I have officially experienced super-envy. My buddy Andy called my a few weeks ago to tell me he was popping over to Germany on a whim to drive the Nürburgring. Worst part? He did it for less than two week’s pay. Here is his story.
Any true gearhead long dreams of the day when you approach the starting line, put your lap ticket into the machine, and watch that yellow gate lift, ushering you onto the Nürburgring Nordschleife. Heck, while you’re dreaming, you’re also in the black V12 Vanquish from Gran Turismo 4 and will no doubt use some of the armco to bounce your way towards a perfect 5:30ish lap. After all, although a lap around the ‘Ring is on all of our Bucket Lists, do average people ever get the chance to make it happen? As it turns out, they do, and for not as much as you think. [cue unnecessary Top Gear cut sequence involving a random flash of color, a 20″ wheel, and many whooshing sounds]
I believe it was a Thursday, and I opened up my email to find a special NetSAAver deal on international flights. Out of sheer luck, I followed the link to find a flight from Dallas to Frankfurt, Germany for only $380 after all taxes and fees. I had some vacation days available, so I booked the flight to leave the following Wednesday. I immediately jumped onto Google Maps and checked how far Nürburg was from Frankfurt. Much to my delight, it’s only about 2 hours by Autobahn (the village of Nürburg is in northwest Germany, between Frankfurt and Cologne), so I made plans for my Ring experience. There are really 3 steps that one needs to take for a successful Ring experience, and what follows are a few of the lessons I learned along the way.
The first thing you need to do is check the Official Schedule at the Nürburgring Website (http://www.nuerburgring.de/events.10.0.html) to see when they are holding the Touristenfahrten drives. This is when the track opens for public use, mostly weekday evenings and Sundays. Be sure to give yourself a few days around the Ring, as the weather can frequently close the track (some say you go through 2-3 seasons each lap, which you’ll believe once you’ve been round). No trip prep is complete without a visit to Ben Lovejoy’s excellent Nürburgring site, www.nurburgring.org.uk. He’s done a fine job preparing his site to answer just about any questions a first-timer may have, and his site covers the Ring in much more detail than I ever could here. There are plenty of places to stay in and around the Ring (you’ll find that the Ring actually goes around the entire village of Nürburg). For my trip, I chose to stay at the delightful Hotel An Der Nordschleife in Adenau. The road into it is one of the best driving roads you’ll see anywhere, the facilities are top notch (they have garages available if you need to make any last minute adjustments) and it sits literally yards away from the Adenau entrance to the Ring. I was there for one night and paid €90 for the room, which was extremely fair for the quality and hospitality of the hotel, not to mention the view of the Ring from my room.
After my plans were made, I immediately followed the lead of many professional drivers and immediately fired up Gran Turismo 4 on my trusty Playstation 2. This is the absolute best way to learn the track at “speed” and will help you learn the turns and bends. Keep in mind that nothing can actually prepare you for the experience of pulling G’s and almost driving off the track (not to mention that in GT4 you’ll start a little later on the track than you do in real life), but at least this way you’ll know which turns are coming and when, which is critical! For the flight over the pond, I downloaded the BMW Guide to the Nurburgring to my iPhone for some in-depth analysis on each turn, the proper line, and even braking points.
At this juncture, many of you will ask what I drove. Since I was also visiting other places on my journey (Hallstatt, Austria is one of the most beautiful places on earth and I’d highly recommend it if you’re ever in that area), I already had money invested in renting a car, which turned out to be a delightful little Mercedes A-Class which was entirely adequate for the Autobahn and wholly insufficient/dangerous for the Nürburgring. The great thing about the Ring is there are many cars for hire in the areas in and around Nürburg, for as little as €199 for a half day (around $250). While it may seem like a lot of money, it costs quite a bit to get these cars race-ready (with roll cages, different suspension set-ups, race seats, etc.) and the insurance costs toe the line between ridiculous and absurd. My rental car cost me around €200 for the week I was there, so I took the risk (and got blacklisted from Thrifty/Alamo Rentacar as a result, insurance companies don’t take kindly to their cars being driven on the Ring) and just drove the rental, which was still incredible.
3. Race Day
I arrived early on Sunday morning to a packed car park, yet found plenty of parking nearby and a bunch of friendly petrolheads prepping for the day. I walked over to the ticket office and purchased a 4-lap ticket (given to me on a neat Nürburgring Card) for about €75. What astonished me about raceday was just how little infrastructure there is around the Nordschleife entrance. It’s literally the ticket office, the Ring Taxi office, an American-style diner, and that’s it. [That’s all going to change soon, as there are museums, amusement parks, and all sorts of other restaurants in the works, so hurry up and go if you want to experience the Ring in all its spartan glory.] Walking around the various parking areas is like the best auto show in the world because every car you see is there to be pushed to the limit, so it’s not a bunch of fake carbon fiber or huge chrome implements with double-sided tape on the back, but race tuned GT3RSs parked next to F430 Scuderias down the row from an R8. It really is car heaven. You’ll see groups of people talking, and feel free to walk up and strike a conversation with the owners of these cars. Who knows, you may end up with an offer to take you round the Ring as a passenger!
I immediately walked over to the Ring Taxi office to see if there were any openings or last minute cancellations, as Ring Taxi tickets are sold out usually a year in advance. There are many drivers for the Ring Taxis, but I got lucky and Sabine Schmitz just happened to be driving that day. The charge for a lap around the Ring in the Taxi is €480 (for the whole car, split among 3 passengers is €160/person), but I ultimately didn’t have the opportunity to do it, although I would’ve in a heartbeat.
So after traipsing around the car park and getting incredibly nervous, I finally decided it was time to bite the bullet and get my lap. I got in my car and approached the gate. Everyone typically revs their engine as they approach the gate (which is stupid if your exhaust isn’t street-legal, as they have inspectors on site to fine you if you don’t pass inspection), so I revved mine as well, eliciting laughter from the assembled crowd.
As for the lap itself, it’s terrifying! It’s almost a certainty (especially with Sabine on the track) that you will not be the fastest car on the track. Especially for your first lap, you need to keep one eye on the track and the other in your rearview mirror as some cars will be going 80-100mph faster than you. When a car approaches you, you need to turn on your right-turn indicator to let them know to pass. You’ll inevitably ruin many people’s racing lines, but it’s not your job to guess what they’re about to do. Stay as far to the right as you can and they will adjust to you. I’ll say it again: there’s nothing that can totally prepare you for the track! You’re not in a race, take it slow! It’s said you will need about 100 laps under your belt before you can take a flying lap, and whoever said so was exactly right. There are 73 turns and 1000 feet of elevation change, there are things that will take you by surprise. While you’re on the track, it’s almost hard to enjoy it, but enjoy it you will!
As for my lap time itself, I probably clocked in around 18-19 minutes on each lap. In the process, I was passed by just about every single car on the track (and I’m proud to say that Sabine drifted around me 3 times). But it’s not as much about the time as it is the experience. At least that’s what I tell people when they make fun of my lap time.
I’ll make it clear to you: drive the Nürburgring at some point in your life. It’s not as much as you think:
Airfare – $380
Transport to Nurburg – $80
Hotel – €90/night ($127)
Lap ticket – €24/lap ($33.90)
Race Rental – €199 ($281.09)
Nurburgring Souvenir shirt – Too damn expensive
…and worth every penny.