I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Nürburgring track in Germany's Eifel Mountains is an unforgiving brute with 14 miles (22.8 km) of twists turns and elevation changes. It has taken the lives of many professional racing car drivers, so why not open it up to the general public? Happy hour for amateurs should be fun.
The race track was opened in the spring of 1927; it was intended to be a showcase for German engineering and racing talent. There were two circuits; the Nordschleife (North Loop) at a tad over 14 miles, and the Südschleife (South Loop) that was just 4.8 miles. In the early days, the two loops were joined together for races, but that doesn't happen anymore, the South Loop has fallen into decay. It's the North Loop, with its 154 corners, that we're concerned with here.
German driver Rudolf Caracciola won the first race, averaging 60 mph (96.5 km/h). He was, of course, driving a Mercedes. Apart from a trio of Alfa-Romeo victories in the early 1930s, German-made vehicles won every race before World War II. By 1939, average speeds for the circuit were up to 87 mph (140 km/h).
It wasn't until 1951 that major international races returned to the “Ring.”
In its first year of operation, the Nürburgring saw two professional drivers lose their lives in crashes. Since then, more than 70 racing drivers have been killed at the track including Formula 1 stars Onofre Agustín Marimón, Peter Collins, Carel Godin de Beaufort, John Taylor, and Gerhard Mitter.
The Green Hell
The track is bordered by forests, giving drivers the impression they are hurtling through a green tunnel. Formula 1 Champion Sir Jackie Stewart gave the track its nickname of “The Green Hell” after winning the 1968 German Grand Prix there.
Racing cars were getting faster, and the Nürburgring was outdated; it was becoming extremely dangerous for Formula 1 cars to race there. Cars were getting airborne over some hills and there was nothing to stop a car failing to negotiate a corner but massive trees. Another problem was that if a driver came to grief, the size of the track meant that it could take a fatal amount of time for help to arrive.
By 1976, F1 cars running on old tracks had become far too dangerous. In the three years before the German Grand Prix, five F1 drivers had lost their lives, and then Austrian Niki Lauda had a terrible crash at the Nürburgring.
Lauda was the reigning World Champion and he said the track was too dangerous to drive on. He commented “On any of the modern circuits if something breaks on my car I have a 70/30 chance that I will be all right or I will be dead. Here, if you have any failure on the car, one hundred percent death.” He even called on drivers to boycott the 1976 race, but the majority voted to continue.
Then, of course, it happened. He was doing more than 170 mph (280 km/h) when something broke and his Ferrari slammed into a guardrail. It bounced back into the track and was hit by two following cars. The Ferrari burst into flames and Lauda was trapped inside for about a minute.
It was fellow drivers who pulled him from the flaming wreck, but he had suffered severe burns to his face. He was in critical condition in hospital and had several skin grafts. Amazingly, he was back behind the wheel of his Ferrari in 39 days, but his devastating crash brought an end to Formula 1 racing at the Nürburgring North Loop.
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Open to the Public
Some races are still held at the Nürburgring North Loop and car manufacturers use it for testing. Outside of that any Manfred or Helga can take the family buggy around for a spin. Is it dangerous? Damn right it's dangerous. People get killed testing their suspect high-speed driving abilities.
Ben Lovejoy has driven the North Loop more than 50 times, but when he inquired he found the owners of the track and local authorities reticent about releasing numbers. He estimates that between three and 12 people die each year after crashing. The total number of fatalities may be as high as 200.
Lovejoy has written that “I couldn't even begin to count the number of accidents I've seen there. You'll spot a damage-only crash every few laps, and closures due to more serious accidents happen several times a day.”
Aside from the possibility of loosing their lives or suffering serious injuries, drivers are on the hook for some hefty costs. To start with, a single lap costs between $30 and $35. A crash will result in numerous fees:
- Recovery truck—$600
- Repair to safety barrier—up to $800
- Safety car attendance—$100 per half hour
- Closure of the track—$1,600 per hour
Add to most of these costs 19 percent value added tax. One hapless driver took out a considerable length of Armco barrier and was handed a bill for almost $18,000.
Don't even think about the costs of helicopter evacuation and hospital charges should they be required.
Understandably, insurance companies frown upon their clients taking on the Nürburgring, so the driver who has a prang will find their coverage has been voided. They may well be out of pocket for replacing the vehicle they've wrecked as well.
- Misha Charoudin is a driving instructor at the Nürburgring. He circles the track at least 1,000 times a year. He knows the twists and turns so well that he has been able to guide a driver around while being blindfolded.
- Before taking to the track during tourist drives (called in German touristenfahrten) members of the public are told, apparently with a straight face, “No Racing.”
- Every year, Germany's automobile association ADAC holds a 24-hour endurance race around the North Loop. It is a contest with professional drivers and factory teams. More than 200 cars are entered each year.
Do You Want to See More Drivers Coming to Grief? . . . Of Course You Do
- “This Is the Reason Why the Nürburgring Is Called 'The Green Hell' ” Pedro Bisso, hotcars.com, June 4, 2021.
- “How the 1976 German Grand Prix Forever Changed the Fate of the Nurburgring Nordschleife.” Joe Saward, autoweek.com, October 8, 2020.
- “History to 1976.” Robert Blinkhorn, nurburgring.org.uk, undated.
- “Nurburgring 2020 Lap Ticket Prices.” nurburgring.org.uk, undated.
- “5 Things You Need to Know About the Nürburgring.” Philippe Govaerts, rallyways.com,undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor