This former NASA shuttle runway now hosts high-speed vehicle testing

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Photo by Space Florida

The need for speed is common among car enthusiasts. While there is no cure for that affliction, there are various ways to scratch the itch. Take a trip to Montana where long, straight, open roads abound. Or visit Merritt Island near Orlando, Florida, to experience what amounts to the car junkie’s Disneyland. JB Proving Grounds: maybe the best place on mother earth to go fast safely and without breaking the law.

In the 1970s, NASA built its Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) here to support its space missions. A 2.8-mile-long runway was constructed of concrete poured to compensate for the earth’s curvature. This strip is 300 feet wide and has an extra 1000 feet of smooth asphalt at each end, yielding a total length of 3.2 miles.

The Space Shuttle Columbia arrived here aboard its modified Boeing 747 mothership in 1979. The first shuttle landing occurred in 1984. Nine years later, Discovery touched down safely at night. In total, there were 78 shuttle landings at SLF before NASA’s program ended in 2011. Space Florida assumed the lease in 2015 and changed the facility’s name to Launch and Landing Facility (LLF) in 2019.

Current users include contractors that launch satellites aboard F-104 jets, the United Launch Alliance which delivers rocket stages, and car companies that test aerodynamics and other performance variables.

In 2009, veteran car and motorcycle racer Johnny Böhmer signed an agreement with NASA to manage vehicle testing on the runway. Since then, several dozen manufacturers and private teams have tested here, many topping 200 mph. Some of the fastest runs were the Bugatti Chiron in 2018 at 261 mph, McLaren’s 2019 run to 250 mph in its Speedtail, and Genovation’s GXE electric Corvette at 212 mph. Böhmer personally tested his 2006 street-legal Ford GT adorned with the Florida vanity plate BADD GT and equipped with a stereo sound system and air conditioning to 293 mph. Remarkably, he needed only one mile of acceleration to crowd 300 mph.

Drivers must of course wear appropriate safety gear including a full Nomex fire suit and a certified helmet. The paperwork and tech inspection prior to admission are daunting. Given the fact this is a U.S. government operation, every applicant must prove they’re not listed on any terrorist watch list.

The price of admission depends on the scope of the test program. One crucially important word of advice: those hoping to drive here must not divulge any speed demon dispositions. Instead, you must convince Böhmer that you are earnest in advancing the automotive engineering cause. Visit www.jbprovinggrounds.com to apply.

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