Mountain Wheels: High-end car enthusiasts take to private racetracks | SummitDaily.com

Mountain Wheels: High-end car enthusiasts take to private racetracks

Andy Stonehouse
Mountain Wheels

While the winding mountain highways of the Centennial State have always been an enthusiastic driver's dream, for those who've had the good fortune to afford a high-end performance automobile, even those scenic Colorado canyon roads are starting to get busier by the day.

So what's the owner of a high-horsepower car to do when they want to let loose, in a safe and controlled atmosphere? In the Rockies and the Front Range, your options are still limited, save for track events at the Byers-area High Plains Raceway, half way to Kansas on I-70, or the occasional jaunt at Pikes Peak International Raceway in Fountain.

In other parts of the country, however, driving enthusiasts have begun to gravitate toward new, privately run tracks that combine the closed-course safety of a professional racecourse with amenities that can put even the highest-end golf course to shame — real estate being one of the biggest components of this new race track culture.

From Southern California's ultra-exclusive Thermal Club and New York's Tony Monticello Motor Club to the more laid-back surroundings of New Orleans' Motorsports Park, private racing facilities allow members to get as much full-throttle track time as they wish, competing in racing series or testing their skills in a fleet of new, high-performance automobiles that often come as part of the package.

While track days and hot laps are certainly a big draw, a new angle — and perhaps one that could eventually help create a similar model in Colorado — has been the successful blending of car-centered properties along the perimeter of some of these automotive enclaves.

Just outside of Chicago, the Autobahn Country Club has become recognized as an extremely successful purveyor of the "car condo" concept, supplementing the two tracks on a 350-acre property. Mark Basso, Autobahn's president, says the 12-year-old club's biggest coup was offering 74 lots, on-site designed for what have been dubbed "garage Majals" — $350,000 condominiums with space for six automobiles and some 1,250 square feet of living space. Indy champ Bobby Rahal has one; the club's 420-plus members also have the option of renting a smaller space on-site to house their four-wheeled treasures.

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"Our members tend to be entrepreneurs and professionals, established local guys who were first interested in Porsches and street cars and have turned to racing," Basso says. "So we also have an amazing chef and great instructors, and we've tried to follow that golf model — which has made us profitable."

In Palm Springs, the even more exclusive Thermal Club is supplementing its twin racecourses with $1.5-million properties. For California's most dedicated weekend racers, the prize still goes to Upstate New York's Monticello Motor Club, where membership itself is $125,000 but the 4.1-mile-long race track was almost chosen as a Formula One venue.

The Atlanta Motorsports Park, opened in 2012 and crafted by Formula One track designer Herman Tilke, weathered the economic crisis and reluctant investors during its construction. But with more than 450 members and a facility serving the needs of the equally committed karting scene, the Georgia track has also become a successful niche offering, though founder and owner Jeremy Porter says he still had the jitters at the venue's launch party.

"We sold two memberships that night, and I didn't even know where we were going to build the track," he says. "But at that point I knew we had something. So, basically there was open road in front of me and the potential of people with torches and pitchforks behind me."

For many of the private tracks, racing is just part of the action and the revenue stream. The 750-acre New Orleans Motorsports Park has hosted concerts, summertime beer fests and even industrial farm equipment ride-and-drives for conventioneers, plus the kickoff for next year's Tough Mudder competition series.

"We're 15 minutes from the airport and 15 minutes from the French Quarter," says Scott Touchton, NOLA's director of sales. "We've got a 2.75-mile, 16-turn course in the middle of a swamp, but our track was built for safety, with lots of runoffs. And we're open 12 months a year, with no hard freezes or blizzards to worry about."

Touchton says the NOLA facility balances its events between local and visiting racing series, as well as one-of-a-kind experiences such as a driving school with former Miller Challenge Cup Ford Mustangs, as well as the exclusive Allen Berg Racing School and its intriguing offer of seat time in an authentic 1998 Benetton Formula One race car.

"Unlike a day at a golf course, local salespeople are inviting reluctant customers and finding that it really helps with conversion rates if you tell your clients you'll be out driving Ferraris for the day instead," he says.