The Nurburgring Revisited

The atmosphere at the 40th Annual Oldtimer Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, Germany was magically retro. Imagine a 50 year old Bentley hitched to a flatbed trailer, next to a MGK3 parked in front of a 250 SWB Berlinetta, a Maserati Birdcage next to a 4CL , an OSCA V12, and two Bugatti T35s surrounded by a variety of vendors, baristas, and bartenders. An underpass leads to the infield, a modern pit lane fronted by 33 garages big enough to park two 18 wheelers topped off with posh spectator boxes and corporate chalets.

BMW M Testcenter at Nurburg
BMW M Testcenter at Nurburg

I arrived on Friday shortly before noon, scavenged a parking space in Nürburg among its guest houses and enjoyed a fine lunch in a tavern next to BMW’s M Testcenter. A quick walk uphill brought me to the back of a grand old concrete grandstand T13 that looks southeast in the direction of the Dorint Hotel, the pits and BMW and Mercedes grandstands (Tribüne) beyond. T13 enjoys a commanding view of Coca Cola Curve, a 150 degree double apex sweeper to the start/finish line. T13’s seniority gives it the only spot where the Nordschleife and F1 track almost touch via two short access roads. The old pit lane is just below and the historic garages are a few hundred meters south.

Porche 550 and Hillclimb Special
Porsche 550 and Hillclimb Special

My ticket looks like a fancy airline boarding pass. A quick scan and I’m in. On race day it gets scanned a lot as I pass through choke points between the various facilities. But today is practice so security and crowd control is minimal. The first race cars I see are a red Alfa GTA with yellow nose, a Mustang 2+2, a lightweight E-type and a Morgan warming up then heading out for practice on the Nordschleife.

Maserati 4CM and Birdcage
Maserati 4CM and Birdcage

I ask a 60 something volunteer where the best viewing is. He marks a few locations on my map (two of them I passed driving in) where I saw lots of cars parked by scavengers. Wrong! The original Nürburgring (now the Nordschleife) is a “public” racetrack, way too big to secure. I was very disappointed later when I learned that the vintage races on Saturday and Sunday will be confined to the much shorter and modern F1 track. Today’s three hour endurance race is on the original 14 mile track. So, hiking to the famous jump (Flugplatz), curves (Brünnchen) or straight (Antoniusbrücke) tomorrow doesn’t make sense just to watch the public who paid ten bucks to scare their street cars.

Original Pit Garages With Bugatti T35s
The original pit garages with Bugatti T35s

Ticket scanned, I entered the F1 track facility next to the Dorint Hotel where the garages from 1927 are also located. The atmosphere was magically retro. Imagine a 50 year old Bentley hitched to a flatbed trailer, next to a MGK3 parked in front of a 250 SWB Berlinetta, a Maserati Birdcage next to a 4CL , an OSCA V12, two Bugatti, T35s, etc. surrounded by select vendors, baristas and bartenders. An underpass leads to the infield, a modern pit lane fronted by 33 garages big enough to park two 18 wheelers topped off with posh spectator boxes and corporate chalets.

Pit Garages at Nurburgring
Nurburgring F1 grade pit garages
250 Ferrari and Cooper T52 Junior
250 Ferrari and Cooper T52 Junior

The rest of the infield, however, was all business. Not much hobby was left from a decade or two ago when I last visited. There were enough big transporters, hospitality patios, “wrenches and handlers” around to organize the third tier team on down of an F1 race. I think I also counted at least a half dozen vintage transporters. There were huge white tents, a half dozen of the 60’ x 180’ variety down to the four-car garage size, and of course many of the 45’ trailer with awning variety. BUT you can’t spend cash here. Rather, you obtain a cash card from any number of rovers and load it up with funds charged to your credit card. Also there is a lot of free food, in fancy temporary digs, though only for the invited and the in-crowd. The door men and ladies at Jaguar’s chalets wouldn’t make exceptions, even for a visitor from across the pond who owns two of their vintage icons. At an auto show, I can shrug it off, but at a vintage car event it seems dumb and inhospitable. But hey, I already bought Ring Bucks and the beer, wine and variety of food on offer was way above good and ordinary.

Staging Nurburgring Vintage Race
Staging Nurburgring vintage car race
Start of Nurburgring Vintage Race
Start of Nurburgring vintage car race

Saturday I spent in Köln shopping, looking for the unusual retail plus I happened upon a very good potter’s art fair and an antique/flea market. Sunday I returned to the Ring, early. The construction zones on several hugely high and very long Autobahn bridges on the A565 weren’t the nail biters they were on Friday (seriously squeezed lanes by traffic barriers, only two feet to spare between a bus and car, definitely a no supercar zone) but traffic was light, it flowed reasonably, and the second lane was only used sporadically.

Alfa Romeo Club at Nurburgring
Alfa Romeo Club at Nurburgring

Before I committed to off-track parking on grass, I had the sense to stop at a nice looking gas station on the B258. They have a primitive website (but deep with enthusiasm) with some vintage sports cars parked, next to the Nordschleife. I won’t forget that place! Not only did it serve very good croissants, cappuccinos and espressos, it included a large and serious car model shop plus racks of regalia clothing, caps, ponchos, umbrellas, monopod seats, etc. etc. After a second breakfast, I bought a unique rugby-style shirt which I treasure. My wife calls it my shirt from Logoland.

LIghtweight Jaguar E-Type prepped for battle
LIghtweight Jaguar E-Type prepped for battle

I should not forget to explain how I ended up with my ticket. While booking my flight to Köln for a serious family matter I realized I would be returning home the same weekend as the annual AvD Oldtimer Grand Prix. Its a little more than an hour from Köln — dumb not to try. So from the Nürburgring website (also well worth the visit and drilling down), I purchased a three-day ticket for about $80, and had it mailed to me c/o the hotel I had booked. Upon my arrival the young lady at reception handed me an envelope from the Nürburgring with a very approving look that made me feel real good about my impulse.

Pit lane at Nurburgring
View of the pit lane at Nurburgring
Another view of the pit lane at Nurburgring
Another view of the pit lane at Nurburgring

As for the racing, I have no details to report just impressions as I didn’t even spring for a program. I’ll let it suffice to say vintage racing here involves the usual classes of race cars, generally starting from the pre-war open, early and later post war open and closed, formula and sports prototype/GT/production, sedan and sports modified/CanAm, etc. What stood out for a visitor from North America was that the Swedes run mostly American iron — like Ford Galaxies, Mustangs, Camaros and Corvettes — while the few Americans represented by the likes of Bobby Rahal runs a Porsche RSR. I saw plenty of Brits and Germans with Jags, mostly E-types, and three or so seriously prepared Mercedes 300SLs, very few Porsche 356s though. There were definately more Ferraris and Maseratis from the 1950s and 1960s than I’ve seen at the Monterey Histerics unless they were the feature.

Overall this event and venue had the feel of a huge track day for owners of vintage race cars. The new Ring is a great place to wring out and test the equipment using the best facilities imaginable. No featured marque this year, no parade of celebrities, and none of the circus atmosphere with track-side announcers or “color commentator.” All in all, it was an excellent ticket to a fab venue with eye popping race cars, many driven faster than they ever could in their day. And the topper was I didn’t see any “incidents” on the track and this time, as you can see,  the weather was absolutely perfect!

Almost 1948 with the very competitive Maserati 4CLT, profitable, easy to drive, and maintain
Almost 1948 with the very competitive Maserati 4CLT, profitable, easy to drive, and maintain

Additional comment: Not only have Mercedes and BMW built lavish grandstands with showrooms and expo space for lease, the owners of the Nürburgring have overextended themselves financially. Their extravagance is imposing but as welcome as an invitation to a top tier country club or resort. Nothing here is primitive or temporary. I suppose this is what Germans expect and Bernie Ecclestone demands of a bi-annual venue for F1. I know this — the Ring will remain what it is, no matter the bonds hanging from balloons. It is a natural and cultural resource in a good economy with some “issues” with debt obligations it can’t afford just now. Familiar stuff, eh?

Photos by Peter Pleitner.