It’s Impossible To Get Tired Of Racing On The Nürburgring
Photography by Alex Sobran
A Different Strata of Sport
The track’s been widened, the runoffs have stretched out over the years, and we all agreed a long time ago that sending Formula 1 cars into the woods at full speed wasn’t a good part of a healthy diet. Still, only an idiot would call the Nürburgring neutered—it still obliterates egos in 2018, easy as ever. It is the ultimate circuit built for racing cars. Few others hold more provenance, and only the Isle of Man Mountain Course can call itself more dangerous. Loss of life is never to be celebrated, but who can deny the adrenal allure of dangerous motorsport?
I’ve driven the North Loop, the “real thing,” the Nordschleife, a handful of times over a handful of visits to the Eifel Mountains in western Germany, but those experiences can all be summed up by bearing hard to the right as a daisy chain of Porsche GT3s fart-shift their way past my best efforts at momentum driving whatever car I’ve managed to get my hands on. It’s a nerve-wracking recalibration of your abilities every time, and when you’re sweaty and done for the day there’s not much else to locally do but look forward to the next time.
Such singular purpose is why we love the place though, and I even wrote something silly about one of the towns it passes through—quaint medieval Adenau—the last time I went. I’ve seen camouflaged test cars, plenty of M3s and 911s taking laps, and I’ve seen it all through the windshield, but I’ve never been to an actual race here, so why not start with the big one, the ADAC Zurich 24H Rennen? Anyway, a full day spent around 140 cars going full tilt through the Green Hell is the best work weekend I can think of.
Getting Off on the Right Foot
I didn’t have the time to set up shop on the hillside overlooking Brünnchen a week before the event like the beer-and-brat-powered carpenters and their truckloads of scaffolding and planks, but Falken Tire was kind enough to transport me and my backpack the 6,000-odd miles from Los Angeles to Nürburg in time to see the full race last weekend, so I packed a rain jacket and some outlet adapters and didn’t sleep a wink the night before the flight. I arrived in Frankfurt to find a Mercedes van waiting for me driven by Andres, a former cup car racer who was soon telling me about the RS6 he drove last weekend as he pointed out the R8s flying by in the left lane—we got along just fine.
Falken hasn’t been in this game as long as Michelin or Dunlop of course, but they’ve been competing in this race for just about two decades now. They aren’t only supplying tires for those seeking maximum Gs though, and my first whiff of motorsport smelled a lot like intentionally burnt rubber. I hadn’t seen any professional drifting in person since an especially soggy Formula D event in New Goddamn Jersey a few years ago, and it took me a moment to process the fact that I was seeing Japanese cars spewing cotton-candy-colored tire smoke with German flags in the background. After a few synchronized slides and some donut shows it was time to head back to the decidedly un-dumpy hotel I was put up in for the weekend for a night of anxious kid-before-Christmas sleep before things got serious.
Beats Saturday Morning Cartoons
Arriving on race day our troupe is welcomed by the sound of support races and much thicker crowds than we waded through on Friday. After a quick breakfast we meet the Falken drivers (four of them per car, like all the other teams competing over the weekend; four in the BMW M6 GT3, four in the Porsche GT3R), including Nürburgring veteran Peter Dumbreck. Running his 15th 24-Hour here—his 12th with Falken—he is the right person to ask the obvious question: “What makes this one different?” He’s done Le Mans, he’s no stranger to the top crust of endurance racing, but he says the spirit of the ‘Ring is unmatched by anything else. He’s quick to point out the improvement in the cars since he started here so many years ago in a repurposed Opel DTM car—he’s a proponent of technological progress, and he was the first person to put an electric car at the top (briefly) of the Nürburgring lap time board—but the enthusiasm exhibited by the fans perched on their teetering structures and swaying in sketchy temporary discotheques hasn’t changed at all.
That’s a good sign for the future of this rather anachronistic event, and speaking of signs… In the days leading up the race I thought a lot about lot what to photograph and how to make my story somewhat different than the ones that report through a more quantitative lens, and I knew another shot of the red-lit “nürburgring” on the curved facade of the modern business park was too cliche. There are a few famous pieces of signage to scope out, but my favorite was unassuming, matter-of-fact, very German: “Willkommen am Nürburgring.” Don’t think everyone was all manners and formality though, because not a minute after passing under that one I met this informative fellow who was letting newcomers know where they were.
Over the course of the next 24 hours, the balmy afternoon led to dusty sunset trudges along the barrier walls into a bloodshot midnight followed by lightning storms and thick wet velvet curtains of rain up to the very end. Along the way I shared beers and stories, squelched my way from turn to turn, and had a laugh at more than one campsite along the way. The guys at the bottom of this photo group were taking their porch apart and throwing it into last night’s bonfire. I think they call that German efficiency?
The Last Time to Shine
But before the whole show wrapped up in the hungover mud it started under blue skies. Walking along with the cars as they lined up on the grid before the 3:30PM start-time was the last chance to see these carbon fiber prizefighters before they accumulated the inevitable scuffs and cuts sustained in races like this one (there really aren’t any races like this one, if we’re being honest). The variety of the entrants depends on your frame of reference. If your criterion include country of origin you won’t find much made outside of Germany. But within the host nation’s automotive attendees you’ll stumble across big budget customer racing teams like Falken who use the latest gear from BMW and Porsche, all the way to the beloved veteran that is the Opel Manta pictured below. Privateer Caymans and M2s provide plenty of traffic for the GT3-spec Porsches, Bimmers, Mercs, and Audis, and if you aren’t the type to be satisfied with the frequency of overtaking in F1 look no further than the N24 for your fix.
Prior to the commotion of the pit walk though, the crowd was treated to some history in the form of Porsche’s demonstration lap with the 956 C and the 919 Evo. The second stop on the 919 Evo’s tribute tour, many, including me, thought the company would attempt to break Bellof’s 1983 Nordschleife record before the 24-Hour, but alas, the lap was of the parade variety. Still, the chance to get up close to one of my favorite cars (arguably among the most significant endurance racing designs ever made) while also taking a peek at something I’ve never seen off a screen before was far from disappointing. Getting to take a photo with Hans Joachim-Stuck wasn’t such a bad addition to the personal collection either.
If you zoom in on the upskirt photo of the 956, check out what it says on the oil system: “Porsche Classic Motoroel 10W 60.” Doubtful that’s what they originally used in these things, unless they were just that cocky back then to use the word classic when it was a new car—a wise bet to make in hindsight I suppose. Still sad though, that they’ve removed Rothmans from the design in favor of “Racing,” but I guess we should be glad it isn’t wearing a livery that says “Smoking Kills” in big block letters…
Back to the race at hand. The 956 may still hold the lap record on a technicality, but it can’t touch the new stuff when it comes to safety. There were a few nasty hits over the course of the race, especially once it got dark and wet, but thankfully nobody got anything more than some bruises for their mistake. Doctors and choppers were on hand though, because the unthinkable still needs to be prepared for. The considerations made in the pursuit of keeping racing drivers alive aren’t usually that exciting, granted, but I definitely enjoyed watching the various pace and safety cars leaning hard into the same corners as the ones with numbers stuck to them.
It’s hard to imagine that a day that started off in a T-shirt and warm solar skies was the same one that saw me bundled up in fireproof coveralls under the harsh lights of the mid-race pit lane, and those were just the bookends of the first 12 hours.
A Long Way to Go
After seeing the stream of cars pouring out after the green flags were dropped (you can’t start the entire multi-class race at the same time, so the cars leave in still-very-dense groups), I started making my way up past Adenaur Forst to the tricky and very technical section of the track that requires precise car-to-curb placement and the will to brake late into a mostly blind series of turns. Along the way I saw the backend of the Flugplatz, Aremberg, and the butt-clencher known as Metzgesfeld, but the people were far more interesting than the early hours of racing. After all, it’s a roughly 15.5-mile track when combined with the Grand Prix circuit, and the lead cars completing 135 laps—that’s more than 2,000 miles of racing through the woods, AKA plenty of meat left after the two-hour mark.
Walking the Campgrounds
This is my favorite part of any endurance race: seeing how the fans interact with it all. I love going to Le Mans and picking my way through the miles of car parks and fields of tents, and while I was a little disappointed in the lack of vintage material in the camping areas at the Nürburgring—it’s very likely I just didn’t make it to the right place, seeing as nearly the entire perimeter is pocked with people—but neither France nor Florida approaches the level of makeshift engineering that’s gone on here. Sleeper vehicles range from spray-painted caravans of the sort that Top Gear used to regularly complain about all the way up (literally) to massive MAN rigs that look much more commercial than residential. There’s even variety when it comes to things as specific as tractor seating. News to me.
Good humor abounds regardless of how fancy the rain tarp, and after schlepping my way around in the dust for the afternoon the last thing I wanted was another lager to galvanize my budding headache, and I was lucky enough to run into this little red shack operated by some Honda fans. They had some free water to offer to me (what a concept, Europe, free water at a restaurant…), and if I was interested “Have kabob too.”
Rehydrated and with even more salty meat in me now—Germans put the idea of Americans being red-meat-eaters to shame I think, for better or worse—I continued my walk through this massive but fleeting civilization of people, coming across a large and diverse swatch of the race fan phylum along the way. See for instance, little blond boy on plastic race car, followed closely by a strung-up line of Jack Daniel’s empties and a clothesline of underwear—though perhaps that was a legitimate bit of laundry given how long some people pitch their tents here.
It’s hard to guess whether more fuel or beer was consumed over the course of the 24 hours. One can make a strong case for either I think, judging by the empty cases of beer and the strong smell of high-octane fuel. I saw more than a few groups of zealous spectators chugging down their fifth Bitburger of the morning on Saturday, but for every one of those guys passing out at 9PM there was another waking up from an even earlier alco-nap to take his place in this noble effort of consumption and belching.
Eventually, day turns to night, but the metallic twang of two-stroke dirt bikes carries on throughout, and the rest of the noisy chorus keeps up too: the constant foundation of race cars and their whirring gears, burping exhausts; the hum of generators and staccato crackling of oil-drum fires; low throbbing house music; and the sound of the Dirk’s twentieth cigarette being lit with a little snick. I feel like I saw a quarter of this scene at best, but I turned around and made my way to the pits under the darkening sky.
In the Pits at Night
I’m not going to say it’s extremely hard to carry a few pieces of camera gear with you for the race, but it does wear you out after reaching Mile 20 in Hour 10. My lumbar was suggesting that now might be a good time to go through a quarter-life crisis, but after leaving the catered warmth of the Falken box after a quick pretzel and Coke, the flurry of work going on the the pits made me buck up and reassess what it meant to be tired.
Seeing the machinations of about 70 different teams working more or less on top of each other, it reminds one of the logistics of a big dense city like Manhattan. I’m not sure how it works out such that you can walk into a midtown grocer’s and walk out with an orange picked from a Californian grove during the same business week, but it gets done. So too do the seemingly infinite amount of tire changes, fuel-ups, rapid tape-jobs, and driver changes that make up the commotion down here. Teetering toward too much, it’s really wild to be up close to all of this. I’d never been over the retaining wall into the pit lane proper before, so this was a treat. I had enough to worry about ensuring I didn’t get in anybody’s way, but once I got the rhythm down it was a lot of fun to track the tasks of one crew member to try to get a grasp on how the system worked as a whole.
Rain in the Morning
The first drops started coming down around 2AM but within an hour we were making our oohs and our aahs at the lightning show coming through the darkness in sharp purple bolts. Not wanting to go to bed, but not wanting to soak my camera (I made the smart decision to bring rain jackets for myself but nothing protective for the stuff that actually breaks when it gets soaking wet…), I went in for a nap to prepare for a morning practicing my panning shots on a hopefully not-too-soaked Sunday morning.
The golden light that blesses clear sunrises and sunsets may be the most traditionally pretty atmosphere to take photos in, but I’ve always loved racing in the rain. I enjoyed clutch-kicking my old Volvo around certain choice roundabouts near my dorm, and now I like taking pictures of much better drivers hunting traction and speed in the wet. The wakes of spray kick and swirl as they escape ductwork and the grooves of wide rubber, turning the air behind the wings into pure monochrome. It’s beautiful to see in motion in person, but it’s not the most comfortable way to watch the racing. Once you get past the point of caring about wet socks though, the metronomic tap of rain on your hood and the sound of V8 Macro-Mercs having slanted peddlefests as it charge up a hill at you makes an almost relaxing pattern of noise, and you soon stop caring about the warm shower that’s still many, many hours away.
Getting Ready for the End
I have to return my media tabard by noon, so rather than stay out as the campsites are being broken down en masse, it’s time to go back to the paddock to watch the final few hours to go. That final few turns into just 90 minutes of harried racing though, as a thick wall of white fog clears the track for a few hours and sends everyone to the pits to do the final preparations for the sprint at the end of this marathon.
Every reachable surface on the car is vigorously wiped down, and everything else is triple checked for acceptable functionality during the crucial hour and a half of make or break it time left on the clock. The garage’s are more upbeat than you might think, but perhaps the ’90s hip hop tracks are just a way to distract the mind from the importance of what’s to come. The Falken cars have kept up steady positions near the front of the pack, with the Porsche in the top 10 and the BMW in the top 20 by the time the fog puts the track on pause.
Seeing the machines after the tribulations of the last 20 hours of bumping and curb-hopping, there are certainly more cracks and chips in the carbon bodywork, but they do clean up quite nicely despite what they’ve been subjected to. Things are more advanced than they were say 50 years ago, but there’s still a sense of unmitigated purpose in the parts you find on today’s racing cars; like the zip-tied kidneys on the M6, or the no-nonsense risers for the GT3’s rear wing. It’s also nice to know duct tape is still relevant sometimes.
Comfort and Stress: Last Laps
Upon the restart, the field all bunched up again, I knew the TV coverage would be the place to see the predicable drama unfold in real-time, and the comfort of a steaming plate of spaghetti was not lost on me or my sodden footwear—especially watching the final-stint drivers going at it up until the very end. The race for first place was better than any satellite broadcast sponsor could have hoped for, and the #4 Black Falcon AMG-GT3 was dicing it up with the #912 Manthey Porsche GT3 for a nail-biting few laps, but eventually Makowiecki and the Porsche found a way around the Benz, and so as a surprise to nobody, a Porsche GT3 performed well on the Nürburgring.
Falken managed 9th with their Porsche, 15th with their BMW. Very respectable, very consistent, they handled all the variables that 24 hours could throw at them, and added another solid year of results to their history at the Nordschleife’s preeminent event. It was the first such experience for me though, and I can’t thank them enough for giving me the opportunity to say that.