A country club where driving requires a lead foot, not a good swing

 by Paul Josephson
July 2, 2003

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Plans are well underway for the construction of a new private track in southwestern suburban Chicago that will cater to people who have a penchant for fast cars. Mark Basso of suburban West Chicago leads a group of investors who are seeking to convert a 325-acre cornfield in the southern part of Joliet into a 3.56-mile road course.

It will be located within view of the Chicagoland Speedway to the east and close to the Route 66 Raceway, also in Joliet. It will provide individuals who have high performance cars the opportunity to vastly exceed highway speed limits without the worry of being ticketed. Once approvals have been completed over the summer, Basso and his two partners, Mike Keck and Tim O’Donnell, plan to start construction this fall and complete the track by late spring of next year. The partners have named the development the Autobahn Country Club.

Basso, an insurance broker, has been working for several years to attract financial backers for the proposed track. The Club had original plans to build a similar track in far west suburban Sugar Grove, but the proposal drew opposition from residents. Basso said the Joliet site is suitable for the track because it is in a farmland area that is zoned for industrial or entertainment development, rather than residential. Because of the zoning, Club developers won’t have to contend with homeowners who might be bothered by the track. Basso says, "If you have a Ferrari or a Porsche or a Lamborghini, obviously you can't do much with those on the city streets.” But on the proposed track, enthusiasts "will be able to drive those cars in a safe environment and go fast." The advantage of building such a track in the Chicago metro area is that members who want to push the limit on their cars won’t have to drive over two hours to tracks such as Road America in Wisconsin or Gingerman in Michigan.

Track Design and Operations

Autobahn Country Club Track

The Club enlisted the preeminent road course designer, Alan Wilson, to develop its Grand Prix track. His work includes the track at GingerMan, the South Carolina Motorsports Park, the future CART track in Beijing, China and the recently opened Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. The Master Development Plan for the track features three track layouts – a 1.46-mile North track for corporate outings, club usage and other events, and a 2.10-mile South track for members only. Both can be combined to create a 3.56-mile track for special events and professional races. The combined track will be the third largest in the country after Road America and Sebring in Florida. The site will also have a .8-mile shifter kart track.

When Wilson begins laying out straight-aways and corners of a new road course on his computer screen (using the CAD program Autosketch), he draws heavily on his racing experience, as well as that of his wife, Desire, who raced in England from 1978-80. “I like a track to flow,” he says. “I want the driver to go into a corner with apprehension, and come out with exhilaration. That explains what I try to create.” To encourage passing, Wilson prefers his track surfaces to be 40 feet wide and his straights devoid of kinks that funnel cars into single lines. He tries to link corners together into sequences, and also to give them multiple radii, so that more than one racing line works. “I’ve got a section at GingerMan where there are probably seven or eight perfectly acceptable lines,” he says.

Safety is a major concern for Wilson. He specifies runoff areas and gravel traps instead of barriers everywhere possible, and insists that every runoff be as smooth as a golf course fairway, to reduce the chance of a rollover. Another characteristic of a Wilson track is an empty infield, which saves the expense of bridges or tunnels as well as simplifies the safety infrastructure. His design for the Autobahn Country Club track will feature long grassy runoff areas (so as not to damage the cars), and armco steel barriers where necessary. Basso said that there would always be at least one ambulance on call at the track in case of accidents. With many Club members in the medical field, there are some early plans to possibly have them available for medical needs should an accident or other health problems occur.

Although Wilson isn’t an engineer, he works closely with them; his sketches and designs are converted into engineering drawings. His company, Wilson Motorsports Inc., based in Castle Rock, Colorado, also helps track-builders in other areas, from obtaining permits to a final operations plan. And if all goes well, the day comes when . . .“We get the surveyor in, he stakes my centerline, and I’ll ride the path of the course with a Quad or a dirt bike. I’ll run lap after lap after lap, trying to get the feel and flow of it, and I’ll start moving some of the stakes a little bit, to get it right.”

Included with this article is a track layout. Most of the land is farmland with a fresh crop of corn and soybeans sprouting up from the ground. Great care was taken to ensure that the track layout follows the contour of the land with minimal environmental impact. Several parts of the track have mature trees as shown on the map, most of which will be saved. Also, there are about 30 acres of wetlands on the property. Original plans called for converting about 20 of these acres into other uses for the track, but this was later reduced to only 2.8 acres. With the undulating features spread out over the site and the number of trees that will remain, the track layout will be picturesque. There will be a few places where elevation changes will exist to provide a bit more of a challenge, but because of the current lay of the land, these will probably be only about 10 feet in height. However, given Wilson’s design, the track will be a test even for experienced drivers.

The South Track will feature a 2000-foot straightaway (far left vertical line on the map), which is several hundred feet longer than the one at Gingerman. When I asked Basso about removing the right-hander and slightly curving the track to extend the straightaway, he said that the planned straightaway would be long enough. He said that when non-professional drivers get their high performance cars up towards top speed, they soon have a tendency to want to slow down.

The lines that you see on the map are buried natural gas pipelines. The developers had to get approval from many natural gas companies across the nation for the track to be built over the pipelines.

Cars at the Club will run in a clockwise direction. Initially, the paddock will cover 20 acres and will be bordered on two sides by the pit areas for the North and South tracks. The paddock surface will be comprised of paved and grassy areas to suit the desires of the car owners and teams who will use the facility.

Drivers will be classified in one of three ways. A “C” driver is one who just wants to drive the track with his/her street car. “C” drivers will be allowed to pass in the straights with a wave, but no passing will be allowed in the turns. These drivers will have staggered starts with their driving sessions lasting 20 minutes. A “B” driver is one who owns a street car and has more skill than a “C” driver. An “A” driver is one who has more skill than a “B” driver and is a licensed racecar driver. “A” drivers will be allowed to pass anywhere. Only one class of drivers will be on the track at a time. Club member usage will change day to day using both tracks.

The track will be open for seven months of the year. Teams and non-members will be able to use the track from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM, seven days a week. Members will be able to use the track until sundown.

Memberships and Benefits

Newspaper Ad

Plans call for a $14 million facility. Phase I consists of track construction. The Club received commitment for bridge financing from a bank and expects to start breaking ground sometime this fall. Once started, Phase I of the project will take approximately eight months to complete. The track will be divided into two areas, one reserved for Club members and the other available for rent by car clubs or dealerships that sell exotic or high-performance cars and want a place to test-drive them.

Basso wants to have the track carved out this fall and paved before winter sets in. The developers want the asphalt to cure over the winter so that they can officially open next May or June. Next year, construction will start on some of the team buildings and member garages. Phase II includes construction of a clubhouse (see drawing), restaurant, and pool.

The developers are attracting investors to have a stake in the success of the track. Basso says he needs 40 Founding Members to start construction and has already recruited 35. The 35 Founding Members committed $100,000 each towards development costs, payable in installments. The price for being a Founding Member for any of the five remaining open slots was recently raised to $125,000, however. Once the Club has reached the maximum of 40 Founding Members, it will only accept regular Country Club memberships, which will be capped at 200. Country Club Members will pay a $10,000 initiation fee, plus annual dues of $3,000.

Founding Members will have a lifetime guarantee that includes unlimited use of the Club with no annual or monthly dues. They are eligible for a preferred rate of return and have 100% equity. They will also receive these benefits:

• Unlimited Track Time
• Car Storage
• Racing School
• Clubhouse Access
• Corporate Meeting Rooms
• Banquet Facilities
• Swimming Pool
• Locker Rooms
• Founders’ VIP Club

Other Country Club members will enjoy unlimited access to all Autobahn Country Club tracks, Clubhouse and amenities, excluding the Founders’ VIP Club area.

Corporate memberships are available to companies, sports car clubs, and organizations. Corporate members will have access to tracks, Clubhouse and amenities, excluding the Founders’ VIP Club area. Corporate members may rent and reserve Club tracks for special events. Country-club type amenities with a family-friendly atmosphere, including banquet facilities, fine dining establishments, an automotive pro shop, an outdoor swimming pool and locker rooms are planned as well. Members can also take advantage of temperature-controlled vehicle storage areas, a service garage with on-site mechanics, and valet services.

Track Amenities and Special Events

Initially, there will be 19 team lots, but this number will probably increase as the track grows and revenues are generated. The team lot concept is attracting a lot of interest from a variety of teams. For example, Joe Graziano, a GTS PRO driver in the Panoz Racing Series, will have a lot for his team at the Club. Each lot will be approximately 1/3 acre in size. Individual car owners and teams will be able to construct their own buildings. Most will be about 4,000 square feet, but some are planning larger buildings. The developers want to have an equestrian/stable-look to the buildings, and they want to maintain some consistency in the design of the buildings, so there are some regulations for builders to follow. (See prototype photos.) The developers want to have a variety of car and motorcycle organizations/teams who would have an interest in becoming members or buying team lots at the track.

When I asked about CART inquiring about the track, Basso said that there have not yet been any inquiries. He said that several costly upgrades would have to be made to meet the requirements needed to host a major event like a CART race. Current plans don’t include sufficient parking space for the 50,000+ people who would attend a major race. However, there is a square track of land on the northwest corner of Patterson and Millsdale Rd. (see map). This piece of land, if purchased by the Club, could be converted into a large parking lot. Other improvements would have to be made to protect spectators and add creature comforts, such as bridges, concession stands, grandstands, and restrooms before a major race could be held there.

Basso said that the developers don’t want to develop the site too quickly. That’s why they’re taking a conservative approach in getting the track built, and planning for expansion as more funds become available. Although hosting a CART race could happen, Basso doesn’t see that happening for a while. He said tracks get into trouble when plans get too ambitious too quickly.

Besides being funded by memberships, Basso says that revenue from teams and special events will also help pay the rent. The developers are particularly interested in hosting a vintage car race in the not-too-distant future that would be open to the public.

Approvals and Support

Basso doesn’t see any major hurdles remaining in getting the track built. The various local zoning commissions quickly gave their approval to construction, in contrast to the effort that the developers went through when they originally planned to build a track in suburban Sugar Grove. Basso said when plans were first being formulated for the Joliet site, one of the local government zoning commissions even told the developers about a general area of land where they might want to look at building the track! The developers will present their plans to the Joliet City Council on August 4th and will need to get final approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. However, Basso doesn’t think that there will be any major problem getting approvals from either group. Clearly, with the Chicagoland Speedway just minutes away, and with the nearby Route 66 Raceway, the city of Joliet is certainly friendly towards auto racing.

The Club is generating a lot of interest from high performance car dealers and sports car enthusiasts. Joel Weinberger, another founding member of the club and co-owner of Continental Audi in Naperville and Continental Acura in Lisle, said he can't wait for the track to open. Weinberger said he got involved in part as a business opportunity to accommodate those of his customers who may want to test-drive a car on a track before buying it. But he said he also is looking forward to using the course and the amenities of the Club. "A lot of racetracks don't have good places to hang out," he said, noting that many have just food stands. But the Autobahn will be "a country club atmosphere, without a golf course," he said.

How to get there

From Chicago, take I-55 south past I-80 and exit at Arsenal Rd. East to Brandon Rd., north 1.5 miles to Millsdale Rd, and follow the Millsdale Rd. signs. Turn left on Patterson Rd. and go 100 yards to the planned entrance that will be on your left.

The Club’s website is http://www.autobahncountryclub.net. A local Fox TV News Segment clip can be found at http://www.autobahncountryclub.net/autobahnsmall.mov.

To contact the Club, click on http://www.autobahncountryclub.net/contactus.htm or call Mark or a Club representative at 630-375-7652.

Other Close-By Facilities

Besides nearby Route 66 Raceway and the Chicagoland Speedway, just down the street from the entrance to the track is the $4 million Challenge Park, which is one of the country’s largest paintball amusement park. It has four setting for paintball enthusiasts – Town of Bedlam, Fort Courage, Armageddon, and the Temple of Doom. It also offers Xtreme sports, BMX (bicycle) racing, Skateboarding, In-line and Mountain Biking on 150 acres.

The author can be contacted at feedback@autoracing1.com

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