Thermal Raceway is a premium members-only circuit that offers luxury on-site living for the seriously wealthy. We cross the velvet rope
2 February 2020

Thermal doesn’t seem to be an obvious location for one of the world’s most exclusive member’s clubs. The desertscape of the Coachella Valley is as harsh as it gets in this part of California. Surrounding mountain ranges hold back the clouds, turning this one-time settlement for railroad workers into an unforgiving oven, with temperatures known to exceed 50deg C. The locals say it becomes so overbearing that during the summer people seek work for two or three months in more hospitable towns and cities around the US.

Driving from Palm Springs to Thermal, the mood changes. The immaculately presented properties and grand, gated private estates give way to nondescript, modest homes that look poorly maintained. A resident of the region tells me that Thermal is known for having a methamphetamine problem.

Rolling off the freeway, Thermal Raceway appears like a mirage in the desert, yet this luxury residential resort for petrolheads is no trick of the light. The site, walled off to the outside world, covers around 400 acres. Across the road is a private airport. The majority of those coming to Thermal don’t travel by car; they land their private jet or helicopter next door. Which is why the owners behind the Thermal Club are right now deciding which private jet to buy.

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Those owners are Tim Rogers and his wife, Twanna. Thermal Raceway wasn’t their idea; they were early investors but thought the project wasn’t going in the right direction and the permit from the Riverside County authorities was taking too long to materialise. So they pulled out, waited for the permit and then bought out the project, buying back property that had been given away to raise funds and paying off loans with interest. They have now sunk £135 million of their own money into it. Tim says it has been profitable for the past six years and doesn’t have a dime of debt. But why risk so much on an unproven concept?

“The main reason is we belonged to several country clubs, and they’re beautiful, with a golf course around you, nice homes, and a common interest with the people near you,” says Rogers. “But we have maybe 125 of those in the Coachella Valley, and not everyone golfs. We love cars and thought there are many other people who do too.”

The pair made their first fortune buying and supplying fuel to 7-Eleven convenience stores and gas stations around the US. The trick was to buy cheap, sell high, much like a trader, and then ensure that the logistics of covering an area the size of America went smoothly.

After that, they bought up the stores and gas stations. Then came the cars. The pair are what’s known in these parts as gearheads. “We always kept a collection of around 12 cars,” says Rogers. “Now, we have a lot more…”

Thermal Club’s profitability has come from changing the concept to one that’s altogether more ambitious. Originally it was envisaged as a private race track for members, much like the Ascari Race Resort, in Málaga, Spain, Monticello Motor Club near New York or Apex Motor Club in Arizona. For an annual fee you’d turn up, drive your cars, be fed and watered, hang with like-minded gearheads and then head home.

Rogers changed the business plan, supplementing the membership model with a focus on building luxury villas. Some viewed it as a risky strategy, others reasoned that in Fortune 500 territory and only hours away from Los Angeles – a city where a mansion can cost up to £75m – money wouldn’t be a problem if the experience was special enough.

You can’t be a member without a villa, or vice versa. The club takes care of everything, supplying an architect and contractors. Properties can even be provided move-in ready, with food in the fridge, coffee brewing and sun loungers on the terrace.

Two types of membership are available: family or corporate. The former is $85,000 (£65,000) and, as the title suggests, allows the member to have as many of the family as they please present. Alternatively, a $200,000 (£150,000) corporate membership can be divided among four unrelated individuals, a bit like a timeshare. Both include a 70% refundable deposit should you leave the Thermal Club. A $1200 (£920) monthly fee applies to family membership, and each individual who is part of the corporate membership must also pay $1200 a month.

There are now three race tracks and 70 residential properties built. BMW and Mini are permanent tenants with their West Coast Performance Centre, a driving experience venue that clinches thousands of sales for the brands every year. Additional land for a fourth track has been purchased, and Thermal’s track designer, Alan Wilson – husband of Desiré Wilson, the racing driver – is visiting when I spend the day there.

“The typical client here,” says Wilson, “is the GT3 Cup driver. I’ve seen more McLarens here than anywhere else in the world. So you’ve got to design it for those customers, design it so that gives the impression of speed without actual speed.”

Wilson says accidents will happen, so it’s better to manage the speed of the cars and make the track flow and feel faster than it actually is: “You want somebody like that to be able to play with their car, push it to their limits. It’s never the car’s limits, because the cars are way better than 90% of the drivers.”

Sure enough, after tackling two of the three tracks in a Mini Countryman John Cooper Works, I’m impressed by how exciting it feels despite the corner speeds being nowhere near those of a modern grand prix track. There are tight sequences, areas where you can run the kerbs, faster sweepers, technical sections that call for patience and even some elevation changes. Run-off areas are generous and smooth – so you shouldn’t damage your car if you make a hash of things – and every month all three circuits run as one to give a five-mile lap.

Rogers explains that a water aquifer 10 feet below ground level presented technical and financial challenges when landscaping the circuits. More dirt needed to be brought in, which is costly and tricky to calculate, because it shrinks when compacted and watered into place. Equally challenging was the need to relocate 14,000 palm trees.

As impressive is the presentation of the circuits. The surface is excellent, the result of an 82-page asphalt specification to cope with the extreme summer temperatures. Roger Penske helped here. The pit area is shaded, sofas let you laze in the shade and a bank of motorsport telemetry and in-car video feeds streams away, ready for an instructor to review your performance through every braking point, turn-in area, apex and exit around every track.

The circuits are wired to accept HD cameras. Rogers says they’re in the process of choosing which cameras to install, so your laps can be filmed from the outside, too, and live-streamed to the pits or, if you like, to other Thermal Club members. It’s the app age equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet.

The driving is just one dimension of this country club. There are race-team standard workshops filled with cars belonging to the club or members – we see a menacing Baja buggy and a race-ready Ford Mustang GT4 – and technicians who work on them.

Across the way sits the clubhouse. Far grander than any other racing resort, this is somewhere you could happily spend long weekends wining and dining with family or friends. The food is excellent, the bar looks to be better stocked than The Ritz and at the front desk a concierge team works away at taking care of members’ requests.

Need your villa to be prepared for a visit with friends? Not a problem. Want to have a couple of your cars prepped and ready to roll when you arrive? It’s done. Would you like to put on a wedding anniversary with a difference, and race his’n’hers cars before partying into the night? The concierge will take care of it and add the costs to your account.

As for the villas, Thermal Club keeps a handful of ‘spec properties’ ready to be bought and moved into at all times. Or you can design your own and wait for it to be built.

Touring several, it’s apparent that space is not an issue. Around £2.3m buys about 7000sq ft, with a built-in garage that will house 15 cars – fewer if you make some room for a den with sofas, pool table, a bar and cinema, or perhaps a stage with your favourite Fenders and a set of amps that will compete with the rumble of race cars.

The interiors are all marble, walk-in wardrobes and giant beds that would look at home in The Princess and the Pea. Trackside villas are built into the ‘Great Wall of Thermal’, a vast sound barrier, and many of the living areas and bedrooms enjoy views over the race tracks. You can literally wake up, look up from your pillow to see who’s on track and decide whether or not you fancy giving them a run for their money. Members say that’s part of the appeal – knowing who is on track, in what car, and choosing who they’d like to mix it with and which of their cars will best complement the mix.

The villa plots are close together, beautifully finished if not creatively or stylistically daring and come in traditional Spanish or sleek LA designs. But it’s the garages that give them the real ‘wow’ factor. To stand in the kitchen and look through a 20ft-long viewing window into the garage, at an assortment of wonderful road and racing machines, confirms that, on a material level at least, you have well and truly made it.

Rogers suggests that the minimum net worth of every member at Thermal Club is $30m (£23m). Do they, I wonder, consider it to be good value? I put that question to Paul, a member who asks for his surname not to be shared and who lives only eight miles down the road.

“I only heard about it by word of mouth at the golf club, through a guy I knew who knew I used to race,” Paul says. “He pulled me aside six or seven years ago. When I joined, a couple of buddies from the golf club who are car enthusiasts and have wonderful collections tried to talk me out of it, saying they didn’t feel it was a good investment. But I was doing it for quality of life. And now both those guys have joined and they’re as happy as pigs in sh*t!”

Paul says joining the club is more gratifying than buying the latest Ferrari or Lamborghini, which can’t be used to anywhere near their full performance on the road: “If I had to give up any of my memberships, Thermal is the last thing I would give up. It’s been fantastic.”

At Thermal, Paul in effect built a garage for his car collection, albeit a garage that “parties 60, dinners four and sleeps two”. His collection is vast: multiple BMW M3s of all eras (some race prepared), a BMW M1, an Alfa Romeo GTV, a Ford RS 200, a Singer 911, an Ariel Nomad, a Mercedes-Benz CLK 63 AMG Black Series and a Revology Mustang GT R – and Gordon Murray’s new T50 is on its way. There’s more but you get the idea: he’s got it bad.

Another member, Andy, tells me how he keeps four Ford Focus RSs, nearly one in every colour made, uprated for track driving, at his villa and views them as a cost-effective way to get his kicks without burning – literally – through costly cars and parts: “One caught fire and the bill for damages was only $10,000. If it had been a Porsche or Ferrari, it would have been five times as much.”

He talks of release from his job as a day trader and says the social side of the club is appealing.

The last word goes to Jeff Rodrigues, the track operations manager, who has been overseeing the circuit for seven years and has decades of experience to his name, working at the likes of the Skip Barber Racing School: “Projects like this are known more for their spectacular failures than their successes. Generally they’re done by a group of individuals who pool their resources – all it takes is one or two people to get cold feet and it stops. Here, it’s one person, it moves quickly and the standards never slip.”

With that in mind, a second clubhouse is nearing completion. It will house two swimming pools, tennis courts, a kids’ zone, a full spa sanctuary and guest bungalows – because even when you live in a villa with a garage that’s larger than most people’s home, having house guests doesn’t get any easier.

Race resorts - fast fun for the minted

Ascari Resort: The Ascari Resort near Ronda in Spain set out to become a true race resort but its vision was never fulfilled. It remains a private track that is terrific to drive but lacks the flexibility of Thermal Raceway and doesn’t have private properties.

Monticello Motor Club: Monticello Motor Club sits north of New York and offers two tracks for private members to play on. But again, there is currently no plan to allow members to live on site.

Autodromo Internacional Algarve: The Autodromo Internacional Algarve, better known as Portimão, is a world-class circuit with a five-star hotel on its doorstep. Modest apartments are available.

Now it's your turn

You don’t have to become a member of the Thermal Club to experience driving at Thermal Raceway. The BMW Group had been seeking a venue for a driving experience centre for years before Thermal Raceway sprung up in the desert.

It offers a wide range of driving experiences, in everything from M BMWs to John Cooper Works Minis, or you can swing a leg over a BMW motorcycle. Kids can take part, too, so whether you’re out on the West Coast for a business trip or are planning a blow-out Californian family vacation, there’s something for everyone.

Packages can be as brief or as in-depth as you like. The M Advanced course is a two-day intensive driver coaching programme that will hone your craft on track. It costs from $4600 (£3500). A one-day driver’s school in a BMW costs from $849 (£650), or you could live out your inner Michael Caine and enrol on the Mini Stunt Course for $750 (£575).

James Mills

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Comments
5

2 February 2020

Seems very nice if you've got the money.  Those guys must burn through a lot of tyres.  I assume there is also a petrol station on site if the owners used to be (still are?) in that business.

2 February 2020

We soon can't buy a new Suzuki Jimny as it emits too much CO2....

The question is - who is right?

2 February 2020
Deputy wrote:

We soon can't buy a new Suzuki Jimny as it emits too much CO2....

The question is - who is right?

THe rich will always have access to what you will not be allowed to have/use/do.

2 February 2020

This place looks fantastic and the lucky few members must thank the even luckier owners of the circuit. I suspect that "not an ounce of debt" might be because Mr & Mrs Rogers sunk $135 million into it as cash investment.

If a membership is $80,000/year and one assumes an estimated ten-year membership plus maybe $200,000 profit on the villa construction then Thermal gets "only" $1M out of a member, to which one has to deduct operating costs. That may be conservative, for there will be other income streams like corporate events. So good luck to them if they can recoup their money at that rate. But that's being small-minded for I hope they do!

 

2 February 2020

 Fun at any price?, 

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