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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.

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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 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."

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