As I write this, the temperature in the City of New York hovers around freezing, though it's expected to be warmer and wetter by the time this post gets published. Not the right conditions for high-performance driving, to be sure, but that won't stop enthusiasts from planning for better weather.
Eager drivers in the area have several new options since this time last year. The Monticello Motor Club, for example, is a 4.1-mile racetrack (a road course, of course, not a mere oval track) that opened last July in Monticello, NY. It's just 90 minutes by car from the city, or--as the company's FAQ page points out--25 minutes by helicopter to the trackside heliport.
The mention of helicopter access suggests that the Monticello Motor Club isn't aimed at a mainstream audience. More evidence: the club's Resident membership plan comes with an initiation fee that "begins at $125,000" and annual dues estimated at $7,500. A limited National membership is still $75,000.
The membership application offers three choices for the applicant's net worth starting at $5 million. Whether that's a minimum requirement isn't stated, but if you have to ask...
Then there are extra costs associated with renting cars from the club's selection of exotic cars, professional instruction, spa services, overnight accommodations and fine dining, etc.
Members will be able to use the track for a variety of purposes: restricted touring sessions for track familiarization, open-track sessions with unrestricted speeds but designated passing zones, time-trial sessions, and full racing.
I suspect Monticello may have been betting on the continued success (excess) of Wall Street's hedge-fund managers, but even without those customers, there are still a lot of wealthy people in the New York area. Personally I expect Monticello will do pretty well in spite of the recession.
But it's certainly out of my price range, and I suppose that's true of most of my readers as well.
A somewhat more accessible option is found in Millville, NJ: the New Jersey Motorsports Park (NJMP), which also opened last July adjacent to the airport there.
NJMP comprises two separate racetracks: the 1.9-mile Lightning track and the 2.25-mile Thunderbolt Raceway, which has already hosted professional races. (The Monticello track, by comparison, can be divided into three independent tracks of varying lengths, which is a more flexible arrangement.)
NJMP is also building an oval track, and all snobbery aside, oval tracks can be fun too-- I spent a day at the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway several years ago, and I sure enjoyed it.
There's also a Driver's Club at NJMP, but its pricing structure is much more reasonable, well within reach for many people who have the sort of car best appreciated on a racetrack: a $15,000 initiation fee plus dues of $2,400 per year. Because NJMP serves many other purposes than just the club, like the professional races I mentioned, the track is open to members fewer days each year than Monticello: 30 vs. "up to 200" depending on membership type. Most people won't do 30 track days in a single year, anyway.
But there are other ways to get on the tracks at NJMP. Like most tracks, NJMP rents itself out to independent driving clubs like the BMW Car Club of America, the Porsche Club of America, and various unaffiliated clubs. (I'm a BMW CCA member myself.)
Driving schools and club-racing events are a great way for people to get track time without heavy initiation fees and annual dues. I've been to many BMW CCA driving schools myself at the tracks in our area--most notably Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Infineon Raceway at Sears Point--and I've trained at some of the best tracks in Europe under the tutelage of Driving Concepts and BMW Club Europa, including a three-day school at the awesome Nürburgring in Germany. There's no way to have more fun in your car, and that includes the back seat.
But what if you don't already have your own high-performance car? You can rent one.
There have always been companies willing to rent exotic cars to show-business types and the kind of people who want to roll up to their high-school reunions in a Ferrari. But most of these companies frown on spirited driving, and taking the car on a track is universally prohibited.
Performance Rentals, Inc. (PRI), a new company in Rockland County, NY (just outside the city), is taking a different approach. The company, co-founded by Brian Tiemann, a friend who used to live here in Silicon Valley, is aimed directly at driving enthusiasts. (I've mentioned Brian a couple of times here before.)
PRI has one fleet of cars it rents for use on the street, and is putting together a second set of cars at NJMP for track use.
PRI's street cars are selected for cost-effective driving enjoyment, not style points alone, so they're reasonably affordable: from $460/day for a 550-hp Roush Mustang to $932/day for a Ferrari 355 GTS with the current seasonal discount.
All of these cars feature custom upgrades engineered and installed by PRI. The company's Dodge Viper SRT-10, for example, isn't just the usual 510-hp monster. PRI added a supercharger and Racelogic traction control to give the car 750 horsepower and better controllability than the stock model. Similarly, PRI's Lotus Elise has 310 hp, and its Toyota Supra Turbo has been upgraded to 650 hp.
These cars make PRI an attractive option even for people who already have good cars, because there really aren't very many places to rent cars this good. (PRI says its Viper is "the fastest car available for rent in North America," which seems entirely possible.)
According to PRI's website, the track cars (which will be available during NJMP's 2009 season) will include track-optimized models such as the Porsche 944 and 944 Turbo, a Lotus Exige with a 400-hp turbocharged engine installed by PRI, the Chevrolet Corvette C6 Clubsport, and open-wheel cars such as a Lola Formula Ford and a Lola-Cosworth IRL/Champ car. Some of PRI's street cars may be available at the track, too. Pricing for these cars hasn't been posted, but there will be a substantial discount for members of the NJMP Driver's Club.
PRI will also be running its own track days at NJMP, providing a turnkey experience for people who want a taste of high-performance driving under controlled conditions.
After reading this far, I bet you're not thinking about the weather outside right now.
You're thinking about the sound of tires scrabbling for grip as you clip the apex of a sweeping curve on a winding road or road course.
You're thinking about unwinding the leather-wrapped steering wheel of a finely-engineered sports car while you roll back onto the power, track out to the edge of your lane, and start setting up for the next turn.
You're thinking about how the engine will sound under full throttle while you're climbing up through the gears, and about the sudden pressure behind your eyes when you roll onto the brakes so you can make that next turn.
It may be a few months before you can turn that daydream into a reality, but this is probably a good time to visit some of those websites and make a few phone calls. Maybe you should leave a printout lying around in hopes of finding a gift certificate in your stocking on Christmas morning.
There's a time for dreaming, and a time for action!