It’s finally here – the writeup of my Europe trip. I apologize for anyone who may have been in suspense
You don’t really care about this part, so I’m glossing over it. The short version is, I am now engaged. This can only have a negative impact on racing, but despite that, I’m chalking it up as a net positive.
August 10th: Frankfurt, Nurburg
Hopefully you didn’t stop reading after that brief glimpse into my personal life. It’s about to get considerably more readable.
On Thursday, Gaynne and I woke up at the crack of dawn to get to Gare du Nord in Paris, and take the train to Frankfurt. This was a bit of a harrowing experience; the train was a little late, so we had to scramble to catch the connecting train in Koln. They don’t label these things very well. I thought you Germans were efficient!
After arriving at Frankfurt airport, we went to the Avis desk to rent a car. I was offered the choice between a C-class Mercedes, or, if I wanted, some subcompact automatic car. Given the puny percentage of Americans who still drive a manual transmission, I took this as a sad statement about American driving rather than an insult.
The car was a 6-speed C180 Kompressor. I think it’s somewhere around 190 horsepower or so. It’s wasn’t a bad car. The shifter sucked and it didn’t feel as sharp as I was expecting at speed, but it was still an excellent car for Kompressing the slower cars on the Autobahn.
We hopped on the A1 headed for Nurburg. My experience with the Autobahn:
- Yes, there are areas with no speed limits. We were greeted by the happy (/) sign for about 40% of our highway travels, but the other 60% range from 60 km/h (35 mph or so) to 130 km/h (about 76 mph). Germany really likes to mix it up – there are a lot of changes in the speed limit very close together sometimes.
- We did not see a single Polizei doing laser/radar the entire time. I was pretty surprised by this, but I guess they trust their drivers not to be stupid.
- The pass left, drive right stuff they talk about in the documentaries… it actually happens! It’s an amazing phenomenon. Whenever I came up on someone in the left lane who was going slower, they got over to the right without any encouragement from me. I returned the favor whenever necessary.
- Very few people go above 80 mph in the unrestricted zones. We were usually the fastest moving car on the road, save a Ferrari and a few BMW’s and Audis. Most of the time the left lane was empty.
At about 2:00 it started to rain. I was really hoping that it would stop so we could drive the ‘ring dry. I had read several horror stories about how slippery it was in the rain and wanted none of it. The rain faded as we got closer.
The directions could have been better, but eventually we found rent-racecar where our prepped 325i’s were waiting. Jared, Shannon and Kevin hadn’t arrived yet so we went out to find food. After picking up some Spaghetti a la Ducati at the motorcycle shop cafe we returned to find the rest of the crew was had found their way. Unfortunately it had started raining again – not a good sign.
Theo, the owner of rent-racecar, is an amazingly nice guy. His English is good – not great, but good – and he was very friendly. He offers a few cars for rent: a 318i, two 325i’s (one coupe, one sedan) and an E36 M3. It’s expensive, but it’s the only way to go, I think. (More on that later.)
8:00 is serious business
The rental cars were awesome. They were E36 BMW 325i’s. They had the M3 front bumper and spoiler, some sort of coilover setup, track pads (squeeeeee), Sparco Evo seats, a full rollcage, six point harnesses and Momo steering wheels. Getting the seating position right was tricky at first, and the harnesses were not easy to adjust since the adjusters for the lap belts were between the transmission tunnel and the seat, rather than being easily accessible in your lap (like my Sabelt harnesses). Reverse was hard to find (crazy BMW!) and the shifter feel wasn’t very solid (cable shifter, perhaps?) but the car was very responsive to inputs. The steering wheel really helps the feel of the car – I’ve gotta get one for the Miata. And with the interior gutted, the exhaust sounds amazing. It didn’t have any of that “loose heatshield” sound I associate with the BMW’s. I am fairly convinced that this will be my next car. (The Subaru isn’t going anywhere, of course)
After signing the paperwork and grabbing helmets, we followed Theo out to the ‘ring to get situated. We had to fight our way through a long line to get to some empty parking space. On the way there, I think we saw at least one of every 911 the world has ever seen – not to mention a Carrera GT or two. We found three parking spots and started taking in the atmosphere. You can tell immediately that you are someplace special.
We bought our tickets and waited for the track to open. As we were waiting, a green 997 GT3 RS pulled up. There was quite a crowd around it, which I assumed was simply because there was a freaking 997 GT3 RS there – but in addition to the sheer *swoon* of the car, the driver that popped out was Walter Röhrl. After initially confusing him with Hans Stuck, we went over to ask him for a picture. He smiled and said “no problem.” I wish I had studied “Learn German in Your Car” a little closer.
Life as a Porsche test driver. That’s gotta be rough.
To get us started, Theo took us out in his MKV Golf TDI. Theo has over 1000 laps on the Nordschleife. Despite the wet, Theo was FAST! Much like stories I’ve heard about Sabine Schwartz, he could probably drive the track blindfolded. He had no problem looking over his shoulder and the like as he was hauling ass through the Hatzenbachs and Karussels. He was even keeping up with Walter Rohrl for a while. As a smart person once said, seat time, seat time, seat time.
After we got back, it was time to buy tickets and head out. I had originally reserved the 325i coupe, but I switched with Kevin and Jard, who were splitting the 325i sedan, since the sedan fit me better than it did them. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that the coupe had Anti-Slip Control (ASC) and the sedan did not. I wasn’t sure how much this would matter, but on a wet track, it couldn’t have hurt. I went out in the sedan, with Jared in the passenger seat, as Kevin got ready to take the coupe out.
Going out… hopeful, optimistic, etc etc. This would soon change.
In addition to not having ASC, the sedan also had about 1/3 of the clutch pedal travel of the coupe. This made it very easy to let the clutch out too fast. At about the 1.5km mark or so, I downshifted to 2nd before a turn and accidentally popped the clutch. This was enough to make the car slide a little bit – not enough to spin the car, though. Worried but undeterred, I decided that I would get all my downshifting done WELL ahead of any corners so as not to risk unsettling the car again.
The next part is a bit hazy. I had been driving pretty slow since that minor issue with the shifter, so I’m not entirely sure what I did. Another 2km down the road or so, halfway through the Hatzenbach section, I lost it. The car simply let go of the track. Most likely it was a throttle lift of some severity. I was not driving fast, maybe 60 km/h, with full tread tires and everything. But before I could take any corrective action, the wrong end of the car was headed down the Nordschleife. All I could think of was fuck, fuck, fuck, this isn’t fair, this isn’t fair, as we slid through the gripless wet grass. Having watched plenty of Speed Channel, I knew how far a car can travel in wet grass in the wrong direction.
As it turns out, the car had slid off the road at just the right angle. It eventually settled about four feet from the Armco, pointed the wrong way. I hopped out to make sure the car was driveable while Jared hopped out to flag down the cars that were coming at us. We were on the wrong side of a blind corner so this was an absolute necessity before straightening the car out. I pulled back off (but pointing the right way this time) to wait for Jared to hop back in. Soon enough we were underway again, but with a bit more grass on the car. I put the hazards on and stayed to the right of the track.
Back to paddock; not as optimistic anymore. The clouds are appropriate for the mood.
16 agonizing kilometers later, we arrived back in the paddock. I was finished. If there’s any way to wreck your confidence, it’s spinning into the grass two minutes into your first lap. I knew that I couldn’t go back out there, for fear of something truly bad happening. It was amazingly frustrating. I knew that the track was slippery, but had no idea it was THAT slippery. I hung out with Gaynne and Kevin as Jared and Shannon took the coupe out. As Theo said (in perfect English)… “Shit.”
At 7:20 or so, the track was about to close. According to Jared, the line had pretty much dried up thanks to two hours of cars and no additional inclement weather. After much prodding I took the coupe out to see what it felt like without all the water. Unsurprisingly, it felt much better. I wasn’t pushing of course, but it was nice to not worry about the car sliding. It also gave me a chance to actually think about the course and take it all in. I had to use the turn signal a lot as I got out of the way of the faster cars, but other than that, it was almost relaxing.
Ah, that’s the John the world is used to.
It was an unforgettable experience, although I wish it was a *little* less unforgettable. I will definitely be back someday. I also REALLY want an E36 BMW. I’m going to throw together a “how to drive the Nurburgring” page when I get a chance, but for now, this will have to do. Thanks for reading