Drag Race! Cheetah takes on a Ferrari!
Just about everyone knows that on land, no animal can sprint faster than a cheetah. Able to hit top speeds of 70 to 75 mph (112 to 120 km/h) the cheetah is probably the fastest animal that has ever lived on Earth. In the long, amazing history of animals on Earth, it is our privilege to know the all-time land speed champ!
But just as amazing as the cheetah’s top speed is its incredible acceleration. To demonstrate, we are going to set up an imaginary race between a cheetah and one of my all-time favorite supercars, the Ferrari Enzo:
The Enzo’s 6.0 L V-12 engine produces a brutal 660 hp! And all that horsepower is wrapped in a gorgeous chassis and body weighing only 3,000 lbs. The Enzo’s top speed is 218 mph (360 km/h). The Enzo covers the ¼ mile (~400 m) in just 11.0 secs at which point it is going 136 mph (219 km/h)!
(To auto buffs – yes, I know there are now faster production supercars than the Enzo! Although there’s some debate, many consider the SSC Ultimate Aero to be the fastest production car in the world. It has almost twice the horsepower of the Enzo, an astonishing 1183 hp!)
So, the cheetah/Ferrari race should be no contest, right? Well, since this is animal against machine, and since we know the cheetah’s top speed is about 75 mph, let’s make this race a sprint.
Since the time it takes a car to go from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) has long been a standard performance benchmark, let’s have the cheetah and Enzo race to 60 mph, and see who wins.
First, we’ll set up a special drag strip. On one side, we’ll have some nice sticky tarmac for the huge tires of the Enzo to bite into with its 660 hp. And for the cheetah, we’ll have some nice packed earth—not too soft, but just-right for the cheetah’s non-tractable claws to dig in.
To get the cheetah’s to run full-speed, further down the track we have a mechanical antelope for it to chase, like the mechanical hare at a greyhound race track. (By the way, the greyhound, the fastest of all canines, can attain a top speed of 40 mph (65 km/h).
OK, our racers are lined up. The Enzo sounds ferocious, as the driver, blips the throttle, and the V12 effortlessly spins up just shy of its maximum 8,000 rpm. The cheetah seems utterly focused on the mechanical antelope, it’s incredible muscles flexing powerfully under it’s beautiful spotted fur.
Three, two, one….they’re off!
The Ferrari gets the green light at the same moment the mechanical antelope takes off. The race is on!
The Enzo driver has to be careful; with all that horsepower, even the massive tires of the Ferrari will go up in smoke if he just floors it. But the driver is a pro, and the Enzo explodes off the starting line….
Only to find that in just 1 second, the cheetah is already yards ahead and is pulling away! In just three strides, the cheetah is already going 40 mph! The Enzo isn’t even out of 1st gear!
The Enzo’s engine howl’s like a banshee as it revs to 8,000 rpm and its full 660 hp. The Enzo’ semi-automatic transmission has a shift time of just 150 milliseconds, and it rips through 1st and into 2nd gear in the blink of eye.
Yet incredibly, in just over 2 seconds, the cheetah is already going nearly 55 mph! The cheetah’s lead actually grows. The amazing cat’s legs are a blur. Its incredibly flexible spine acts like a giant uncoiling spring with each bound of the cheetah’s powerful legs.
As the cheetah runs, only one foot at a time touches the ground. There are two points, in its 20 to 25 foot (7-8 metres) stride when no feet touch the ground, as they are fully extended and then totally doubled up. Nearing full speed, the cheetah is running at about 3 strides per second. It will pass 60 mph well under 3 seconds!
The cheetah has already blown by 60 mph and is now going 64-65 mph. The cheetah wins!
At three seconds, the Ferrari is still just shy of 60 mph and still catching up. But now its acceleration is far greater than the cheetah’s, and in another half a second or so, the 660 hp red missile finally blows by the cheetah, who has now hit its maximum 75 mph.
Amazing, no? Scientists have measured cheetahs accelerating to 64-65 mph in just 3 seconds. It takes an Enzo Ferrari 3.65 seconds to get to 64 mph—nearly a second more! When it comes to pure acceleration from a standing start, the cheetah can embarrass million dollar supercars.
(The world’s fastest production car, the 1183 horsepower SSC Ultimate Aero, mentioned above, does 0-60 in just 2.78 seconds. By my calculations, this acceleration just might tie the cheetah’s acceleration. If the Aero is faster, it’s not by much, since in 3 seconds the cheetah is already doing 64-65 mph. Perhaps the 4-wheel drive, $1.7 million Bugatti Veyron, which does 0-60 in 2.5 seconds could best the Cheetah. But, I wouldn’t bet on it!)
Meet the King of Speed
The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is an unusual cat, and not just because of its unparalleled speed. Although it is a member of the cat family (Felidae) it lacks climbing abilities and has semi-retractable claws that look more like a dog’s than a cat’s. These unusual cat claws give it great traction for running but are useless for escaping enemies up trees.
Unlike “true” big cats (lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards), the cheetah can purr as it inhales, but cannot roar. By contrast, the big cats can roar but cannot purr, except while exhaling.
Compared to lions, the cheetah is not a large predator. Cheetahs stand 67 to 94 cm (26 to 37 in) high at the shoulder. The largest adult cheetah might weigh 36 to 65 kg (140-150 pounds), while a male lion can be 250 kg (550 lb) in body weight.
Cheetahs range in body length from from 115 to 135 cm (45 to 53 in). The long, beautiful tail, which the cheetah uses like a rudder to make sharp turns during a chase, can measure up to 84 cm (33 in) in length.
Cheetahs are built for one thing—speed. Compared to other big cats, their head is small and they lack the powerful jaws and fang-like canine teeth. They are built to run, not fight, and can fall prey to lions, leopards, and even hyenas. Their only defense it to run.
Because the cheetah is not a big cat, and because cheetahs tend to be solitary, the sad fact is that up to 90% of cheetah cubs are killed by lions, leopards, hyenas, wild dogs, or even by eagles.
This high infant mortality rate, combined with genetic problems caused by severe inbreeding, and environmental pressures, means that cheetahs, as a species, are living right on the edge. They are considered a vulnerable or endangered species by most conservation organizations.
There are probably only nine to twelve thousand cheetahs alive in the world. The largest single population is to be found in Namibia, in extreme southwestern Africa, where there are about twenty-five hundred cheetahs. (Namibia is apparently the only country in the world that includes protection of its environment and native wildlife in its constitution.)
Cheetahs do not breed well in captivity. Although there have been sporadic successes, by and large the population in zoos is not self-sustaining. Groups like the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF)
are working to save the cheetah, and South Africa’s De Wildt Cheetah Breeding Center is the one notable exception in terms of successful cheetah breeding.
What a tragedy it would be to lose the cheetah, arguably the fastest land animal that’s ever lived on our amazing “pale blue dot” of a planet.
Like so many other species on land and in the oceans, the cheetah faces a bleak future unless we human beings fundamentally change the way we relate to our planet and its animals, plants, and ecosystems.
Cheetah sets new fastest land animal record