(Part 1 is here)
We woke up Thursday to an even more beautiful day than Wednesday (quite welcoming, given the winter we had in the Northeast): clear blue skies and lukewarm. The track didn’t open to us until 10:30AM, so we had a somewhat-relaxing breakfast buffet (“somewhat” given the anticipation of the day) and talked about what we were going to do. I had originally planned to drive the BMW Z4 rental on the track which is why I spent the extra money on it versus something more economical. However, the more we talked about it, the more I convinced myself that it was better to rent from one of the many companies around the area that offered prepped cars for lapping. Obviously, it would cost more but the advantages were multi-fold: first, the cars would have tires and brakes that were up to the task of “spirited” driving on the ‘Ring; second, I would not have to worry about damage to the street-rental car. Mostly though, I didn’t want to worry about explaining to the Z4′s rental company why I was returning their 300km brandy-new car with smoking tires and no brake pads… We rented cars from “Rent-RaceCar Nürburgring,” just outside the track in the town of Wiesemscheid. For 299 euros (€299), they provided a Suzuki Swift Sport for the day, a 1000kg, 130hp turbocharged hot hatch equipped with shaved DOT tires, a rollcage, race brake pads, and a loaner helmet (or you can bring your own helmet, as I did). 270km were included in the price, enough to do 12 laps of the Nordschleife (which is plenty for your first day). You’ll need to buy ‘Ring lap tickets on top of that; the track charges €470 for a 25-lap “ring card” which included €30 in “ringwerks” credits — more on that later. Your final expense, assuming no damage, is fuel; you have to return the car topped off. There’s a fuel station just outside the track (Tankstelle Döttinger Höhe, more on that later, too); fuel was about €1.50/liter as of April 2011 which is a bit more than $8/gal, and you’ll use a full tank. Alternatively, if all you’re planning to do is 12 laps, Rent-Racecar offers an inclusive package of ‘ring tix and fuel.
So, you’re wondering…how was it? What do you think…it was excellent! I started out the day with one familiarization lap in the Z4, then switched over to the Suzuki. That was one fun car!! That little bugger has a nice tight suspension, superb turn-in, nice grip, and not so much power as to get myself into too much trouble, but enough “oomph” to scare me in places. You can certainly over-drive it; on the second lap I apexed Bergwerk waaaay too early and found myself in a nice “death push,” sliding for the hard exit Aarmco. Fortunately, I had enough racing experience to slightly reduce brake pressure and unwind the steering wheel to get the front tires to bite again (both very-un-instinctive actions when you’re heading for a wall) and the car came back to me. But it served as a nice slap across the forehead and ego…yet the car was fast enough to blast by lesser-experienced drivers in faster cars. I still get a smile when I think of the Z06 Corvette driver’s eyes in the rear-view mirror as he’s wondering why he can’t shake that little rental Suzuki Swift through Hohe Acht, Wipperman, Eschbach, Brünnchen, and Pflanzgarten. Soon enough, even with breaks to ride around with other drivers, I got my 12 laps in the Suzuki and decided to call it a day, filled up, and returned the car.
What a blast. What a freakin’ blast.
Later that night during dinner at the Pistenklause, we had a treat: Dirk Werner stopped by to say “hello” and to discuss his Rolex GT experience, his 2011 Sebring 12-Hour podium finish, and his ride in the VLN series (he was there for Saturday testing). Feelin’ important! Beers soon followed and/or coincided…
Something you really notice at the touristfahren are the cars. “Lapper” cars range from the raggiest-looking vehicles all the way up to supercars. I’ve never seen so many Porsche GT3RS, GT2RS and just “regular” GT3s in one place. I think it’s standard practice if you own a supercar in Germany that you have to go to the ‘Ring. And don’t let looks fool you: there was a standard-looking Ford Escort wagon in the parking lot, which stuck out mostly because of its green color. Pop the hood though, and you’ll be surprised by a Ford Cosworth 4-banger…book/cover, all that. If you walk around, you will be amazed at the machinery.
Now about that gas station just outside the track, the Tankstelle Döttinger Höhe. Not only does this place make a killing on fuel sales to those running tourist laps at the Nordschliefe (it’s the most convenient in the area), they have one of the finest collections of die-cast models I’ve seen anywhere. About half the place is just die-casts for sale, with the other half used for ‘Ring paraphernalia (such as banners and those ‘Ring decals you’ll want for the back of your car), a small lunch counter (good sandwiches), and of course, beer. The staff is extremely cheerful and helpful. You’re going to need fuel anyway, this place is on the way, and you want to go there and see the models. You’ve been warned…
Friday dawned yet another gorgeous day…but the track was closed to touristfahren. As I recall, it was another track-sanctioned (but not official) VLN test day, but that gave us a free day. What to do? Tour the local area? Visit the castle? Watch cars from various points around the track? Sleep late? Have a beer? Discussing this over breakfast, someone noted that the Circuit de Spa Franchorchamps, near Spa, Belgium, was only about an hour-and-a-half drive away and would I be interested in driving up there to check it out? Heck yeah I would! So my roomie and I jumped in the BMW Z4 and headed for Belgium. Most of the drive was on two-lane roads through small towns and was quite a nice drive. That part of Germany is so picturesque. Interesting, the drive across the border to Belgium was a non-event: the autobahn had a pair of abandoned turnoffs on each side of the road, looking like empty rest/parking stops. I guess with the European Union there’s no border checks…too bad, as I was kinda hoping to get my passport stamped in Belgium.
Anyway, it wasn’t too long before we saw signs for the track. As we rolled up to it, “security” was a bored-looking guy manning a small kiosk. He waved us right on in, no muss, no fuss. I was told earlier that if it looked like a drivable road or trail at the track, you were free to drive on it. We followed both asphalt and dirt roads all around the track to scope it out. There was a lapping event going on (Nissan GTRs were everywhere), thus a limited number of corner marshals at the stations, who simply waved — or completely ignored us — as we drove along the trails surrounding the track. Photos and television absolutely cannot convey the extent and beauty of this place, let alone the vast elevation changes. At one point, we were at Rivage/Bruxelles looking toward the paddock area toward La Source, past Pouhon, and I swear we were looking into a mountain valley a couple of hundred feet down…and, of course, while Eau Rouge looks steep on TV you can’t comprehend how much until you see that climb in person…
We spent an hour around the track then worked our way into the paddock, where we walked right up to the main straight fence, without challenge, and watched for a bit. I was almost brave enough to pull onto the track with the Z4 and see what would happen… We heard that the track was to be open to the public the following Monday, and I was really tempted to go, but I’d already made plans to travel home that day. Why scratch off all the Bucket List items on one trip? I’ll be back, don’cha worry, and this track will get checked off soon enough. Around then, we got a text from our buddies that the Nürburgring would be open at the end of the test day, and that we would be using the “Whole Course,” incorporating the F1 circuit. So we said our good-byes to Spa the track and headed for Spa, the town.
Remember, we’re in Belgium, and what’s pretty damn good in Belgium? Yup, chocolate! A friend referred us to the “Confiserie Du Pouhon” in the middle of the town of Spa (Rue Rogier 1, 4900 Spa, Belgium), so that’s where we headed. As we arrived, we found a wonderful town, and since it was the noon hour and a beautiful day, the town was alive with people walking, talking, and eating outside. Trying to avoid looking like the clueless Americans we were, my roomie and I used the iPhone GPS function to find the small shop. We walked into the store which was crammed with sweets. Chocolate, candies of all forms, lined the counters and walls. Of course, they spoke only French so I was stammering for my request when I then discovered my roomie spoke the language! So I let him ask for boxes of mixed chocolates (“no liquor, please”!). I expected the shopkeeper to open a small cardboard box and toss in various chocolates but no, he reached for a nice printed, attractive box and carefully folded it properly. He then put on a pair of white gloves and carefully reached into the display case to pull out a sheet of chocolate, carefully arranged the chocolates into their places in the boxes, then carefully replaced that sheet back in the display case, only to carefully pull out another sheet of a different type of chocolate and arrange that into the boxes, too. This was repeated several times, as if he was working with something of significant value and rarity, until each of the four boxes, a couple pounds in each, was arranged to the top. I thought at that point our experience was over, but no — out came a woman from behind the store and she took those four boxes and again, carefully and delicately, closed the boxes, wrapped each in gift paper, and finished them off with a nice ribbon and a bow!
So then I thought that this is going to be one heck of a bill, but when he totaled it up…€40! So, about $58 for exquisite Belgium chocolate and an experience to remember (and a nice gift for my wife). What a bargain!
I also wanted to tour the area – after all, this was where the Battle of the Bulge of WWII was fought – but it was time to head back. The return ride was a mirror image of the ride over, and we were soon back at the ‘Ring touristfahren, watching people do laps. The word had gotten around that the public would run the Whole Course, so the parking lot was getting busier. I took the Z4 out for a couple laps to see the layout, and during the last lap I saw one of the rental Suzukis on a flat bed with some body damage. Turns out a member of our group was a bit fast coming out of Brünnchen and hit the Aarmco on driver’s left. He got his bell rung, but fortunately he was wearing a helmet and was released from medical with a clean bill of health. Yeah, we bought him beer that night.
One thing to note about these rentals is that they usually come with some form of limited insurance. In the case of Rent-RaceCar, it’s an “insurance excess” of €5000; in American-ese that means “deductible,” so you’re responsible for all damage to the car up to €5000 (~$7500). Note, however, that this insurance policy does not cover damage to the track itself: if you tag an Aarmco wall at the ‘Ring then the track will charge you for repairs to that guardrail. My friend was billed about €1200 by the track, and they would not let him leave the facility until he made arrangements for payment (he gave them a credit card). In addition, I’m told that if your incident causes the track activity to be stopped (in his case it did not), you will be billed by the facility for lost revenue; they’ll calculate the rate of revenue they were getting for the hour prior to your incident and then multiply that rate by the time the track was closed.
So, have I made it fairly clear that you really don’t want to wreck a car at the Nürburgring…?
That little bit of reality was enough to drag us down to Earth, and I called it “done” for the day. We had a nice dinner at “Aviano” Ristorante-Pizzeria-Bieregarten in Adenau (excellent Italian food), and then we had a nightcap at Lindehof in Nürburg, one of those small, local pub-like places where everyone looks at strangers, well, strangely… Fortunately, we knew someone there so the locals soon went back to ignoring us.