Fast Times at MotorSport Ranch
Jack Farr smiles as he asks the question: "So, you ever been around a road course before?"
Before I have a chance to make sure my seat belt is buckled or amend my "no" with "but that's probably because I tend to get a little car sick," Farr is power-sliding his Ford Mustang through the first turn on the 1.7-mile track. He invited me here to take a tour of his 5-year-old MotorSport Ranch, "a sports car country club" in Cresson, 14 miles southwest of Fort Worth. He's definitely giving me one.
"I'm only gonna go about 75 percent," Farr says as we slide through another turn. "If you've never done it before, you're gonna think that we're flying."
Flying, dying--guess it's close enough. I'm not sure what's louder: the motor revving, the tires screeching or my stomach churning, trying to stamp this morning's breakfast "return to sender." My skin has the temperature and texture of a can of Coors at a backyard barbecue. My nervous system has cashed in its 401(k) and split for the beach. My voice sounds like something heard on a 911 tape.
Other than that, I feel fine.
"We're not gonna spin. We're not gonna flip. I'll be braking early," Farr calmly assures his jittery passenger. He must have picked up on the fact that I'm about hip-deep in a panic attack. Which is strange, since I'm only exhibiting about 15 or 16 of the telltale signs. "We're still gonna squeal the tires," he continues, as the Mustang does just that, sliding through another turn. "Took that corner at 80 miles an hour." Farr smiles again. At least I think he did, since he's maintaining a pretty good poker face behind his wraparound shades, and my eyes can focus only on my knees.
Farr is comfortable behind the wheel, and he should be: Between driving schools and tours like this one, as well as driving for the pure enjoyment of it, he's racked up more laps at MotorSport Ranch than anyone else. Knowing this, somewhere around the sixth or seventh turn--there are 11 of them in all, with ominous names like "Tombstone" and "Buzzard Neck"--I begin to relax. More than that, I begin to enjoy myself. I start to understand why someone would pay $2,400 to become a member, $75 in monthly dues and $20 for every half-hour of track time to have access to a place like this. Why a man would sink more than a million dollars of his own money into little more than a dream.
That's all this was almost a decade ago, when Farr returned to Texas after attending his first performance driving school. Unable to find a place to pursue his new hobby, he took it upon himself to create one. He believed there were others in the Dallas-Fort Worth area just like him, with expensive sports cars and limited outlets. He believed if he built MotorSport Ranch, they would come.
They did. In five years, Farr has formed a community of like-minded gear-heads at the only private membership road course in the state, succeeding where many others have failed over the past 20 years. More than 420 drivers--weekend warriors and wannabe racers, ranging in age from 17 to 70--have joined the club, taking advantage of the safe, professional-level course and cushy facilities, as well as 40 weekends a year of track time and most bank holidays. All the major auto manufacturers and car clubs have come, too, leasing the track to test new models and spin their wheels in comfort. But the club is still primarily for the members. As far as Farr is concerned, it always will be.
"A lot of people told me it was a stupid idea," Farr says. "A really dumb idea. Wouldn't work. Gotta have a racetrack. Gotta have organized events with spectators and all that hassle. For every racecar driver I find, I can find about 100 guys that just wanna play and have fun and not make it into such a big, stressful thing."
Between Farr's sales pitch and the lap around the track, I start thinking about becoming one of those guys myself. Joining the club, trading in my beat-up VW for something with a little more horsepower, signing up for one of the resident driving schools. While I'm contemplating my new hobby, wondering how my wife will react, Farr asks what I thought of the course.
That was, uh...that was intense, I stammer.
He smiles and slams on the accelerator, throwing the car--and my stomach--into an elaborate fishtail as he points the Mustang in the direction of the exit.
"Did that scare you?" he asks, laughing. "I get a big kick out of introducing people to this, just like I got introduced to it."
Just that quickly, every thought empties out of my head. Except this one: I really hope I don't throw up in Jack Farr's Mustang.
Not so long ago, MotorSport Ranch was an actual ranch. The only things being driven across these 300-plus acres were cattle. Those steers didn't move quite as fast as the cars being steered across the rolling prairie today. But even those cars don't move around the ranch the way Jack Farr's imagination did after he saw the place, finding it by accident after he took a wrong turn on the way to a meeting with his real estate agent.
Ask Don Barnes, one of the first drivers to sign up for a membership at MotorSport Ranch. Barnes met Farr not long after he suffered a heart attack on a golf course that led to bypass surgery. His shorts defiantly show off ugly scars crawling up both legs, his souvenir from the operation. After the heart attack, he decided to enjoy his life while he still had one. That's what brought him to MotorSport Ranch almost seven years ago.
Back then, there was nothing on the property except a sign and Farr's 27-foot RV. But soon enough, Barnes--who's been racing cars since he was a 15-year-old in Gainesville, Georgia--found himself flying around a road course. A very rough one.
"He had this four-wheel-drive pickup truck, and we went bouncing," Barnes says. "My wife wasn't the least bit impressed. He was just skipping these ditches. Jack had it all in his mind. He says, 'This is great! This is where this turn is gonna be!'"
Barnes wrote Farr a check before he left. His wife was even less impressed. It was bad enough that her husband wasted their afternoon. Now he was wasting their money, too.
"My wife says, 'They're never gonna build a track there,'" Barnes says, smiling. He knows better than anyone the doomed history of road courses in North Texas, the proposed sites in Mineral Wells and Waxahachie and on and on that never hosted a single lap. "And I said, 'Yeah, but let me just tell you: If they do, it's gonna be really neat.'"
But Barnes was the exception, at least in the beginning. There weren't many others who shared Farr's vision. They couldn't see the 200 garages, the pro shop and meeting rooms, the covered grid (a pavilion where the drivers park while waiting their turn on the track), none of it. Well, that's not quite true. It's just that not many of them thought he'd manage to pull it all off. Farr never wavered, because he knew there would always be one driver who wanted to use the track: himself.
Farr, 47, has owned enviable sports cars for as long as he can remember, beginning with a 1976 Trans Am. But until a friend persuaded him to attend the Bondurant School of Performance Driving near Phoenix, he hadn't had a chance to see what they could really do, or what he could do with them. After some initial hesitation, he enrolled in the school in October 1995.
For four days, Farr practiced heel-and-toe downshifts and all sorts of other driving maneuvers he'd never heard about. He thought he was a good driver when he left for the school. When he came back, he actually was one. He was also hooked on the sport. The time he spent in an open-wheeled Formula Ford racecar saw to that.
"Even though they have less horsepower, they have a lot less weight, and they can absolutely fly around corners, way beyond what a normal human being thinks a car can do," Farr says. "I came back after my driving school and I had to buy one of those little Formula Ford cars, just to try to continue the experience. Then I spent the next six months frustrated, because there's just no place to go run them. I don't think the police would take too kindly to seeing a little Formula Ford racecar coming down the highway."
He tried to make do with the tracks in College Station and Tulsa, but they were too far away and open maybe only four weekends a year. Even then, there was so much demand for track time that he'd be lucky to squeeze in two 20-minute sessions. Farr's frustration eventually gave way to inspiration: He'd worked in country clubs as a teenager. Why couldn't he apply the same principles of comfort and convenience to the world of high-performance driving, building a country club with a road course instead of a golf course?
Why not? Because it'll never make a dime, the banks said. Because the kind of course you want can't be built, the track designers said. Because no one has ever done it before, everyone else said.
"I found out that once you have a new idea, you're automatically a minority of one," Farr says.
It was only after he sent out a direct-mail survey that Farr realized why so few people believed in him, why no bank would touch him. He mailed 1,000 of the surveys and received 473 replies--an astounding figure when you consider that most people in the direct-mail business are happy with around a 2 percent return rate. People were definitely interested. That was the good news.
The bad: Mixed in with the completed surveys were the sob stories of five other would-be track owners who had failed. They sent him their schematics and business proposals and wished him luck, like a priest performing last rites on death row. Farr asked around a bit, and the news was even worse: There had been almost 20 attempts to build road-racing courses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the past 20 years. Not one made it.
Somehow, this one did. But it wasn't easy. Farr decided to fund MotorSport Ranch himself, using his personal holdings and "robbing" Digital Print, his electronic printing equipment business. He spent $1.2 million to get started, and loans from members eventually covered the rest. He designed the course mostly on his own, after abortive attempts to collaborate with racecar drivers and professional track designers. It took him 18 months spread out over three years, but he did it. MotorSport Ranch opened in 1999 with a grand total of five members.
Since then, the club has taken off. So has the idea of the "sports car country club." Similar courses and clubs have sprouted up all over the country: BeaveRun Motorsports Complex in Wampum, Pennsylvania; VIR Motorsport Country Club in Alton, Virginia; Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois. But none has progressed to the level of the original.
"Oh, they're years behind what he's got," Bobby Archer says. He holds his Championship Driving Clinic at the club once a month. He's also a longtime member. "The fact that we can do this 12 months of the year...I mean, I moved here from Duluth, Minnesota. You know, the racing people go out of business next week. It's Mother's Day to Labor Day. Here, we're just getting our second wind." He looks out over the track as a few of his students rev their engines nearby, ready for another lap. As the engines growl louder and louder, every other sound vanishes as a big smile creeps across Archer's face.
His yell barely can be made out over the din: "This is great!"
Cris Schade is probably not the kind of guy you'd expect to find at MotorSport Ranch. A doctor and restaurant owner (he bought into Gershwin's on Walnut Hill Lane four years ago), Schade is the very definition of mild-mannered, a thoughtful, soft-spoken man who looks slightly out of place in his driving gear. A white lab coat seems to better suit his demeanor.
Underneath all that, however, pumps the heart of a true racecar driver. Schade caught the bug early on, when he started drag racing as a 14-year-old in Reno, Nevada. For the past four years, he's entered his competition-class Viper in Viper Racing League events, driving to tracks all over the country to get his fix. He comes out to MotorSport Ranch a few times a month to stay sharp, but also because he just loves driving.
Schade probably wouldn't mind driving full time, but his wife might. It's an expensive hobby.
"In the Viper Racing League, for a three-day weekend, with tires, meals, transportation, housing, it's about $5,000 for the weekend," Schade says. "About like a ski trip to Aspen. As I tell my wife, 'This is a lot cheaper than a mistress.'"
As far as I can tell, he thinks it's a lot more fun, too. Like all the other drivers at MotorSport Ranch, Schade loves talking about driving and cars almost as much as he loves driving cars. A question about the highest speed he's reached on the course--"a buck 65 on the back straightaway," he says--leads to a lengthy show-and-tell presentation about his car and its particular configuration, why it has a big wing on the back and an equally large arrow under the front bumper. It all has something to do with down force and air resistance, but I can do little more than smile and nod.
For most of our conversation, Schade sounds like any pro driver. It's only when he's asked how long it took him to be at ease at such high speeds that he reverts back to amateur status.
"I'm still not comfortable," he says, laughing. "It's just a hobby for me, so I don't do it every week, and so it doesn't become comfortable. The adrenaline and the heart rate is way up there every time."
If Schade seems to be an unlikely candidate for membership at MotorSport Ranch, then Deborah Loth, a dentist from Fort Worth, is even less so. Not because of her appearance or disposition; though she's a 40-year-old mother of three, Loth is a firecracker who looks like she could hold her own in just about any situation. It's something far more obvious: She's one of only five women who belong to the club.
Loth joined MotorSport Ranch about six months after it opened; her member number is 29. She'd never really driven seriously or competitively before signing up, just a few driving school events and things like that. She'd bought a new Porsche, and the dealership told her about Farr's place in Cresson. She dropped by during her Christmas vacation and never left.
The Porsche is long gone now. When she started racing--urged on by Bobby Archer--she moved on to a Viper and currently drives a Dodge Neon SRT4.
"The car that I had was becoming less and less competitive in its class," she says. "Before I went out and spent $80,000 on a brand-new Viper, I thought, 'You know, a $20,000 car is looking pretty good.'" She laughs. "Actually, this little Neon, it's a fun car, and it's very, very competitive in its class right now. It's one of the hot cars going."
But as Farr is fond of saying, performance on the track has more to do with the driver than the car. And Loth has proved to be a damn good driver, a fact that still surprises her dental patients.
"I have pictures of my racecar in my office," Loth says. "People will walk by and go, 'Oh, does Dr. Loth sponsor a racecar?' And my assistant will go, 'Oh, no, she races it.' 'She races that car!' They get a kick out of it."
There is, however, a tradeoff: The more competitive Loth gets, the less time she spends at MotorSport Ranch. She has special tires on her car, so she has to haul it to the track in a trailer when she wants to hit the course. Loth could store it in one of the 200 garages on the property--if you can afford a new Viper, you can afford the $175 monthly garage rental fee--but then she'd have to make a special trip to the Ranch before she leaves for a race.
"The faster you go, the more trouble it is," Loth says. "I actually miss the days where I just kept my helmet in my trunk and just came out here on a Friday and took a few laps."
That's more or less what Jesse Shelmire decided to do today. It's always an easy decision for Shelmire, an investment banker from Dallas, since he has a flexible schedule and stores his Ducati motorcycles and Formula Mazda open-wheeled racecar in a garage at the Ranch that's the size of a small airplane hangar.
So Shelmire and his 8-year-old son Bedford made the hour-long trip this morning. Bedford hung out on the couch in the garage Shelmire rents with four of his buddies, watching cartoons while his dad got in a few laps in his Mazda. Fresh off the course, Shelmire looks the part of the gentleman racer, tan and gregarious, dashing in his red racing suit. He joined four years ago, after hearing about the place from one of his friends. Back then, he drove motorcycles only. A year ago, he bought the Mazda.
"I'm 47," Shelmire says. "I was getting a little old for dicing it up with the 20-year-olds. What I tell my golfer friends is, it's like the equivalent of, you know, every time you hit the ball in the rough, your caddy got to come along and whack you once with a club and then throw all your clubs away and you gotta go home for the day." He laughs. "At least, that was my motorcycle racing experience. Because it always cost at least a couple of grand in bodily pain, and you crash a lot when you're racing bikes. I'm a big Formula One fan, so now I can do my racecar-driver fantasy thing on the weekends."
Shelmire comes out to MotorSport Ranch twice a month, and more often than not, Bedford and his 13-year-old sister Twyla come as well. They both have dirt bikes, and they share a go-cart. But even when they stay home, Shelmire has family here. He's developed close friendships with a lot of the other drivers, which is easy enough since they all share a common interest. That common interest makes everything else irrelevant.
"The thing about it here: It's not about the haves and have-nots," Shelmire says. "It's not about money. It's really all about that track. All men are equal on that track. You can take it to the extreme like we do. Or you can do it on a budget. You don't have to have a garage out here. You can have a Suzuki 650 and a trailer, and you're good to go."
Don't get the wrong idea. Family fun and friendships are part of the reason why Shelmire comes out here. It's part of why many of the drivers come out here. But only part of it.
"It is kind of fun--my wife hates when I say this--but to come out here and see if you can sort of cheat death on the track," Shelmire says, "I get off on that part."
To best appreciate MotorSport Ranch's success, it helps to look at a failure. Not by one of the dreamers who attempted to bring a road course to North Texas before Farr. But by the guys who tried to do it after Farr opened MotorSport Ranch.
In 2000, three racecar enthusiasts, Oscar Pineyro, John Zouzelka and Brian Shibley, bought 407 acres in Grayson County, about 40 miles north of Dallas. Their plans for the site were ambitious. GunterRing Motorsports Country Club would offer three different road courses, as well as a swimming pool, tennis courts and other amenities. The $12 million complex would bring even more of a country club atmosphere to auto racing than Farr's project did. They planned to sell up to 500 memberships with prices ranging from $6,750 to $15,000.
In April 2003, $4 million into the project, they gave up, deciding to turn the acreage into a residential development instead. According to a Dallas Business Journal story, they couldn't raise enough money to build the tracks themselves, and banks deemed the project too risky to provide construction loans. Maybe that's the key to Farr's success: He never depended on a bank to make MotorSport Ranch work.
While the GunterRing dream is over, Farr's is just beginning. It's a bright September day, and the morning session of Bobby Archer's Championship Driving Clinic is winding down. The cars will cool down underneath the covered grid area near the track while the drivers cool down with a quick lunch of sandwiches and potato salad in the club's drivers building about 100 yards away.
Except it's difficult to pull the drivers away from the track. Their laps may be over, but the driving continues as they recount the speeds they reached on the straightaways, the way they slid through the corners, the new maneuvers they tried out, the things they did wrong. Around 20 drivers signed up for today's clinic, and as each car pulls off the track, the driver is quickly swept up into the discussion. Almost everything they say is gibberish to untrained ears, a mess of technical jargon that makes an episode of CSI sound like Hooked on Phonics. This is the scene Farr always envisioned.
One driver, a pretty young Asian woman, doesn't join the group. Instead, she slides out from behind the wheel of her car and immediately begins speaking to a film crew.
"These guys are with a lifestyle television show, doing a deal here," Archer says. "You know, you've gotta do a little bit of selling every day."
"If you don't, it just starts to crater," Farr adds, sidling into the conversation.
He shouldn't worry, because MotorSport Ranch is far from cratering. It makes dollars for Farr and sense for the drivers. Farr has done his best to give them everything he would want: a secure environment, plenty of access, a convenient location. What sets MotorSport Ranch apart are all the little things Farr has included that a non-driver might forget.
The covered grid is the best example. At other tracks, drivers are often forced to bake in the sun, sitting in their helmets, gloves and driving suits in cars without air conditioning. Farr wanted something different at his place. That's why he built the covered grid first, before the track was even paved.
Soon enough, he'll have to pave another track. Construction is set to begin on a second course. The 1.5-mile course has already been laid out, and the top three or four inches of sod have been stripped away with a motor grader. It will have six turns and 70 feet of hills. "So it'll be like a roller coaster," Farr says.
The members are funding the new track (which will cost another $1.3 million), so Farr won't have to rob Digital Print to pay MotorSport Ranch any longer. That leaves Farr's bank account free to focus on the Ranch's other developments. Construction on the first phase of a planned 80-lot residential community that overlooks the track's north side is already under way. When that is up and running, Farr will begin to develop the half-mile of ranch property that sits alongside Highway 377 into office buildings and restaurants.
If it sounds like Farr is building a city, well, he already has. Cresson, with a population just north of 200 people, was incorporated before MotorSport Ranch moved in; Farr pushed the city in that direction and almost ended up as its first mayor for his efforts. He gives local residents work whenever he can, which has amounted to around 50 new jobs. He also voluntarily allowed Cresson to annex his property, making the city more than 20 percent larger as a result.
Farr is happy to do all of that, because Cresson isn't just MotorSport Ranch's home. It's his family's as well. Five years later, he finally has time to relax and enjoy it. They all do. When MotorSport Ranch closes for the day, his kids--two girls, 13 and 11, and two boys, 7 and 4--take over.
"If we're not doing go-carts or they're not driving the golf cart around the track, we're out there on Rollerblades or bicycles," Farr says. "As far as they know, everybody has a road-racing course in their back yard, not just us, which would be kind of interesting if that were true."
To hundreds of drivers in North Texas, it kind of is. Farr has given them the next best thing.
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