The old ’75 Fiat Spider had been painted yellow and then white during its 14 years on this earth, and now it was a little bit of both. At idle it shook and stumbled, faint wisps of aromatic blue smoke escaping tired welds and gaskets from head to tailpipe. I sat in the passenger seat, eyes focused on the cheap digital watch in my right hand. Woody was seated to my left, both hands gripping the steering wheel hard enough to make the whole assembly shake in time with the engine.
“I don’t know how to do the start,” he complained. “Do I rev it beforehand? How fast do I let out the clutch?”
“All of this,” I responded, in a remarkably arch tone for a 15-year-old lecturing someone three grades ahead of him in school, “has been covered by Patrick Bedard in a recent issue.” I didn’t need to say “a recent issue of Car and Driver.” Was there any other magazine worth mentioning seriously? “You raise the revs to the torque peak then release the clutch with alacrity, making sure to prevent stalling with a corresponding increase in throttle.”
“Oh God,” Woody moaned in response. “This is going to be terrible.” The road ahead of us was dead-straight and I’d estimated it at nearly a third of a mile, but it was lined with parked cars all the way down. More worrisome, it had a slight rise to it. I wondered, idly, if Patrick Bedard had ever been forced to deal with a slight rise on his test track, and what advanced calculations he’d employed to compensate. As I considered this, Woody stepped on the gas, then released the clutch over the course of what felt like five minutes, adding an asbestos stink to the sharp tang of burnt oil already pervading the cabin. And we were off.
“Call out the speed!” I commanded.
“Twenty-five… 30… uh, I gotta look ahead!” I leaned over to check. We were just clearing the 45 mark, and we were running out of road.
“YOU CAN’T LET UP UNTIL YOU HIT 63!” I’d guessed at the speedometer error using a marked mile the previous week on the way to school. On my digital watch, the stopwatch flashed to 12, then 13. There was a stop sign ahead of us, and a large grassy hill on the other side of the T-junction. The speedometer was now crawling between the hash marks as the stop sign swelled in the windshield.
At 58, Woody yelled, “THE HELL WITH THIS!” and stepped on the brake. Very little seemed to happen, but there was enough friction in the Fiat’s driveline to bring us to a halt about 20 feet before the stop sign. I looked at my digital watch. It said 00:15.96.
“We didn’t get all the way to 60,” I snapped. “We should go back and do it again.” Which we did—four times. On the last run, Woody sidestepped the tired clutch, and it acted as a sort of Stone Age traction control as it slipped through the first half of the tach. Nevertheless, we reached 63 indicated miles per hour in 17.1 seconds. The following week, Woody and his father replaced the clutch. He did not easily forgive me for my part in that replacement, perhaps additionally so because I conveniently got grounded by my parents the day that I was supposed to help.
In the decades which followed, I would occasionally time one of my vehicles on the 0–60 run. My 1990 VW Fox and I recorded a 9.9-second result, which was better than my 1996 Taurus could deliver. Around the turn of the century the times started to drop, with my 993-generation Porsche leading the way. The same thing, of course, had happened in the automotive market in general. There was a time when breaking the 10-second mark to 60 meant that a car was usefully quick. Then it was nine, and eight… My 993 could (and maybe can) do it in under five seconds if you’re willing to smoke its pricey Eagle F1 tires a bit.
Chevrolet claims that the 495-horsepower Corvette C8 Z51 can do the trick in less than three seconds. It seems like an odd boast to make, honestly. For perhaps the past 15 years, 0–60 has been a matter of traction, not power, because all the frontline sporting cars have had much more power than they have traction. For the real sledgehammers, like the current McLarens, the traction issue continues all the way into third and sometimes fourth gear. Turn off the TC in, say, an AMG GT coupe, and you can smoke the tires all the way to 80 mph or more.
We should have seen this coming. Well before Woody and I flogged his tired Fiat to 60, Yamaha was using a pro drag racer to get its Vmax muscle-cruiser into the nine-second quarter-mile. What was the 0–60 time of the Vmax? It entirely depends on the rider. Unless you’re a trained professional, you’ll add a second or more to the time of which the machine is capable. And that’s a bike that is, frankly, a dead stone by modern standards. My commuter vehicle is a Kawasaki ZX-14R. Cycle World says it can do 0–60 in 2.6 seconds. I can tell you that any aggressive throttle motion in first or second gear will simply loft the front wheel into the clouds until the rider panics and stomps the brake pedal. I don’t think I could get it to the 60 mark in under four seconds if my life depended on it.
Where the bikes were in 1985 is where the cars are now. They’re too fast for the 0–60 time to reflect anything other than the combined competence of the operator and the traction control. Should you find yourself having an actual 0–60 race on the street, expect it to be decided by reaction time, not horsepower. Having all-wheel-drive helps, of course. For much of last summer I found myself heading to work at the same time as a fellow in a Tesla Model S P100D. He’d make an effort to get next to my Kawasaki at the stoplight before the freeway. At the green light he would simply disappear while I struggled to keep the big green Kwacker’s nose near the ground. Around the time I grabbed third gear he would be rolling back into my field of vision; by the time I hit fourth he’d be shrinking in the mirrors. At which point we would both hit the brakes, because the velocities involved had gone from “irresponsible” to “Cuisinart on impact.”
Why did automakers ever quote 0–60—or, worse, it’s bastard cousins of the 1980s, 0–55 and 0–50? There are plenty of theories, but I think it was just because 0–60 felt more reasonable than the quarter-mile dash. The average customer could test 0–60 himself entering a freeway or on a deserted two-lane, without worrying about the proverbial 30 days in the hole. Testing a quarter-mile time is something else, unless you’re driving a diesel Chevette or VW Bus, both of which hit the end of the quarter before they reach 60.
My street-racing friends tell me that 0–60 is useless, that a quarter-mile time shows the skill of a driver, and the quarter-mile trap speed shows the skill of the people who built the car. It seems reasonable, therefore, that we should all be talking about trap speed. It directly corresponds to measurable aspects of the vehicle in question, such as weight, drag, and “area under the curve” of the dyno chart. Trap speed is a great predictor of everything from “40 roll” street racing success to—whisper it, so the people on the Internet don’t hear—Nurburgring times. It measures the ability of a vehicle to accelerate during a sustained period and it is remarkably unaffected by things like clutch bite and traction-control programming.
When we talk about trap speed, the scales fall from our eyes. We see that the Dodge Demon is much slower than a McLaren 720S, which in turn is measurably slower than a Kawasaki ZX-14R. (The old Yamaha Vmax, by the way, is within shouting distance of the Demon, and you can buy one for three grand on Craigslist. I don’t necessarily recommend that you do, however.) Trap speed is the only worthwhile and legitimate measure of a modern performance car—at least for now, until they get so fast that we have to do the standing mile. We learn everything we need to know from a quarter-mile trap.
We also learn, to my Corvette-loving chagrin, that the supercharged Z06 and ZR1 aren’t really playing in the same league as their ostensible competition from McLaren or even Ferrari. In stock form, these cars trap about 130, which is pretty soft by modern standards. The Ferrari is 5-mph faster and the McLarens can put another 3 or 4 mustards-per-hour on top of that. So why are the C7 Vettes so fast around racetracks? Oh, that part’s simple: they outhandle the foreign competition. Again, let’s not tell the Internet about that. They’ll never believe that the McLaren 720S is a muscle car and the ZR1 is a sweet-handling track star. You might as well tell them that Jimmy Page didn’t use a Gibson Les Paul for the solo on Stairway (which he did not, by the way.)
If the 755-horse ZR1 doesn’t make trap speed headlines, then it seems reasonable to think that a 495-horse Z51 C8 won’t exactly set the world on fire, either. If it traps 120 I’ll be a little bit astonished, frankly. That would make it about as fast as a 1999 Yamaha YZF600R, available on Craigslist for $1500 from someone who should be glad to see it go.
Not to worry, however. If some punk kid on a bargain-basement used sportbike challenges you and your beautiful new mid-engined American supercar to a race, you just have to make sure you set the terms of the battle. I’d recommend running 0–60, from a “dig” and not a “roll.” If you need a place to do it, and you’re no more risk-averse than a couple of stupid teenagers from the ’80s, then I know just the place—and I still have that digital watch.