A slice of the action

Exclusive racing resorts that trade membership for track time are springing up from southern Spain to upstate New York. Simon de Burton reports on the rise of the country club for petrol heads

April 12 2013
Simon de Burton

Different people have different aspirations when it comes to entertainment of the non-sedentary kind. For some, a swimming pool in the garden might suffice, or maybe a tennis court, a croquet lawn or a private golf course. For pop star Robbie Williams it was a football pitch at his Beverly Hills mansion. But when Dutch tycoon Klaas Zwart became an investor in 174 hectares of land near Ronda in southern Spain, he harboured a plan for something rather more ambitious – a motor-racing complex where he could indulge a lifelong passion for seriously fast driving.

Zwart, an inventor-engineer who made his millions designing drilling equipment for the oil industry, began work on this high-octane playground in 2001. It opened about a year later as the Ascari Race Resort (named after the celebrated 1950s Formula One driver Alberto Ascari) and centres around a challenging 5.4km circuit with some 26 corners, designed by Zwart himself.

However, Zwart didn’t want the track purely for his own amusement; it is also open to like-minded enthusiasts through the Ascari Club, which enables members to turn up and drive on 50 days of the year. There are three tiers of membership, with joining fees ranging from €45,000 to €200,000 and annual fees of €6,000 to €14,000. Each allows full access to the €50m resort’s facilities, including a helicopter landing area, an excellent restaurant in a restored farmhouse, regular race instruction, car storage and maintenance. Ascari’s own fleet of BMW, F3, GT3, Lotus and Radical track cars is available for use – and the garages also contain a tantalising array of “semi-retired” Grand Prix models (Zwart is a seven-time winner of the EuroBoss/Boss GP championships for historical F1 machines).

The track, which has a breathtaking mountain backdrop, is managed by his son, Erik, who explains the idea behind it: “It has never been the intention to create a big, profit-making company – the main aim is simply to cover the costs of running it. We have 50 members, but we’d like to build that up to 200 and have the track open 200 days per year.

“We certainly don’t think of it as being just a club for millionaires. Considering what is available, the cost of membership is not actually that great; the idea is to make it as simple and as convenient as possible for people to fly in, drive and enjoy themselves. The circuit was never designed for full-scale, official racing, and that will never happen. This means there’s no gaudy advertising, so the place just blends in with the landscape around it.”

Few people have the sort of resources to enable them to finance such a project, however, and those that do rarely want to stump up all the cash themselves. In the US, this has led to the rise of the automobile racer’s country club, a concept that is proving especially successful at places such as the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois, and the more recently established Monticello Motor Club, 145km outside Manhattan.

Opened in 2008 by a consortium of motorsport enthusiasts, the MMC has since attracted around 225 members, who enjoy unparalleled access to their swooping 6.6km track on weekdays and at weekends throughout the season. Indeed, such is the popularity of the place that even regular increases in the membership fees have failed to diminish enthusiasm – and the eventual aim is only to allow new people to join when existing members step down.

Levels of membership range from gold – which costs $125,000, allows unlimited track access and lasts for life – to bronze, currently $30,000 but rising to $40,000 in June, which offers 12 days of track time per season and expires after 10 years (annual fees from $10,900 to $15,750). To date, only around 80 hectares of the 270-hectare woodland site have been developed, and plans are afoot to create private residences, shops and a boutique hotel at the resort, as well as a second clubhouse, karting track and off-road trails.

And now, back in Europe, an all-new race resort has appeared on the scene in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia region. The brainchild of Count Marcus Graf von Oeynhausen-Sierstorpff, the Bilster Berg Drive Resort has emerged from the derelict remains of an 84-hectare former Nato ammunition depot, which was sold off by the Rhine Army before being acquired by one of Oeynhausen’s friends.

“Due to the land’s original use, it already had a road network of sorts,” explains Oeynhausen, “and that is partly what gave me the idea to turn it into a luxury race resort. Motorcars have been a passion all my life, and I’ve done a great deal of racing, both in old and modern cars. The availability of this piece of land just seemed to present a great opportunity to create a fantastic track, taking inspiration from the best circuits in the world – ranging from Goodwood and the Nürburgring Nordschleife to Zandvoort and Suzuka.

“We hired top F1 architect Hermann Tilke, who worked on the project with the legendary rally driver Walter Röhrl, and the result is a unique track that changes elevation 44 times and is really exciting to drive,” says Oeynhausen, who also owns the Gräflicher Park Hotel & Spa, a short distance from the circuit, where drivers and their guests will be able to stay.

As with Ascari, Monticello and the Autobahn, Bilster Berg will operate along the lines of a country club for petrolheads. An initial €34m was raised from 160 shareholders, who are able to use the track for up to 80 days per year. For the first year it will only be open to shareholders, though an additional members’ “club within a club” may be created later.

The main emphasis at Bilster Berg is on combining luxury with versatility. The 4.2km circuit can be divided into two tracks to enable separate driving activities to take place, while the large perimeter areas provide space for off-roading. There are also eight pit halls, a vehicle-service building, a dynamic driving pad equipped with a state-of-the-art skid pan, and some 20 former ammunition bunkers that have been converted into high-end vehicle storage units.

“The clubhouse and other facilities are very modern and extremely luxurious. We want the place to be just as enjoyable for those who aren’t driving as it will be for those who are. The countryside setting is really beautiful, yet we’re just a couple of hours from major cities such as Cologne and Hamburg,” says Oeynhausen.

“With the circuit as its centrepiece, the entire facility offers a variety of uses via different modules spread around the site, which can be used simultaneously by various groups of customers – and the topography provides privacy and a high level of exclusivity, too. It will be run as a serious business, so on the days when members are not using the track, we’ll make it available for corporate use.”

But if simply being able to hone your track skills at a fabulous circuit behind the wheel of your favourite race car doesn’t quite tick all the necessary boxes, it’s possible that the offering being prepared by the recently formed 9Stars Terre Blanche in the south of France just might.

Born from the AGS F1 race team, which established the world’s first F1 racing school at its headquarters near St Tropez, the private club is set to open at the start of 2014 (but is taking memberships now) and aims not only to provide its members with the opportunity to drive a remarkable fleet of 30 supercars on its Le Luc circuit, but also to make available six luxury yachts, three private jets and a helicopter. Then there’s the free access to the Terre Blanche resort domain, with its five-star hotel, award-winning golf courses, spa and restaurants.

Membership will be limited to 203 individuals, with each stumping up €350,000, plus a subscription of about €10,000 per year – although €2.8m buys you one of the three available platinum memberships, which come complete with a large villa in the heart of Terre Blanche.

“It is a club of car fanatics for whom racing is just one of several interests,” says Eric Loth, CEO of watch firm The British Masters, an enthusiastic amateur racing driver and one of the first to put money into the club. “We want it to be the perfect set-up for people who have plenty of money to indulge their passions but don’t have the time to arrange everything – just turn up, have fun and go again. I suppose it’s luxury living made easy.”