Living life in the fast lane

There was a time when driving fast was my idea of a great time. With my first really big bonus on Wall Street, I leased a shiny black Porsche 911, and promptly collected three speeding tickets from the Southampton police for minor infractions. Having spent my school summers in the company of locals, I certainly understood how much joy it brought the Hamptons’ sleepy cops to pull over obnoxious City people in ridiculous cars that cost more than their annual salary.

Car 200My third ticket was for doing 28 in a 25MPH school zone on a Sunday. I cut a deal with the town’s district attorney to sell the car and avoid a license suspension. If not for one of the most remarkable coincidences I have ever witnessed, I would have been brutally abused by the leasing company for an early termination, just after my parking garage on West 83rd street in New York City literally ripped the driver’s side door off the car while backing it into a tight space.

From then on, I decided that my true high-speed experimentation would be done on the racetrack, and I found a driving school run by Skip Barber Racing on the ancient, sandy track in Bridgehampton. The program was taught in small, open race cars, not tremendously fast or powerful, but at over 100MPH and sitting about a foot off the ground, it was plenty for me.

On my second day, it started to rain lightly, and the instructors elected not to change our tires. I was the second novice to do a 720 – two full spins – when I hit a little sandy patch at the apex of a turn, and decided I’d had enough. I had to admit my skills were limited, and getting soaked, scared, and maybe hurt wasn’t what I had in mind.

My track experiences later in life were about as far from wet misery imaginable. There was a “hot lap” in the passenger seat of a Ferrari 430 Scuderia with a professional driver at Mont Tremblant in Quebec that introduced me to what an overpowered monster of a car could do in the hands of an expert. Later, a weekend at the more upscale Skip Barber Racing School at Lime Rock in Connecticut allowed students to drive a selection of high performance BMWs and Porsches for blistering loops between learning safe breaking and emergency evasion maneuvers. Not a week later, one of those maneuvers saved my vintage Ferrari, if not my life, on a Westchester, NY country road.

A few years after, I learned about the opening of a new, private track and planned luxury facilities in Monticello, NY, and drove up to check it out. After a safety inspection, the track manager took me out in my car for six or seven laps as fast as I cared to go. With his masterful coaching, I felt like I was getting the hang of it. While the economically-depressed Catskill region hardly fit the luxury description of the Monticello Motor Club, their ambitions, largely realized within a few years, included extensive garage space, repair and modification services, and even luxury overnight accommodations for members and their guests. The track itself is one of the longer, more technical routings in the United States, and my day was a total blast.

For a brief moment I considered a membership, and fantasized about acquiring the skills to master competition-level driving. However, a more sober assessment led me to conclude that my high-speed antics would always be limited by my fear, and in any dangerous sport, that is a recipe for disaster. I had a long chat with a member of my golf club who had competed on the “gentleman’s” race circuit, driving his collection of a dozen exotic and insanely-expensive supercars against like-minded wealthy men on tracks all over the country. An accident had nearly killed him, but he felt little regret. He told me about some of the great private tracks he’d visited, so I researched a few.

Monticello may have been a pioneer for luxury private motoring, but the Ascari course more than gave it a run for the money. In the rolling hills of the Spanish countryside in Ronda, a lovely valley setting at the base of the Andalucian mountains, Ascari was the love child of the eponymous supercar company’s charismatic owner, and he spared no expense in creating a luxury experience for his demanding clientele and their families. He is the rare, rich man who can compete with the pros – he still holds the track record on this seemingly endless 25-turn behemoth of a test, at a shade over 1:47 in a Benetton-flagged former F1 track car.

There are other tracks, from the venerable Palm Beach Motor Club to the Aspen Racing and Sports Club, Prairie Hills out in Nebraska and Joliet in Indiana. All boast significant initiation fees, generally around $100,000 and annual dues about half of typical golf club fees. Running your own track car isn’t for the faint of heart, but most of the clubs keep rental fleets on hand and fine-tuned, from Cadillac’s 500+ horsepower luxocruiser to plenty of heavy iron Corvettes, to the sporty Lotus Elise, or almost anything you can imagine.

The technical demands of high-speed driving are significant, but it the rare sport at which middle aged men and women can excel. Being fit is certainly helpful, but not absolutely necessary on the shorter tracks like Aspen or Palm Beach. With a fine machine and first rate instruction, you can be executing Fangio’s signature moves, the versatility of the great Mario Andretti, or just enjoying the sensation of allowing a vintage Ferrari Dino to stretch its legs and cackle like the gorgeous little runner it was meant to be, without fear of a malingering policeman and his radar gun, or some distracted texter turning you into very expensive roadkill.

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