When I think of the Nürburgring, the first thing that comes to mind – before green hills and the undulating circuit, ahead of track graffiti, and sooner than a frothy Bitburger – is the wailing induction noise from four-cylinder ’80s touring cars.
If you make the annual pilgrimage to the Eifel region in Germany on Ascension Day weekend in May (or sometimes just after Corpus Christi in June) you can still, to this day, listen to the scream of inlet trumpets echoing around the Nordschleife.
It’s not some sort of mythical ghost you can still hear; it’s no audible mirage. You really will find E30 BMW M3s, Mercedes 190E Cosworths and Opel Kadett GTEs shouting through the forest on the Saturday morning. They’re joined by all of your favourite racing cars from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, too: Alfa 75s, Volvo 850R Estates, tons of Porsches, Ford Escorts, Renault 5 Turbos, BMW 2002s.
All of these squirming, yelping, sliding youngtimers will have you calculating whether you’ll ever be able to afford your own classic race car. And you can. Probably. Just a very small version. Around the Nürburgring on this special weekend, there are plenty of stalls and shops catering for all those desires.
Most famous is the store at the Döttinger Höhe fuel station. There, you can find a model of any car that’s ever raced at the Nürburgring and more. So almost any race or rally car you can think of. You can spend hours peering into the perspex boxes, dazzled by the range and deliberating which one you want to buy. You’ll spend so long that, after the shop assistant has retrieved your chosen model for you and you’ve heard that the price is 10 times what you think is reasonable, you’ll feel too guilty to back out. No, you’ll politely pay the money while wincing internally. You’ll convince yourself that the price is absolutely justifiable; it’s a memory-filled momento from your Nürburgring trip that’s worth every one of the many Euros it cost. And you won’t be wrong.
You won’t just find races, classic touring cars or otherwise, hosted at the Green Hell. But, traditional motorsport is king around here. Racing in laps at high speed is, pretty much, what people care about most within the confines of the North Loop. ‘Bridge to Gantry’ times are second.
You might, then, expect a degree of snobbery when it comes to drifting, the cheeky young upstart in the world of motorsport. There’s definitely an air of trepidation when the drift demonstration commences. But once the atmosphere is filled with the sweet smell of burning rubber, the bassy rumbles of V8s and the chirps and whistles of heavily turbocharged straight-sixes, even staunch traditionalists stand up and start whelping when the twin drifts start.
This is how the crowds get their vitality. It’s as if, rather than the sun and water, it’s petrol that sustains these beings. And the more noise that’s made from it exploding, the greater the energy the tribe has. Nothing buoys up the crowd like one a screaming flat-six trying to tear holes in the eardrums of everyone within a mile radius.
Like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, fuel is vitally important here. Rather than being scarce, however, it’s abundant but no less precious and many human social traits, like hygiene and comfort, are ignored to focus on the wonders that burning petrol can produce.
As a result, the campsites are a scene of depravity. There are none of the Mad Max-style bondage outfits. Not actually on any human bodies, some poor unfortunate, and downright terrifying, stuffed bears don’t get away so lightly. But there’s everything else you’d expect of a rudimentary society.
The encampments that surround the track are dirty, a bit naughty, and sort of primal. It sparks something deep within you, a primitive reaction and you feel an urge to join them. You want to tear off your top, grow a tattoo of Olaf Manthey, or some other legendary moustachioed race driver, on your calf and settle into a hastily made hot tub warmed by a fire of stollen fence posts, pallets, beer boxes and shoes.
As the sun sets, the attitude in the camps change. The laidback dystopian commune vibe, the filthy living-like-exiles aesthetic shifts. The lack of light hides the muck and it becomes a more traditional party atmosphere. Only, there’s not just music trying to deafen you. There’s appropriate lighting thanks to laser light displays, flashing disco orbs and neon-bright signs of the most dedicated settlements. Plus, sections of the landscape are briefly lit by the flashes of bright white from fast passing cars.
Some of the camps take partying extremely seriously. I don’t know how you attend or get access to such gatherings, but I wouldn’t recommend you turn up brandishing a camera and wearing a media tabard. If you do, the biggest, most hefty looking party goers will tell you to leave, quite forcefully. They will escort you away from the camp and follow you in their pick-up with all of their light bars shining at you until you’ve reached what they consider a safe distance away. Or at least, that’s my experience.
There’s a chance that the Nürburgring is as much for the sausage enthusiast as the car fan. Innuendo definitely implied. No meal is served without the option of at least one sausage. Breakfast sausages, currywurst, hot dogs. Spectators come prepared and can often produce a sausage from their rucksacks to slap on a piece of bread or eat straight from their fists.
Then, as the day goes on, the beer starts to take effect, not just on the bladders of many fans, but also on their inhibitions. And this is mostly from a nation that has a less Anglo and more Saxon attitude to nudity, so are far less prudish. The combination means that a whole other sort of sausage often makes an appearance. Try as you might, they’re kind of difficult to avoid.
A sausage fest, then? Very much so, but not in an all-male sense. I’ve been to many events and races, some even at the Nurburgring, where women are gawped at as if they’re exotic creatures. Not in a sexual or misogynistic way. I don’t think so, anyway. They’re stared at simply because their presence is so rare and exceptional. It’s not exactly a 50-50 male and female split at this Nürburgring celebration, men do outnumber the women. Yet, even with all the sausages flying around, it’s really not an intimidating place. The imbalance doesn’t create an atmosphere that puts women off from attending, as there are plenty having just as much fun as the men. There are families around too, kids thoroughly enjoying themselves in the paddock and campsites. It’s really wonderful to see.
This is not some undiscovered corner of the world, it’s the Nürburgring at the busiest time of the year for christ’s sake, which does mean a high proportion of the roads around the track are clogged up with traffic. However, it’s worth finding some time for a drive. That is if you can tear yourself away from the parties and the endless model cars. And you’ve only been on the 0.0% Bitburger, one of the tastiest non-alcoholic lagers I’ve sampled. But honestly, I’m no beer expert so that’s a little bit like Rick Stein describing the over-the-limit characteristics of an M3. I might be wrong, but I don’t think Rick is an oversteer connoisseur so it wouldn’t carry much weight.
If you’re sober, have some spare time and a car at your disposal, then there’s driving heaven to enjoy. The Nordschleife might be where you’d expect to have the most fun, what with it being a purpose-built race track ‘n all, but journey around the circuit and you’ll find spectacular roads. Especially if you have an AC Schnitzer M3 to play with. More focussed and, not that it needed to be, more powerful than the regular car, there are times when media credentials are beneficial…
The same topography underpins the Eifel roads as the track. So there are the same dramatic changes in elevation, the same variety of tight, twisty sections and long sweeping corners. Except, the roads are smoother. Yes, you have to worry about speed limits, oncoming cars and pedestrians, you can’t treat them like a race circuit. But there’s none of the pressure that comes with being on the Ring, there’s no expectation to drive fast or the endless looking over your shoulder to get out of the way of the many faster cars pummelling around the circuit. Because, unless you’re Walter Rohl and you have a GT3 RS at your disposal, that will always be the case. On the road, your brakes won’t suffer and neither will your wallet, one lap of the Nordschleife is €25 (US$26). And who’s got the self-control to do just one lap?
It really is as everyone describes. All the motoring-nirvana, car-enthusiast’s-mecca, cathedral-to-speed phrases that get thrown around, often by me, whenever the Nürburgring is mentioned, they’re all true. You’re surrounded by all the best automotive culture, proper car people; you could have a meaningful conversation about negative camber with just about anyone you bump into. It’s heaven.
But if all that isn’t enough to occupy you on this special weekend in May, there’s always the world’s most intense, diverse, hard-fought and spectacular endurance race playing out around you for a full day: the N24.
Photos by Falken Tire & Jerome Wassenaar