In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories ever to run in the magazine. Today's selection is "Ring Tossed," by Steve Rushin, which originally ran in the Jan. 15, 2001 issue.
The most unsettling thing about driving 142 mph on the German autobahn in James Bond's convertible with the top dropped is not the sudden realization that your head juts above the windshield, so that any airborne object--a pebble, a lug nut, the shedding payload of a flatbed truck--will forever be embedded in your coconut, like the coins and keys you sometimes see in the hot asphalt of city streets. Nor is it the banana-yellow Porsche GT3 that draws even with you in the passing lane, lingering off your left flank for 30 seconds, as if attempting the in-flight refueling of a Stealth bomber, while its leering driver hand-gestures you to drag-race him. (That terror passes quickly enough when the pilot of the Porsche loses patience and leaves you in his vapor trail at one fifth of Mach 1.) No. What makes a man vow to change his life, to say nothing of his underpants, should he survive such a journey is this: The journey hasn't even begun.
For you have come to test your driving skills not on the speedlimit-less autobahn but on the Nurburgring, the ribbon of road that Germans drive when they find the autobahn too tame; the ribbon of road that racing legend Jackie Stewart called, without hyperbole, "the Green Hell"; the ribbon of road that a 24-year-old German named Mika Hahn told me, with furrowed brow, "is very, very dangerous"--far too dangerous for him to drive on, and he's a likely future world champion of speedway motorcycle racing.
The Nurburgring has long been too harrowing for Formula One racing. Since 1927 the picturesque Grand Prix track has lain, like a gold necklace on a rumpled bedspread, in the Eifel Mountains of western Germany. But over the decades, as cars became faster, the 14-mile, 170-turn course became deadlier: It closed forever to F/1 racing in 1976, after Austrian star Niki Lauda was famously set alight there when he crashed on the approach to a turn known as Bergwerk. By 1983 the 'Ring prudently had been closed to nearly every form of professional racing. Yet--and here's the rub--the Nurburgring remains open, as it ever has been, for the general public to drive on as fast as it pleases for as long as it pleases in whatever it pleases: race cars, jalopies or crotch-rocket motorcycles, many of which have become sarcophagi for their drivers.
• Read all of the stories and Q&As in the SI 60 series
Why on earth would anybody want to race there? "If you studied piano all your life and had a chance to play Carnegie Hall on a Steinway, you would want to do that," says Dan Tackett, 42, a financial services manager from San Diego who has made 11 trips to the Nurburgring in the past 16 years. "This is the most difficult, challenging and rewarding racetrack in the world. For serious drivers, it remains the Holy Grail."
It is Everest in asphalt--"the single greatest piece of motor racing architecture in the world," says Motor Sport magazine of England--and it demands equipment that is up to the task. Which is how it is that I'm heading for the Nurburgring in a cherry-red BMW Z8, the model driven by 007 in The World Is Not Enough but piloted at this moment by English photographer Bob Martin, who is not licensed to kill and is, truth be told, barely licensed to drive.
We retrieved this astonishing feat of automotive engineering at the world headquarters of the Bayerische Motoren Werke in Munich. The company's skyscraper is a kind of architectural pun, constructed of four cylinders. Directly across the street is the 1972 Olympic athletes' village. The site where 11 Israelis were taken hostage at the Summer Games is now the world's most poignant apartment complex. Mesmerized by the view, I absentmindedly signed a three-page document in German that rendered me legally responsible for returning, scratch-free, the $125,000, 400-horsepower, eight-cylinder, zero-to-60-in-4.5-seconds dream car that Bob was soon driving off the lot in the giddily overmatched manner of someone who has been given the keys to the space shuttle.
Or rather Bob, a giant of a man, was not so much driving the two-seater as he was wearing it. He looked like a man in a kayak. A very happy man: As we negotiated the streets of Munich, Bob began speaking in tongues about the "Zed 8" and its "bloody brute" of an engine, its "stop-on-a-sixpence" brakes and, "oooh!--all the beautiful bulgy bits" on its chassis. By the time we entered the autobahn and were swept away like a raft on rapids, all of Bob's bulgy bits were aflame with excitement. He was fearless in his phallic chariot. "BMW!" Bob cackled, merging into traffic, throwing down the hammer, the wind whining in our ears. "Bob Martin's Wheels!"
"BMW," I muttered darkly, not liking the looks of this at all. "Bob Martin's Willy."
But he didn't respond. So, with an ever-deepening sense of disquiet, I shut up and rode shotgun toward a 'Ring of Hell unlike any imagined by Dante.
We overnight in the Alps and discover, in the morning, that our five-hour route to the 'Ring will take us roughly from Ulm to Bonn--from the birthplace of Einstein to the birthplace of Beethoven--in a vehicle that weds science and art. Construction of Ulm's Munster cathedral began in 1377. Its 536-foot steeple remains the tallest in the world. Mankind, alas, no longer builds such wonders. Or do we? "I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals," French social critic Roland Barthes wrote of postwar Western civilization. "I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object."
Nowhere is the automobile more talismanic than in Germany, the country that gave us the concept of wanderlust, the word fahrvergnugen ("joy of driving"), the world's top driver (F/1 king Michael Schumacher) and high-performance automakers Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche and Audi (as well as mid-performance automakers Opel and Volkswagen, and nonperformance automaker Trabant). Americans think of themselves as car crazy, but they don't know the half of it. "Germany is a car culture," says Tackett, the American 'Ring veteran. "America is a drive-through culture of convenience."
"In America cars are appliances," adds U.S. Air Force captain Todd Fry, 26, a motorcycle-riding F-16 pilot based at Spangdahlem Air Force base, an hour's ride from the Nurburgring. "Here, cars are the objects of passion."
So Bob and I continue hammering toward the village of Nurburg. Two hours south of the Green Hell, when we cross the Rhine at Karlsruhe, a black Mercedes SL 500 convertible with full body kit and mag tires appears suddenly in our rearview. Bob takes little notice, for he is dozing, an alarming prospect given that he is--at the same time--driving 100 mph with the top down.
In our cramped cockpit (we will later discover) Bob's right leg is mashed against a button that activates his electronic seat warmer. It is 95[degrees] on this afternoon, and Bob is being bum-toasted by red-hot coils hidden beneath the black leather upholstery of his seat. He is being lulled into a coma by heatstroke and highway hypnosis when the Benz--headlights strobing madly--gets on our back bumper like one of those KEEP HONKING, I'M RELOADING stickers so popular in the U.S.
We are both nodding like junkies when the horn sounds behind us. Bob snaps to attention. In a panic, he reflexively jerks the wheel. We career into the right lane, and the Benz passes. But as soon as it does, the middle-aged maniac in the driver's seat (Bob is now calling him a "plonker") maneuvers the Merc into the right lane, decelerates and begins to ride our front bumper. After 200 yards of this mouse-and-cat game, he exits the autobahn slowly, so that we can see him pointing at the exit sign as we pass. The man is laughing through his elaborate mustache. (The men--and not a few women--of this German region all have mustaches like the CBS golf announcer Gary McCord.) The plonker keeps pointing at the exit sign--a sign, we now see, for the Daimler-Benz complex in Worth. The man in the Merc, evidently in the employ of that automaker, grins as if he's just won something. Perhaps he has.
Still we're 150 miles from the Green Hell. If drivers on the autobahn are hypercompetitive and brand-loyal, what kind of psychotics await us at the Nurburgring? "They are people who enjoy the sheer pleasure of driving," says BMW event manager Werner Briel when we pitch up at the 'Ring's parking lot. "They are concerned not only with velocity but with...style." Then, holding on to his homburg, he leans over and strokes his sweatered pet dachshund, Katya.
The Nurburgring drivers, in turn, attract an audience of rubberneckers almost as interesting as the motorists themselves. "They come to see the cars, they come to see the crashes," says Reinhard H. Queckenberg, whose name sounds like that of a Groucho Marx character but in fact belongs to the owner of a small racetrack not far from the Nurburgring. "It is living theater."
The elevation changes 1,000 feet along the track's 14 miles. The road rolls out, like a rucked red carpet, over hill and dale and through primeval forest. Three towns and a 12th-century castle are contained within the Nurburgring's infield. But then you have already, no doubt, seen the circuit: Countless car commercials are filmed on it, the kind that carry the disclaimer, PROFESSIONAL DRIVER ON A CLOSED TRACK. DO NOT TRY THIS YOURSELF.
Yet, every year, thousands of drivers do try it. Each of them pays 21 deutsche marks--about $9.50--per lap and joins the 100-plus vehicles that are allowed on the loop at any one time. For most of its length, the road is little more than two lanes wide. Unlike modern F/1 circuits, the Nurburgring doesn't have a thousand yards of run-off area beyond its shoulders. Rather, it has no run-off area. If you leave the road, you collide with a tree or a cyclone fence or steel guardrails. Crash through the guardrails, and you, or your estate, must pay to have it replaced.
One ambulance and one flatbed wrecker truck are forever on standby at the 'Ring's starting line. Drivers sign no waiver and are given no warnings. "This could never happen in the States," says Roger Scilley of Laguna Beach, Calif., whom we meet 10 minutes after arriving. "Lawyers wouldn't allow it. But over here, you're responsible for your own actions."
Which isn't to say that there are no warnings whatsoever at the Nurburgring. No, all along the perimeter of the track are signs that shriek, LEBENSGEFAHR! (Mortal Danger!), but those are for the spectators--and the ones behind the fencing, at that. There are no words for those race fans, like the four teenagers we'll encounter on our second day at the track, who watch the festivities, with a cooler full of beverages, from inside the guardrails. Imagine enjoying the Indy 500 while standing against the wall of Turn 2. Now imagine doing so when all the drivers are amateurs.
But then Germans are, generally speaking, better drivers than Americans. "In Germany," says Louis Goldsman, a 57-year-old retiree from Mission Viejo, Calif., on pilgrimage at the 'Ring, "you're required to attend a driving academy for four months before you can get a license. It costs the equivalent of $2,500 to obtain a license, and you can't get one until you're 18. Insurance is more expensive. All this makes for more serious drivers. The average 18-year-old German girl can outdrive the typical testosterone-polluted American male any day."
Goldsman has come to the Nurburgring with a group from the BMW Club of America. At 10 a.m. Eastern time on Monday, March 6, many of the club's 55,000 members called a toll-free number in hopes of getting one of the 72 available spots on the trip. Richard George speed-dialed the number 240 times from Dallas before securing one of the berths, which sold out in three hours. The trip cost each driver $2,500, plus airfare, and required him (or her) to have attended at least three high-performance driving schools. "We're freaks," says a woman who underscores the point by giving her name as Robyn McNutt. "Freaks."
The club has rented the track for three days. The first two days were devoted to learning the line of the course, mile by mile. Bob and I stumble upon these people on the final day, as they are grimly preparing to put the pedal to the metal and make their "graded lap" of the Nurburgring, at full speed, as expert judges stationed about the circuit make notations on their clipboards.
"We will be graded on a scale of one to 10, one being good and 10 being what the Germans call totalkaos," says Tackett, the club's best driver and de facto leader, in a pre-lap speech to his fellow motorists. "Now, you've all had some hot laps in practice, maybe even incurred the need for some laundry attention. You might want to slow it down a little this time: I have pictures of a car that rolled here to show you that this is serious business."
"Two years ago," whispers Dan Chrisman, a 53-year-old from Austin, "one driver on this trip took out 30 feet of fencing and wound up on his top in a BMW 328."
The driver of that car suffered nothing more than a cut, and his passenger walked away uninjured, but not all cars are that safe. Thirteen kilometers into the clockwise course is an infamous hairpin turn called the Karussell. It is a concrete former drainage ditch that drivers plunge into, leaving the track looming above them, like a paved wave threatening to break through the right-hand windows. "I have seen families in camper vans out on the course," says Chrisman, a three-time veteran of the circuit. "I've gone into the Karussell and looked above me to see a double-decker tour bus with little old ladies on the upper level looking down at me through their cameras."
There will be two hours of public racing after the BMW club completes its graded laps on this Friday evening, and already some heavy artillery is massing in the parking lot: Lancias, Porsches, Mercs, Ferraris, Vipers, a Lamborghini Diablo, a rare Dutch Donkervoort, a Fiat Uno with valve springs popping through the bonnet. Many cars have but a single seat, with a racing harness. There are racing motorcycles of every description, their leathered riders doing push-ups in the parking lot. "Those bikes," points out Mike Valente, a veteran English motor-sports photographer, "will be going 180 miles an hour on the final straightaway. On two wheels. Each wheel has a footprint the size of your shoe."
I am told to expect madness when the track opens to the public. "The Germans who live locally," says Tom Doherty, 41, an Indianapolis native who has attended every Indy 500 since 1966, "are all driving souped-up BMW M3s"--modified racing cars--"and they drive blindingly fast out here."
But before the public can have a go, Tackett has agreed to take me as a passenger on his graded lap. Everyone tells me that I'm lucky, that Tackett is the best American driver on site. But bad juju is confronting us everywhere as I hop into Tackett's BMW 523i sedan and we make our way to the starting chute.
Before Tackett and I set out, BMW of America Club member McNutt points to a spot on her map of the Nurburgring. "That's where Niki Lauda," she volunteers brightly, "had his barbecue."
Fritz-Jurgen Hahn, a 59-year-old member of an auto club in Dusseldorf, fondly recalls for me the first time he raced on the Nurburgring. "It was in 1963, in a Porsche Spyder," he says. That is the car James Dean died in.
"The track was built in 1927 as the German equivalent of a WPA project," Tackett says, attempting to soothe my nerves with conversation as we wait for a starting flag. "There are 170 turns, and I'm going to alert you to every one of them in advance, not to bore you, but to protect the interior of my car." With that, a flag drops and Tackett accelerates and the world goes by in a blur. I find myself riding a rail-free roller coaster at 125 mph, and I won't have a single coherent recollection--apart from removing my bucket hat and holding it over my mouth--of that first circuit.
"It's just a red fookin' mist out there, innit?" says Tom Thompson, an English motorcyclist we shall meet in a moment. "It is brain out, brick in."
Tackett takes me for two more laps when the course opens to the public. Though he follows the line expertly, the ride is sickening. For most of it I stick my head out the window like a black Lab. Ahead of us Bob Martin rides in the backseat of a convertible, facing backward through 170 turns at up to 140 mph, gamely taking pictures of the cars behind him. His shirt is pulled up over his mouth: At these speeds--and I am as serious as a heart attack here--a shower of vomit on a car windshield may prove fatal to the showeree. Bob had the Wiener schnitzel for lunch.
Bikes and cars flash past on either flank. The Nurburgring is exactly like a Grand Prix video game sprung to life, only instead of getting a GAME OVER message after crashing, you die.
Drivers must exit the circuit after each lap. Following my second shotgun lap with Tackett, one hour into public racing, cars are suddenly forbidden to go out again. The P.A. announcement in German states that the track is being cleared. The ambulance and the flatbed wrecker are dispatched, sirens wailing. Vague reports come back from the last drivers to cross the finish line that a yellow car spun out somewhere in the red fookin' mist. The wrecker truck will take 15 minutes to reach the far side of the track, seven miles away. After 10 minutes, a second ambulance sets out from the starter's chute, followed by a police car. The silence is hideous.
Twenty minutes later, a black Opel GTE crosses the finish line, its driver ashen-faced, evidently having lingered at the site of the accident. He drives through the parking lot and off into the dusk without telling any of us what he witnessed.
Many drivers at the Nurburgring mount video cameras in their cars. A young German who has just recorded his ride cues up the video for a crowd in the parking lot. About halfway through the circuit, as a diabolical turn comes into view, a spot of yellow begins to take shape on the shoulder. We view the tape in super-slow motion until three Zapruder-like frames reveal everything: a yellow Lancia marooned askew on the outside shoulder, its rear left wheel jammed all the way up into its well, the car's driver and passenger standing next to it, miraculously unharmed. The flatbed does not take the wreckage through the main gate, where all the drivers are parked waiting for the track to reopen. The driver of the Lancia is also spirited out some side gate. An announcement is made that the Nurburgring is closed for the night, but it will reopen on Sunday for 10 hours of public racing.
Tonight's public racing lasted 62 minutes before a near-catastrophe occurred. But we will be back on Sunday. We want to see the cars. We want to see the crashes. Reinhard H. Queckenberg was right. It is living theater.
A modern F/1 track has been constructed next door to the Nurburgring, and on Saturday it hosts an extraordinarily dangerous event: vintage motorcycle-and-sidecar racing. The sidecars are really just square metal platforms bolted to the bikes. Sidecar passengers, called monkeys, ride a foot off the pavement at 135 mph, sometimes prone, sometimes supine, their helmeted heads an inch off the track when leaning into turns. "Last year at this race, there was a bad accident," says Mika Hahn, a sometime monkey. "Four sidecars went into a turn together, two touched and over-rolled. One person was totally killed and had to be--how you say?--reanimated. He survived."
"The perfect sidecar passenger should weigh six stone [84 pounds] and have a pointed nose for aerodynamics," says a 6'7" 40-year-old biker whom I meet in the pits, "but I got this one: six-foot-seven and built like a brick s---house." He hooks a thumb at his towering 17-year-old son, who wears a black leather jumpsuit with his nickname stitched to the back: TINY.
"At least," says Tiny, "I got the nose."
Tom and Tiny Thompson are from Bulkington, England. Cheryl Thompson--Tom's wife, Tiny's mother--is a petite woman with painted nails who also wears full leathers. She too is a monkey. When her husband was 28, she explains, he rode his 1938 Triumph 250 everywhere. "He's so tall, he looked ridiculous on it," says Cheryl, a former sales executive with Prudential in London. "Like an elephant on a matchstick." She told him he needed an "outfit"--a sidecar--for aesthetic balance. "Get an outfit and I'll ride it," she promised, though she had no intention of doing any such thing. "Blimey if two weeks later he doesn't come home with a sidecar," says Cheryl. "I thought, Crikey." The couple painted THOMPSON TWINS on the Triumph. "The Thompson Twins," she says sheepishly of the new-romantic '80s band, "were popular at the time."
Cheryl sighs and says of Tiny, her only child, "He could ride a bike before he could walk." In 1983, Tom rigged a remote-control accelerator to his bike, tied a rope to its frame and let Tiny ride in a circle around him. Says Tom, "He was nine months old at the time."
"The other mothers in the park went mad," says Cheryl. "They said, 'Look at him, with no helmet!' I said, 'You try finding a helmet for a nine-month-old!'"
Tiny was allowed to drop out of school at 14--"They didn't want me back," he explains--and now spends the summer traveling from race to race with his parents, living in the back of a rented van. He loves his parents, and they clearly love him. How many 17-year-olds would be willing to spend the summer with their parents, sharing a single mattress? Tiny may have quit school, but the Germans have a phrase that fits him well: Reisen bildet. "Travel educates."
The Thompsons are protective not only of each other but of their fellow amateur racers as well. "We take calculated risks," says Cheryl. "The last thing you need is some barmy git out there who's trying to kill people. But you do get them. At [England's] Mallory [Park speedway], on a hairpin, someone tried to push us out--to take a hole that wasn't there--and he smashed into my right hand. I could have killed him. Afterward, he looked at my hand and said to me, 'At least you can still peel the potatoes, luv.' I wanted to punch him out.
"We took a nasty bump at the gooseneck bend on [England's] Cadwell Circuit," Cheryl says with classic British understatement. "This chap was going full out, and his stupid idiot passenger rolled onto the track, and it was either hit the passenger and kill him or go into the wall. So we hit the tire wall at 90 miles an hour." Cheryl says she was "black from top to toe" for two months. Tom was catapulted over the tire wall and lay motionless for 30 seconds with a ruptured kidney and three broken ribs. He slowly returned to consciousness and shouted, "I'm alive!" He wiggled his toes: "My legs work!" He wiggled his fingers: "My arms work!" Then, after a pause, he wailed to his wife, "Oh, my God, I'm blind!"
"There was mud in his helmet," says Cheryl, rolling her eyes.
The point is, they risked their lives to save a monkey, and that says something hopeful about human nature. "We are all ever so close," Cheryl says of the amateur vintage sidecar community, "no matter what nationality. At the start of every race, we all look at each other and cross our fingers--we get sorta jinxy-like. Solo riders aren't like that. But sidecar racers have camaraderie."
The Thompsons' enthusiasm for amateur racing renews my desire to get behind the wheel on the 'Ring of Hell the next day. I am--how you say?--reanimated. Before leaving the vintage bike rally, I buy a Red Baron helmet and goggles from a Swiss trafficker in old-time driving gear. (His business card says, somewhat salaciously, that he also purveys "accessories in leather.") Cheryl kindly cuts a piece of fabric from the Triumph's tarpaulin, creating a white scarf that will billow behind me as I whip the Zed 8 'round the Nurburgring on a public-racing Sunday.
"I would never ride over there," Tiny says as Bob and I prepare to take our leave. "They say one a week goes over there." By goes he means dies. Then Tiny bids us a cheery farewell.
On Sunday I see it all: a man doing 110 with his dry-cleaning hanging in a back window; an Opel Kadett hammering into an S-turn while its gas cap flaps against the rear quarter panel; a guy getting airborne at Kilometer 4, his children's dolls looking impassively out the rear windshield; three teenage girls smoking in an Opel Swing hatchback, the driver applying lipstick in the rearview while idling in the starting chute; and a man in a drop-top whose hat flies off at the Flugplatz. Happily, the hat doesn't suction itself to the face of a biker behind him. Heaven knows it could.
Todd Fry, the young Air Force captain, likes to race his Honda CBR 900 RR Fireblade around the Nurburgring. "I'm not one of these guys who's an adrenaline junkie," says Fry, of Pompton Plains, N.J., roasting in his red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuit. "I've scared myself more often on the motorcycle than in an F-16. But fear is a good thing to have. Fear is life insurance out here."
If so, I am well insured. As Fry and I speak, an Opel Esona race-prepared road car blazes by on the track. A dozen Lotus Elises go into the starting chute together. A pink-and-white tour bus full of seniors from Kaiserslautern enters the raceway, hazard lights blinking absurdly. A ding-a-ling in a camper van survives two passes around the 'Ring, both times plunging into the Karussell turn. "Just pass him," advises Fry. "Everyone has a right to be out there. For the most part, you're just racing the road anyway."
Tell that to the driver of the Porsche GT2, an earlier, more aggressive version of the car whose driver wanted to drag-race Bob and me on our first day in the Alps. Tell that to the pilot of the Nissan Skyline GT-R, a Japanese-only supercar that was probably towed over here from England, street-illegal as it is. Tell that to the nutter in the purple Lamborghini Diablo. Tell that to all the mustachioed Germans doing 160 on their Italian-made Aprilia racing bikes.
"The biggest rush is when you're fully leaned over into a turn and you're scraping your knees on the track," says Mike Leong, 24, an Air Force lieutenant from Cincinnati who rides a Yamaha YZF-R1 racing bike. "When you take a turn right, you have 440 pounds and 150 horsepower and all those G's acting on you." He shows me the deep scuffing in the plastic guards sewn over the knees of his leathers. "That," he says, "is how you know you've made a good turn."
"The military isn't crazy about us doing this," says Fry, unnecessarily.
"My parents don't know I ride," says Leong, "but my brother gets SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, so I guess they'll find out. Oh, well."
The Zed 8 beckons from the parking lot. I have been reluctant to drive it even on the rural highways around the Nurburgring, which attract almost as many racing bikers as the raceway. Everywhere on those roads are signs that say RACEN IST OUT! (Racing Is Out!) above a silhouette of a biker sliding off his cycle into oblivion. "You know it's a good road," says Leong, without a trace of false machismo, "when you see those signs."
Leong and Fry have the Right Stuff for the Nurburgring. Michael Schumacher, who was winning the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal on this Sunday afternoon, has the Right Stuff. Eighteen-year-old girls in Opel Swing hatchbacks have the Right Stuff. James Bond has the Right Stuff, and I have his car. But the question remains: Do I have the Right Stuff?
I came to the Nurburgring to test my driving skills--which is to say nerve--on the most difficult roadway in the world, the San Diego Freeway on acid. Of course, I really came to learn deeper truths about my courage under extreme duress. From afar, it seemed as if it would be good for a laugh. But this is what I've learned: I will not drive 125 mph on an automotive minefield in a borrowed car costing more than I'm worth, solely for the momentary diversion of a magazine editor back in New York City. Now I know. Reisen bildet. Travel educates.
I call that courage. You call me a wuss. Fine. But you'll have to say the same to Tiny, and trust me, you don't want to do that.