Photo: zanthrax-dot-nl via flickr
Hidden deep in Germany’s Eifel Forest is one of the legends of the motoring world.13 miles long. 985 feet of altitude change. 170 corners. This is the Nurburgring Nordschleife.
Frequently called the “Green Hell,” the Nordschleife is one of the longest and scariest race tracks still in existence today.
With blind hills, narrow straights, and trees lining the entire track, one mistake can be the difference between life and death.
Built in 1927, the current layout of the track is actually shorter than the original which spanned an unbelievable 18 miles.
For a time, the Nordschleife was home to Formula One and sports car racing, but a number of terrible crashes forced the construction of a shorter grand prix circuit right next door.
But that did not shut the Nordschleife down.
Today, drivers can pay a toll and take their street car for a ride on the famed circuit. Car manufacturers have also set up shop at the German track to develop all the latest rides. Top speeds are no longer the top tout for manufacturers; times around the ‘Ring are what they extol.
The history, races, cars, and people of the Nordschleife are what make it one of the most legendary race tracks in the world.
The Nurburgring was built in 1927 in response to the total lack of racing circuits in Germany.
Prior to this, races were held on a closed part of the Autobahn outside Berlin. With dedicated tracks popping up across the rest of Europe, like Monza in Italy, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, and Brooklands in England, the Germans decided to invest in one track in the Eifel Forest.
The Nurburgring was divided into two sections, the Nordschleife and Sudschleife; this translates to North Loop and South Loop. The shorter Sudschleife was used for club racing practice while the mammoth Nordschleife was a testing facility and showcase of German precision, engineering, and skill.
There are few tracks that elicit the same awed reactions that come from the Nurburgring.
With 170 corners and varying elevation changes, it can take months to just learn the track and years to go around it quickly.
There are drivers that dedicate their entire careers to this one track who may never perfect it.
The wide array of corners, from fast sweepers to hairpins to the banked Carousel, provides a unique test for cars that cannot be found anywhere else.
Over time, locals have spray painted graffitti all over the track. It is just another element that gives the course even more character.
The Nordschleife became famous, or infamous, because of the awful crashes that claimed the lives of racing heroes over the last 85 years.
For a time, the 'Ring took race car drivers on what seemed to be a monthly basis.
And even the drivers that weren't killed were scarred forever.
In one of the most well known crashes on the track, Formula One World Champion Niki Lauda, who also claimed the track was unsafe, was almost burned to death in the 1976 German Grand Prix (via YouTube):
His helmet fell off in the accident and the resulting burns to his head left him without his right ear. His lungs were nearly destroyed from smoke inhalation and he had several broken bones. It was thought that his chances for survival were so low that he was even administered the last rites.
Somehow he survived and returned to racing just six weeks later. Lauda subsequently won the 1977 and 1984 World Championships. This crash ended Formula One racing at the Nordschleife, with racing going to the safer and shorter grand prix circuit from then on.
Some people have made their entire career driving the Nordschleife.
Sports car driver Stefan Bellof holds the all out lap record at the track, covering 13 miles in just over six minutes. This was in 1983 in a Porsche 956C race car, according to the official Nurburgring website.
One of the most famous current drivers is Sabine Schmitz.
According to Motor Authority, Sabine has lapped the 'Ring over 2,000 times in her life. On Top Gear she claimed she had been doing it for even longer, as her mother drove the track while she was pregnant.
She once drove a Ford Transit, a diesel van, around the track in just over 10 minutes. Video of this amazing drive can be seen on YouTube.
One of Sabine's main duties at the track was driving BMW's 'Ring Taxi' at full speed to give passengers the thrill of a lifetime. Now she hosts the German alternative to Top Gear, D-Motor and still makes runs on the ring.
While major events are still held at the Nordschleife, like a 24 Hour Endurance Race, it now serves more purposes than before.
Major car manufacturers have set up full on development centres to thoroughly track test their latest cars. Aston Martin, Mercedes, Porsche, Chevrolet, and even Buick use the Nordschleife to develop suspension settings.
But tragedy can befall them too. Toyota's chief test driver was actually killed in an accident while leaving the track in a new Lexus LFA that he was working on.
For everyone else, a mere $31 gives any licensed driver access to the track for one lap. That's right, anybody with the money can go for a ride. That means that there is a wide range of talent out there at any one time.
Here's an example of the varying skill levels (via YouTube):
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