Lost in time (cont.)
Posted: Thursday August 30, 2007 5:54PM; Updated: Thursday August 30, 2007 5:54PM
Racers describe Lime Rock as a roller-coaster ride, a constant balancing act that drives more like a dirt track than a typical road course. And despite its relatively short length it is startlingly fast: The all-time lap record was set by P.J. Jones in May '93. Driving a Toyota Mk3 GTP racer, he bombed around the course in 43.112 seconds, an average speed of 128.595 mph -- a breathtaking figure given the tight confines and limited runoff areas.
Over the years some of the biggest names in American racing (from Carroll Shelby and Roger Penske to Mark Donahue, Peter Revson and Sam Posey) have turned laps at Lime Rock -- along with just about every sports car racer in the East (including a noted amateur by the name of Paul Newman, who considers it his home track).
In addition to three professional racing weekends each year, Lime Rock hosts several Sports Car Club of America events and is used almost every day by car clubs and enthusiast organizations. Since '75 the track has been the headquarters of the Skip Barber driving school. Barber, himself a former racer who bought the track in '84, says he considers himself less the owner of Lime Rock than "the custodian, or caretaker."
It is that sense of tradition, as well as the blend between the professional and the amateur that makes Lime Rock so appealing and welcoming -- and so different from the NASCAR experience. Valentina and I rolled into the Park (and it really is a park: there are no grandstands or luxury boxes at Lime Rock; spectators sit on the grass alongside the track) across the wooden bridge just above Diving Turn and parked in a grassy lot above the paddock. (Stock car racing has garages; sports car racing has paddocks.) Spectators were strolling by, their caps and t-shirts adorned not with driver numbers or beer logos, but with BMW and Porsche insignias and the prancing horse of Ferrari. Several car clubs were in attendance and Valentina and I marveled at the scores of meticulously maintained Corvettes, Porsches and Acura NSXs all corralled together like rival gangs.
Unlike in NASCAR, at Lime Rock the paddock -- and before races, the pit lane -- is open to all, and spectators stand and gawk and snap pictures just feet away from the mechanics as they work over the exotic, 700-horsepower racecars. For any true gearhead, it is an intoxicating experience. During our visit last month I had a chance to talk with Chris Economaki, the longtime broadcaster and Speed Sport News writer widely known as the Dean of American Motorsports, who was holding court in a hospitality chalet overlooking the infield. "I announced the first race here," said Economaki, still dapper at age 86. "I have 50 years of memories." He looked out over the throng of spectators sitting in camp chairs and on blankets on the big hill above the Esses as a pack of single-seater Formula BMW cars roared past. "It's the perfect race track."
And thanks to Barber it is likely to stay that way. Barber, 70, who says he has "standing offers" from developers to sell the land, has no intention of seeing the track transformed into condos or a golf course. "That won't happen while I'm still around," he says.
Maintaining and updating the facility requires a tremendous amount of capital, however, and Barber has come up with a bold plan to bring it in. On the day Valentina and I were there, he announced the formation of The Club at Lime Rock. Barber plans to sell 300 memberships in what will essentially be a country club for car nuts. Instead of rounds of golf, though, the attraction will be laps of high-speed driving. Each member will get 20 dates a year on which he or she can drive a personal vehicle on the track. Barber expects to enroll members from all over the country who will be eager for the opportunity to pilot their Porsches and Ferraris and vintage racecars on the venerated circuit. "We'll even have members from Japan, who will leave their cars over here," he says. The cost for such high-octane diversion? A one-time fee of $110,000, for lifetime enrollment, plus monthly dues of $550.
Nobody said heaven came cheap. As we drove back out of the track that afternoon, the countryside returned to quiet once again, I mentioned to Valentina that I just might start saving up. "Dream on," she said.
I will indeed.
2 of 2