Take the world's most dangerous racetrack, a James Bond car and an American sportswriter who can't drive stick and what do you get? One of the best stories in Sports Illustrated's 60-year history. "Ring Tossed," by Steve Rushin, ran in the Jan. 15, 2001 issue and was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. I spoke to Rushin recently about the story, his journey through Germany in a BMW Z8 and the travel ideas he still wants to do.
SI: Not to spoil the ending, but do you regret not driving on the course?
RUSHIN: I don’t regret not doing it, although I do get a lot of crap for not doing it. I couldn’t then drive a stick -- I subsequently got a mini that was my car for years and learned to drive it, stalling out at left turn arrows and things like that -- but that was not the place nor was that the car to learn to drive a stick in. When we picked it up we signed a long document, presumably in German, making us responsible for any dings and nicks, and if we totaled things, even at a time when SI expense accounts were a lot more liberal than they are now, we would have been on the hook for about a quarter of a million dollars.
SI: Did you drive it at all?
RUSHIN: I did attempt to drive the countryside around Munich and stuff. As soon as I learned how to drive stick, I regretted that I wasn’t able to go back in time and drive that thing around the Nurburgring because it was by far the best car I would ever have an opportunity to drive. We would pull off at gas stations and people would pull off not needing gas but just to look at it. We’d be on the autobahn and people would make a first down gesture like, “Let’s go!”
Bob Martin, the photographer on the story, had an assistant who I think was sort of the Motor Sport and Car And Driver photography guy, and he had a lot of connections in the car industry and was with us for some of that trip in a separate car. We would pull over and people would come over and say, in German or Italian, some reference to the fact that the car wasn’t even out yet. People knew of its impending existence. So I’d welcome them to come over and sit in the car, and Bob’s friend would go crazy. I think he felt like his reputation was at stake if we returned this thing as just a charred frame. There was also an implicit and sometimes explicit feeling of, “What the hell are you doing with that car?”
SI: What was the best car you had driven before that one?
RUSHIN: Whenever I might have upgraded at Hertz to the four-door with the Hertz Never Lost GPS. I’d never had much interest in cool cars. In fact, a couple summers ago I was waiting for my wife and kids outside a store with the radio on when the battery died on our minivan. We had to call Triple A to jumpstart us. The guy asked me to pop the trunk and I accidentally popped the hatchback. He looked at me like, You’ve got to be kidding me. When I finally popped the hood, my daughter saidin great delight, “I didn’t know that end could open too!” The Triple A guy looked at me like, You idiot.
SI: Have you ever driven that BMW again?
RUSHIN: No, but I had a model of that car on my desk for years but my kids destroyed it. It was a really well-made model that I bought when I returned the car, and I bought it knowing it was the only way I’d ever own that car. It was probably $75. I’ve looked for it on the Internet but I haven’t been find it since then.
SI: You mention a magazine editor at the end of the story. Whose idea was it to do this story?
RUSHIN: It was [senior editor] Rich O’Brien’s idea. I don’t know where he learned of the Ring, but everybody in Europe seemed to know about it. I’d never heard of it. Rich knew a little about it and that a racer had nearly died in a fiery crash there. It was determined to be too dangerous for Formula One driving, so naturally it would make sense to open it up for the general public to drive on. I can’t quite follow that logic.
SI: So the assignment was just to drive on this thing and try not to die?
RUSHIN: Those were pretty much the marching orders. I think it was Bob’s idea as the photographer on the story -- and also a nut and a guy who likes adventure and a wannabe James Bond -- that we should get some kind of luxury super car that turned out to be the car that was going in the next James Bond movie at the time. He and a friend of his arranged for us to pick this thing up at BMW headquarters. We went there in Munich and after what seemed like a very brief exchange -- shorter than it takes to rent at Hertz without the No. 1 club membership -- we were signing these documents and then driving it off the lot before anybody had appropriate second thoughts about letting us do that.
We didn’t even go straight to the Ring, we went to Bavaria because the roads and the scenery were spectacular. Bob was at the wheel most of that time and loving it. At one point on the open road he said, “BMW: Bob Martin’s Wheels.” I was more worried that this was Bob Martin’s Willy, a midlife crisis personified.
SI: How long was the trip?
RUSHIN: We probably spent a week. Bob flew from London and I flew from New York. Whenever I talk about Bob or working with any photographer, I always tell the story about when we were waiting for our luggage at baggage claim and I was expressing some impatience that I already had my bags and was waiting for all of Bob’s photo equipment. I said something to the effect of, “Come on, let’s go already,” and he said in his accent, “I’m sorry, Steve, do you have your pencil?”
SI: The story opens with a two-page photo by Bob of you in the passenger seat and holding your head while wearing a leather helmet and driving goggles. Please tell me those came with the car.
RUSHIN: There was like a flea market of automobile memorabilia and things like that and there was a leather racing helmet and old time goggles, something you’d wear in 1938 so naturally we picked that stuff up. I enjoyed wearing that like a buffoon all through the German countryside.
SI: What was the Ring like?
RUSHIN: There were people in luxury cars, like us – actually, I take that back, it was the opposite of people like us, it was Italian playboys. And then there were people in Volkswagen Golfs with literally dry cleaning swinging from the back window. It was every bit as crazy as we thought it would be.
They would periodically shut down the track while an ambulance came out and carted off the human and automotive wreckage. And then it would reopen. All the American there were saying, “Lawyers would never allow this to happen.”
SI: Have you been back since?
RUSHIN: I have not gone back but I have since run into people who have been there. Formula One built a new course there. People who have been in the Army and stationed in Germany have heard of the place, but it still remains a relative secret over here. Fifteen, 20 years later it doesn’t seem any less nutty.
SI: Do you want to go back?
RUSHIN: I was single at the time, and if I died on assignment, which in those days frequently seemed like a possibility, SI would just have to run a black-bordered Letter From The Editor and that would be it. Now if I go over there I’d be driving a Honda Odyssey with four kids and yellow lab in the back, going 25 mph with my left blinker on the entire time.
I do feel some sense of unfulfilled destiny to go back and drive the course because I got enough grief for, to put it nicely, wussing out. But until you’ve never driven a stick and signed a document in another language, I don’t cast the first stone. If I had totaled it, though, that would have gone to top of the list of legendary expense account stories had I tried to submit that one.
SI: You did a number of these travel stories. I'm guessing you liked doing them.
RUSHIN: I love doing those stories, but I could see that they were becoming harder and harder sells to get in SI. Most of them were a photographer and I kind of daring each other to do this. Simon Bruty and I were sitting in a bar in New York one time and he said that there was an ice golf tournament in Iceland, we should do that. So we pitched it and they said yes. When they accept it’s like they’re calling your bluff. Simon and I had to land at some airstrip in Greenland for a connecting flight in a helicopter to Iceland and we were saying, “What the hell are we doing?” If this helicopter went down and we were covering a war it would be one thing, but we were going to cover ice golf. We were saying, "Why are we doing this?"
It almost made it hard to screw up the story, though. The Ring was like that too. Like Seinfeld when he talks about being in a cab rocketing up Park Avenue. You just have to think, I’m not really going 105 mph and my life’s not really in his hands.
SI: You mentioned that they became hard sells at the magazine. Why?
RUSHIN: Bill Colson was the managing editor at the time, and I’m totally grateful too him for letting us do these stories. But I do remember with one of those travel adventure abroad stories, the one about the Ring in fact, he called me into his office and he had some figures in his hand and he said, “By every measure this will be the least read story in SI this year. But we’re happy with it and we’re running it.”
I don’t know if it was the least-read story -- I can’t imagine that it was -- but I think he recognized that these stories that didn’t have the peg of the four major sports and weren’t devoured that week were still remembered. And they are, because people tell me about them 10 years later. They’re timeless more than timely.
SI: Are there any you’d still like to do?
RUSHIN: There are definitely other of these things out there. Bob and I always had a box of them. Like covering the Isle of Man TT race, where the whole thing is taken over by a giant cross island race that is also insanely dangerous. Bob also wanted us to go to Mongolia because they have some kind of cultural athletic festival full of strange sports involving animals and wrestling and stuff. We never got around to that either. But I’ve been to all seven continents on assignment for SI. I never had that in mind as a goal so I can’t really feel short-changed.