You’d like Tim Rogers. As the 66-year old accumulated his first fortune, from buying in fuel and selling and distributing it to 7-Eleven stores around America, he and his wife, Twanna, dreamed big. Sitting in bed one morning, drinking the first coffee of the day and peering through the window at the perfectly manicured garden of their country club villa, they imagined a members club for those who found California’s existing country club scene rather pedestrian.
Just like the hundred-plus country clubs dotted around the desertscape of the Coachella Valley, at Tim and Twanna’s imagined club, members would be able to rub shoulders with like-minded, high-flying individuals or retire to their multi-million dollar luxury villa. However, the sound of a driver striking a ball would be replaced by the sound of drivers firing up V12s, twin-turbo V8s and flat-sixes, and the fairway would be swapped for the straightaway.
After selling a chunk of gas stations and convenience stores, team Rogers set to work on making their dream come true. They joined forces with an upmarket property developer and personally funded the creation of the Thermal Club, to the tune of US$175m.
And now here I am, lying in bed with my first coffee of the day, peering out of floor-to-ceiling glass doors, admiring the perfectly presented racing circuit directly below the private terrace. An app tells me who is on track, what they’re driving and how quick, or not, the lap times are. Downstairs, seen through a viewing window in the kitchen, sits a fleet of fifteen desirable sports cars waiting for me to climb aboard. All I have to do is pull on a race suit and within a minute or two I could be trading lap times with my neighbours.
I hop off the bed and slip my shoes back on, straighten the bed covers of the show home and slide shut the doors to the terrace. I’d gladly make myself at home but a prospective purchaser is coming to view the villa later in the day.
It’s surreal to think that before the Thermal Club sprung from the desert in 2012, this place was dust and palm trees as far as the eye could see. A dizzying 14,000 of the palms in the facility had to be relocated, before work could commence. Yet Tim Rogers tells me it has been profitable for the past six years, and doesn’t have a dime of debt.
Even so, it was a risk. Why take on such a project? “The main reason is we belonged to several country clubs,” says Rogers, “and they’re beautiful, with a golf course around you, nice homes, and a common interest with the people near you. 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.”
So like Ray Kinsella, in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, they figured that if they built it, millionaire petrolheads would come. Sure enough, they did.
Rolling off the freeway, Thermal Raceway appears like a mirage in the California desert. The site covers around 160 hectares, walled off to the outside world. On the other side of the road is a private airport. The majority of the people that come to Thermal don’t travel by car – this is Fortune 500 territory, after all. They land their Boeing Business Jet, Learjet or helicopter.
You can’t be a member of Thermal Club without building a villa, or vice versa, so you have to either buy a building plot, starting from US$620,000, and build your villa within five years, or you can buy a completed spec villa, from about US$3.3m for a 669 square metre on-track house, or US$2.3m for a 418 square metre off-track property.
Two types of membership are available: family or corporate. The former is $85,000 and as the title suggests allows the member to have as many of the family as they please present. Alternatively, a $200,000 corporate membership can be divided among four unrelated individuals, a little like a timeshare. Both those include a 70 percent refundable deposit should you leave the Thermal Club. A monthly fee of $1200 applies to the family membership, and each individual that’s part of the corporate membership must pay $1200 a month.
It sounds complicated but don’t fret; Thermal Club can take care of everything, supplying an architect and contractors, and can even furnish properties so they are turn-key ready, with food in the fridge, coffee on the stove, and sun loungers and an integrated barbecue on the terrace. The only proviso is that your vision for the exterior of your bespoke property has to be approved by Thermal Club’s design committee.
There are now three race tracks and 70 residential properties built (the maximum capacity is less than 300). BMW and Mini are permanent tenants with the West Coast Performance Centre, which is a driving experience venue that clinches thousands of sales for the brands every year (see sidebar p68). 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; to give the impression of speed without actual speed.”
Wilson says accidents will, inevitably, 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 percent of the drivers.”
I put two of the circuits to the test, driving a Mini John Cooper Works as fast as I dare, following an instructor in a car ahead and listening to his instructions as I figure out where the braking and turn-in points begin and why the apexes are all later than I was expecting.
It feels exciting despite the fact that the corner speeds are nowhere near those of a modern grand prix track, and with good reason; that would bring everything but a race car to its knees. There are tight sequences, areas where you can run the kerbs, faster sweepers, technical sections that call for patience and even some undulation changes. The 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 8.0km lap.
All the while, you could be being watched by any number of Thermal Club members who own a villa at the side of the race track. Those that are built trackside are integrated into the Great Wall of Thermal, a 5.5m high wall that contains noise and, perhaps, accidents. For that reason, the ground floors are configured around vast garages that house up to 20 cars, with the uninterrupted back wall facing the circuit.
In the pits there are comfortable sofa sets, fridges filled with ice creams, cold drinks, snacks and even cold flannels to mop perspiring brows. And built into display cabinets is a bank of telemetry and in-car video feeds, ready for an instructor to review your performance through every braking point, turn-in-area, apex and exit around every track, should you be so inclined.
The circuits are wired to accept HD cameras. Tim 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 digital age equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet.
For help designing the perfect track surface in an environment that can reach 50C, Roger Penske was asked for advice. The result was an 80-page specification sheet for the asphalt mix. It’s this attention to detail, combined with the track’s generous safety provisions, that make members comfortable with driving their cars around Thermal Raceway.
Paul – a member who asks for his surname not to be shared – tells me 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 essentially built a garage for his car collection, albeit one that “parties 60, dinners four and sleeps two.” That collection is vast; multiple M3s, an M1, old Alfa GTV, Ford RS200, Singer 911, Ariel Nomad, CLK 63 Black Series, and Gordon Murray’s new T50 is on its way. You get the idea: he’s got it bad.
Another member, Andy, bought one of pre-spec villas from Thermal Club, off-track. He tells me how he keeps four Ford Focus RS’s, 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 says that being a member of Thermal is a release from his day job as a day trader, and the social side is appealing.
When you’re not in the mood for driving, there is a clubhouse with a restaurant and bar that are as grand as any five-star hotel. Early in the New Year, a second clubhouse will be completed, bringing with it two swimming pools, tennis courts, a gym and even a spa sanctuary. Next door the finishing touches are being put to 48 guest bungalows – proof that even though you own a house with an enormous garage, having houseguests doesn’t get any easier.
Tim Rogers suggests that the minimum net worth of a typical member is US$30m. Do they, I wonder, consider it to be good value? I put that question to Paul. “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!”
YOU DON'T NEED TO BE FILTHY-RICH TO HAVE FUN
Not a member of Thermal Club? No worries. The BMW Mini West Coast Performance Centre offers a wide range of driving experiences for adults and children alike. You can sample everything from BMW M cars to John Cooper Works Minis, or swing a leg over a BMW bike. A one-day driver’s school in BMWs costs from US$849, or you could live out your inner Michael Caine and enrol on the Mini Stunt Course for US$750. A two-day M Advanced course costs from US$4600.