One-on-one with the fabled Nürburgring

Our ride for the day was a bright, race-prepped BMW M3.
Our ride for the day was a bright, race-prepped BMW M3.

By Dave S. Clark

Catholics have the Vatican. Baseball fans have Yankee Stadium. Racing fans have the Nürburgring. This is the story of my first trip to the Holy Land.

 Every car enthusiast knows why this track is the pinnacle course — its countless corners, its deep hills and valleys, its narrow pavement and its overall difficulty. But the best thing about the greatest auto racing track ever built is that you can experience it for yourself, if you are brave enough.

I don’t know if I was really brave enough to race it myself, but I managed to convince myself to do it, telling myself it was likely a once in a lifetime experience. My wife Karlie and I had planned on traveling to Germany and with only a little bit of prodding, I convinced my friend Aaron, who had been to the ‘Ring twice before, to take another trip there and rent a full-out race-prepped car.

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Aaron had been to the Nürburgring the summer before. He and his then-fiancée traveled to Germany to get married and hit up the track just a few days after getting hitched. Unfortunately for him, the only car available to him was large Audi sedan that they had used in the wedding, so I knew he was dying to go back and get on the track with a car a little more capable.

We rented the car through Dino who runs The Nürburgring Experience who acts as an agent for many of the car rental outfits at the track. Our car was rented from a lady who owned several race cars, which was a good side business as, like her parents, she owned a bed and breakfast in a town called Herresbach, just a few minutes drive from Nürburg, the home of the famous track.

I booked us a black E36 BMW with a few mild upgrades to the suspension, tires and brakes. It would handle well but wouldn’t have a crazy amount of power and no big turbos that could get us in trouble. Knowing that I could handle the car definitely cut down on my anxiety and before we hit the track, I wasn’t too nervous, or at least that’s what I kept telling myself.

But that changed pretty quickly once we went to pick up the car. The black BMW was no more. It was crashed and written off by a customer just a few days earlier. That didn’t help my anxiety.

Instead, we were given a bright orange M3 that had been stripped out and fitted with a roll cage, racing seats, race harnesses and more serious suspension and brake upgrades. The only other car available to us was a Porsche 911 Turbo, but that was way too much rear-engine car for me to handle on this track.

As my anxiety heightened with each minute, Karlie asked how often the cars didn’t come back in one piece. Three cars had been crashed within the past month. That didn’t sit well with me. It also didn’t sit well with me that I’m pretty sure we were the only people to rent a car that day and for all we knew, there could have been only three cars rented in the past month.

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After we signed the papers, we were taken out to view the car that we’d be putting all our faith behind.

It was a brilliant car. The only thing I would have liked would have been to have race tires rather than Z-rated performance street tires. If we were to crash the car, we would have had to pay 15,000€ if we wrote it off or the actual damages if it wasn’t written off. So basically, don’t crash. All third party damages are covered by insurance, so if you hit a wall or another car, the cost of repairing the wall and the other car were covered, but you still have to pay for the damages to the car you rented. There is a lot of risk driving the ‘Ring, but for me, it was well worth the reward.

I had been looking forward to this day for months. It was any car lover’s dream. But before it began, I just wanted it to be over. I wanted to experience it, but I couldn’t wait for that moment that I pulled off the track for the last time and the car was in one piece and Aaron and I were both unscathed. I couldn’t wait to my first sip of authentic Kristallwiezen, my celebratory German beer of choice, knowing that we had made it around the track alive. I couldn’t wait to cheers Aaron to cap off an amazing day on the track. I couldn’t wait to know I was no longer in danger of crashing an expensive car on the Green Hell and hurting myself in the process. But before I could have any of those things, we had some driving to do.

As we take one of the first corners, Aaron gets passed by half a dozen motorcycles. I grip my seat as I watch them weave around us. I don’t want any of them to end up as one of our hood ornaments and I’m legitimately worried they might. Aaron is driving with complete confidence. He pushes the car through a downhill corner with impressive speed and pulls the car into the straightway almost effortlessly.

“I can’t do this,” I think to myself. There’s no way I can push the car on a track where I can’t remember what is coming next. Before we left Canada, I had simulated the day by racing the track in an M3 on Gran Turismo for countless hours. I had hoped it would prepare me for the day and it actually did. I remembered three corners where, in the video game, I would often lose control, spin out, torpedo myself into the grass and slam into several walls. I knew if I made the same subtle mistakes that I made on the game to cause those furious crashes, I wouldn’t come out alive. As I watched more bikes narrowly pass Aaron and him passing a few back, I became acutely aware that there was almost no margin for error. Unlike autocross, which is the only type of spirited track driving I had done before, the stakes were a lot higher. I wasn’t in danger of just hitting an orange rubber cone and having it bounce of the course — or even worse, dragging it under my car for a few metres. If autocross was equivalent to playing rock, paper, scissors with a friend, driving the Nürburgring was playing Russian Roulette with a complete stranger.

I tried to silence the voice in my head that was telling me not to do this, but it was hard to shut it up. Several people die on this track every year and a lot of them are likely a lot more skilled and experienced than I was. Since the track opened in 1927, more than 60 professional drivers have died and I have no idea how many amateurs like my self made the ultimate racing sacrifice at this institution. All I knew was I didn’t want to add myself to any list of fatalities.

Aaron dove the car into the Carousel, a notably dangerous corner, and although I knew he was probably nervous, it wasn’t fazing him as tremors shook the car on the choppy pavement of the banked corner.

He continued to push the car to his limits and as we pulled on to the final straight, my right foot was already tired from slamming on the imaginary brakes. Being a passenger was one of the most intense things I had done and now it was my turn to be in control.

When most people want thrills, they get on a rollercoaster and in many ways, this wasn’t much different. You’re strapped into a seat going extremely fast through varying dips and bends. But on the Nürburgring, there are no rails for this rollercoaster and you’re in control of it. If that isn’t thrilling enough, you’re also getting passed and having to pass dozens of other rollercoasters.

I plopped myself down in the fixed back Recaro bucket seat and strapped myself in with the six-point harness. I was planted in the seat pretty firmly and I was wrapped in a sturdy looking roll cage. The car was safe.

My head wasn’t really all that safe, as I wasn’t wearing a helmet. At the autocrosses back home, helmets were mandatory, even at such comparatively low speeds. Here, with my noggin inches from the roll cage, my head was unprotected.

As I pulled up to the gate, my nerves were getting the best of me. Even though my knuckles were white from gripping the wheel as tightly as humanly possible, my hands were still shaking.

It’s an amazing feeling to be able to push a car to its limits without fear of getting pulled over and thrown in jail or hitting a wayward pedestrian.  It’s a freedom I can’t really express and must be experienced in a controlled environment. Although this was a controlled environment, it was a damn frightening one.

As I carved through the winding corners, hills and dips, I tried to get a rhythm. But every time I thought I was on a good line and making good time, I got passed. It didn’t really hurt my ego too much. If you’re driving a Ferarri 430 Scuderia, you probably know how to race. If you’re willing to drive a car that is worth twice as much as my house on the most dangerous race track in the world, you’re probably a fairly talented driver — talented enough for me to let you pass me.

I did alright. I had a bit of a scare when I crossed the track to prepare for an upcoming corner when a much faster Porsche GT3 decided to pick the same entry as I did. Luckily there was no contact, although our mirrors almost kissed each other. I missed a few shifts and messed up more heel-toes than I got right, but I wasn’t worried about that. I made it around and had an unbelievable rush doing it.

For the next lap, Karlie was my passenger and her nervousness about flying around the track with me at the wheel was pretty apparent. As a driver and a relatively inexperienced one at that, considering the circumstances, I don’t think having a stressed wife as my co-pilot was the ideal situation. When she’s nervous, I pick up on it. Fortunately, my first lap had given me a bit of confidence, so her anxiety really just balanced me out. She was actually a great passenger. She didn’t say a word and I’m not sure if that was out of fear or because she didn’t want to distract me (she claims the latter), but the second lap went great as well, despite a little scare at the Flugpatz corner, which means ‘airport’ in English. While I’m not sure if I caught air, I did get all four wheels feeling a little lighter than they should have. It was one of those moments where you feel just slightly out of control and you know your reaction is incredibly important to staying alive. Some may describe it as your heart skipping a beat. I assume that’s the feeling that thrill seekers are always truly seeking. I can’t say I loved it or would want to replicate it, however.

After a few more laps, it was finally time to call it a day. As I unbuckled the harness and lifted myself out of the car after the last lap, I did have that feeling of relief I expected, but it was being overpowered by my urge to go back out and take another lap. Just as I had started to get comfortable with the car and the track, the day had come to an end.

The one thing I decided after that day was that I needed to do more racing, and not the autocross kind. I was definitely hooked now.

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