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'Ring Tossed A visit to the Nurburgring--once the world's most treacherous racetrack, now a pedal-to-the-metal public playground--provides a crash course in German automania

Jan. 15, 2001
Jan. 15, 2001

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Jan. 15, 2001

'Ring Tossed A visit to the Nurburgring--once the world's most treacherous racetrack, now a pedal-to-the-metal public playground--provides a crash course in German automania

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.

This is an article from the Jan. 15, 2001 issue

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.

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.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB MARTIN Disarmingly Close Georg Guski skims the surface as Herbert Grod drives their 1955 BMW into a turn during a vintage sidecar motorcycle race at Germany's Nurburgring (page 70). [Leading Off]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN GOGGLE GIGGLES The author took his head--and life--in his hands, cruising the autobahn in a "bloody brute" of a Bimmer.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTINCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN GONE LOOPY About $10 will buy you a merry go round the 'Ring, including a spin on the famous Karussell.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN PASSING FANCY On public racing days, drivers must find their way around not only the course but also the occasional speeding tour bus.COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY DAN PICASSOB/W PHOTO: JESSE ALEXANDER FROM DRIVEN, CHRONICLE BOOKS ON THE LINE In the 1958 German Grand Prix, British star Peter Collins, shown here lapping a straggler in his Ferrari (2), was killed on the 11th lap. Today (below), thousands take their chances every year.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN TRAFFIC JAMMIN' Drivers and riders arrive in and on all manner of machine, pay their marks and take their marks for a grab at the 'Ring.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN FAMILY CIRCUITS The sidecar-racing Thompsons (from left, Tom, Tiny and truly tiny mom Cheryl) believe travel educates.

Hell on Wheels

For half a century, the 'Ring, 14 miles and 170 turns through the
Eifel Mountains, challenged--and frequently took the lives of--the
world's best racing drivers. Want to take a spin?

Onofre Marimon of Argentina killed in practice for 1954 Grand Prix

Niki Lauda gravely injured during 1976 Grand Prix

Herbert Muller of Switzerland fatally injured in 1981 sports car
race

Peter Collins of Great Britain killed in 1958 Grand Prix

Gerhard Mitter of Germany killed in practice for 1969 Grand Prix

TOO HARROWING FOR RACING, THE RING REMAINS OPEN FOR THE PUBLIC
TO DRIVE ON AS FAST AS IT PLEASES
EXPECT MADNESS WHEN THE TRACK OPENS TO THE PUBLIC--THE
LOCALS DRIVE BLINDINGLY FAST HERE
"THIS IS THE MOST CHALLENGING RACETRACK IN THE WORLD. FOR
SERIOUS DRIVERS IT IS THE HOLY GRAIL"
"ONE PERSON WAS TOTALLY KILLED," SAYS HAHN. "HE HAD TO BE--HOW
YOU SAY?--REANIMATED"