Saturday, February 19, 2011

On The Nürburgring

So, of the Nürburgring; or more accurately for this discussion, the Nordschleife ("Northern Loop"). Those of you that know it, need no further info; that of you that don't, well...it's hard to describe. You can "google" it to get the basic info, which really comes down to "...it's an old race track in Germany, very long, many turns (most blind) and it winds through the Eifel mountains. It was built in the 1920's as a testing and race facility to showcase German engineering, and is itself a feat of civil engineering. It is such a difficult track to learn and drive well - and in the end, so unsafe by today's standards - that even Formula One chose to stop racing there after 1976. World-famous F1 driver Jackie Stewart dubbed it "The Green Hell"."

But that's all facts and figures. Why would a race track in nowhere Germany deserve such fascination within the automotive world? Why are not other tracks as heralded a the 'Ring? Well, certainly the length is outstanding; where most race tracks are about two to three miles long, the Nordschleife is just over 14 miles; the all-time lap record for the Nordschleife is just over 6 minutes, and that was a professional driver in a full-up big-time serious Porsche protoype race car back in '83 when there were fewer rules restrictions (cars of the same vintage were lapping the 1.5-mile Lime Rock Park in ~45 seconds). Most high-performance street cars today will lap the track in around 8 minutes. Think about 8 minute lap times next time you're watching racing on TV...

Of course, another attraction is the configuration: it's an absolute joy to drive. Think of your favorite country road, someplace you really like to drive, and imagine it with clear road, no opposing traffic around that blind bend, and no speed limits. It's heaven for the driving enthusiast.

But probably the main attraction of the Nordschleife, the main reason the enthusiast's eyes widen when he or she hears of "The Nürburgring" is...you can drive it. As in I can show up in my street car and drive it, you can drive it. When it's not being used for racing or testing, anybody can drive up to the Nordschleife, pay a lap fee (typically around $25) and drive a lap of the Nürburgring! The track is publicly owned, and when it's open for public access it's run under the same rules and regulations as the autobahn. No speed limits, passing on left only, drive at your own risk. And, if you were to break down and/or wreck, all the same autobahn rules apply, such as how to handle it and if you're covered by insurance! In fact, ADAC (roughly equivalent to our AAA here in the USA) is on-site to assist motorists with any problems!

Try that at Indianapolis Motor Speedway!

Oh, you bet there's plenty of accidents at the 'Ring; go to YouTube and you'll find a lot of in-car video, both good and bad (though I have to wonder about the dolts that proudly upload their "fales"...) It's still a dangerous place and not for the faint of heart. The performance mix of traffic on the 'Ring is impressive, from Porsches and Ferraris, to crotch rockets and even scooters, all the way to Fiats, Golfs, and even tour buses! You can even hire a "Ring Taxi" where professional drivers will pack you and your friends into a BMW M5 and give you the thrill ride of your life...and if you feel up to it, you can rent full-up race cars for your laps.

Let's call it the German equivalent of DisneyLand for the gearhead. Sans Mickey.

You've may have actually heard of the Nürburgring in auto commercials; it's becoming standard practice for automakers such as Corvette, Porsche, Nissan, and many others to take their performance cars and set lap times at the 'Ring and use that info in marketing. And, because of the diversity of roadway, bends, and straights, many automakers are using the 'Ring to tune their cars' handling and suspension (Cadillac did exactly that with their CTS-V. In my mind, guys like that "get it", they understand the driving enthusiast.)

So, the whole point of my trip is to drive the 'Ring; it's not a tour of Germany, it's a tour of one track in one location. The tour group I'm going with is arriving in Frankfurt on Monday March 21 and driving to Stuttgart to visit the Porsche museum. After an overnight in Stuttgart we're driving to Nürburg for an evening at-track driver's meeting and follow-the-leader sessions behind instructors (it's not an easy track to learn or read). The next three days are open track days at the 'Ring, where we can do whatever we want from the track's 8:00 AM opening 'til it closes around dinnertime.

The following Saturday will be an "off" day but not boring: we are guests of some fellow racers in the VLN racing series (comparable to our Rolex GT) for their Saturday test day;  they'll be driving the "Whole Course", the Grand Prix Circuit plus the Nordschleif, laps of something like 17.5 miles. Then Sunday is yet another treat, when "Ring Lappers" (that's the public) get access to the "Whole Course" as well!

And, of course, we have evening activities planned for each night...Flying back home to Reality on Monday. But I think that's enough. For this year, at least.

Four days of driving the Nürburgring...painful, I know. ;) Yeah, I'm looking forward to it. Just a little bit.

Greg

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