Did reading Nürburgring just make you shiver? Yep, me too! I spent several days at this racetrack and thought you might find my musings interesting, maybe interesting enough so you make that jump, too (while you still can; more later). And you want to, trust me. If you’ve ever thought or even just fantasized about driving the Nürburgring,this story is for you.
I went to the Nürburgring with a group of racer friends, some were there before, one actually races there in the VLN series. Going with a group improves the social aspect which can make a big difference. Had I gone there solo, I would not have had nearly as much fun. Yeah, I would have come home knowing I had driven the Nürburgring, but who would I brag to each time I got off the track? Having friends there so we could swap lies was pretty cool…plus you get to give each other rides increasing your track time for the same money. So, don’t forget to bring a friend (or two, or more).
Visiting the Nürburgring wasn’t the only thing we did in Germany; after all, there’s German beer, right? After landing in Frankfurt Monday morning (after a hatefully uncomfortable 9-hr flight in a US Airways Airbus) and grabbing our rental cars (I got a BMW Z4 sDrive23i, 2.5L I-6 with the retractable hardtop) we hit the autobahn, bound for Stuttgart. What better way to start a German motoring enthusiasts’ trip than on the autobahn? Yeah, we opened it up a few times, but it’s funny — getting out there on the autobahn with the knowledge we “could” drive flat-out actually made us find a comfortable speed, around 130/140kph (80/85-ish mph). Plus, the autobahn isn’t just one wide-open ribbon of unrestricted highway, there are many annoying and seemingly random speed limits thrown in. But each time we saw that white round sign with three lines (depicting removal of speed restriction) we sped up but settled in around that same comfy speed. Hey, I’m not saying we didn’t step it up a few times, but after several kilometers of ‘bahn-burning’ we always seemed to settle back. And that appeared to be true for the vast majority of Germans. So much for the Chicken Little’s saying speeds would go crazy with no limit…
For driving in Germany, read “Brian’s Guide to Getting Around Germany” especially the “Road” info, to become familiar with Germany’s roads, signs, and customs, things like road signs and parking rules (you know what a “parkschein” is and how to use it, right? You’d better…)
The first thing we did after arriving at Stuttgart was enjoy a pilsener. Well, actually, we checked into the hotel, then we grabbed a pilsener or two. Maybe more, can’t remember. If you’re a fan of heavier beers (I prefer ales, darker lagers, and IPAs), you may be disappointed in German beer. But ask around, there are options if you’re not a pils fan (ask if they have a dunkel). Germany’s standard pilseners are pretty refreshing and tasty beers; they have a lot more flavor and a lot less carbonation than your garden-variety Bud or Miller here in the states (Germans don’t flatten the taste with rice and other additives). Most importantly, it’s fresh from the keg so they’re not pasteurized. I pretty much drank German pils all week and really enjoyed them. Bitburger, Warsteiner, and Kölsch were predominant in the region (every little out-of-the-way bar had the ubiquitous “Bitte ein Bit” sign), but you’d be pleasantly surprised by local pils as well. Branch out, ask them about locals, and give them a shot (no pun intended). Anyway, we spent Monday night at the Mövenpick Hotel, a classy place by the Stuttgart airport and had several beers in the bar there (including a tasty local).
Our reason for being in Stuttgart on Tuesday was the same as Kai’s a couple months ago: to visit the Porsche factory and museum. I’ll let Kai give you all the details on the museum — after all, he had “press access” – but I’ll add another exclamation on top of Kai’s response: “do it!!” It’s a fantastic museum, filled with many examples of why we’re all car people and, whether you’ll admit it or not, Porsche fans. It’s worth the drive from Frankfurt/Nürburg to go there plus you get in more autobahn driving!
However, unlike Kai, we had made prior arrangement to get a factory tour! After having our cameras and phones temporarily confiscated (sorry, no photos!), our group of 10 was led by a very personable and knowledgeable guide through almost all of the factory. Some items were off-limits due to new production. For example, we passed by an engine that looked different, plus some fender covers with the production number of the next Porsche 911 model; we were hustled along and told “those items aren’t really there”… As we were led around the production facilities (right past Werks 1, the original factory building from the mid-20th century), we got to see their JIT inventory control with robotic parts delivery vehicles, engine build facilities (a lot more robotics than I would have expected), and chassis assembly line where they were assembling Boxter Roadsters and 911s. I was impressed with the coordination of work given all the different models and options on the line, plus the efficiency of the workforce. At times it seemed that the work was far from frenetic, just well thought out and implemented, plus the place was incredibly clean, white, and bright, and workers looked quite happy. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “I wouldn’t mind doing this for a living.”
Obviously, if you can, it’s worth your time to take the factory tour. Plan well ahead though; rumor had it the tours are booked up to a year in advance.
After lunch at the museum (and with a lot of discipline at the museum store), we were back on the ‘bahn’, this time to Nürburg. More autobahn time, with decent traffic but not too much. About 2/3 of the way to Nürburg, my co-pilot/roomie happened to catch sight of an exit sign that said “Hockemheim.” Really, that Hockenheim? I needed fuel for the Z4 anyway, so we pulled over to a rest stop and asked the cashier how far to the race track; “five or six kilometers”, he said. Heck yeah, we’ve gotta stop by! Even though it was right next to the autobahn, driving there on back roads took a few minutes but as we approached the track we found the place pretty much wide open to the public and mostly empty. We couldn’t get on the track itself (nothing was going on), but the access roads to the facilities were open with bikers, joggers, and walkers using trails around it. We slowly drove to the museum area; we were too late to go in (closed in 10 minutes) but the gate to the grandstands was open, so in we went! We were able to see the main area of the stadium section and took some photos. I later tried to find a way via the GPS to get to the old unused section of track, but the GPS wasn’t helpful and the sun was going down. I see via photos on Google Earth that the old forest track has been destroyed anyway and is abandoned and being allowed to overgrow. A shame, really. Had I thought of this in advance, I could have plotted a route out to Jim Clark’s Memorial. Oh, well…maybe next time.
So, back on the road to Nürburg we went. Our destination was the Dorint Hotel, a facility right on the Nürburgring Grand Prix circuit. As the elevator doors opened on our floor, we were greeted by a Trabant in the hallway…and in the room our balcony looked over the main straight of the F1 circuit! The main tower was lit up with the Mercedes logo prominently displayed. Yeah, the place ain’t cheap, but how many times have you been woken up by a VLN series Lamborghini Gallardo doing 8:00 AM testing?!?
That Tuesday night, we had dinner at the Restaurant Pistenklause, a local establishment owned by the family of the renowned ‘Ring racer, Sabine Schmitz (and their Hotel am Tiergarten should be on your list of places to consider staying). It’s a real neat place, with the walls adorned with tons of racing memorabilia. The decor and lighting should look familiar to USA racers — it is described as “The Seneca Lodge of Nürburgring.” For the uninitiated, Seneca Lodge is a place in Watkins Glen where the racers hang out; it too, has local/historical racing-inspired racing memorabilia everywhere… More pilseners.
Wednesday morning was free, as the track was rented out for private testing. We slept in a bit late to catch up with our jet lag (8:00 AM was actually 3:00 AM “back home” on the East Coast), had a nice breakfast (the Dorint has a most excellent breakfast buffet), and wandered the area. I drove around trying to find family-requested items (resulting in many a quizzical look when I mentioned my roomie and I were scouring the area for Nivea Creme and Kirschwasser). And we got lucky in that the weather was absolutely gorgeous. It was so nice that we dropped the top on the BMW Z4 which, of course, resulted in more quizzical looks…but hey, it’s Germany; there really isn’t anything wrong with that…! We stopped by the Blaue Ecke in Adenau to get a Nürburgring map I saw when my wife and I stayed there a couple of years ago and loved it. Definitely put this place on your list of potential lodgings. We had (cheap but good!) bratwursts at a lunch counter right near the bridge where the ‘Ring crosses over the main road (at the Breidscheid corner). After lunch, we walked up the steps to the viewing area at Breidsheid to watch the cars we were hearing. The track activity was fairly light, with a few Porsches (including our friends Sabine Schmitz and Klaus Abbelen in the Team Frikadelli “Meatball” 911), the factory 911 Hybrid, a couple of race-prepped Mercedes AMG SLS, and the new Golf “35 Jahr Edition” which, unfortunately, did not run during Saturday testing.
But — finally! — the official testing was done and the track was opened to the public late afternoon; our group was champing at the bit! The group consisted of guys — racers and otherwise — who had driven the track before, others (like me) who had watched videos, and still others who used driving sims. Our tour leader had a lot of experience on the track so he gathered us for a nice pep talk. He gave us basic instructions on track entry and exit at the “touristfahren” (the location where the track laps enter and exit along the Döttinger Höhe straight), a briefing on standard track etiquette (watch your mirrors and all passing is to the driver’s left side of the car being passed) and a “don’t hit anything” speech. We split into two groups behind ‘Ring-experienced drivers for a few lead/follow laps to get our bearings straight. The first vehicle we passed was a full-sized tour bus…
Regardless of your preferred method of trying to figure out which direction the Nürburgring turns, nothing — and I mean nothing — can prepare you for the real thing. Sims and videos utterly fail to capture the dramatic elevation changes, the closeness of the Aarmco, the total lack of leeway to make mistakes, the explosion of cars — “supercars” and even econohatches! – passing you, driven by experienced pilots. The incredible sensory overload of your first lap or two on the granddaddy of this planet’s race tracks — sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, all of it is overloaded — is such that you find yourself devolving back into fight-or-flight instincts, except there’s no one to fight (except yourself) and nowhere to run…after those first few laps your head is spinning, your mind racing, and it’s all you can do to just get back into the parking lot safely, turn off the ignition, and just sit there, thinking about what just happened.
And then you’re ready to do it again.
I did the Wednesday night orientation laps — three in all, one as a passenger — in the Z4 rental car. We only had an hour and a half on the ‘Ring that afternoon, but those three laps were enough to give me something to think about and to whet the appetite for Thursday’s all-day session. After collecting everybody we retired to dinner at the Blaue Ecke restaurant so we could chatter like giddy school kids about what just happened…and drink beer, of course.
And to think this is just the first three days of our week long trip… Yes, it gets even better! Read Part II here