Three-time Formula One World Champion Jackie Stewart once called it "the greatest and most challenging race circuit in the world." But he also coined its most popular nickname: "The Green Hell."
While even the longest conventional closed racing circuits are no more than three miles or so in length and comprise no more than 15 turns, the Nürburgring Nordschleife ("North Loop") is an intimidating 12.9 miles long. And although the course's official turn count is 73, in reality there are probably twice that many bends a rider must negotiate during a lap. As if that weren't enough of a challenge, the elevation change during the course of a lap is almost 1000 feet; many of the turns are blind on entry, with enough elevation and pavement camber change even within some of the turns themselves to create an incredibly demanding circuit that has earned the respect of World Championship motor-racing competitors on both two and four wheels.
What's even more intriguing about the Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit is that when not in use, the track is actually open to the public for specified periods as a sort of one-way toll road with no speed limits, and has been since its inception. Anyone with a street-legal vehicle can buy a ticket and do a few laps on the same circuit as countless legendary racing heroes of the past.
Here is the ticket office...
Here is the ticket office where anyone with a street-legal vehicle and driver's license can walk up and purchase a pass to do laps of the Nurburgring during public hours.
This sign lists many of the...
This sign lists many of the rules and standards expected of the public when they run laps on the Nordschleife. There are many that deal exclusively with bikes, since they make up a large portion of the vehicles during public lapping hours.
So when BMW North America reps Rob Mitchell and Roy Oliemuller gave us the opportunity to participate in the recently created BMW Motorrad Race Track Training course to be held at the Nürburgring, we already had our bags packed months in advance. We would be given two days of exclusive track use with personal instruction by Nordschleife experts; this was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that couldn't be missed.
An Incredible History
The Nürburgring's overall design, location, and long, rich racing history have earned it a reverence unlike any motor-racing circuit in the world. Built in 1927 as both a test track for the burgeoning German auto industry that was at the forefront of automobile development and as an actual racing circuit, the Nürburgring was a very ambitious project that required government underwriting, 2500 laborers, and two years to complete. Intended as a showcase for German racing talent and engineering supremacy, the original Nürburgring was actually 17.6 miles in length and could be split into two courses: the 12.9-mile Nordschleife, and a smaller 4.8-mile Sudschleife ("South Loop"). Both circuits shared the 1.4-mile-long front straight that boasted a wide range of then-modern facilities, including a grandstand capable of seating 2500 people, a hotel and a paddock equipped with 70 lockable garages. Four years after the track's completion, the world's first electronic scoreboard was added to its already impressive list of accomplishments.
Back then, the Gesamtstrecke ("Total Stretch," or combination of the North and South Loops) incorporated a total of 172 corners that included virtually every conceivable combination of radius, camber and gradient. After 1929, however, all races were held exclusively on the Nordschleife, and with the automobile industry growing at a fever pitch in Europe (and with it, auto racing), the forging of legends soon began.
Numerous famous car racers of that early era added to their legendary status with their exploits at the Nürburgring. Names like Tazio Nuvolari, Bernd Rosemeyer and Juan Manuel Fangio became even larger than life by competing and winning there. That reputation continued into the modern era, with Stirling Moss, John Surtees, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, et al., etching their names into racing history with their heroic deeds at the Nürburgring.
Unfortunately, as racing technology progressed, so did the speeds, and the Nordschleife's unforgiving layout claimed the lives of many competitors. Cars would routinely become airborne each lap in some sections, so modifications in '71 smoothed out some of the jumps and straightened out some sections. But with the circuit's unique topography as it winds its way through the Eifel Mountains, only so much could be done, and it soon reached the point that the circuit could not accommodate the increasing safety demands. The final straw was three-time Formula One World Champion Niki Lauda's infamous fiery crash during practice for the '76 Grand Prix that nearly cost him his life. World Championship Grand Prix motorcycle racing soon exited as well, with the last GP held at the Nordschleife in '80. Competition events are now limited to a few automobile and motorcycle endurance races a year; all of the major and international races are now held on the much safer 3.2-mile, 15-turn GP-strecke circuit that was built in '83 over part of the area that used to encompass the old Sudschleife course.
A Test Track You Can Ride
The Nordschleife's lack of competition events just makes more room for its other intended role: a testing medium of the highest order. If a manufacturer wants to push its product to the limit in what is probably the toughest environment anywhere, this is the place. And that notion hasn't been lost on most of them; BMW, Porsche, Mercedes- Benz, Audi, Nissan, Jaguar, Toyota and even General Motors all have facilities nearby, along with numerous tire, suspension and other aftermarket performance manufacturers. Needless to say, the track has no trouble filling its weekday calendar during the nonwinter months, and there's so much testing going on that some photographers practically make their living just by hiding trackside and shooting the many prototype models (most disguised with taped-on fake bodywork) that undergo endless test sessions at the Nürburgring.
The one aspect of the Nürburgring that has surely helped maintain its popularity and mystique over the years, however, is that the circuit is open to the public on many weekdays in the early evening and on many Sundays. All that is required is a valid driver's license, a street-legal automobile or motorcycle (a 95db noise limit is posted, but usually only enforced on the most obnoxious offenders) and paying the entrance ticket fee for the number of laps you want to do. This ranges from 19 (about $27) for a single lap, on up to 345 (about $485) for 25 laps, to 895 (about $1258) for a Jahreskarte ("year card"-basically a season ticket valid for unlimited use for the calendar year).
Because the circuit is essentially treated like any toll road when open to the public, some of the basic European traffic laws apply, such as no passing on the right and moving over for faster traffic. (In fact, if you don't move over and cause a rear-end accident, you are held responsible for damages incurred.) Make no mistake, however; while the Nürburgring offers an incredible opportunity to have some legal fun on one of the world's greatest circuits, it is also a formidable place that commands the utmost respect. Besides the unforgiving aspect of the Nordschleife's layout-only a handful of corners have any runoff, with the vast majority of the course having about six feet of grass before you encounter steel Armco that lines both sides of the entire circuit-there are also significant financial costs that can be incurred in a crash (outside of the ambulance ride and hospital stay) that can add up so fast it'll make your head spin. For instance, you must not only pay for the Armco repair bill if needed, but if the safety car must be called out, that will run you 82 (about $115) every 30 minutes; if your crash causes temporary closure of the track, you are billed at 1350 (about $1900) per hour. Also, the German 19 percent VAT (value added tax) is added to any charges you incur.
For the motorcycle rider at the Nordschleife, however, there are still some risks present when running during public use time, even if you are riding well within your limits. A large portion of fatal crashes at the Nürburgring can be attributed to leaking fluids dropped from cars and even other bikes; due to the vast number of corners, it's impossible to have marshals at every bend, and even that would be no guarantee of safety.
Basically, the Nürburgring Nordschleife is not a place to be taken lightly by any means.