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.
(Page 2 of 2)
"There's something primal about controlling a piece of machinery," says John DeWitt, author of "Cool Cars, High Art" and a longtime observer of automobile culture in the US. "I don't see [even high gas prices] changing the connection that Americans have with cars. It's too visceral. There's too much identity tied up in it."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Mark Basso, founder of the 350-acre Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Ill., says less than a third of his club's 350 members engage in wheel-to-wheel racing; most come to sharpen their technical skills and to commune around engine blocks. "They're all car guys," he says, "that's the bottom line."
They're also often from the socioeconomic stratosphere. One member flies in from Australia. Others keep their vehicles in customized "garage-mahals," Mr. Basso says, though the club isn't without a populist dimension. Its first spectator race is planned for late August.
Before they hit the course, vintage racers will parade from a park by Joliet's famous Rialto Square Theater.
Nor is road-course racing exclusively male. A handful of women have already signed up at the Drive and Race Club in Monticello, N.Y., where racing is planned by this fall on a 3.7-mile track with huge elevation changes and a three-quarter-mile straightaway, says Michael Kaplan, the club's founder.
"This works for women," says Mr. Kaplan. "Golf is tired and old." (At race schools, Kaplan says, women often beat men.)
At his club, professionals can ride with amateurs who are just learning what their high-end sports cars – membership here has a six-figure price tag – can do. "We want to give them a professional-level experience while they still know that they're amateurs," Kaplan says.
Thoroughbreds – Maseratis, BMW M5s – sometimes show up here in Epping, says Joe Lombardo, the track manager, as he scrawls a No. 68 on the windows of the Jag and imparts a few tips, such as punching the accelerator when the lights hit the second set of ambers, rather than waiting for the green.
More often, among the street fighters, there are Chevy Z28s, Hondas, and Mitsubishis. Tonight, a small pickup is sent away because his wheels are missing a few lug nuts. Others queue up and blaze off the line. A Mustang runs a 10.9-second quarter mile at 129 m.p.h. A snowmobile – the very daring run them, with wheels where the skis should be – records a 9.5 second run at 138. A top-fuel dragster, more rocket than car, covers the quarter in about 8. My inner Andretti slumps a little.
"If you can get good reaction times, you're golden," says Mr. Lombardo's wife, Nancy, who works in the tower here.
Dave Ayotte, a young racer from Lincoln, R.I., ran in Epping for the first time this summer in his 2005 Hyundai Tiburon. With basic, bolt-on modifications, including a new cold-air intake, he notched a 15.3 on a recent Friday night. Its stock speed, he points out, is 16-plus.
"It's pure adrenaline," Mr. Ayotte says of the experience. "You get that tunnel vision [down the strip]." He and a handful of friends can't wait to run here again. This place, he says, helps stifle their urge to do burnouts at stoplights. "We goof around some," he admits with a laugh, "but we stay away from trouble."