alkaline dust.

The total: 184 mph. The spirits are pleased.

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