One of the zanier aspects of living in Europe for Americans is, there are few, if any, rules when it comes to risking your neck.
In Germany, where mowing your grass on Sunday can get you hauled into court, you can drive as fast as you like – and are able – on sections of the Autobahn.
If that’s not thrill enough, there’s Nürburgring, the greatest road trip ever for expats in Europe on two levels. Getting there is one of Europe’s premium road trips. Survive Nürburgring and you can look forward to a lovely drive home. But not everyone does. (Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson observed in 2004 that “over the years this track has claimed over 200 lives.” Well, that total’s a lot higher today.)
Nürburgring started out as just a collection of German back roads winding through forests and hills that were used as an ad hoc race track in the 1920s. That turned out to be so dangerous even the Germans were appalled. Rejiggered, Nürburgring. opened in 1927 as both a formal racing circuit – a really, really long race track – and as a place where anyone can go for the ultimate Walter Mitty experience.
Untrained drivers blasting around an insanely long, treacherous and demanding road course on adrenaline highs is an American liability lawyer’s worst nightmare. After all, “died at Nürburgring” is the final line in a lot of famous racers’ biographies.
As cars got faster, the Nordschleife course at Nürburgring became famous/infamous as the track that killed, or tried to kill, the greatest drivers in the world including Formula One legend Niki Lauda, who had a near-fatal crash there in 1976. The most famous names in auto racing, from Fangio to Andretti, came to the Nürburgring — with a certain amount of dread. It was so long, so beautiful and so dangerous the great Jackie Stewart dubbed it the “green hell.”
The FIA decided after Lauda’s crash the long track was too dangerous for Formula 1 and added a much shorter GP track. But you can still drive the original 23-kilometer course. It’s the only place in the world where you can just pull up in your car — any street-legal car that will do more than 60 kilometers per hour — fork over about 29 euros per lap, then blast around one of the most historic (and dangerous) auto racing venues on the planet.
People come from all over the world to do just that. In 2006, I met British attorney Vaughn Fullagar and his friend Gillian Marshall. Vaughn and Gillian invited me to choose between his 1960s vintage A.C. Cobra, worth roughly five times my annual salary, or his slightly less valuable Lotus 7 roadster for a dash around the Nürburgring racetrack.
“And he also brought his motorcycles,” Marshall said.
I was stunned.
“Vaughn,” I said, “you lend your cars to people to drive around a racetrack?” “You only have one life, Terry,” he replied.“You’ve wasted it if you can’t bring a little happiness to others.” I swear to God, I could not make this up.
Nürburgring is like that. There’s something about roaring down Nürburgring’s straights, then through its 100 or so turns, that seems to put people in absurdly good moods. Near rapture, I’d say. Every driver and motorcyclist coming off the track is all smiles, even stoic Germans.
If you like cars and speed, Nürburgring is Valhalla. Everywhere you look, there are not just cars, but millions and millions of dollars worth of Ferraris, Porsches, BMWs and McLarens, as well as the world’s most exotic superbikes such as BMWs, Aprilias and Ducatis. (And more than a few family cars and beaters, but hey … that’s what makes it interesing.)
Top Gear just reported that German supercar manufacturer Koenigsegg was testing its latest 1,350 horsepower car at Nürburgring earlier this week to see if the $1 million-plus rocket reaches its projected 270 mph top speed on the way to setting a lap record. There are countless stories and videos about the track … and a whole sub-genre featuring crashes. It is, essentially, a super highway with crazy people of driving way beyond their actual abilities.
Full disclosure: In 2006, my editors at European Stars & Stripes sent me to drive the track. I stood there taking it all in thinking, “What the hell am I doing?” I’d just survived four years of civil wars in the Balkans, and full-blown wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ambushes in the Korengal Valley with U.S. Special Forces. Mortar attacks, small arms and IEDs in Baghdad and a series of arrests in Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey. I had raging PTSD, and I’d used up every ounce of my luck. So I didn’t take Vaughn’s incredibly generous offer.
Nine years later, I’m going back … and this time, I’m going all the way, baby!
Getting there: Where ever you live in Europe, going to Nürburgring is one of the legendary road trips. The track sits amid the hills and forests of the Eifel area west of Frankfurt and in between Koblenz and Bonn.
It’s one of the most scenic drives in Germany no matter which route you take. But the track’s remote location makes getting there a challenge. From the Kaiserslautern/Ramstein/Baumholder area, take Autobahn 62 toward Trier, then follow the signs for Autobahn 48 toward Koblenz. At the Ulmen exit, follow B-259 toward Kelberg, then follow the signs to Nürburg. Once you get to the main track area, ask for directions to the touristenfahrten area, which is toward Adenau.
From Frankfurt, take Autobahn 61 to Koblenz, then look for signs to Mayen. From Mayen, there are signs to Nürburgring. Coming out of Dottlingen, the last town before Nürburg, you’ll drive about one kilometer (less than a mile) before you see a yellow sign on your right that reads “Adenau, 6 KM.” Turn there, go under the viaduct, then take the next left and drive 1.5 kilometers. That will put you right in the traffic circle for the touristenfahrten entrance.
Times: Public track sessions typically are from 10 a.m.. to 7:30 p.m.
But there are often events and races that close the track, so consult the track Web site.
Cost: Drivers buy lap tickets at vending machines. The more you buy, the cheaper the cost per lap, which is the same for cars and motorcycles.
Your Prices 2016:
- 1 lap Nordschleife or 1 Turn á 15 min GP track: 29 euros
- 4 laps Nordschleife or 4 turns per 15 min GP track: 105 euros
- 9 laps Nordschleife or 9 turns per 15 min GP track: 220, euros
- 25 laps Nordschleife or 25 turns per 15 min GP track: 550 euros
Here are all your options, from single laps to a season pass for 1,900 euros. Also, you can pay to ride with professional drivers, which might be your best bet.
Food: There’s a cafe at the touristenfahrten compound, and the food and drink are reasonable. There is a variety of restaurants in the towns around Nürburgring, including Nürburg. The best variety of restaurants is in Kelberg, about 10 kilometers down B-259.
Where to stay:
There are several pensions and gastehauses near the track. There are at least two affordable hotels, the Dorint am Nürburgring and the Linder Congress.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.