"I want you to feel the car. Feel the gas, feel the brake," my racetrack instructor Jason Rabe is saying. We're driving along 4.1 miles of looping, winding asphalt at Monticello Motor Club, a members-only venue near the Catskills in New York that bills itself as "the world's premier automotive playground." The course has 22 turns and 450 feet of elevation change, designed with the help of a former pro racer so that it never gets boring. There's a switchback and hairpin turns, corners inspired by grand European racetracks, and a kink in the road they like to call "kryptos."
It’s my first time on a track: strapped in, helmeted and behind the wheel of a yellow-gold BMW M4. I stop checking the speedometer because I need to keep my eyes on the track. Later, on a straightaway, I push the car to 90 mph, but most of the time I probably wasn’t going more than 65. Still, it feels fast. The course that seemed intuitive a few minutes ago, when I was in the passenger seat, no longer makes any sense. Turns that I thought were on the right now appear, out of nowhere, on the left. The faster we go, around and around, the more disoriented I become. So I turn off the thinking part of my brain and focus all of my energy on doing what Rabe is telling me: Get your eyes way down to the right-hander here. Left side. That’s it, wait there. Now, bring it in. Hit your apex. Nice and tight to the curb. Left side. That’s it. Good job. Light brake. Now, turn it in.
Monticello is billed as a luxury motor club not just because of the extravagance of the vehicles. It’s also about the escape that track time confers. In real life, driving is rarely like those fancy car commercials on TV, the ones with sleek, sun-glinted automobiles deftly handling curved mountain roads. Especially if you live in a city, where driving means contending with a maze of endless gridlock, commuters who accelerate the moment you try to shift lanes, and cyclists who blast through an intersection just as your light turns green. In places like Washington, perennially among the top 10 U.S. cities for the worst traffic, getting behind the wheel is the stuff of daily root canals. So it’s understandable why people would be drawn to the idea of zipping around an empty racetrack at top speed.
Private car clubs have a long history in the United States, dating to the Automobile Racing Club of America in the 1930s. Clubs for aficionados of luxury brands like Mercedes-Benz and Porsche have been around since the 1950s. More recently, some of those same car companies have opened schools where owners can learn high-performance driving. Monticello, about 100 miles from New York City, is more like a country club for motor sports enthusiasts. The cost to join runs as high as $90,000 for gold members, with $13,700 in annual dues (to join, applicants need to be sponsored by a member, though the owners often sponsor applicants who don’t know any members in the club). It was opened 10 years ago by two financial industry executives and two property developers, and its members are entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, dentists and executives from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Instead of 18 holes, squash courts and a pool, Monticello members receive priority access to its track and facilities to store their vehicles. When they don’t feel like driving their own wheels, they can rent from the club’s fleet of exotic cars, including a Porsche Cayman PDK racecar and a Spec Mazda Miata. Instead of fine-tuning their serves with resident tennis pros, they can learn to race in BMW M2s and M Performance models with professional instructors. Alex Wolenski, Monticello Motor Club’s chief operating officer, says many of the club’s 485 members come to them with no experience on a racetrack and end up as competitive racers.
Family-friendly options include a go-karting course and off-roading opportunities. After driving on the track, I drove behind Colin MacGregor, another Monticello staffer, in a rumbling Polaris RZR through the extensive trail system on the club’s 670-acre property. In the RZRs — super powerful off-road vehicles that make you feel like you’re in “Mad Max: Fury Road” — we clambered over rock walls and blasted through ponds of melted snow. When we finished, it looked as if we had been in a mud bath — just not the spa treatment kind.
Driving at high speeds on a track is riskier than swinging a 9-iron, of course, and clubs need to have safety protocols. “I could write a dissertation on all of our safety procedures, but it goes deep and is ingrained in every one of our employees,” Wolenski says. Monticello “will not allow an unsafe situation to move forward, even if it means saying no to a high-net-worth client who is used to being given an exemption.” During their busier months, they keep emergency responders on site. Wolenski estimates there are one to three minor incidents a month, mostly during races.
For car enthusiasts in the D.C. region, there are tracks closer to home that are open during warmer months with a spectrum of exclusivity and affordability. There are driver's clubs at Dominion Raceway in Thornburg, Va., and Summit Point Motorsports Park in West Virginia, where members get a specific number of track days available to them each year. There's also Virginia International Raceway's Driving Club in Alton, Va., among the most popular clubs for motor sports hobbyists in the region.
VIR has roughly 20 track days a year open for its club members, who pay a $3,000 initiation fee, then $175 in monthly dues, plus a daily track fee. There are villas to rent on the property, a restaurant, shooting ranges and a spa. VIR also rents the track to other car clubs, driving schools and clients with deep pockets who want to tailor their driving experiences. “They want to be involved somewhere that gives them a lot of choice and helps that person develop what they want to do,” says chief executive Connie Nyholm. Nyholm helped reopen VIR, which first began operating in the 1950s and closed in the 1970s, in 2000. Before VIR, she had never been to a racetrack before, but soon she got into racing herself. “I like to drive fast,” Nyholm says she tells the club’s newcomers, “and if I can do this, you can.”
Most of VIR’s members are men, but that could be changing. “I’ve often said this might be the only sports event in the world where I don’t have to wait in line to use the restroom,” says April Curtis, a racing and motor sports enthusiast considered among the most talented drivers in the VIR community. “But there are increasingly more of us, and I hope that trend continues.”
Curtis took an indirect route to racing: She gave her husband a trip to high-performance driving school and accompanied him to the track. On the second day, it rained and he ended up wrecking the car. He caught a ride home early, and while she was waiting for someone to pick her up and take her home, she got the chance to ride along with an instructor. Soon she was building her own racecar to compete in events. “It’s not an inexpensive hobby,” she says. “[My husband] and I have done other things like riding horses, polo, fox hunting. We thought the horses were expensive, but the car stuff, if you really get into it, you go down the path where you build a track-prepped car, and you need a truck and trailer and toolboxes — it’s a very expensive hobby. But it’s just so worth it.”
She has been driving now for 18 years, but she still hasn’t gotten over the adrenaline rush that comes with the sport. “To be honest with you, I still pull up to the gate at VIR and get butterflies in my stomach,” Curtis says. “It’s a risky sport, but oh my God, is it fun. When you’re out there on the track, it’s like nothing else exists. It takes you away from whatever else is going on in the world.”
Not all luxury automotive enthusiasts need a track. And there is a club for them too: the seven-month-old Drive Society DC. Drive Society isn’t a track-based club like Monticello or VIR. Instead, it’s meant for car enthusiasts who “want to drive and experience a car without the hassles of owning them,” co-founder Danielle Schefer says. She started the club last fall with her husband, Alex. Before that, they were both in software development. The pair had an all-black Porsche 911 that they loved driving but noticed that as their family grew, they were driving the car less and less, making ownership impractical. That gave them an idea: Why not buy a bunch of exotic cars that members could rent on demand?
The club is based on a points system. Members buy a package of points — $12,000 gets you 400 points, $2,000 gets you 60 — that they can spend on daily rentals of Drive Society’s fleet. A Porsche Boxster is six points per day, a Porsche Cayman GT4 is 20, a BMW 1 Series M is 10.
On a Saturday night in early March, the members of Drive Society DC gathered for their first meeting in a modernist co-working space in Arlington’s Clarendon neighborhood to decide what car they should purchase next. Danielle Schefer led the group of about 10 — mostly in their 30s and 40s — through introductions that included members’ favorite cars and stories about how they learned to drive. Then, over slices of Pete’s New Haven pizza and craft beer, they debated what type of vehicle would be best: Luxury sedans? Trucks? Cars better suited to winter? An American sports car? Several members had young kids and wondered whether the next vehicle should be something they could fit the whole family in. “We have a lot of sports cars,” Sara Bannon, one of the members, observed.
As they brainstormed car ideas, Danielle wrote them down on large sheets of paper taped to the windows: Lamborghini Huracán, Corvette Z06, Dodge Viper, Maserati Quattroporte, Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. After some discussion, members voted by lining up little toy cars on the table in the front of the room. The more votes each car got, the farther they advanced down the table. At the end of the meeting, three choices remained: a Mercedes-AMG GT, a late model Corvette, and a Jaguar F-Type.
As the meeting broke up, I talked to Chris Zurich, a friend of the Schefers and one of the first people to join the club. “A lot of the cars have been picked for how they make you feel when you drive them, which is what the next generation of car enthusiasts is going to be about,” he said. “People don’t experience these cars because they’re inaccessible, but you should get to experience cars like this. It’s about how they look, how they smell, how they feel. They feel special.”
The following morning, I pull up to the nondescript garage in Arlington where Drive Society DC houses its cars, to experience what it's like to be a member. (I brought my husband, because many Drive Society members join to drive with their partners, and because taking his bucket-list cars for joyrides alone on a Sunday afternoon might have been grounds for divorce.) A few moments after we arrive, Alex Schefer pulls up and leads us to the subterranean level where Drive Society's cars are parked.
He shows us the cars: a burnt orange 2011 BMW 1M, the very first one made in a limited run of only 740 cars in the United States. He pops open the driver’s side doors of a navy blue ’69 Camaro restomod — a fancy term for a zombified classic car outfitted with high-tech upgrades. “I think it’s awesome, but it rides rough,” he says, before moving on to a super sleek silver Porsche Cayman GT4, with an adjustable rear wing, and the black Porsche 911 Carrera S, which manages to look modern and classic all at once.
My first rental for the day was the crown jewel of Drive Society’s fleet: a Ferrari 458 Italia. The car, wide and low to the ground, dark gray with huge yellow carbon ceramic brakes visible on the wheels, looked kind of like the Batmobile. Its V-8 engine was displayed under glass in a panel behind the front seats, like a moving museum exhibit.
Pulling the Ferrari out of the parking garage and into traffic, I felt much more nervous than I was on the racetrack. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, my hell is other drivers — I couldn’t stop worrying about the possibility that someone would hit this car I almost certainly couldn’t afford to repair. (The club insures the cars, but members who wreck them have to pay the deductible.) I merged onto the George Washington Memorial Parkway, headed south and hit the gas. The engine rumbled and shot the car forward with such force and power that I felt it in my belly. It was thrilling, and a bit terrifying, to be driving something so large and so powerful amid a crush of Sunday drivers. But mostly, it was fun. At Daingerfield Island in Alexandria, I turned around and drove north, eventually connecting through Interstate 495 and Georgetown Pike to the windy wooded roads leading to Great Falls Park in McLean. Despite one decidedly un-fun three-point turn to avoid a road crew working on a downed tree, the ride was smooth and easy, even if I could never really forget that I was driving a $300,000 car.
After a couple of hours, we brought the Ferrari back and swapped it for a Tesla Roadster — the cherry red electric wonder that Elon Musk recently shot into space. Up close, the car looks like a child’s toy come to life: Out on Interstate 66, headed west toward Clifton, Va., I got a sense of what Zurich was trying to tell me when he said I should experience the different feelings these cars elicit. Narrower than the Ferrari and low to the ground, the Roadster was bumpier and the steering stiffer, like driving the world’s most expensive go-kart. And yet, the car was a pure joy. When the road opened up and I put the pedal to the floor, it felt like warp speed.
Still, it wasn’t speed I was after, but something less tangible. As a teenager in rural northwestern Pennsylvania I would take my little hand-me-down Honda Civic, roll the windows down and drive up and down the roller-coaster hills, through the flat farmland straightaways and around the turns on wooded mountain roads.
In the Roadster, I found myself on Chapel Road, a twisting country lane tucked away from the bustle of the highway. The car wound around tight corners, zipping up and down small hills. It reminded me of those roller-coaster drives I took as a kid. The best way to describe how it felt, I guess, was free — a feeling that every adult knows is its own kind of luxury.
Marin Cogan is a writer in Washington.