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Inside the Gates of America's Not-So-Secret Private Racetracks

Why you should care about closed racing circuits.

It was the end of the season at the Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York. The leaves were changing and cold weather was coming, but it felt like a party. The parking lot was flush with exotic cars, including Jim Glickenhaus' feverish Ferrari dream, the P4/5 Competizione. The 670-acre racetrack complex is fenced, gated, and totally invisible from the outside, but any aura of secrecy was shattered by the wails of V-12s bouncing off rev limiters as they blazed around the 4.1-mile road course. A black Bell helicopter circled overhead with a cameraman hanging out its door, videotaping the action from above.

Monticello is one of America's new private racetracks, a place where members ante up $125,000 to join, allowing nearly unlimited days of open racetrack time and a chance to play with pricey sports cars and mingle with like-minded enthusiasts. High-end manufacturers also bring their latest wares and let members give them a go—for free. In the past few years, the vehicles have included the Gumpert Apollo, Lexus LFA, Lamborghini Huracán, and Pagani Huayra.

Track time: You will feel the g's on this uphill lefthander at New York's Monticello Motor Club. CEO Ari Straus likes to give rides in his Radical SR8.

This was one of those gratis testing days, the clubhouse packed with members and would-be members. Monticello's president and CEO Ari Straus was busy glad-handing and putting out fires. He was chatting with a collector whose garage in New York's super-rich Hamptons enclave is packed with Ferraris, when a track worker walked up and touched Straus' elbow. The worker whispered, "There's a man outside the gate insisting that he was invited by a member, and he's got six strippers with him."

"There's a man outside the gate insisting that he was invited by a member, and he's got six strippers with him."

Straus' eyes widened. "Excuse me," he murmured to the collector and made his way outside. "We're not that kind of club."

Not that kind of club to be sure, but longtime track rats might wonder just what kind of place Monticello actually is, anyhow. You'll find no yellowing, cracked urinals in the bathrooms like in old-school venues such as Lime Rock or the bumpy pavement of Sebring. The circuit itself is world-class.So are the manicured grounds and the food, cooked on-site by a real-deal chef. Built on the grounds of a former airport, the racetrack found its home in Monticello, New York, a depressed community some 100 miles northwest of New York City. It was, says Straus, the first of its kind in the United States, patterned after Spain's private Ascari facility. It opened just as the recession hit in 2008. "It was the perfect timing to launch a luxury brand aimed at guys with high discretionary spending," Straus said, rolling his eyes. For a while, things looked iffy. But now Monticello has more than 340 members, with a cap of 750. It's expanding with a new off-road course, private garages, and even more member races.

On an average Wednesday in summer there might be only a half-dozen cars on the full course. It's not uncommon to find Rick DeMan of DeMan Motorsport testing a GT3-inspired Porsche Cayman and several rented open-cockpit Radicals tearing up the asphalt. Invariably there's a McLaren 12C or Ferrari 458 in the pits.

The big surprise: Members by and large are decent drivers and unfailingly courteous, pointing faster cars by without hesitation. "We have a no-asshole policy," said Straus, "and a way of exiting those who prove to be." These guys throw around braggadocio in the boardroom but generally leave it behind at the clubhouse. Most seem less intent with impressing one another and more on getting better and faster. Some novices have moved on to semi- and even professional racing.

"Make no mistake: We're in the country-club business, not the racing business," Straus continued. "We compete with high-end golf courses." Monticello is not alone. Similar clubs have opened in the last few years, including Atlanta Motorsports Park and the Thermal Club near Palm Springs, California. For anyone who loves a good racetrack, this is heartening news, bucking the trend of moribund road courses, such as Bridgehampton in New York and Riverside near Los Angeles, closing over the past few decades.

Unless you're mega-rich, it's also troubling. Porsche and BMW clubs can buy track time at places such as Virginia International Raceway and California's Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. But it's almost impossible to get into Monticello unless you come with another member or are actively interested in joining. ("We do have members whose income starts with a 'b,' " allows Straus.) Little wonder the closed gates irk would-be drivers who didn't invest in Apple in the 1980s. In the early days of Monticello, when the club was struggling, one Internet troll wrote: "I can't wait for this place to go out of business so the rest of us can get a shot at driving it."

The buy-in at the Thermal Club, which now has three separate tracks, is even steeper. In addition to the $85,000 individual fee, each member has to purchase a parcel of land on which to build a condo. On-track parcels start at $500,000, with construction costing at least $1 million, says managing partner Tim Rogers, who is unapologetic. "We're a $120 million project, and to get a return for value we put into it, we want to keep it exclusive. If you have a $1.5 million home here, you don't want to be fighting for track time with somebody who's only paid for the $85,000 membership."

Hot laps: Instructor Corey Lewis helps the author get the lay of the land in a Praga race car at Monticello.

Los Angeles is a car town, but it is underserved by racetracks. Willow Springs is one of the closer road courses (about two hours northeast of L.A. ), but its Mojave Desert environs are harsh and its amenities virtually nonexistent. Thermal's location near posh Palm Springs is ideal and also entices enthusiasts from San Diego and Newport Beach. "Our target market is interested in racing," Rogers says. But, he adds, the venue will also have garages for keeping vintage cars and a spa where spouses can enjoy a manicure or a massage.

"The private component only works if you have a large membership. With only 48 members, we'd have to charge $200,000."

Nobody says it is easy—or cheap—to run a racetrack. The cost of upkeep and all those corner workers and emergency service personnel can be astronomical. Little wonder the bar for entry is so high. As the sole host of Formula 1 in the United States, the new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, already seems healthy. But other tracks without such visibility have to cobble together a mix of smaller racing events, club days, and driving schools. New Jersey Motorsports Park, which opened in 2008, went bankrupt in 2011 (it owed more than $500,000 to the EMS service alone) and had to restructure. Germany's famed Nürburgring keeps changing hands.

The author in an Audi RS7 at the Thermal Club in California.

One track making a convincing go of it is NOLA Motorsports Park outside New Orleans. It started as a pet project for a local businessman who wanted a track for himself, and it eventually morphed into a 2.75-mile road course. For a moment it looked as if it too would be aimed at the 1 percent. But the concept changed. Today it offers a "preferred-access membership," for a comparatively reasonable $5,000 initiation fee and continuing annual dues. (That gives members 120 days a year of track time; they can also take out motorcycles.)

"The private component only works if you have a large membership," said NOLA Motorsports president Kristen Engeron. "With only 48 members, we'd have to charge $200,000." Instead management decided to treat it as an "auto-tainment" business, enticing Indy Car to race there in 2015. It's also planning music concerts and even weddings. "We can't do a country-club mentality. We want to convert everybody who walks through these doors whether or not they were previously a racetrack fan. If we get you excited about racetracks, it's better for everybody. We're looking for a Disneyland feel without it looking like Disneyland," Engeron explained.

Joining the club: It can cost upward of $125,000 to join a club like Monticello. Some members, including CEO Straus, are now racing in semi-pro or pro races.

Meanwhile, back at Monticello, buzzing Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and even a Spyker filled the north course. New drivers have to be accompanied by an instructor, and the pros were busy. The would-be member and his ladies had made it past the gate, and the girls ("His friends, not strippers," someone insisted) were clustered around the clubhouse's small bar.

By 5 p.m. the track had gone cold, and the parking lot was mostly empty. Straus, an avid racer himself, looked frazzled. Asked how it had ended with the fellow at the gate and his female "friends," Straus gave a small smile. "He offered to write a check right then. I had to tell him there was an application process. A rigorous one. That's not the way things work around here."

Why the rest of us should care: Better Sports Cars

Even if you never get to experience a place like Monticello, there's an upshot: The new clubs are driving an ever-greater market for track-ready cars. These are the kinds of rides you can roll off the freeway to a nearby course, run for a full afternoon at eight-tenths, and then creep back home.

Chief among them is the Camaro Z/28. Chevrolet picked Monticello as a track to host drives for the media. (Lexus also held the recent press drive of its RC F coupe there.) "I'm not sure the Z/28 would exist without places like this," one GM engineer told me. "It makes our argument to management a lot easier. So it's not just an engineering exercise, you know?" Not so long ago, the obvious kind of street-and-track combo might have been a Lotus Elise, but the long straights at Monticello make the tiny car feel wheezy. Not so the Z/28, in which you can easily scare yourself on the three-quarter-mile back straight.

I've driven both the Ferrari 430 Scuderia and its replacement, the 458 Speciale, at Monticello. The Speciale is faster and more entertaining. The torque vectoring technology ("side slip angle control" in Ferrari parlance) has less to do with outright speed than utmost fun. Anyone turning laps in the car during an open track day would prefer hanging its tail out to shaving tenths of seconds off lap times.

Lamborghini is clearly paying attention as well. The Aventador flagship feels heavy and unwieldy on the track. But the new Huracán is a gallant plaything. Its advanced traction and stability control systems work to make drivers feel like rock-star racers. First drives of the Huracán were offered at Ascari, a private racetrack in Spain. "We've spent a lot of time developing not just top speed but also the best cornering and handling," Lamborghini CEO Stephan Winkelmann told me at the launch. "Our owners take their cars to places like this, and they expect them to handle as well as the Huracán does. That's how we'll sell these cars."

The Thermal Club, Thermal, California
The newest of America's private tracks, Thermal has both a 1.8-mile and 1.4-mile course, which are flat but lend a fast, flowing rhythm. It has the smoothest and most consistent asphalt we've ever seen. Even cars with shabby suspensions feel smooth. Perfect for beginners and intermediates, but true racers may become bored. A third track has also been opened; BMW will be using it for its driving schools. Eventually a fourth will be laid out, and they'll all connect for one grand (and very long) course. (thethermalclub.com)

NOLA Motorsports Park, Avondale, Louisiana
The downside of any racetrack built in Louisiana? It'll be flatter than a tortilla. That's the case with NOLA, but the extremely wide track with ample runoff (recently added for the Indy race set for this month) means you can take corners at very high speeds with little fear. Even better, a number of perfect-radius corners cry out for long, lurid drifts. As long as you're safe, the corner workers have a rather laissez-faire attitude toward such shenanigans. (nolamotor.com)

Monticello Motor Club, Monticello, New York
Monticello has a north and south course that can be linked for a full 4.1-mile course, including a back straight that is one of the longest in the Americas. You can easily take a fast car to a buck-sixty there before slamming hard on the brakes into a wicked right-hand hill with a tight esse that's smack dab on top of the next crest. There are significant altitude changes and several blind crests, and there isn't much runoff. You can get in trouble here. (monticellomotorclub.com)

Atlanta Motorsports Park, Dawsonville, Georgia
Atlanta's main circuit is 2.0 miles long with more than 100 feet in elevation changes, multiple configurations, and a 35- to 40-foot-wide surface. A 0.85-mile kart track is also on the grounds, as are a mini-motocross and autocross track. Graduated membership fees range from a $10,000 initiation fee with monthly dues and daily use fees up to a $40,000 initiation fee with no additional fees. (atlantamotorsportspark.com)