In the shadow of the Santa Rosa Mountains, a private playground for some of the nation's wealthiest gearheads is rising out of the desert heat.
A refuge for classic Maseratis or screaming new Ferraris, the Thermal Club will stretch over 344 acres of land, half an hour from Palm Springs. A 4.5-mile ribbon of asphalt snakes through the grounds, punctuated by a half-mile straight that begs for 150-mph passes.
Surrounding the track will be hundreds of multimillion-dollar villas, each designed to house a car collection on the ground floor and posh living rooms and kitchens above. Some models come with a glass floor between the two, all the better to gaze at the machinery below while sipping post-lap cocktails.
"Something like this hadn't been done before," said Tim Rogers, the gas-station magnate who financed the project. "There are plenty of beautiful golf clubs around the country, but not everyone plays golf."
FOR THE RECORD
In the Aug. 9 Section B, an article about the Thermal Racing Club said Discovery Land Co. has a property in Yellowstone National Park. In fact, the Yellowstone Club is located in Big Sky, Montana.
The rich can choose from a handful of members-only tracks nationwide — the most prominent being Monticello Motor Club outside New York City — but none has combined the concept with real estate, on the model of the most exclusive golf clubs.
Like any utopian fantasy, the price of admission to this club is steep.
Plots sell for $460,000 to $800,000. Budget at least another $1 million for a villa chosen from one of five templates, or design and build your own. Then add the one-time membership fee of $85,000 and $19,200 in annual dues.
In the center of this massive gated property will be a clubhouse with three-story viewing tower, a garage for car storage and detailing, a tuning shop for work on new exotics and classic cars, a restaurant, a spa and a fueling center. Thermal's 300 lots aren't zoned for residential use, meaning the villas can't have bedrooms, though its developer may apply for a zoning change in the future. Crashing in the living room will have to do for now.
The Thermal Club is the product of Rogers' money and Mike Meldman's planning.
Rogers has made millions as co-founder and president of Torrance-based Tower Energy, which operates its own gas stations and convenience stores, and distributes fuel to more than 100 brand-name gas stations on the West Coast.
In 2010, he was approached with the idea of investing in a high-end private racing club with member-owned garages and villas. A longtime car buff — whose own garage houses Ferraris, Bentleys and a Mercedes-McLaren SLR — Rogers was intrigued.
The biggest roadblock was money.
"You can't just go out and find funding, because there's no business model to look at," Rogers said. "There has to be someone who was willing to fund it personally."
Rogers says he has so far dumped $75 million into the project, and he expects to spend up to $50 million more to complete it. He hopes to realize a profit in about five years.
After committing the money, Rogers needed a partner to handle the logistical challenge of building the largest private racing facilities in the U.S.
He found Meldman, a self-made businessman and founder and chief executive of Scottsdale-based Discovery Land Co. The privately held real estate development company owns 15 ultra-exclusive gated communities in the U.S. — including two in nearby La Quinta — and one each in Mexico and the Bahamas.
Homes in Discovery communities sell for tens of millions of dollars and come with five-star, around-the-clock service. Most are situated on golf courses, though a few fold in other notable features; there's a private ski resort in Big Sky, Montana, a mountain community in Idaho and a beachfront resort in Maui.
Meldman sees Thermal as a rare opportunity to carve out a new niche in the luxury market.
"It is a perfect fit," Meldman said. "The desert's a perfect fit because it's easy to get to from L.A., San Diego, the [San Francisco] Bay Area. Our California market is so big, there's really nowhere else that makes sense with this much land."
The first of three racing circuits is finished, and the 1.8-mile course is already in use by early members and manufacturers for media and promotional events. The second will be paved later this summer. Rogers plans to complete the third circuit in a year or so, after more buyers put down deposits on villas.
The track was conceived by Alan Wilson, a world-renowned designer who has done dozens of tracks around the world. He created Thermal's setup knowing that it was going to be used in a social setting for wealthy drivers — some of whom can afford more car than they can actually drive.
"I expect many of the drivers to go off track," Wilson said. "That's the inevitable consequence of relatively inexperienced people driving high-power, high-dollar cars."
Drivers like Jim Slavik welcome the challenge.
Among the first customers to break ground on a Thermal villa was Slavik, of Irvine, chairman of a private real estate firm and an amateur racer of Porsche GT3 cup cars.
Thermal solves a problem, he said.
"One of the hardest parts of racing is getting access to a track," Slavik said.
That's exactly the kind of buyer Meldman hoped to lure.
"I have friends that basically have mini-car museums, but they don't even drive them. They literally just look at them like a piece of art," Meldman said.
In addition to the 7,500-square-foot private lots ringing the track, Thermal will offer corporate lots nearly twice that size for companies that want to build their own larger garages. Thermal is building up a fleet of its own cars that members can rent for themselves or for guests, and a pro driver is on staff for lessons.
The facility's garage holds several Porsche Caymans, and Thermal is looking at adding a variety of cars from brands such as Lotus, BMW, Lamborghini, Ferrari and Aston Martin.
Riverside County politicians are welcoming Thermal as a draw for well-heeled tourists.
"This continues the movement toward making our valley a trendy place, where the wealthy come and enjoy the finer things," said Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, whose district includes Thermal.
The forthcoming performance center could bring at least 12,000 visitors to Thermal each year, according to Riverside's estimates.
"It's a great way to bring people to Riverside County that may not otherwise be here," said Juan Perez, Riverside's director of transportation and land management.
It could be several years before Thermal is operating at full capacity. Discovery wouldn't disclose how many of the 300 lots had been purchased, saying only that the first four villas broke ground in early June, with six more expected soon.
The infield facilities are still under construction, and paving the second circuit of track is weeks away. Many potential buyers seem to be waiting for that crucial piece to fall in place before committing.
"Sales are going fine," Rogers said, "just never as fast as I'd like."
That's the one thing at Thermal that isn't going fast.