Friday, March 14, 2008

1 November: Our Thrilling Farewell to the Nürburgring

November 1st (All Saints’ Day) is a national holiday in Germany, and ever since our disastrous visit to the Nürburgring in October, we had been eyeing this holy day as potentially our last opportunity to return to the Ring before winter set in. (Well, disastrous might be a bit too strong, since we didn’t crash the car or anything, but it was a terribly disappointing way to end our string of otherwise-successful trips to the track, and John was determined to tally up a few more laps.) Fortunately our fearless Ringmeister Jürgen was able to get away for the day as well, so the three of us met up at the Grüne Hölle one more time on this damp, gray Thursday morning. This time Jürgen came in his old Honda hatchback with his 7-year-old son Timo in tow. Yes, Timo was going out on the Ring today! (In his car seat in the back seat with a helmet on, of course.) The first thing we noticed when we arrived was that the parking lot was about half as full as usual and there were hardly any motorcycles: good sign. Jürgen explained that many motorcyclists in Germany have seasonal licenses that expire on October 31st, so our decision to come today was quite fortuitous.

Suffice it to say that the day turned out just about perfectly. John began his first lap following Jürgen, who quickly got away from us. Yes, you read right, Jürgen tore off in his crappy Honda. At one point I could swear that one of his rear wheels came off the ground. Over the course of the day, I put in three solid laps and John did five, putting his lifetime Ring total at 21 laps and mine at 20 (he had to have more than me, you see). Traffic was minimal and accidents were few. The clouds didn’t lift much over the course of the day, but the road stayed dry. I had an annoying exchange with an old seafoam green Opel whose driver apparently didn’t like being passed. I passed him, he passed me, and I passed him again. Some folks just don’t know when they’re beaten. John had one very exciting lap in which he chased down a silver BMW Z4. The BMW driver was obviously new to the track and kept taking a bad line, so even though his car was much faster than ours, John had a good chance at overtaking him. Unfortunately this meant that every time John got close to passing him, the BMW did something stupid (there’s nothing more dangerous on the Nürburgring than an inexperienced driver with a big ego in a fast car). I kept telling John not to follow too closely, because I was terrified that the BMW would make a catastrophic mistake and we would get tangled up in the mess. Finally John’s patience paid off and we successfully passed the Z4 and were able to gain some considerable ground ahead of him by the end of the lap. A Ring photographer managed to capture the moment on film, and we now have a memorable head-on photo of the SLK taking a sharp left-hand curve with the Z4 close behind.

We had our traditional lunch at Bike World, where we partook one last time of the excellent Schnitzel and browsed the cool rides in the shop. In the afternoon we needed to buy one more two-lap ticket so we could each get in our final laps. While we were waiting in line, a German guy came around offering to sell us a two-lap ticket for 30 Euro (a savings of several Euro). John was very suspicious so we had the guy at the ticket booth confirm that there were indeed two laps left on the ticket. On our final lap, I took some video clips, which I have strung together to provide a partial representation of a lap of the Ring. You’ll hear me reading instructions to John off our track notes (I’d like to point out that reading track notes and taking video at the same time is no small feat). At around minute 3:50 you will see a note appear on the video referring to an orange flag (which isn’t quite visible in this low-resolution version) and you can barely hear John say, “Put that down,” because he doesn’t want anyone to see that I am holding a camera. (Taking pictures and video while on the Ring is strictly forbidden, but I decided to take the risk on our last go-round.) At that point we passed an accident, but this lap was actually one of the cleanest we ever experienced on the track. You’ll only see four other cars in the whole video (three Porsches and a Suzuki). The video is about five minutes long and covers about one-third of the entire length of the track.

It was an exhilarating day and we didn’t want to leave. We knew that we would not return to the Ring for a very long time, if ever, and never again in our “own” car. (Next time we’ll be the ones in the “Rent-a-Racecar” that the locals jeer at.) The Nürburgring is like no other driving experience on the planet, and we will savor the memories of our five visits there (in three different cars – the smart forfour Brabus, E-Class, and SLK) with great fondness.

Jürgen had invited us to join his parents, who live about an hour away, for an early dinner after our day at the track. We met up in a small town near the Autobahn and had a lovely meal in a traditional German restaurant. Jürgen’s father was an English teacher in Finland when Jürgen was young; he sat next to John and they spoke English all night while I spoke German with Jürgen’s mother! It was an enjoyable meal and a nice way to end the day. After that, we said our farewells and made the three-hour drive back to Stuttgart.

More photos from the Ring:

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