What it Takes to Build a Private Race Track

Any desert traveler should be relieved to see palm trees.  A large grove of palm trees along 62nd Ave. in Thermal, CA, signals the automotive kind of oasis.

A brand-new state-of-the-art race track spanning 4 and a half acres with three different courses, not including go-kart and autocross courses sits behind

This track is so nice and new that BMW recently signed a multi-year contract to hold driving schools here.  If you’ve got several hundred thousand dollars gathering dust in the bank, you can play race car driver here.

While building my own private race track would be pretty damn cool, I didn’t have much of an idea as to how I would pull that off.  Then I heard about Tim Rogers, whose personal $85 million has gone into making this track, the Thermal Club, a reality.

You could safely say that building a race track is much harder than building a strip mall.  Rogers said in an interview with Hot Rod Magazine (where I got all of his quotes from, so credit is given fully to Hot Rod) that even in the middle of the California desert, he still had to do a lot of paperwork and grading before he could even start pouring concrete and asphalt.  He told Hot Rod, “We had to build the highway out here.  We had to put in the structure for all the utilities.  The hardest part was that the water table was eight feet down, so we had to raise the ground before we could dig.  Who would have thought there would be a water-table problem in the desert?”

He estimates that the final cost of building the Thermal Club will be about $120 million, and so far all of the money put towards the track has been used to satisfy all of the city requirements, relocate the palm tree grove that originally was on the land, grade and pour the main tracks, build a 24-hour gas station (that sells race fuel), and put up a “clubhouse” complete with a restaurant, locker rooms, a car wash (in the middle of a drought?  Seriously?), and multiple garages.

One of the requirements of being a member at the Thermal Club is that you have to purchase land and put up a structure that meets rigorous and various aesthetic criteria. No, a quonset hut does not count!  Rogers said, “The property starts at about $375,000 and goes up to a little over a million.”  My dreams of two shipping containers and a travel trailer as a structure are on hold until I can raise sufficient funds to build a house that meets the criteria (hint hint!).  Should you donate money to my cause, you will get unlimited visitation rights!

But seriously, if you had a nice car collection and a desire to go fast, chances are this kind of money is just waiting to be spent.  Membership at the Thermal Club could pay off.  The track was designed to be both fast, safe and fun, with famed track designer Alan Wilson giving feedback about the curves and Roger Penske consulting on the exact chemistry so the asphalt could survive the grueling summer heat (the town was named Thermal for a reason).

If the rest of your family isn’t interested in bombing around a race track, maybe the thought of a nice restaurant, a spa, a pool, and various other luxuries will entice them.  An added bonus is the track is close enough to an airport that you can simply fly in whenever the racing bug bites.  It’s the ultimate rich Californian dream.  Thermal is close enough to Coachella that the kids can go there.  Plus, Thermal is about two hours from Los Angeles, so it’s really not that far from a big city.  Rogers told Hot Rod that most of his 40 available lots.  Since I don’t have enough money to buy a lot and build a house there, I can only hope that I’ll be invited to a private event there.  The sample house is used to house journalists and VIP guests, so the Thermal Club doesn’t have to worry about hotels and logistics.

If you’re really keen on getting a look at the track, the BMW Driving School is a good start. You can visit the BMW Driving School website at http://www.bmwusa.com/performancecenter.  It’s much cheaper than membership, but you don’t get 365-day track access.  However, several large Los Angeles-area car clubs do book the track for meetings and events periodically.

You can visit the Thermal Club’s website at http://www.thethermalclub.com/

There you have it.  That’s how one very rich and determined man built a race track.  Or, you could just become a member of your local track, which might be cheaper.

The Thermal Club is located at 86030 62nd Ave, Thermal, CA 92274.  Their phone number is 760.674.0088.

The Evolution of Crazy

Pro Street is a popular form of hot rodding nowadays.  It’s also incredibly easy to define, unlike rat rods or Pro Touring.  Pro Street is classic cars with the rear wheeltubs dramatically enlarged for insanely wide tires.  However, defining Pro Street gets a bit more difficult from there.  Is it a fairgrounds car with big dirt tires?  A street-optimized race car? A race-optimized street car?  Or is it a full-on race car?  It can be any and all of those.  Pro Street has evolved throughout the years from essentially fairgrounds cars to street-optimized race cars.  I’ve taken the pleasure of outlining important years and cars in the evolution of Pro Street.  While your idea of Pro Street might differ, or not be there, I hope this helps.

1972: Grumpy Jenkins Pro Stock Vega:  Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins essentially ushered in Pro Street with the advent of his groundbreaking NHRA Pro Stock tube-chassis Chevy Vega in 1972.  Nobody had ever seen massive tires tucked under a production body before. Yes, the extreme Funny Cars had been using the look for a few years prior, but they had fiberglass body shells, so let’s not count those.  Grumpy went all-out groundbreaking by using a completely tubular frame, which allowed him to run those massive 14-inch-wide and 32-inch-tall drag slicks previously reserved for Top Fuel.  Every single Pro Stock car borrows heavily from that groundbreaking Vega in 1972.

Grumpy Jenkins Chevy Vega

1979: Scott Sullivan’s 1967 Chevy Nova:  No, this beautiful 1967 Chevy Nova was not the first Pro Street car.  Not by a long shot.  However, it was the first car to get massive attention past a small magazine feature on it.  It thundered onto the scene in 1979, just a year after the Car Craft Street Machine Nationals were launched to tire-burning success.  It created the perfect test-and-tune environment for Pro Street.  Sullivan has been known for setting hot rodding trends with just about every car that he builds.  His 1967 Nova was no exception.  It may not have been as innovative as his other cars, but it doesn’t make it any less beautiful, thanks to it’s highlight stripe and color-matched bumpers.  It even had the perfect stance.  Sullivan sold the car in 1984 to Pro Mod racer Ron Iannotti.

Scott Sullivan 1967 Chey Nova

1980: Some Tubbed Street Machines: Many street rod builders of the late 1970s became brainwashed by Scott Sullivan’s beautiful 1967 Chevy Nova (see above), and completely redid their cars.  Just about every car from this era had the back half of their chassis tubbed, and many builders simply moved the leaf springs far inside the chassis to fit the massive drag slicks.  Seeing a car with a Roots blower sticking out of the hood was a must well into the 1990s.

Pro Street Pontiac GTO

1985: Fully Tubbed Street Rods: The cover of the July 1985 ‘Hot Rod’ magazine announced the “Fat Attack” of fully tubbed street rods.  One of the cars on the cover was “Fat Jack” Robinson’s 1946 Ford coupe, painted in a vivid Coast Guard orange.  The car was tubbed like a true Pro Street car, but it was intended to thunder down the drag strips of America.  His car was the result of the first round of the nostalgia drag racing scene of the time.  His car inspired several other pre-1948 fully-tubbed cars.  Those cars on the cover of ‘Hot Rod’ showed how the Pro Street look merging into the vast world of street rods.  It wasn’t long before you’d look around at a hot rod show and see a bunch of 1940s Ford coupes sporting massive rubber.  Unfortunately for Fat Jack Robinson, his car ended up being totaled in a crash at Fremont Drag Strip.

Fat Jack Robinson 1946 Ford Coupe

1992: Trailer/Fairgrounds Queens: Dick Dobbertin’s nutso Pontiac J2000 Pro Street car arrived on the scene in 1986.  You’re probably wondering why I said 1992.  That’s because the trend of taking a lowly late-model FWD car being converted to a fully-tubbed, RWD car started then.  It made it OK to build an over-the-top Pro Street car that only looked good, which have now been dubbed Pro Fairgrounds.  Why Pro Fairgrounds?  The show venue was the only place where these cars could really shine.  I mean, who would really want to drive a car with more than 1,000 horsepower and a short wheelbase down a dragstrip?  If you want that kind of crazy, buy a vintage Fuel Altered car.  This radical Pontiac J2000 started the Dare to be Different movement in the automotive world, by starting battles to see who was able to build a bonkers Pro Fairgrounds car that nobody else had built yet.  Soon thereafter, builders came to their senses and started the Dare to be the Same movement, which leads us to our next section.

Dick Dobbertin Pontiac J2000

1992: C.A.R.S. Camaro: Many of the builders of Pro Fairgrounds resented building cars they couldn’t drive.  They wanted truly functional rides, not simple street rods with a big block, but cars that had gigantic rubber, big wheelies, and low drag strip times.  Detroit and Ohio even started a large movement to build cars that were all-steel-bodied, fully tubbed, go eight seconds in the quarter mile, dress them up with bumpers and various trim pieces, cruise them up and down the iconic Woodward Avenue in Detroit with license plates, and then race them head-to-head all weekend.  One of the first cars featured in magazines was the C.A.R.S. Inc.-sponsored Chevy Camaro of Rick Dyer and Danny Scott.  That iconic Camaro served as the main inspiration for the ‘Hot Rod’ 1992 Fastest Street Car Shootout.

Rick Dyer Chevy Camaro

1993: Mark Tate’s Chevy Camaro: That little Fastest Street Car Shootout gained so much popularity so quickly that it couldn’t sustain itself.  The heavyweight champs, the Pro Street cars, were losing to flat-out Pro Stock-chassis cars.  Those Pro Stock chassis cars were never meant to be driven on the street, unlike the Pro Street cars.  Mark Tate joined the fray in 1993 with his stock-bodied Pro Stock-chassis 1967 Chevy Camaro.  Then it was Tony Christian’s 1957 Chevy 210.  After Christian, it was Bob Reiger and his radical Pro Stock Chevy S-10.  Appeal for Pro Stock/Pro Street cars started to wane.  These weren’t cars you could build in the garage for $10,000 anymore.  These were cars racking up bills well over $100,000.  People wanted fast cars that they could drive on the street for not much money.

Mark Tate 1967 Chevy Camaro

2011: “Modern Pro Street:” This is a total niche created in the Pro Street world by those wanting a fast car with all of the modern mechanicals.  Cars of this look have a Pro Fairgrounds look, street machine behavior, and sometimes a late-model body.  These cars usually have the newest engines, turbos, EFI, and the wheels are usually gigantic with incredible tread.  The beautiful Mustang shown here is the 2007 Ford Mustang from Fastlane Motorsports.  It has a 2010 5.4-liter V-8 with an old-school Weiand 6-71 blower showing out of the hood.

Fastlane Motorsports 2007 Mustang

2012:  Larry Larson’s Chevy Nova: This is where Pro Street is now.  Larry Larson owns a stunning 1966 Chevrolet Nova that has truly incredible performance.  He’s run 6.90 seconds at well over 200 mph in the quarter mile after driving 80 mph on the highway all day.  How does he do it?  Modern technology.  He’s got a bored and stroked Chevy big-block motor with twin turbochargers, EFI, and lots of other amazing technology.  He’s able to drive it all day to a drag strip, run incredible times, turn around and go home without killing his car.  He’s had a LOT of experience in the drag racing world, so he only uses the best parts.  If Grumpy Jenkins were alive today, his mind would be absolutely blown.  Mine is.

Larry Larson 1966 Chevy Nova

That’s where Pro Street is, and where it’s come from.  These cars have state-of-the-art technology, and they are actually quite streetable cars.