It’s the end of September, which always signals a special two day event sponsored by the International Motor Press Association (IMPA) known as Test Days. This year was notable not only for IMPA’s 50th birthday, but Test Days was held in a new location. Leaving familiar grounds at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, this year Monticello Motor Club in Monticello, New York would be our hosts this year. On a crisp but comfortable September evening, my duffel and suit taking every square inch of my Fiat 500C’s diminutive trunk, I peeled back the roof, tuned to Real Jazz on XM Radio, and carved my way up Connecticut’s Route 25, a twisting, turning two lane road which would lead me to picturesque Newtown.
Once in Newtown, I would hook up with I-84. At highway speed, in a northern, higher elevation the temps were dropping and with the touch of a button the Fiat’s roof was closed, tight as a button. You would think the 1.4L 500C would make for a lousy highway cruiser, but once on the interstate I settled into the decently supported leather seat, the Fiat’s cabin alight with its orange glow from the instruments and controls. After about 70 miles of being an interstate drone, it’s time to break off to Route 17 in New York, which will take me to the Catskill Mountains. It’s pitch dark, and by the time I reach my exit, I know I’m out in the middle of nowhere, as I have another ten miles before I reach my hotel.
On a dark, desolate road I am the only car I see the entire ride. Without GPS navigation in the Fiat, I rely on help from a local gas station, about the only business I saw open. Then, turning off the road, stood Honor’s Haven Resort & Spa. Wearily, I rolled up to the security booth, gave my credentials, and put my little Fiat to bed for the night, and carted my luggage up to the lobby. Honor’s Haven is under new ownership, who have invested millions in updates and renovations, but the bones of an older hotel, recalling a different time are there, and you can feel it-in a good way.
After a solid night’s sleep, I awoke, and for the first time in my life I saw the Catskills in daylight. Wishing my wife and son a good day at work and school on my phone, I gazed upon the lake and golf course. The mountains were stunning, the grounds immaculate. As lovely as the surroundings were, there was driving to be done, and it was time to climb back into the Fiat for the 35 mile trip to Monticello Motor Club. Driving back to Route 17, seeing the area in the daylight was an eyeopener. Beautiful countryside all around, maybe a couple scattered cottage rentals, but little else.
In stark contrast lays Monticello Motor Club. A relatively new facility, MMC is a private club where drivers can wring out their own cars-basic, exotic, race car, you name it-on a 4.1 mile race track that can be configured twelve different ways. MMC is 90 miles north of New York City, and boasts a heliport, clubhouse, storage for your car and service. In the future, MMC hopes to build a hotel and eventually host a race at their track. In an upper parking lot, all the assembled manufacturers had their cars available for us to drive. We were given a route to drive that would take us through the outlying area on some challenging roads that would give us a chance to enjoy the cars on hand.
I decided to divide my day in two-in the morning, nothing but American muscle. I started off with a Dodge Challenger SRT8 392. And man, I love Challengers. I’ve gotten a Challenger SRT8 on the banking at Pocono Raceway up to 130mph+ with that Hemi sounding exactly like the stock cars you see on the track. My affinity for this car was confirmed with the Challenger R/T I reviewed, and during that week the Challenger became my favorite modern muscle car. Sadly, the SRT8 392 on hand was an automatic, which took a lot of the fun out of the equation. Next up was a Ford Mustang GT convertible. Smaller and much lighter than the Challenger, and blessed with a six-speed manual, the Mustang was hands down the better car for the undulating roads around Monticello.
After lunch-it was all imports. And it was time for me to drive what is known as Godzilla-the Nissan GTR. And I have a serious problem with this car, since Nissan claims the GTR will whip a Porsche 911 Turbo on the Nurburgring. With a Porsche 911 parked in my garage at home, it was time to drive the Enemy. I have to say, everything you have read about the GTR is true. It is without question one of the most brutally fast cars I have ever sampled. You want 60mph from a standing start? Do you have 2.9 seconds to spare? On abandoned roads I’d come to a complete stop just for the thrill of standing on the throttle, no lifting, banging the paddle shifters with the tach wildly hitting redline. I’ve driven plenty of fast cars in my time, but the GTR is at once serial killer violent yet can be as placid as a Nissan Versa. But you don’t want that. Yes, I texted our founder, Gary Grant about what speed I hit on the backroads of the Catskills in the GTR, but for fear of ever being allowed in the state of New York again, I’m not saying. An impossibly fast car, but I’m sorry Nissan, a little lacking in the ‘soul’ department.
I was glad to have driven the GTR, but my loyalty is still with Porsche. That said, I would never turn down a chance to drive Godzilla again. The rest of my afternoon was more low key-which sounds ridiculous, considering my next car was a Jaguar XKR. Definitely more of a Grand Tourer than the GTR, the XKR is deceptively fast, with a glorious V-8 soundtrack when you step on it. To close out the day, my last ride was in the revised BMW 650i. I have a soft spot for 6-series BMW’s, as my college roommate owned a heavily modified 633CSi which he let me drive. For a big, heavy coupe, the twin turbo V-8 pulls like a freight train, but not nearly as emotional as the Jag. But the steering feel is possibly the best I have ever experienced in any car, all other BMW’s included. Simply unbelievable.
It had been a terrific, but busy day, and I was ready to pack it in. Getting back into the Fiat, I made my way back to Ellenville. Returning to my hotel, I noticed something of particular interest-an abandoned resort adjacent to the property. The Nevele Grande Resort was calling like a siren to me. At the gated entrance sat two security guards-I asked if I could walk the grounds, but was given a firm ‘No’. I parked my Fiat at Honor’s Haven, with decrepit Nevele looking right back at me. Just 15′ of brush and I’m there. With security guards on hand, I wasn’t taking any chances, and kicked off my shoes in my hotel room.
After resting up for a couple hours, it was time to dress up and head to the reception. Once there, I noticed a laptop computer showing pics of old, abandoned cars. I walked over to take in the pics, where I see next to me is Tom Cotter, a frequent contributor to Road & Track, and author of my favorite ‘barn find’ books like “The Cobra in the Barn” and “The Hemi in the Barn”. Automotive archeology is Mr. Cotter’s passion, and I share that, and it was a thrill to meet this man. I introduce myself, and standing over the laptop, looking at beautiful vintage cars of all makes and vintages, Mr. Cotter turns to me and says: “All of these cars you see, I shot within five miles of where we spent out day today.” Damn.
As always, I enjoyed the company of Kevin ‘Crash’ Corrigan of Carkeys.ca for dinner, as well as members of Auto123, a French/Canadian site. A pleasure was our keynote speaker, none other than Brian Redman, famous British road racer. Following dinner, there was an outdoor reception of new 2012 vehicles, but with rain falling, I decided to call it a night. Did I walk back to the edge of Nevele? Yes. The lure of this abandoned resort was strong, but once again, I used better judgement.
The next morning, it was still raining. Undaunted, I crammed my luggage back into the Fiat and made my way back to Monticello Motor Club. Today, we would have access to the race track. Following a driver’s meeting, a fleet of Cadillac CTS-V’s descended onto pit lane. In order for us to be able to drive the track, we were required to first ride shotgun with a member of MMC staff. My pilot would be Ari Strauss, COO of Monticello Motor Club. The staff at MMC had configured a track with an exciting mix of straights and tight, sweeping turns-a little bit of everything. Since no one here needed to be a grad of Skip Barber racing school, nor were any of us wearing helmets, cones were set up around the track to keep speed down.
Yes, it’s true. A Korean auto journalist banged up the Lexus ISF seen here. And a lot of people who weren’t there had a lot to say about that. Well, I just so happened to be there. While it had stopped raining, the track was wet. The track was now open to us, and we were free to pick out our car to drive. I figured a Honda CRZ would be the perfect choice to learn firsthand what the track was like. I’m waiting at the pit lane exit, and nothing is happening. No one is going anywhere. Rumors start up, and it turns out that as soon as the track opened, a guy put a Lexus ISF into the wall. Unlike me, this person deemed the 414hp V-8 ISF the ideal car to ‘learn’ the track. Well, he never even finished the lap.
IMPA officials did finally make an announcement that there was an accident, and that no one was hurt. The track eventually reopened and it was back to business. What ensued was some of the most juvenile journalism I can recall. Before our lunch is served, Jalopnik had already posted about the crash. And Matt Hardigree who posted the article, was not at Test Days, was pissed. Mr. Hardigree is pissed off because the Lexus was banged up, and while that car is being repaired or replaced, other journalists will not be driving said ISF. I’m unclear if Mr. Hardigree, who isn’t even a member of IMPA, had a loan arranged with ESI’s New York office for that particular car, which would justify his anger. But the fact is, cars get banged up, or are recalled by the manufacturer all the time in this business. And I don’t report that to you, dear readers, because I know it would bore you to tears.
But the icing on the cake goes to The Truth About Cars. Writer jack Baruth is also very angry, even though he was not in attendance that day. Apparently the indignity of Monticello’s race track having cones on it infuriates Mr. Baruth. At the end of the day, I was hanging out with Kevin ‘Crash’ Corrigan, talking about our day on the track. I should point out that Crash is an experienced driver, having competed in the grueling Targa Newfoundland rally. We actually appreciated the placement of the cones-it showed us just right where to hit the apex to help achieve faster times around the track. And, Mr. Baruth, I assure you that while you cautioned your readers about watching ‘painful’ a lap at Monticello, I personally felt no pain while hitting 130mph in a Jaguar XKR. There was no speed limit, as you attest in your post. But, you wouldn’t know that since you were not there.
At lunch, IMPA officials asked us to be respectful, and use restraint regarding the crash of the ISF. But the damage was already done. They did not want the crash to define the event, but it was already too late. Ironically, Jalopnik broke the story, and our IMPA president is the head editor at Jalopnik. Still, I found it strange that IMPA wanted us to stay quiet about this, yet they park the damaged Lexus on pit lane for a couple hours in front of a group of auto journalists armed with cameras and smart phones. Go figure.
That said, it was a great day at the track. the Honda CRZ was great in getting a feel for the track itself, and as the day progressed, my confidence increased and was definitely getting quicker each time out. I can’t say enough about how easy it was to push the Jaguar XKR around the track, and push it hard. It is deceptively quick in spite of its size and weight, but was an absolute terror on the track. A radically fast GT on the streets as I’d discovered the day before, yet totally adept on the track as well. The Jetta GLI was also a much improved car over the new car I’d tested earlier this year. The all-new Beetle Turbo was a let down on the track, but more aggressive rubber might have made a difference. However, the Golf R was built for this track, and was an absolute revelation. I was shocked to see 125mph on the faster section of the track from a car with half the power of the Jag. And while I love the BMW Z4, it’s long nose was a hindrance as I tried to point the car through the race track.
After a rewarding day of lapping Monticello, the day was coming to an end. As always, IMPA holds a classic car concours, and I am chuffed to say that Crash’s VW Transporter-his father’s car he imported from the UK, right hand drive, took top honors. I had volunteered to help clean up once the event was over, and I connected with Test Days organizer Paul Licata. Paul was generally pleased with how everything went, and was grateful the Lexus crash was the only casualty of the event. Test Days is an enormous undertaking, and I thanked Paul for his hard work, and I look forward to coming back next year.
It was time to hand over the keys to the Fiat, and prepare for my drive home. I was picking up a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Putting my luggage in the Jeep, I summoned the nav to point me to a restaurant where I could unwind before making the drive back home. I wound up at The Old Homestead in Bridgeville. A stately restaurant, and clearly a fixture in the Catskills, I entered a tidy, immaculate and clearly old school. And completely empty. I took my weary feet and sat down at the mahogany bar for a Yeungling Lager, and watched the NY Mets play some terrible baseball. Terry was my bartender, a man in his late 40′s, and my conversation with him completed my first experience of the Catskills, circa 2011. Terry said they have good and bad days, but he recalls days where the line to get a table ran out the door. The bar three deep. The resorts keep closing, and it’s killing the business. It was clear Terry had made his career as a bartender in the Catskills.
Before I went to New York, I watched ‘Cars’ with my son. A story of how a town became forgotten. Leaving The Old Homestead, and talking to Terry, I recalled watching Cars and hearing “Our Town: by James Taylor.
Time goes by, time brings changes, you change, too
Nothing comes that you can’t handle, so on you go
Never see it coming, the world caves in on you
On your town
Nothing you can do.
I came for the cars, but fell in love with the Catskills. And it breaks my heart that this beautiful piece of America is in decline, that majestic resorts now sit empty. Not far from where I stayed, Grossinger’s Resort in Liberty, New York, a resort that once hosted 150,000 guests a year shut down. Watch the video-it’s utterly amazing that such a hot spot could become a ghost town. As for me the Jeep Grand Cherokee was the perfect companion for my trip home.Till next year!