By Michael Turton
When the movie Pretty Woman hit the big screen in 1990, its star stole the hearts of many a man across the country — including Cold Spring resident Ari Straus. But it wasn’t then up-and-coming actress Julia Roberts who swept Straus off his feet. He couldn’t take his eyes off one of the film’s other stars — the Lotus Esprit driven by Richard Gere. Straus was so captivated that he bought an Esprit.
When he went out on a track with a professional driver who showed him what the car was capable of, it was a pivotal day in his life. “It was shock and awe,” Straus said. “He did things with that car that I thought were impossible. I wanted to learn how to drive like that.”
Straus has indeed learned to drive like that. High-performance driving became not only his avocation but his career. He now races professionally and is president and partner in Monticello Motor Club (MMC) in Monticello, N.Y., a facility that includes one of the best road courses in the country and is home to some of the hottest sports cars anywhere.
Straus races on three different circuits: the Grand Am Series in a Porsche; the American Le Mans in an IMSA Lite Prototype, and the Playboy Cup in a Mazda Miata. He remembers his first race vividly. It was at Watkins Glen, N.Y. The year was 2007. He drove a Miata, and he knew immediately that his first race would not be his last. “You can never go back to open track, to just practicing,” he said. “Racing becomes your complete focus. You gotta get ready for the next race. Very few do it (race) … and then not focus on it.”
One race Straus was definitely ready for took place four years later when he finished atop the podium for the first time at an IMSA race at the renowned Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Fla. In an article published on prototypelites.com at the time, Straus commented on his first win.
“The competition was fierce. There were a lot of incidents out there,” he said. “I was lucky to avoid most of them. Each one I missed by inches, so someone was on my side today.” While that may sound dangerous, Straus believes that the biggest misconception about racing and high-performance driving is the level of danger. “Racing is not as dangerous as people think,” he said. “There is risk in every sport. But with the safety precautions and the quality of the equipment (in high-performance driving), I’m safer driving here (at MMC) than on Fishkill Road going 40 miles an hour.”
This country club has no golf clubs
The ride in the Lotus back in 1990 not only led Straus to take up racing, it was the catalyst that led him to an entire career. Straus and a number of partners opened Monticello Motor Club in 2008. Constructed on an old airport site, its promotional materials describeMMCas “the ultimate country club for people who love to drive.” It’s an apt description, although the word “fast” could also be tagged on the end. Straus stresses that while driving fast is great fun and a real challenge, it makes much more sense for people who want to drive fast to do it on a proper track with good equipment and expert instruction, and not on public roads.
The center of attention at MMCis the track itself — a 4.1-mile, serpentine road course made of race-grade asphalt that features 22 turns and two straight-aways. Designed by Brian Redman, a driving champion with 77 race wins in 12 countries under his belt, and Bruce Hawkins, the leading architect of modern racetracks, it can be laid out in 12 different configurations with a 3.6-mile course being the most common.
As a driver, Straus loves the challenge of mastering its winding turns. “Anyone can drive fast in a straight line,” he said. The track is one of the longest of its kind in the country. Professional drivers in search of practice time seek it out. Car manufacturers use it to showcase their newest models. Straus is sincere when he names Monticello as his favorite track to drive on. Second place goes to Watkins Glen.
In many ways MMC mirrors an exclusive golf club. It’s for members only — members who love their sport and sometimes compete against each other. It has showers, a members’ lounge, instruction from club professionals, a chef who serves up delicious food, and numerous other facilities and amenities. The difference is that at MMC you don’t bring your golf clubs — you bring a Ferrari or a Porsche or a Lotus. And you don’t play 18 leisurely holes of golf — you drive laps. Fast laps. Very intense laps. Some members drive or trailer their cars to MMC, while others store their sports car at the facility. And just as you can rent clubs at a golf course, you can rent a sports car at MMC, including a Cadillac CTS-V, described as “one of the most powerful production cars in the world.”
The club currently has 230 members with plans to more than double that. Women make up more than 10 percent of the members, and the head driving instructor is Ashley Novack. Another of the instructors is Cold Spring resident Tim Maxwell. Noteworthy members include comedian Jerry Seinfeld, NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, and Chris Dyson, winner of the 2011 American Le Mans series and a principal in Poughkeepsie-based Dyson Racing.
Members don’t just buy a hot car and go out on the MMC
track for a drive. They must pass muster first with the club’s professional instructors. In fact, Straus said that many members have never been on a track before joining MMC although he said they tend to learn quickly because of the quality of instruction and the easy access to the track for practice time. Track sessions may seem very brief to the uninitiated. Members go out in 20-minute blocks, with other drivers at the same skill level and in comparable cars. “People don’t realize that high-performance driving is exhausting,” Straus said, pointing out that even in professional ranks, “many races are only 30 or 40 minutes long.”
Drinking and driving don’t mix any better at MMC than they do on the nation’s highways. When members arrive at MMC they are issued a wristband that indicates they are qualified to drive on the track. If they go to the lounge for a drink, the wristband is snipped, and they are not permitted to drive.
Straus lives in Cold Spring with his wife Molly and their three children: son Asher and daughters Aurora and Simone. Asked if he’d wants his son to take up high-performance driving Straus responded, “Yes, but you’re asking the wrong question. The girls are more into it.” Thirteen-year-old daughter Aurora can already drive a stick shift, and when she hits 14, the minimum age required to drive atMMC, she’ll take her first official laps out on the track. And in October she’ll enter her first Miata race.
So what does Cold Spring’s fastest man drive when he’s not racing at Watkins Glen or doing laps at Monticello? A Porsche or a Corvette perhaps? “I drive a Prius plug-in,” Straus said. “I get about 50 miles to the gallon, and I don’t use any gas when driving around Cold Spring.” He says driving a Prius “is good karmic balance,” in contrast to the fossil fuels he helps use up atMMC.
Mike and Ari Go for a Ride
I interviewed Ari in the MMC clubhouse. When we finish Ari asks me if I’d be like to go for a ride around the track. Does the Pope like German beer?! I respond “Definitely!” and he inquires if I like roller coasters. I tell him I started doing roller coasters only after my young sons embarrassed me into it. I don’t mention the word “terrified” lest he withdraw his offer. I pick out a helmet and a head sock and wait by the car — a Radical SR3.
Seeing the car, my heart rate increases dramatically as it will a number of times during the next few minutes. The Radical is very low, very sleek and just oozes speed. Picture the prototypes you see at Le Mans or Lime Rock. I’m very excited, but not nervous, until it’s time to get in the car.
An attendant helps me. It’s more of a production than jumping into my four-door Honda Accord. I grab the roll bar for balance, step into the cockpit with an awkward giant step and stand on the passenger seat, facing backwards. “There’s no graceful way!” Ari says. I pivot and lower myself in, my legs stretching out flat on the floor in front of me. It’s been a few decades since I’ve worn anything in an extra-small and it’s a tight fit. The snug helmet adds to a few seconds of feeling claustrophobic but that is about to be replaced by other sensations. The attendant buckles me in.
Ari climbs in. He is talking to me but I can’t hear. The attendant flips up the visor on my helmet and I can hear fine. “I’m going to do one slow lap and then speed it up. You OK with that?” Ari asks. I give him a thumbs up. The attendant is talking to me. “Ever been in one of these before?” I answer “No” and he just chuckles. I don’t like that. “There’s an accelerator and brake pedal on your side too,” he says, the extra set being for driving instructors. “Don’t touch them or you will really ruin your day.” Great. I fish around with my feet and find the pedals. I find a safe spot for my right foot and locate a metal brace on my left. “Is my left foot OK there, Ari?” I ask. “You’ll be fine,” he responds. Keep saying that Ari. Please.
Ari starts the engine. It answers immediately and so does my heart. The car is loud and I can feel the engine’s rumble. He slips the Radical into gear and pulls out much quicker than I expect. For an instant I’m back on the roller coaster with my sons, thinking, “It’s too late. I can’t get out now. Why am I doing this?” A young attendant at the entrance to the track points both arms ahead in an assertive motion, like those guys who direct passenger jets on the tarmac at an airport. We’ve been given the proverbial green light.
Straus guns the Radical and it jumps ahead like a wild horse. We are going very fast, very, very quickly. We’re into turns right away and I simply cannot believe how fast we’re taking them. I thought I had prepared myself for the G forces but their strength is surprising. I remember Ari saying high-performance driving is exhausting. I get it already and we’ve been on the track all of 30 seconds. I consciously tell myself to breathe.
We’re on the shorter of the two straight-aways. Wow. This is fast. Wait! This is the slow lap? More turns and then the long straight. Considerably longer, much more speed than on the first. We keep accelerating. More speed. I see the turn up ahead. I know he’ll slow soon. I know he’ll slow soon. Soon takes forever. Brake hard. Shift. Turn. G forces. Accelerate. Amazing.
“I trust Ari. I trust Ari,” becomes a prayer I repeat in my head a number of times. We start our second lap. He wasn’t kidding. It’s even faster. Holy smoke! OK, those are not the exact words I use. Then, I’m calm. I’m in some altered state of consciousness. I am just totally taking in how this feels. The G forces are stronger and stronger in the turns. Both straights are even faster this time around. I swear Ari waits even longer to brake. Awesome. And I’m OK with it. The engine is loud. I love the sound of the quick shifts as Ari goes up through the gears. The force of the wind against my visor is unreal.
I think of how I consciously slow down towards the end of a great book, to savor it, to make it last a little longer. Ari eases off the throttle, the Radical slows and we’re off the track. Damn. I want one more lap.
I feel normal again — about three hours later.
Take the ride with Mike And Ari