Joining the GT club

Did you know that, despite its reputation as one of the best international motorsport tracks in the Southern Hemisphere, Hampton Downs still has room in its busy calendar for up to 80 days per year set aside for exclusive track use by GT Club members? Steve Vermeulen tagged along to find out more.

The fact a nation of our size offers a proper world-class race circuit and an exclusive club membership for average punters to maximise this facility all year round is simply outstanding.

The fact we have two, owned and operated by the same person is, well, bloody miraculous.  

These circuits and memberships, of course, are Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell and Hampton Downs, equidistant between Auckland and Hamilton in North Waikato, and their reciprocal GT Club membership programmes. 

While now handily available on both islandsthe GT Club membership programme was originally tried and tested at Highlands, the international circuit and tourism facility etched into the ochre Cromwell landscape by motorsport enthusiast and entrepreneur Tony Quinn.  

In 2013, some questioned whether Quinn had bitten off more than he could chew. But today there’s no question Highlands is as impressive now as the original vision was ambitious. Now celebrating its fifth anniversary and growing (a further 54 hectares are soon to be developed, which will add a world-class 18-hole golf course and a further 150 luxury apartments) those early detractors have been suitably silenced.  

And Highlands’ heart lies the full GT circuit. The 4.1km track mirrors the most iconic racing corners from tracks around the world andwith the lush mountainous backdrop, it’s understandably rated by many experts as the best track in the Southern Hemisphereindeed, the best in the world by our own Shane Van Gisbergen 

Hampton Downs, the more recent - but since extensively redeveloped – acquisition by Quinn also boasts a dedicated 4km international GT circuit. 

Brilliantly, there are only two ways you get to drive the full GT circuit. Being a GT category race driver (which is certainly not me) or becoming a member of the GT Club membership programme.  

That level of exclusivity for members is quite the drawcard, along with an almost unlimited ability to capitalise on it. At Highlands, the GT Club membership gives you more-or-less daily access to simply turn up and drive, save for the day's official motorsport events are scheduled.  

Despite a more rigorous motorsport calendar, Hampton Downs still offers up to 80 days per year with full track and skid pan access. The reciprocal program gives members from both clubs five days at the alternate location each year too. 

All this sounded just the ticket for me and my 630hp loaner for the day; a Bentley Supersport ISR no less. 

The track is sublime. It’s wide with a heart-racing mix of elevation changes, tight apexes and deceptively tricky tightening bends that challenge you lap after lap. Maybe I could’ve picked the brains of Stuart Hamill, who drives his BMW 335i Cabrio to the track for GT Member days more than most.  

“I think I’ve missed two events this year; one while I was at Bathurst and one when I was having some work done to the car,” he says. 

But with 80 events a year to choose from, Stuart is certainly maximising his membership and couldn’t be happier. Hang on a sec though; a humble BMW 335i at an exclusive GT driver’s club? Surely this event is the reserve of society’s elite? Gentleman racers with mega-dollar supercars? Or full-on race teams seeking year-round testing opportunities? Sorry, but you’re quite wrong.  

This is genuinely an accessible consideration for many driving enthusiasts, equipped with relatively modest vehicles and enthusiast driving talent.  

In fact, 95% of GT Club members had never experienced circuit driving before joining, so it’s not all an intimidating bunch of would-be racing gods out there.  

Sure, there are a couple of dedicated race cars and a lovely mix of supercars to share the track with on any given GT Club day. But in reality there’s a diversity here I simply wasn’t expecting. Considering the facilities and services you’re accessing, membership is altogether realistic. The annual renewal fee is less than what some people would pay for tyres alone on a high-performance car. Put that in context for a minute; a similar club membership at a similar race track in New York State or in the outskirts of London can be a six-figure investment per year. 

“I just love it here,” continues Stuart, who tells me the pressure of competition racing has never appealed. 

“I’d never done any track driving before but got some driver training when I bought my car and I was hooked. I wish I’d done it 30 years ago, I drive my car to the track, have some fun, drive it home; it’s that simple.” 

The ability to bring a friend or even add a ‘plus one’ member also adds value for people like Sue and Rodney Malam. Rodney has for some years done a small amount of amateur racing, something that Sue couldn’t actively do with him. Now the GT Club membership gives Sue the ability to ride along and be more involved with Rodney’s passion for the track. 

This eclectic mix of like-minded people from all backgrounds – where people couldn’t care less about the size of your Rolex, how skilled you are as a driver, or what car you drive – is refreshing to experience.  

At any given GT Club member’s day, you might see a 1978 Mini sharing the tarmac with a Porsche GT3, or a Lamborghini Huracan. Or a complete amateur learning his lines in a Bentley Supersport IS, like today, for example.  

This all might sound intimidating, but it’s not at all. All members are respectful of everyone’s right to be on the track. Professional driver training is available upon request to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck and of course, safety is the number one priority. 

But the rules and regs are refreshingly measured with practicality. There are three core rules of the GT Club membership: 1) Use it, don’t abuse it, 2) Treat it like it’s your own and 3) No dickheads. 

You’re treated like an adult here. If you choose not to act like one, maybe the club’s not for you. It’s refreshingly simple, and it works. 

My loan car for today is more geared toward luxury than lap times. Some might argue it’s not the right car for this type of activity, but in reality, it's because of performance roads cars just like the Bentley that the GT Membership model makes so much sense.  

The Bentley Supersport ISR is as plush as a Chesterfield, capable of a sub-four second 0-100km/h time and a top speed of 330km/h. Where else can one legally get the best from a car of this ability?  

What would you choose? A nervous thrash on poorly maintained Kiwi back roads? Or having an environment like Hampton Downs to push your car and yourself at your own pace? It’s a no-brainer in my books. 

GT Club membership enquiries can be made with Keryn ChittyGT Club Membership Manager, ph. 027 536 7870. Or enquire via membership@hamptondowns.com  

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