Thunderbolt raceway gives fans a chance to drive fast

It’s safer then driving Route 80

David Epstein wore a bright red fire-retardant racing suit and helmet as he stepped into his red Ferrari F430 for a few 140 mph spins around the track at New Jersey Motorsports Park. The experience “puts a big smile on your face,” Epstein, 47, the president of Novartis Oncology, said before pulling away. “If you’ve had good training with good coaches and you don’t do anything crazy, it’s not really risky. … It’s probably safer than driving down Route 80.” Five years and $50 million in the making so far, the newly opened facility in Cumberland County is New Jersey’s only road-racing facility, and one of the few in the nation to have two full racetracks.

The 2.25-mile Thunderbolt Raceway kicked off its first spectator event this weekend, with the Sports Car Vintage Racing Association competition. The twisting, turning track hosts high-profile road races such as the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, as well as car clubs and training programs such as the Performance Drivers Association, which Epstein enrolled in as a student. The smaller Lightning Raceway opened in July. Last week, 11 thrill-seekers zoomed around the 1.9-mile circuit’s steeply banked hairpin turn in Lamborghini Gallareos — one in bright orange, the other in yellow — as well as Aston Martins, Porsche Turbos and Ferraris, in a one-day driving program called Supercar Life.

Even the park’s 1.1-mile go-kart track is designed for speeds of 55 mph, or more. But the 700-acre facility is not just a place to zip around in fast cars, according to its operators. “This is a theme park,” said Donald Fauerbach, general manager. “The theme here, of course, is the motorsports lifestyle.” Condominiums overlooking Thunderbolt are on the market for $450,000, and 38 of the planned 182 total have already sold, Fauerbach said. Twenty suites overlook Thunderbolt’s pit lane. A 450-seat banquet room has fielded inquiries about wedding receptions overlooking the track’s straightaway, Fauerback said. A pool, tennis courts, and eventually a stock-car racing oval and all-terrain vehicle park are in the works, he said.

“It’s a country-club-style racetrack,” said Chris Economaki, 87, a longtime auto-racing commentator who lives in Midland Park. The facility attracts wealthy sports car fans who are flown by helicopter into the adjacent Millville Airport, as well as drivers of more modest means who rumble onto the track in souped-up Ford Mustangs, Mazda Miatas and Subaru Imprezas. The circuits are located in a sparsely populated section of Millville, a few miles from the sleepy downtown. Some residents were nervous when they heard about the plans five years ago, said Don Ayres, the town’s director of economic development. “There were concerns about noise, concerns about rowdy racecar drivers rampaging through town,” he said. But the town has heard only “one or two” complaints, with most residents saying they barely notice the noise and welcome the free-spending visitors, he said.

Local restaurants have been so busy they’ve occasionally run out of food, and the town is in talks with five hotel developers, Ayres said. “It’s the noise of the economy improving, that’s what I say,” he said. Even so, the track installed sound walls so it wouldn’t disturb birds during their mating season, as part of a legal settlement with environmentalists, Ayres said. Many proposed racetracks fail because of community opposition, with noise and traffic being the main concerns, said Matthew Pace, a sports business attorney with the firm Herrick, Feinstein. But the NASCAR-style, oval tracks that draw huge crowds are the main focus of such protests, he said. Such circuits make up about 85 percent of the country’s 1,400 racetracks, he said.

Long, twisting, hilly road circuits — which make most of their money from high-spending drivers and sponsorships, rather than spectators — tend to attract less opposition, he said. Even the economic downturn and high gas prices are unlikely to hurt the road-racing business much, he said. “If you’re driving a Ferrari you probably don’t have to worry about the $100 you’re going to spend on gas to drive it around the track all day,” he said. Road courses, which make up only 5 percent of the nation’s racetracks, are “a little bit more gentlemanly, a lit bit more leisurely” than NASCAR-style tracks, with spectators roaming from vantage point to vantage point, said Tim Frost, a motorsports consultant. “I would compare it to going to Saratoga as opposed to going to Belmont,” he said.

Naima Rauam, a silver-haired watercolorist who drove from New York City in a Corvette Z06, said it didn’t bother her to be one of the few women, and one of the older students, in the Performance Driving Association training program, which includes classroom lessons and high-speed laps around Thunderbolt with an instructor in the passenger seat. “You’ve got everything from your hotshot 18-year-olds to people much later in life,” she said. High-performance driving attracts all kinds of students as well as all kinds of cars, said Joe Casella, who runs the training program. “We had a gentleman who would bring his Volvo station wagon, and when he went home his wife would go to the grocery store with it,” Casella said. The racetrack has a way of equalizing things, insisted Steven Van Blarcom, whose In the Seat Driving Experience program rents Mustang GTs to Casella’s students. “It wouldn’t be uncommon for someone in a Mazda Miata to beat a Porsche,” Van Blarcom said. “Skill wins out over horsepower.”

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