Providence Journal - June 21, 2008
An extensive racetrack makeover at Lime Rock Park
By Peter C.T. Elsworth
Journal Staff Writer
The historic track at Lime Rock Park is undergoing a radical makeover.
It’s the most extensive work on the track since it was built more than 50 years ago — and not very well built even then, according to Lime Rock President Skip Barber. And it’s not just the surface that will emerge as state of the art.
Barber has taken the opportunity — partly afforded by money raised by the sale of memberships to a club that provides exclusive rights to use the track on certain days — to add features to make the track slower and safer. Lime Rock is the fastest racetrack in North America.
Slower, by adding three optional corners. And safer, by grading hills, extending runoffs and adding barriers for cars that miss turns at high speed.
“There are four or five things happening at the same time,” said Barber as he guided a minivan through the construction site that is the track during a visit last week.
Barber said the entire track is being repaved, with some sections having just the top inch or so milled, or scraped, off while other parts are being totally rebuilt.
“We are completely digging up some parts 3 1/2 feet down,” he said.
The surface will be made up of three separate layers of asphalt, creating a track “as smooth as a billiard table,” with the maximum variation no more than an eighth of an inch, Barber said.
In addition, two new optional corners are being constructed. They are designed to slow the cars down as they climb the hill in the back and as they enter the downhill into a bend and the main straightaway down the front.
The work started just after Memorial Day and will be completed in time for the American Le Mans Northeast Grand Prix on July 11-12.
Barber said there was no runoff at the old turn for the uphill section where “American Le Mans cars are doing 155 mph.
“With a brake failure, it would not be a good thing,” he said.
In addition, he said the existing uphill was very steep, with the cars tending to lift off on occasion.
A second straightaway after the first series of turns is also being built alongside the existing track.
“When I first heard about (the plans), I thought: ‘Oh no, the original track will be ruined’” said Simon Kirkby, a veteran race driver and instructor with The Club at Lime Rock. “But Skip kept the original track.”
Barber said a third optional corner will be built next year along with a new entry into the pit area.
The bridge from the new ticket area to the inside of the track where cars are prepped and kept and the spectators view the race was raised and widened in April, making it safer. And the purchase of a 19-acre piece of property near the bridge has provided enough space to create an optional corner and runoff area.
“We really needed to do this,” Barber said, noting that the old track had gotten “too bumpy.”
Last year, when announcing that the plans would, “not change the original footprint or character of the track,” Barber said, “I believe we can make it a little slower and safer, as well as wider and smoother.”
He said resurfacing the track was a major project, partly because "it was not built well fifty years ago."
“The surface gets polished over the years with sand and grit,” said Peter Argetsinger, son of the late Cameron Argetsinger, founder of Watkins Glen, and a veteran racecar champion and instructor at the track. “The surface gets very smooth — and slick in the rain. Plus the tracks up here freeze in the winter — look at the highways.”
In addition to renovating the track, the three-year project calls for a member clubhouse, renovated press facility, exclusive members’ pit lane, renovated bathrooms, and new water and drainage systems.
The financing for the upgrade has largely come from The Club at Lime Rock which has sold nearly 130 memberships granting exclusive rights to either the main 1.53 mile track or to the shorter autocross track on certain days of the year. A full 50-year membership costs $110,000 for 60 days a year; a 10-year associate membership costs $27,500 for 10 days a year.
The overall goal is to raise some $30 million through the club, according to Stephan Condodemetraky, president of club member sales.“If you buy a fast car you need to find a place to use it,” he said. “Most cars are capable of exceeding traffic limits. You can come here to really stretch the car’s legs.”
Barber established the club to raise money to upgrade the track and its facilities and secure its future. He was concerned that the land was so valuable, a future owner might be tempted to sell out to developers.
The short, fast track, which was established in 1955, sits in the valley of a 320 acre park surrounded by wooded hills. The area has become a destination area for second homes for Metro New York residents. New York and northern New Jersey, Greenwich, Conn. and Boston are just 2 1/2 hours away. Providence is about three hours away via the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Barber said the successful establishment of The Club at Lime Park has given him not only the confidence to go ahead with the $6 million upgrade, but also the sense of assurance that the future of the track is safe for the next 50 years or so.
“It’s going well, I have a greater sense of safety,” he said, looking down on the construction from the hill overlooking the first bends in the track. “The new track will attract new people to the sport.” At the same time, he said he was concerned about high gas prices.
“It could affect spectator crowds,” he said.
Condodemetraky said the track serves three main constituencies. First, the four main spectator races it hosts each year: the Grand-AM GT Classic in May, the American Le Mans Northeast Grand Prix in July, the Mohegan Sun Nascar Camping World 200 in August and the Rolex Vintage Festival at the end of August, plus Sports Car Club of America events through August and September.
In addition, he said the track serves the independent Skip Barber driving and racing school and local auto clubs and members of The Club at Lime Rock.
Chuck Ange, 61, of New York has signed on as a full member even though he has no desire to race competitively.
“I’ve always been a car guy,” he said, noting he first got a taste of racecars going to Watkins Glen when he was growing up in upstate New York.
Ange has owned a number of high performance cars over the years and has taken many courses in car control and racing at the Skip Barber school. He said he is most interested in having access to the track to drive fast.
Paul Marsala, 48, from Long Island and his son Matthew, 20, were also attending the car control clinic being run by Argetsinger and Kirkby — along with his brand new Porsche 911 Turbo.
He said he used to race at Bridgehampton, N.Y., before the track was closed in 1999 and was thinking about taking out full membership. He said he has gotten back into racing now that he “can afford it again.”
He said his interest was reignited after his employees bought him two days at Watkins Glen.
“I love cars,” he said.
“What is the point of having a fast car unless you can drive it?” asked Kirkby. “You can only get yourself into trouble on the highways.”