A new breed of country club offers amateur racing enthusiasts a place to put the pedal to the metal
From the Print Edition:
Adrien Brody, September/October 2010
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"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.
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