Alan Wilzig is just like you and me. He has a family, he loves cars and motorcycles and he's got a mile-long, 40-foot-wide full racetrack in his front yard. Did I say just like you and me? Ok, maybe not.
And yet, who among us wouldn't at least consider building our own, full-scale racetrack if we were standing in his size-tens. Indeed, Wilzig, the son of a Holocaust survivor who turned $28 into an oil fortune during the 1960s and then bought a bank for good measure, built it because he could.
To get an idea who we're talking about, after Wilzig built a wildly opulent house (a castle, really) in the Hamptons in 1997, a New York Times reporter asked him to name something that he'd left out – a toy, a feature, anything. "Nothing," he said. "If we would have thought of it, we would have built it."
Arrogant? Perhaps to some; but the truth stands. Wilzig has ample latitude to think of and build stuff pretty much at whim. A graduate of the Wharton school, Wilzig doubled the value of his late father's bank, The Trust Company of New Jersey, during the 2000s to amass a high-nine-figure family fortune when North Fork Bankcorp bought it in 2004.
And so, when he set out, that same year, to build a private racetrack on a 275-acre plot of land he'd bought in Taghkanic, New York, all Wilzig needed was a cocktail napkin, a pen and a few good ideas. As a serious motorcycle enthusiast and IMSA Lights racer, he wanted a place where he could both stretch the legs on his collection of cars, racing karts and race bikes, and also train for IMSA competition.
Seeking inspiration for his $7.5 million project, Wilzig looked to Dutch billionaire Klaas Zwart, whose Ascari Race Resort in Marbella, Spain services hardcore and gentlemen racers as well as Zwart's own track-day cravings. Wilzig also called in motorcycle race instructor and former racer Keith Code, who convinced him what he really needed was to put in a banked turn.
"NASCAR is pretty much the only form of racing I don't watch, Wilzig said, "but the banking has turned out to be everyone's favorite turn. My four-year-old daughter calls it the "crazy turn.'"
I asked him if he's cribbed other turns from famous racetracks, a common practice among track builders. "I didn't go out and try to recreate any specific turns. But was I maybe thinking of the esses at VIR [Virginia International Raceway] when we did these?" he says, pointing to a set of corners on the back side of the track during a recent ride-along, "maybe, a little."
So, with a plan in place, Wilzig started building his dream racetrack, in compliance, he says, with the town's "accessory use" zoning laws. And then, a dropped decimal place jammed a wrench into the works. Some of his neighbors got wind of a "$75 million" race complex being built, and gathered in opposition. The overblown number came from a typo in a New York Post article, but even a correction didn't quell the uproar. And so, Wilzig would spend the second half of the decade fighting an angry group of local residents, who'd assembled themselves as The Granger Group.
There were peaks and valleys. In 2006, the local zoning board decided Wilzig's proposed track was not covered under "standard accessory use," based on Taghkanic's zoning ordinance. Wilzig then submitted a separate proposal specifying the track's use as "recreational," a subtle technical difference. The board approved it, but in 2010 a zoning board of appeals judge overturned that decision.
By then, Wilzig was sitting on a professionally graded but unpaved lobster-claw-shaped track, with an injunction against its completion. A loss to the Grangers in New York State Supreme Court set the project back further.
And then, in early 2011, the New York State Court of Appeals found in favor of Wilzig's rights to complete the project. "My ‘revenge' is to be so quiet that they'll look like absolute imbeciles for making such a fuss," he told a local news reporter.
While it doesn't have a long, high-speed straight, Wilzig's impeccably-finished track — with orange-white-curbing to match his racing-team color — does have nine turns threading through more than 70 feet of elevation changes. The effect is a very skills-oriented technical course that can be run in several configurations, both clockwise and counterclockwise.
The most memorable corner is indeed the banking, which ascends a natural hillside. It's a true bowl, in which a driver must start three-quarters of the way up and dive back down, curling inward to reach the exit point at full throttle. Another tricky but well laid-out corner is an uphill ess that crests early, demanding a leap-of-faith turn. Like the corkscrew at Laguna Seca, Wilzig explains, if you see where you're headed, it's already too late.
A long 180-degree turn forces an early throwaway, but cutting in and getting on the gas early allows a near straight line through the next two ess turns. That part was was originally set to be completely straight, but Keith Code persuaded Wilzig to kink it to add more interest. The last turn before the front straight is a downhill, decreasing-radius corner that takes patience, but the reward is a 125-mph run.
Indeed, Wilzig Racing Manor, as it's called, is the largest racetrack zoned for private recreational use in the U.S. Also on site is a combination clubhouse, museum for Wilzig's car and bike collection and race shop for his IMSA car and racing karts (including a 50-hp, 125 mph rotary-powered kart). His collection is a story for another day.