New clubs with their own private autobahns

Deep in New Hampshire's north woods, up past Lake Winnipesaukee's bustling resort towns, stands a verdant mountainside that may soon be buzzing with the latest trend in America's love affair with cars. Sprawled on 320 acres would be a members-only "car country club" - complete with clubhouse, swimming pool, weekend villas, and a 3.3-mile racetrack winding through the woods.

Forget leisurely golfing on the back nine: This place would be about testosterone, octane, and speed - so much of it, in fact, that some locals worry the club would forever spoil their picturesque town.

Still, the car-club concept is catching on. Plans are afoot for members-only tracks near the Appalachian Trail in eastern Pennsylvania and in Joliet, Ill. And existing tracks are offering pricey memberships and country-club amenities They're all signs of an American cultural convergence - NASCAR meets the Hamptons. It's a kind of upscale go-kart track in a gated community, a place where wealthy and increasingly footloose baby boomers can live out their fast and furious fantasies.

"Country-club-type racetracks are going to become established in America," predicts Alan Wilson, a legendary racetrack designer involved in the three projects. Golf clubs have prospered as spots for elites to socialize, play, and do business. So will car country clubs, he says. "But instead of playing with a five iron, they'll play with a Ferrari."

Not that everyone can afford Ferraris. But more people may covet them these days. Baby boomers have more money - thanks to corporate seniority and inheritances from parents. And with their kids out of the house, they have more time. Car trends reflect this fact. There's a proliferation of "midlife-crisis cars" - everything from the Porsche Boxster to the Honda S2000. And there are the many weekend Mario Andrettis who are members of Porsche clubs, BMW clubs, Corvette clubs, and more.

Now many car nuts are ecstatic at the prospect of car country clubs. About 40 people have invested $100,000 or more as "founding members" of Joliet's Autobahn Country Club, which bills itself as "Your own private Autobahn." But others are less than thrilled. Residents near all three projects have protested the idea of muscle cars thundering through their pristine settings.

The Autobahn's original site - another Chicago suburb - sparked such uproar that developers decamped to a spot near Joliet's NASCAR track, where there's far less opposition.

Residents near Kunkletown, Pa., have sued to block construction of the Alpine Motorsports Club and its 2.8-mile race course; chalet-like clubhouse; and tennis, basketball, and volleyball courts. The site is 75 miles from New York City and Philadelphia. But it's also about half a mile from the Appalachian Trail. Critics say its noise will ruin the area's quiet. For now, the parties are waiting on a court ruling.

Noise, nudes, and naysayers

Noise is a major issue in Tamworth, too. Joe Binsack, a local opponent and former MIT professor, conducted a sound study of the proposed track, which would be three miles from Tamworth village. From that distance, 30 cars racing on the course could be as loud as a dishwasher at close range, he says. Club officials dispute that claim.

Set in an unusual circular valley amid the Ossipee mountains, this quintessential New England town of 2,500 has so far avoided the tourist-trap resorts that have sprung up around Lake Winnipesaukee to the south and the outlet-mall sprawl of Conway to the north. Around New England, Tamworth is known as the hamlet where locals pose nude (with strategic coverings) for calendars that raise money for charities. Its biggest attractions are the country-doctor museum and the nation's oldest professional summer theater.

Amid talk of the racetrack, "I keep thinking of the song, 'They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,' " says Thad Berrier, who posed as Mr. August in one calendar.

But others see it as a boon - a source of up to $350,000 a year in tax revenues and 40 new jobs. "Most people commute half an hour to find work" outside town, says resident Jeffrey Swan. That might change with a track.

Not that the concept is entirely new. The Virginia International Raceway (VIR) in Danville, Va.; the MotorSport Ranch in Cresson, Texas; and the BeaveRun Motorsports Complex near Pittsburgh, all sell memberships. VIR even has a restored antebellum clubhouse. But members typically have to squeeze onto the track's already packed racing schedule.

A refuge for daredevil drivers

At the three new clubs, members would be able to race virtually at will. That's what enticed Chicago car enthusiast Phil Corcoran to ante up $100,000 for a "founding membership" in the Joliet club. The retired computer-firm owner has a Z06 Corvette (0-to-60 in less than four seconds), a Porsche, and a BMW. But there's no place nearby to drive them fast and furious. The track, expected to open next summer, will be designed for amateurs, with extra-wide spin-out zones. Still, Mr. Corcoran says he'll take it easy. "I don't want to lose my car or my life out there," he says. Members are responsible for their own insurance.

At Joliet, nonfounding members will pay a $10,000 initiation fee and a $3,000 yearly fee for unlimited track time. In Tamworth, an entry-level membership would cost $2,500, plus $65 a month.

"All those car commercials have fine print that says, 'Don't try this at home,' " observes Scott Tranchemontagne of Club Motorsports Inc, the Tamworth project's developer. But finally, he says, people will have a place to try just about anything they want.

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