Amateur racing grows up
Drive feather-footed and you sip fuel. Still, ever wonder what your bone-stock Infiniti, Ford, Kia, or Audi can do? Get thee to a private racetrack.
Tell a carefree 12-year-old to strap on a bike helmet and you get one kind of reaction. Tell a 40-something that, given his whip-crack speed, a full-face helmet must be worn inside his car and you get quite another.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
This second truism I learn by the timer's shed at New England Dragway in southern New Hampshire. The slip of paper I'm handed – a detailed performance summary – is a transcript of tire-squealing triumph: On my second run I've clocked a 13.4-second quarter mile, hitting 106 m.p.h. in a distance of less than three city blocks. My inner Andretti pumps a fist as I reach back for the motorcycle headgear I brought along.
Sure, it's mostly the whip, a 420-h.p. press-loaner Jaguar XKR that spent the rest of the week caged in commuter mode. (And yes, Jaguar PR, it might have snarled louder under a race-practiced foot – or if the sequential manual had let me shift near redline.) But the feeling – exhilaration cloaked in the sobriety of research – hits just the right gear.
Drive feather-footed and you sip fuel. Still, ever wonder what your bone-stock Infiniti, Ford, Kia, or Audi can do? Get thee to a private racetrack. This strip, so hot today that the traction compound by the starting lights feels loose, has operated for more than 40 years. Pass a safety inspection, sign a waiver, and you can run in almost anything, on some nights, for about $20. Hundreds of sanctioned dragways across the US offer amateur nights.
And a newer kind of venue, driving clubs with winding road courses of three miles or more, has haltingly emerged in the past couple of years, catering to the very-high-horsepower set. Rural Georgia has one in the works. Even pro-racing mecca Lime Rock Park, a 1.5-mile course in Connecticut, announced this month it will soon devote coveted track time to private member amateurs, a revenue-raising move.
"It will be a short-term pain for some [pro teams]," said Skip Barber, the 50-year-old course's owner, in a talk at the Northeast Grand Prix July 7. "But [Lime Rock] stays as a race track, and really gets fixed up." Plenty of local businesses welcome Lime Rock's summer throngs, he said. "[And] some of those across the street – some of them lawyers – would like to see us go away."
Controversy sticks to all kinds of racing like a Ferrari drafting into a turn. Most drag strips like Epping's (a former airport) enforce strict curfews to head off complaints about noise. Many road-course vehicles are refined, unmodified sports cars – and no louder than highway traffic – but course-builders face challenges over issues including zoning, insurance, and environmental impact.
"There's a huge misperception about what we're trying to do," says Jim Hoenschied, an officer at Club Motorsports in Tamworth, N.H., where planning is under way for 3.3-mile course pending the completion of a permit process that began around 2005. "We're not a speedway. This is really about taking your vehicle and just being able to drive it, pure driving."
Safely wringing out a performance car these days calls for closed-course driving. And more cars are built to perform. By most accounts, the average horsepower of vehicles sold in the US has roughly doubled in the past decade or so – a rise that critics call gratuitous and defenders call an industry response to demand, and a cultural inevitability.