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.

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.

"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."

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."

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