Our Pledge To You

News

‘Like motorsports Disney World’: Drive like a pro at a high-speed test track

A competition driver at Blackhawk Farms Raceway. | Photo by D. Miller/Flickr (Creative Commons)

John Foley’s hands were in constant motion. He twisted his steering wheel back and forth to weave his car through a series of yellow- and red-colored cones. The Libertyville man needed to zip through the course in under 23.5 seconds to have a shot at winning this autocross time trial.

It was easier said than done. As Foley’s sedan snaked past the last set of obstacles and skidded to a stop, he checked his recorded time — 25.8 seconds — and shrugged. “It looks like I’m kind of maxed out,” he said.

If Foley sounds surprisingly mild-mannered, it’s because this race, held on the second Saturday of December, had very low stakes. There was no cash prize. All participants piloted their own personal cars, and most of the dozen drivers were weekend warrior-types. Foley is no Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: he’s a full-time scientist who recently joined the ranks of about 440 members in this suburban Chicago racing club.

“I’m here because I wanted some track time, and [to] learn to be a better driver,” Foley said.

Foley is a newly minted member of the Autobahn Country Club, one of a handful of venues within a couple hours’ journey from Chicago where ordinary enthusiasts can strap on helmets and moonlight as amateur race car drivers — or test the mettle of their own vehicles on tracks designed for high-speed driving.

Track day at the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet. | Gavin Rice/Flickr (Creative Commons)

“You don’t have to be a billionaire to race here. We have opportunities for enthusiasts of every level and walk of life,” said Mark Basso, Autobahn Country Club founder and president. “We’re kind of the motorsports Disney World.”

But there’s nothing cartoony about the 350-acre facility located in a quiet rural patch of southern Joliet. Now in its 15th season, Basso’s dream for the club is fully realized. While it’s not quite the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Autobahn does boast two professional-grade tracks where members can take Ferraris, Porsches or even Formula One cars for a high-speed spin.

During the official season — April through November —  races of all kinds are hosted here: Off-road rallies, motorcycle competitions and even kid-friendly go-kart races where vehicles top out around 70 mph.

Basso built Autobahn in 2004 with a very specific vision. “Golf country clubs are cool, but I’m a car guy,” he said. “I was curious as to why no one combined a country club with a road track, and so I did it myself.”

Ben Hasbrouck is one of Basso’s like-minded members. The 25-year old West Loop man has been cruising the Autobahn tracks since he was in go-karts as a kid. He’s now graduated to the big wheels — according to Hasbrouck, he’ll drive whatever he can get his hands on — and visits up to six days a week during the summer.

“It’s a very addictive place,” Hasbrouck said. “Out here, there are no speed limits, and you can actually drive your car the way it was meant to be driven.”

Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. | Photo by Royal Broil/Flickr. (Creative Commons)

There’s only a single course available at Road America, but the sprawling four-mile racetrack in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin — a two-hour drive north from Chicago — is considered among the best in the nation.

“It’s been called ‘America’s national park of speed,’” said John Ewert, Road America’s communications director. “It’s not just an oval track; it’s built on the existing topgraphy of the rolling hills, and there’s lots of green grass, trees — it’s really just a unique experience.”

There are annual NASCAR and IndyCar events for the real pros here, but also plenty of ways for the public to drive the course’s twists and turns throughout the year, from driving schools, to relaxed, low-speed sunset cruises, to “hot laps” where you can hit the gas hard for two white-knuckle laps around the track in an official pace car.

For $295, owners of high-performance cars and sports cars can sign up for Road America Track Days, and drive at speeds that would cost you twice that in tickets alone if you tried it in Chicago.

“In Chicago, you have stop-and-go traffic, and it’s not that fun to drive,” said Ewert. “Here, you have a four-mile ribbon of asphalt, with peaks and hills and turns. People go around the track just once, and they’re smiling from ear to ear because they get their speed fix.”

Chicagoland speed demons can also get their fix at Blackhawk Farms Raceway in South Beloit near the Wisconsin and Illinois border.

Once a month during their regular season (April through October), people can sign up to drive their own vehicles on the 1.95-mile private circuit racetrack during their Automotive Track Days. Drivers are divided across three levels and receive an official course on the fundamentals of track driving. Drivers routed to the road course, shaped like a big letter “B,” can speed up to about 80 to 100 mph on the straightaway.

“It’s the place to take your high-performance car and explore the limits of its high performance,” said Jeff Storer, Blackhawk Farms’ assistant event coordinator. “Otherwise, what are you to do with one of those high horsepower cars anywhere else?”