To ’Ring or Not to ’Ring

In August of 1985 I was lucky enough to take a trip to Germany. Having read about the Nurburgring in the Roundel (the magazine for the BMW Car Club of America), I was naturally interested. I tried calling BMW NA, but they didn’t have a clue about what to do or who to call. They suggested I call BMW in Munich and ask them. Being shy and really unsure about this scenario, I never called.

I kept looking at maps of Germany, but I was not successful in locating this track. I had to go into Erhard BMW to get some parts for my 635, so I asked the parts manager if he had any clue. He steered me to one of the service reps, but he wasn’t really sure. He steered me to a gentleman named Erhard, who pulled out a map and told me he thought it was near Koblenz, but he couldn’t remember exactly where. Turns out Erhard was Erhard of Erhard BMW and I was suitably impressed that the main man would take the time to talk to me. We poured over the map he had, but couldn’t find any notice of the ‘Ring.

Upon arriving in Frankfort on Wednesday morning at 9:30am (the flight from Detroit left at 7:20pm on Tuesday) I picked up my BMW 316i at the rental car counter. Somehow I managed to find my way around the airport, get deutschmarks, and after staggering around for a while, find the rental car. I managed to find my way to the Autobahn and got myself headed in the direction of Stuttgart. Since I was so utterly exhausted, I decided not to look for the Nurburgring until I returned to the airport on Friday. The 316i was a lovely shade of red, and agonizingly slow. My driving technique was to put the accelerator to the floor, wait for the engine to get close to redline, then shift to the next gear. The BMW was a nice car, but there was a niggling vibration in the front end that persisted the whole trip.

I had my meeting on Thursday with the fellows in Stuttgart and returned on Friday. Now, if you’ve figured this out, I didn’t sleep much Tuesday night on the plane, Wednesday and Thursday in Germany, then up at 6:00am Friday to drive back to Frankfort to catch an 11:30am flight. No Nurburgring. I vowed that the next time I went to Germany, I would be sure to find the famous track and do a few laps.

My chance came again in January of 1996. A trip to Cologne this time, to meet with the guys at Ford. I did my homework, found a tour book with a detailed description of where the Nurburgring was, and a phone number! If I flew into Frankfort instead of Cologne, the money I would save on the plane fare would more than cover a nice little BMW at $55 per day. And if I stayed over a Saturday night, the plane fare was cheaper again, enough to pay for an extra day of expenses in Germany. The logistics were in place once again for my assault on the ’Ring.

I arrived in Germany too bloody early once again and proceeded to the Avis counter to pick up “my” BMW. Upon seeing the sales contract, the rate was around 700.00 deutschmarks per day (roughly $450.00)! Upon informing them of the problem, they insisted that I had reserved a 7 Series with cellular phone. After arguing for several minutes, I inquired about the Mercedes C class they had advertised at $54 deutschmarks per day, plus insurance. They informed me that they did not have any left. I was furious. All my careful planning, and I’m going to get stuck with some stupid Trabant, I figured, at the price I was OKed for in my expenses. After much heated discussion, they happened to find a Mercedes C180 at a slightly higher rate, so off we went. To their credit, upon returning Avis charged me their advertised rate.

Off to Cologne, after searching for an hour for my partner’s slightly misplaced luggage. A couple of days work in Cologne, and meeting Bernhd, who luckily enough, had driven the Nurburgring himself. He helped me with getting the correct phone number and determined that there were no special events the coming Saturday and that the track would, indeed, be available. The plan was coming together. Then at last, Saturday. I woke up in the morning, excited about my the day’s impending adventure. A casual glance out the window dashed my hopes. Snow. Newly fallen, a couple of inches of white. The track would probably be closed.

After all of that careful planning…

I went anyway, dragging my partner with me. The drive was perfect and the track was, indeed, closed. I drove around the paddock area, the “public” area and visited the Rennsport Museum and spent too many deutschemarks on posters, cards and a video. Turns out the video is formatted at a different speed than American VCRs and all I get is some very interesting colored snow on the screen and German spoken very fast. At least the drive was beautiful, I found the famous ’Ring and knew where to go if I ever got the chance to go again. Since our company was doing a lot of work in Germany, I figured my odds were good.

Finally, in July of 1996, I was scheduled to go to Germany again, this time to do some engineering related training to Opel engineers in Russelsheim, just west of Frankfurt. Unfortunately, no car on the expense report this time. It was arranged for me to travel by train from Frankfurt to Russelsheim, then travel on foot from the hotel to the offices, only a few blocks away. I was scheduled for a three week trip, providing two weekends in which to launch another assault on the ’Ring. As luck would have it, my trip got shortened to two weeks, but at least there was one weekend to rent a car and try my hand once again.

Due to my heavy schedule, I did not have a car reserved ahead of time. Saturday morning dawned, and I still had to rent a car. I braved my way through the German yellow pages with the help of a kindly hotel receptionist, called several rental companies and got disconnected (Eurorent and Avis, take note) and finally got through to Hertz. The price of cars was ridiculous! I reserved a Ford Festiva at 119.00 DM per day for one day. Since our company is working on the new Festiva, I thought this would be appropriate. And since I was paying for this adventure out of my own pocket…

Plus, I figured the first two times I had a decent car and no luck at the track; why not reverse my luck and try a dinky car and make it onto the track? I took the train to Frankfurt and arrived to pick up my car at 8:00pm, only to get a great rate on a Fiat Brava at $69DM per day. I must be part Scottish – I jumped at this great offer, and off I went. Sunday morning I overslept and finally got on the road about 10:30.

Trying to follow German maps and road signs is an interesting challenge. Their road signs do not list North, South, East, West. They indicate a direction to take to take for a particular highway towards a particular city or group of cities. Heaven help you if you don’t know which cities are in the direction you’re going. And the maps list all kinds of road/highway numbers, which may not always be listed on the road signs. So a certain amount of ESP is required to get to where you’re going.

Despite the trickeries of navigation, I had a very beautiful drive north along the Rhine to Koblenz and then west to the Nurburgring. I highly recommend this trip, and suggest scheduling some time to visit some of the numerous castles and lovely little towns scattered along the way. It really is picturesque and worth creating those Kodak moments of.

The drive from Koblenz to the town of Nurburg (which is located inside the Nurburgring racetack) is quite fun. Two lanes, lots of up and down and left and right, including a couple of very tight switchbacks. I warmed to the Fiat Brava. Finally, at long last, I’m driving by the main straight of the Nurburgring. Motorcycles are flying past sounding like Formula One race cars. I hoped that there wasn’t some special school or race taking place. Of course, I neglected to bring my guidebook or any of my information about the ’Ring I acquired in January, so this trip was being made on pure luck.

Finally, the main entrance to the ’Ring. But how to get on the track? I stop in at the Rennsport Museum and inquire and a nice lady gave me directions to the track entrance. Following her advice, I arrive, rather abruptly, at the starting line in my little blue Fiat Brava as a 5-Series BMW in full race colors goes screaming into the first turn. “Wiefiel?” (How much?) I inquire. 16DM (about $11.00) per lap. “Drei.” (Three). 48DM poorer, I am the proud owner of three lap tickets. Off I go, but first I pull over to throw all the paraphenalia in the trunk. Let it bounce around back there – at least it won’t get in my way.

Into the first turn of the Nurburgring! I am really here! Okay, okay, I’m driving a Fiat Brava, but hey, learn the track in an underpowered go-kart and come back next time with a real car. Three laps. I fell in love long before lap one was complete. Long straights, fast corners, tight Esses, a couple of “Karousels.” Wow. Four wheel drifts in some of the corners, even those that are half blind, up and down hills, screaming down the straights, braking cautiously into the corners, trying to stay out of the way of the flying motorcyclists in full leathers.

Lap Two. I give the starter my ticket and he tears the corner and off I go again. I’m sure many people are chuckling to themselves about the geek in the Brava, but what the hell – it’s my adventure and I don’t care. Carrying more speed this lap, taking more advantage of my brief knowledge, apexing better, learning the painful lesson about failing to carry enough speed through the corner and not getting the right line. A faster lap speed, whooping and hollering and in general feeling that I have arrived in motorsport heaven. The long straight. The little Brava is going 150klicks. Try closing the windows, closing the sunroof, downshifting to 4th, upshifting back to 5th. 150 is as fast as this little roller skate will go (about 95mph). Into the last couple of corners, carrying the speed, downshift, hard right and I’m back at the starting line. Last lap.

The BMW is changing drivers. Driver’s school for a couple of lucky lads? I go charging off, more speed, drifting better, the tires squealing, indicating the right amount of drift without protesting. The 5-Series comes flying by. I pull aside and watch as the driver over corrects and gets sideways going into the Ess. Paying more attention to the car in front than my own racing line, I early apex and am not going to make the Ess (at least I’m carrying more speed). I bump up the curb, then notice that the inside of the Ess is flat as a pancake, so I downshift and pound the go-pedal and tear across the dirt. Down the inside curb on the other side and back on the track. I look in the mirror and notice a big cloud of dust and laugh. I hope the dozens of spectators lining the fence had a good laugh at the crazy driver in the Brava. Although the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, I don’t recommend this as the fastest or safest line.

And if one of the guys driving or riding in the 5-Series remembers the blue Fiat Brava bouncing across the landscape on Sunday, 28 July 1996, I hope you had a good chuckle. A kindred spirit was having the time of his life and hopes to come back again. And learned the lesson to stop sightseeing, even if the driver in front is taking an entertaining line through a difficult corner.

So I drove the ’Ring. A major goal I have had for many years has been realized. I will tell you this – driving the ’Ring was like falling in love again, it was that good. There are many difficult spots, off-camber downhill corners, Esses, sweepers taken at speed, that you need to be on your toes. Even in a Brava there are places where you have to pay attention or you’re in big trouble. But all that said, what a rush. The track is beautiful, well maintained, nice angled curbs on the entrance, apex and exit areas of every corner (allowing that little extra allegro). It’s fast, with several hills that help build up speed quickly. I can’t wait until the next time. The cost? 69DM for the car, 85DM for gas (it’s really expensive), 48DM for the three laps. At 1.5DM per dollar, it comes to roughly $135.00 for three laps. Expensive kicks and grins, but then, considering how expensive racing is, pretty cheap. And worth every penny. I wonder if they have a bulk rate discount?…

To ’Ring or not to ’Ring? Is there really any doubt as to the answer to this question?

Curt Larson
BMW CCA #91131

©1996, 1997, 2012 Curt Larson


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