(Part 1 is here)

Saturday was VLN testing day, and we were guests of Team Frikadelli. Not that it really mattered: this test day was open to the public, and anyone could walk right in without challenge. In fact, anyone could walk right into the pit lane, and many did! As cars were buzzing in and out of pit lane, spectators were fawning over the cars, taking photos, walking in front of cars; while the pit lane seemed like anarchy, surprisingly no one was injured (that I could see). It just appeared that most spectators kept their heads on a swivel and watched for cars driving by. Of course, every time a car stopped, it was mobbed by the crowd. I’m sure that annoyed the teams, but no one displayed any outward anger, just an occasional polite request to move away so the car could be on its way.

I commented that if this was held in the USA that first, no spectators would be allowed in the hot pits, and second, if they were allowed then the SCCA marshals would all faint from the constant blowing of their whistles!

The amount and quality of VLN hardware testing was incredible. It ranged from a multi-million-dollar Ferrari P4/5 all the way down to Renault Clio Cup cars. In between were scads of Porsches, Astons, BMWs, Citroën, Fords, Opels. And how much money do you need to be able to race-prep three Mercedes SLS AMG…? Those Clio Cup cars and others like it had me thinking we could do this. Just sayin’… We roamed the track at various places, watching the cars testing, and had lunch at another Italian restaurant by Breidschied. (What is the most common restaurant in this part of Germany? Italian.) Of course we watched them again at Breidsheid/Adenau and ended the day at Brünnchen. Watching the spectators was as much a game as watching the cars; at Brünnchen we saw two old German guys wearing German military garb, in a VW van with doors wide open, techno pounding from large speakers, and they’re grilling brats and drinking beer. Stereotypes, like comedy, always have some truth behind them…

We finished the day with dinner and drinks with Sabine at Pizzeria Salvatore (there’s that Italian food connection again) in Barweiler…and beer, of course.

We could tell that the week was quickly coming to a close, but Sunday offered yet one more opportunity for ‘Ring lapping on the Whole Course. I rented the Suzuki Swift again but a buddy rented the slightly-more-expensive Renault Clio Cup car, and we decided to split the costs so we could drive both. The cars were still limited to 270k, so since we were running the longer whole course that meant we’d get fewer laps — we estimated 10 total per car — and I decided to kick out the five laps on the Suzuki quickly to see if I could work out some line details of the track I hadn’t quite nailed down. We got there early, right when the track opened, and the traffic was about the same as it was during the week. However by mid-morning the place was hopping! The main parking lot was soon full, then the secondary lot was filled, and soon lappers were being sent to the “Back Forty” dirt lot. Traffic on the side roads was packed, with lines up to a half-mile long just to get to the entrance to the track, and at one point the line was a half mile long just to get off the track! The amount of foot traffic in the parking lot reminded me of a pro race weekend at a race track, as people were there not only to drive, but to spectate. They lined up against the fence at key viewing areas all around the track. Fortunately, unlike prior days that week where you had to exit the track to go through the turnstiles, the organizers added turnstiles on the straight abeam the touristfahren, so if you wanted to go right back out, all you had to do was go through one of those. Unfortunately, during one of my laps I saw a Nissan 370Z crunched pretty good at Breidscheid, with fluids on the track and marshals waving flags; the track activity was stopped for about an hour-and-a-half to do clean up. Remember that comment above about track damage/expense? Poor sod, ’cause the track was PACKED that day. It took about a half an hour just to recover all the cars off the track, so I took the opportunity to fill up the Suzuki to hand to my buddy and snag the Clio. After I’d had a quick nap, the track re-opened and I got four laps in the Clio. I was not impressed with that car, I much preferred the Suzuki, as did my buddy. My ‘Ring card — the second one — was empty; instead of buying one more lap, I thought it best just to call it a week and leave “the last ski run” in the car. Besides, after more than 30 laps that week (both driving and riding), I’d had a pretty good fill…I was sated.

The timing worked out great, as it gave me just enough time to fill up the car, get it back to Rent-RaceCar, grab the Z4, and meet the group to drive over to Barweiler for a tour of Team Frikadelli’s race shop. Holy moly that’s a nice shop! Big clean showroom and lobby, huge work area with in-ground lifts, a dyno, a wash rack with another lift, and a setup platen. Serious jealousy! It was nice to see Sabine again. She even took us to her farm to meet her pigs and horses! And, what do you imagine is the renowned Nürburgring Queen’s favorite vehicle? Did you say Porsche? Maybe some other exotica? Nope. Sabine Schmitz’s favorite vehicle is…her John Deere 6300 tractor, which she showed off quite proudly!

But, all good things must come to an end, and Sunday afternoon we were on the autobahn headed back to Frankfurt (223 kph max, if you must know; not bad for a stock 2.5L six). We returned the rental cars back to the airport (just how bad was that small scratch?) and the group stayed that night at Nh Frankfurt-Rhein-Main. We had one last group dinner at Corner Steakhouse Zur Ziegelhütte (very good Argentine steak!) and one last series of fresh Germans pils in the hotel bar before saying our good-byes and eventually retiring. Monday was the ultimate in anti-climax, as the Return to Reality began with a shuttle ride to the airport for the long commercial flight home but, fortunately, with a bit more seating space than the flight over.

But, in the end it was really nice to be home to my wife and my shepherd!

Some thoughts:

  • Trust me, spend the extra money on a good seat on a good flight, with plenty of space. You’re going to be in that aluminum tube for 9 hours, and it’s very likely your trip to Europe will be overnight. Give yourself the space you need to sleep, as it’ll make a big difference on your enjoyment of the first day.
  • Be prepared for a lot of discourteous drivers on the autobahn, pulling into the fast lane at random times, with no thought to how fast someone was coming up on them, and causing passing drivers to really have to hit the binders hard. Very American, very “all about me.” One time that happened to me so fast I was forced to pull out and pass them on the right, which is extremely illegal (and pissed off that driver royally, resulting in many hand gestures). I’d heard rumors that the Green Party is making a concerted effort at “uncivil obedience” and intentionally blocking traffic; I don’t know if that was the case, or if these people are just suicidal. Regardless, that renowned German autobahn lane courtesy seems to be quickly fading; it’s much, much worse than just two years ago when I was here last…
  • On the other hand, I found drivers in the cities to be very courteous, allowing you into lanes when needed. All it took was a quick signal and the slot opened up.
  • You may hate the coins, but carry it often; every place you go, including rest stops on the autobahn, use pay toilets (identified with a square blue sign with the letters “WC”). The one at the touristfahren was €0.50 each time. In the ‘Ring’s case it was not mechanically governed — the attendant left a plate and was not always there — but the rest stops and other public areas are coin-operated. On the plus side, you can always count on finding a public “WC,” and you can count on it being spotlessly clean.
  • My advice is to skimp on the street rental car and spend the money to rent a “prepped” track car from one of the local businesses. As I noted several times above, those prepped cars are a hoot to drive and you don’t have to worry about wearing out, or wadding up, your vacation transportation. There are tons of nice diesel economy cars that you can rent at the airport (I’d go for the Golf TDi), any of which are fully capable of 125 mph on the autobahn. With fuel over $8/gallon there (as of April 2011) you’re better off saving that money for the track. The track is why you’re going there, right…? Don’t get me wrong, I really loved driving that BMW Z4 — what a sweet car! — but in hindsight I don’t think it was worth twice as many euros to rent and twice as many euros to fuel (both multiplied by 1.45+ to get to dollars). Just don’t wreck the track car!
  • You can expect near-anarchy on the track when you go there. Despite the rumors to the contrary, Germans don’t inherit some kind of “magic driving skills gene” when they get their license. The disparity of driving skills, as well as disparity of vehicles, you’re going to see on the ‘Ring is pretty intense. Now, I’d suggest they’re better drivers than if a track in California was open to the public, they’re paying a lot more attention, but don’t expect everyone to be the next super racing driver.
  • I’ve been lucky, in that both times I visited the ‘Ring (first was in January ’09 when I rode for two laps and drove one), the weather was great and the track was clear of snow and ice. With the exception of this last Sunday, the track was also not very busy. However, if that Sunday experience is any indication of what the track is like during nice, sunny summer months, you better leave plenty of time if you go then. I heard rumors of cars lined up all the way back to the gas station on nice days, all trying to get on the track. That’s about a mile or more backup…at a stop-and-go pace. If you’re there during busy times, ensure your card has plenty of laps so you can just stay on the track without exiting. Once your card is empty, there are no sales on the track and you’ll have to park then work your way back on the track.
  • Same as above, plan well ahead for your visit and plan in some flex on the dates! The track schedule varies, but they’re developing a reputation for cancelling touristfahren dates with no notice, for things such as someone renting the whole shebang. However, they have agreed to not change the schedule within two weeks of any date, so if you’re planning flights and hotels give yourself a few days either way in case they do close the track on your scheduled date. On the other hand, for dates when the track is listed closed, they do sometimes open it at the end of the day for a couple hours (this happened a couple of times during the week we were there). If you’re in the area anyway, go by and check it out.
  • Did you know there are track cameras so you can watch the traffic levels?
  • Excellent resources:
    Bridge to Gantry, a Lapper Site
    Nürburgring Official Web Site
    Nürburgring for Dummies
    Ben Lovejoy’s Nurburgring Nordschleife Website
  • Even if you don’t stay there, stop by and have a few drinks in the Cockpit Bar in the Dorint Hotel. The barkeeps there are a hoot, the beer is great (as expected). And if you happen to see a gentleman sitting at the far end of the bar with a white glove on, that’s very likely Joseph Moré, the Dorint general manager (“I am not a director, I’m hosting,” he says). He’s a very interesting fellow, you’ll see his face next to very recognizable racing celebrities in photos all over the place, and a pleasure to spend an evening with. And the white glove? That’s for drinking Eifelgeist, a schnapps-like liquor. If Mr. Moré offers you a white glove, accept it with a smile, it’s an experience.
  • The “Ringwerks.” I can go on about this for days, but in my view the new management of that track is a scam, or seriously deluded. There are several things that make me think this:
    • The new “Ringwerks” facility (a.k.a. “NüroDisney”), that stainless steel-and-glass monstrosity with a roller coaster going right through the middle of it, is a true architectural work of art. It’s gorgeous. It’s also virtually empty. When we walked through there it was a ghost town, with many shops empty, and few people. Sure, it was a Friday, but do they really expect to make all of their revenue on just a few weekends? And how are they going to fill that shop space in the meantime?
    • With each purchase of a ‘Ring lapping ticket comes a credit on the card for “ringwerks” use (for example, my 25-lap card had a €30 “ring credit”). Problem is, almost no one accepted it. Not the Ring Shop, nor the official gift shop. Not the burger joint at the touristfahren. No vendors in the Ringwerks. Does the museum? Don’t know, didn’t have time to go there. The only place we could find that would accept that credit was a small restaurant across the street from the Ringwerks facility, the one that offers “a meter of sausage”. (How much is a meter of sausage, you may ask? Well, sir, it’s a meter long.) So you walk away thinking that you’re buying something of value, when you’re not.
    • And that burger joint at the touristfahren? You can’t use cash. And, as noted above, you can’t use the ringwerks credit. No, what you have to do is walk outside of the joint to a guy at a cash register, give him cash — at this point you have no idea how much it’s going to cost — and have him give you a card in exchange. Then you take that card back inside, only about 10 feet away, and hand it to the folks behind the food counter. Of course, since you don’t know the total, you’re going to leave cash on that card, and of course it’s non-refundable. As a result, count on your food costing as much as 10% more than advertised, assuming you did some basic calculation. And that $10 burger and fries? As Dave Coleman noted, probably the single worst hamburger I’ve ever had. Trust me, skip this place, drive out to the gas station for a sandwich, it’s only a couple miles and far more worth it.
    • Hory clap this is an awesome race track! I’ve raced many tracks here in the USA, and if you think about it you’ll find some aspect of each track in the Nordschleife circuit. Fuchsröhre reminds me of the old Road Atlanta Dip; Brünnchen reminds me of Moss Corner at Mosport; Klostertal reminds me of the gut check you get on any flat corner that you’re not really sure should be flat, like the Chute at Summit, and so on. Imagine the best corners of all race tracks, all put together in one 21km lap. Yeah, I want to race here. Someday, somehow.
    • Some links for more information:
    • Another really good synopsis of driving the Nürburgring was written by a really good writer, Dave Coleman, about his trip in September 2010. He gives you a lot of tips, tricks, and how-to’s, all of which I found valuable for my own trip. Take some time to read that; he’s got some great advice, and it’s entertaining.

Bottom line: this new, large, corporate facility extravagantly displays either the management’s total corruption of the public good of that facility, and/or their utter and complete lack of understanding of why the Nürburgring is “The Nürburgring.” “The Nürburgring” is not what’s happening there at the Ringwerk or along the front straight of the F1 course. It’s not manufacturers sending their cars there for marketing purposes. It’s not the shops, it’s not the roller coaster, it’s not the suites, it’s not the casino. All of this is a nothing but a symptom of what “The Nürburgring” actually is. What this “management” fails to comprehend is that “The Nürburgring” is actually the Nordschleife, all that stuff that’s happening halfway down the Döttinger Höhe straight; it’s what’s happening at that gas station around the corner. It’s about the two German guys in the VW van with the pounding techno, small restaurants in Adenau and Nürburg, and all the other businesses in the area catering to ‘Ring lappers, like Theo and Heide of Rent-RaceCar, Rent4Ring, and RSR Nürburg (the latter having actually been banned from the ‘Ring for a short time for specious reasons).

“The Nürburgring” is about you and me being able to accept the risk and personable responsibility of taking our cars — our street cars — and driving “The Green Hell,” the world’s most-famous race track that has humbled and outright killed many a brave person. And we can do it with a baby strapped into the seat next to us with a scooter tied down in the back of the pickup truck. Or we can do it with a bunch of guys piled into a BMW, all while recording the experience of a lifetime on an iPhone.

Strangle that and you’ll go broke. Find a way to bottle it and you’ll be a brazillionaire…

Regardless, I consider this to have been a trip of a lifetime. Yes, without a doubt, I’ll go back again, but the shadowy mystique that is “The Nürburgring” has, in a way, been uncloaked. I’ve faced the beast so it’s no longer that mysterious unknown, that bump in the night. And yet, no sane person can claim to have mastered it (well, maybe Sabine) so there’s certainly still a lot of ground to explore. There’s always that place in your heart for the first time…and it will always be “The Nürburgring.”