A new breed of country club offers amateur racing enthusiasts a place to put the pedal to the metal
Before he leaves the office, Peter Martin places a call to his country club in Joliet, Illinois. His purpose is not to make a reservation for a tee time, but to ask to have a crew ready his Porsche. The Autobahn Country Club, about a 50-mile drive southwest of Chicago, is populated not by duffers looking to walk a rolling fairway, but performance car enthusiasts who prefer to tear around the tortuous turns of a racecourse.
Once he arrives, Martin dons his driver's suit, fires up the sports car's engine, and races through the club's professional caliber course, measuring 3.5 miles with 21 turns. "I've been on the track with all kinds of cars-Corvettes, Vipers, Ferraris," he says. "The idea of being at high speed in close proximity to the other guy, it's a thrill. The adrenaline goes way up. There's nothing like it."
The Autobahn is one of a small but growing number of country clubs that substitute racetracks for golf courses and pit crews for caddies—although they do have professionals to teach the drivers the turns. "A motorsport club is no different than a golf club, but its membership is not interested in golf," says Steve Watkins, executive director of the new Eagles Canyon Raceway in Slidell, Texas, where he is both executive director and the course "pro," although he blanches at the word. "I wouldn't call myself the club pro, so to speak," he says. "I'd get chided forever."
The model for the car country club was created in 1999, when Jack Farr designed and built Motorsport Ranch in Cresson, Texas, a remote area southwest of Fort Worth. The course was low-frills: just 1.7 miles of track, a couple of metal buildings and six members, including Farr. Today, it boasts more than 700 members and has expanded to a 3.1-mile circuit that can be split into two separate courses, plus a clubhouse, skid pad and 200 garages. Other clubs like Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch, in Pahrump, Nevada, have joined and many others are attempts at emulating Autobahn's success. At the smaller clubs you can take your own Corvette for a spin while the larger, members-only clubs allow you to drive vintage Bugattis and other luxury automobiles.
Among clubs under construction, Joliet's Autobahn spawns a case of course envy. "I think they've done a lot of things that are pretty smart," says Steve Patti, who hopes to open a similar club, called Motorsport Resorts International and positioned as family-vacation destination, in central Texas. "Other developers would be well advised to leverage some of that." Richard Muller, manager partner of Alpine Motorsports, a venture planned for Eldred, Pennsylvania, agrees, saying that Mark Basso, Autobahn's founder and president, "did all the right things" in his long journey to make a success of the concept in his market.
Before breaking ground, Mark Basso, Autobahn's founder and president, and his crew raised start-up money by enlisting 50 charter members, each of whom ponied up $100,000 for a lifetime membership. The members' keen interest in seeing the facility built was fueled by a number of reasons. All are wealthy car enthusiasts who own classic race cars (one of the men has 150 cars in his collection.) And they are local businessmen who wanted to spruce up Joliet's image, which had been largely defined by its prison, army arsenal, riverboat casinos and the intersection of I-80 and I-55.
Today, the club comprises more than 400 members, who share the 10,000-square-foot paddock clubhouse with renters. Fifty-two one-third-acre team have been sold to members seeking to build garages and lofts, and 30 more will available as the club goes into the fourth phase of its development. Autobahn features two tracks that can operate separately; the members use one track and renters use the other one.
A refurbishment of the paddock clubhouse is to begin soon and some of the owners of private garages have added creature features that add a tone of luxury that one might immediately associate with cars racing. One that is currently under construction will include an elevator and a wine cellar. Corporate events and televised pro races have been added to the schedule, but Basso insists that "first and foremost we wanted a safe track; this is one of the safest tracks in the country."
Just as the golf world treasuress certain course designers-Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, Ben Crenshaw, Arnold Palmer, etc.-so does the motorsport world. The preeminent designer of automotive country club tracks is Alan Wilson, who, before plotting for Formula 1 Grand Prix, NASCAR racing and yes, the track at Autobahn, was a driver and a racing journalist. "Wilson's like the Arnold Palmer of racecourses," says Basso. Furthermore, he holds an advantage that doesn't apply to golf. "When he designs the track, the main insurance company [K&K Insurance, known for insuring racetracks] likes that because they know it's going to be a good track."
Like a golf course, each track has its own personality, although in racing a hazard is really a hazard. "Over time, each track has a turn that becomes notoriously dangerous, one area on it where you have to pay close attention," Basso explains. "We have the [so-called] Million Dollar Corner that can bite you if you don't take it right. So many expensive cars have tapped the guardrail there." Nothing serious, mind you, just minor fender damage. But for a Ferrari Enzo, any such event can mean between $40,000 and $50,000 in repairs.
"Most clubs are not looking at side-by-side racing, but safe use by wealthy people," Wilson says. "A Ferrari Enzo is an extremely difficult car to drive. You have to make the assumption that somebody won the lottery and doesn't know how to handle it, and recognize that he's going to go off the track. When he does, you have to make sure he doesn't hit anything, and give him enough space that he can have his incident without having it become an accident."
The country club tracks are designed to be less intense than a competitive track, so accidents are rare. "You have to recognize that they're open to all, not just 22-year-old super-fit superstars," Wilson explains. "You don't want to design a track that wears him out in five laps."
One major difference is that "[Autobahn Country Club] is not designed as a spectator track, because we don't rely on spectator income to survive," says track manager Tom Bagley. "Otherwise, it's quite similar to drive."
Not only do courses have pro designers like regular country clubs, but motorsport country clubs also have course pros. Bagley is a former Indianapolis 500 driver, and the club requires new drivers to undergo training with him, just to make sure they're up to speed, so to speak. That's pretty important when a driver's leaning his 600-horse 'Vette through a corner a few inches away from a Lamborghini. But he's also there so members can improve their technique. "He went along with me and I learned to go faster," Peter Martin says. "He taught me to go deeper into the corners, brake late, get on the gas early."
In skill level, there may not be much difference between club and pro drivers. "The average age [of club members] would be probably older than a professional group," explains Bagley. "Some [amateurs] don't have as much time and experience. But those that have been here for several years have improved and gotten safer and, at the same time, faster."
Because the attendant noise and fumes often puts off potential neighbors, getting permission to build a motorsport track near a residential community can mire track builders in paperwork and red tape for months, if not years.
"Whenever you mention 'racetrack,' red flags go up," says Basso. And maybe they should: The Autobahn allows decibel limits up to 105 (a chain saw hits around 110 decibels), and some weekends there's no limit. It took Basso four years to negotiate the permit process, and the track needed between 40 and 50 permits, Basso estimates, covering everything from environmental to municipal issues. And that was in an area zoned for industrial use. Think about more bucolic areas. "Folks are saying, 'I don't want to hear the noise, it'll scare the cattle,' all the things you might surmise," says Motorsport Resorts' Steve Patti. "They just want to know this isn't going to turn into a beer-drinking, hell-raising NASCAR racetrack."
Track builders aren't always successful. Jim Hoenscheid has had difficulty breaking ground on his proposed Valley Motorsports Park in Tamworth, New Hampshire. The $28 million, 250-acre club is planned to feature a 3.3-mile Wilson-designed track, garages, driving school, restaurant, pool, tennis courts and a picturesque view of the White Mountains. Although Hoenscheid is ready to begin construction, he faces a major roadblock. "An opposition group has formed that is not only against our project, they're against any development or change in that town," he says. "They would rather have the town back to where it was in the 1800s. But I'm confident we'll be victorious." If not, he'll be forced to find an alternative use for the land.
Of course, the faltering economy has also slowed many a developer as avenues for financing have dwindled. Muller, of Alpine, remains in the process of attempting to tap a number of capital sources, saying "It's a tough market out there as you can imagine. There's a bit of heartache out in the field." The irony for him as that while financing may be hard to get, willing customers never went away. "The people we're interested as a membership base still own the cars."
Once a motorsport country club is built, it can be a great equalizer. Doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs with million-dollar cars show up, and so do guys with street cars and thin budgets. "You get all manner of automotive enthusiasts," says Watkins of Eagles Canyon. "From the guy who has a simple vehicle who wants to come out and have a good time, to the guy who has his own tractor-trailer rig and carries all his tools. After the session everybody's shaking hands and slapping each other on the back."
It's also a great way to leave the office back at the office. "When you're out there and really pushing it, you're not thinking about anything but the next braking point and the next turning point," says Basso. "After 20 minutes [on the track] it clears the head." And then there's the motorsport country club equivalent of the 19th hole.
"After I'm through, I take off my driver's suit and put on my street clothes and I might have a glass of wine and talk with drivers on the clubhouse patio and smoke a Davidoff Double Corona," says Peter Martin. "We all look forward to it."
Phil Scott is a writer based in New York City.
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