WILLCOX — Mark Knaeble hit the gas and aimed his 2011 neon green Camaro down the straightaway of Inde Motorsports Ranch’s 2.75-mile track.
He lightly touched the brakes at a hairpin turn — the course includes 21 turns — then hit the gas to climb the modest hill — there are 200 feet of elevation changes on the course — and whipped around a thrilling blind corner before hitting another patch of straight road.
For 30 minutes last Saturday, Knaeble had the track to himself — a dream for the retired engineer who spends his days as a gentleman rancher an hour south in McNeal.
“This is Disneyland for guys who love cars,” Knaeble said a few minutes later after he parked his Camaro, dusted with black tar-like debris from the track’s wear on his tires and brakes.
For nearly four years now, this private racetrack at the center of 1,700 acres of ranch land has been Willcox’s little secret.
But word is starting to get out. Motor Trend, a leading motorsports trade magazine, said the track “is almost like running a ‘best of’ mixtape with replicas of the most challenging corners from around the world.” Speed Channel host and driver Paul Tracy called it a “real tricky road course that’s a real driver’s track; it’s no cakewalk,” while driver Pete Dimuzio, who raced on the track in May 2012, called it a “luxury country club for auto racing.”
With membership fees ranging from $7,000 to $120,000, plus annual fees of $3,000 to $12,000, this is a country club for well-heeled motorsports enthusiasts. Memberships range from individual to corporate packages that include bringing guest drivers and onlookers to the track.
Members include doctors, lawyers and business leaders, said C.J. Dorland, who runs the ranch’s day-to-day operations
“You have to be passionate about it. All of our members are pretty unique. They come from all over the country,” he said.
Dorland, 34, and his dad, Graham, who live in Tucson, opened Inde on a sprawling former cattle and horse ranch that they bought in 2008 from Phoenix-area car dealer Tex Earnhardt. They have 100 members — the plan is to cap it at 200 — with many from Tucson and Scottsdale. About a third are hard-core motorsport racers. The rest are enthusiasts with “nice cars or nice collections and they want to exercise their cars,” Dorland said.
Inde Motorsports Ranch offers them the flexibility to race — alone or against other members — year-round, as long as there is daylight, with complete privacy. The ranch is at the end of a sparsely populated rural road miles off Interstate 10 — the last stretch was dirt until the Dorlands paid $300,000 to pave the eight miles leading up to their property.
Some members fly into the nearby Cochise County Airport. Others land their small planes on a 3,800-foot, FAA-certified air strip that connects to the racetrack.
The Dorlands recently got the OK from Cochise County to build 24 villas — each about 1,500 square feet — that members can buy. The development is still in the planning stages.
“We are really creating a community around our racetrack,” Dorland said, adding that he didn’t expect any of the members to live on the ranch full time.
In the years before selling the land, Earnhardt had leased most of it to ranchers, who ran cattle on the sloping, desert terrain. A few remnants from the original ranch remain, including the main house where the Dorlands stay on weekends. A caretaker lives in the former cook’s house on a hill overlooking the track. The old horse stable has been converted into a garage for show cars, including the senior Dorland’s 1941 Willy Jeep and a race car he sponsored in the Indy 500.
The Dorlands have transformed the dirt into an oasis of luxury. Flagstone walkways meander from the main house to the track, passing by a clubhouse with fully-equipped locker rooms, a large kitchen and an outdoor patio dining area where they entertain members and groups. Another building is home to a 1,400-square-foot conference room and the main garage with its tire machine and welding equipment. An observation lounge with a wall of ceiling-to-floor windows overlooking the track anchors the state-of-the-art control tower.
Inde Motorsports Ranch is Graham Dorland’s latest venture. The 72-year-old presumably retired in 2006 from a lifetime of building and selling companies. His portfolio includes being founder and CEO of ABX Air Inc. — known as Airborne Express — and of Nautamatic Marine Systems Inc., which invented technologies for marine autopilots. He also was a partner in developing DC-9 hush kits used to reduce jet noise.
“I’m a builder,” said the Seattle native, who graduated from Arizona State University and has lived in Tucson for nearly 20 years. “I’m a person that makes things happen.”
But when it comes to his Willcox venture, he’s like a kid on the playground. He’s dotted the former ranch with the carcasses of decommissioned Cold War-era aircraft he has collected, including a MiG-15 and an F-86 Sabre. He has applied for nonprofit status to create a museum devoted to World War II tanks, trucks and planes he plans to set up somewhere on the property.
He has also filled a conference room with his collection of museum-quality Apache Indian items, including including a rifle and leggings that belonged to Geronimo. He named the racetrack Inde after the Apache word for “people.” And his logo — intersecting blue, yellow and red lines – is a take on the Apache symbol for “maker of dreams and visions.”
“This land is the mountain range where the Apache ran and raided,” he said. “This is all part of their history … and the history of this area.”
His most prized possession is tucked inside his private garage alongside a souped-up 2005 Chrysler Crossfire SRT-6: a 1999 Shelby Series 1 — No. 214 of only 249 that Carroll Shelby made — with only about 500 miles on the engine. Graham drives it on occasion — “I don’t push the limits,” he said. “You don’t replace a car like this.” Mostly, he lets Justin Stevenson, who heads Inde’s race program, take it out on the track.
“It’s like the lottery of jobs,” Stevenson said as he got behind the wheel last Saturday to take the car on eight laps exceeding 110 mph on the straightaways and taking the curves at just under 90. “It doesn’t get much better than this if you are a gearhead.”
Dorland stood next to the track as Stevenson entered his final lap. As the car whipped by, a smile swallowed Dorland’s face.
“I’m just an old guy who loves cars and never got them until I got older,” he said.
Tom Bosworth, who divides his time between Oro Valley and Silver Springs N.M., can relate. The 71-year-old retired Ford Motor Co. engineer spent his life building cars but waited until he was 50 to start racing them.
“I kinda thought, my life’s good but I need to do this,” he said as he tinkered with his 1974 Pantera parked next to his fifth-wheel toy hauler. “I loved it. I always wanted to race.”
Bosworth, one of Inde’s first executive members, raced spec cars for about 15 years. He hasn’t competed since 2008, but he still gets behind the wheel of the Pantera, which he bought for $11,000 in 1974 when it had about 4,000 miles on it; it now has 20,000.
He no longer pushes the Pantera to its top speed — 185 mph — but on the track last Saturday, he blasted around the curves and turns at 140 to 150 mph.
“I love speed,” he said. “I’ve driven on a lot of tracks and this one is the most fun. This is paradise for me.”