We all have bucket lists. And while some of
the items on those lists are wild fantasies,
I’d wager that most of us linger the longest
on dreams about the stuff we think we might actually
get to do one day. Otherwise, the whole thing is just
too depressing for day-to-day life.
So when people hear me describe the experience
I’m about to detail in this story and ask if it was on
my bucket list, I usually answer, “Not really.”
Because racing on the Nürburgring was, for me,
just one of those back-of-the-mind fantasy exercises.
I thought of it in the same way that anyone who has
ever picked up a basketball dreams of dribbling onto
the court at the Staples Center, or how every aspiring
guitarist dreams of plugging into an amp and hearing
that first bit of feedback roll over Madison Square
Garden as they shout into the mike, “Good evening
New York, 1-2-3-4!”
What I discovered was that racing at the Nürburgring
was not only a realistic goal, but also a highly
So here’s the bottom line–and I feel like I need to
share this right up front, since I certainly can’t be the
only one who’s harbored these deep-seated fantasies
of racing at one of the world’s great motorsports
facilities: If you are a licensed wheel-to-wheel racer
in the U.S., racing at the Nürburgring is 100 percent
within your grasp.
Sure, you may have to skip a vacation or, you
know, eat the generic ramen noodles instead of your name-brand ones for awhile, but you’re going to be
shocked at how affordable and easy it is to take your
racing career overseas.
Prepare to Qualify
The Nürburgring is a bit unique in the types of
events that run there, both because of the culture
that’s been created around the circuit and the sheer
presence of its historical significance in motorsports
history. While F1 and Prototypes compete on the
Grand Prix circuit, the highest-profile series that run
on the entire 13-plus-mile Nordschleife (literally,
“north loop”) are “house” series. These are races that,
while using rules from other German and European
motorsports series, are essentially Nürburgring-only
events and not part of other national series. These
include the RCN and the VLN in addition to the
24 Hours Nürburgring, which is a special event of
the VLN series.
The 24 is obviously the highest-profile event that
runs at the track. Competitors include factory teams
campaigning in GT3-spec cars with some special
modifications (mostly fuel capacity and certain other
minor mods) for the event. What’s very special about
this 24-hour race, however, is that it’s also open to all
comers. So alongside the factory GT3 machinery are
a host of amateur club racers campaigning everything
from pro-style machinery to near-stock club-racingstyle
sedans and sports cars. This gives the 24 Hours
Nürburgring a personality very much like what you’d
get if the Rolex 24 at Daytona and NASA’s 25 Hours
of Thunderhill had a baby together.
The 24 Hours is the longest of the VLN series of
endurance races, which usually run from three to six
hours. Drivers hoping to qualify for their first 24-hour contest must compete (and finish well) in
a minimum number of VLN series events
before they can contest the 24.
Entry into the VLN series also requires
some prior experience, which is where the
RCN series comes in. Sort of a hybrid
between a club race enduro and a NASA
Time Trial, the RCN can be entered by
anyone with the required grade of recognized
competition license from one of a
number of countries.
RCN events are contested for time
rather than track position, but there are
no restrictions on passing. They also
require a pit stop, as the distance covered
precludes a car from finishing without at
least a partial refueling.
As we mentioned, competing in the
RCN requires a license from a recognized
source. Our path to that source began with
Rotek Racing, which can be found online
Rotek is the brainchild of touring car
racers Rob Huff and Robb Holland, and
it’s based right across the street from the
Nürburgring in a lovely little industrial
park in the town of Meuspath. In addition
to their own competitive efforts, Rotek
specializes in taking Americans over to
Germany and sending them through the
process to get licensed, approved, and into
a car at the Nürburgring in a competitive
environment. They’re basically your Mr.
Roarke for this particular fantasy.
The idea of paying someone to help
fulfill your dreams of driving the world’s
most famous racetrack might initially
sound like an extravagant way to go, but
we quickly learned this was more of a
necessity. Rotek’s prices are comparable to
a Spec Miata rental at an SCCA regional
or NASA weekend, and having a “friend
on the ground” makes it exceptionally easy,
not to mention far less nerve-wracking
when it comes to some of the paperwork.
So let’s explore what it actually takes
to get qualified to race in Germany. First,
you’ll need an FIA international license.
This is one of the areas where Rotek considerably
streamlines the process. Licensing
is easy if you are an SCCA Nationally
licensed competitor, and also not too difficult
if you are a NASA licensee with some
additional résumé fodder. Your regional or
divisional licensing steward should have
all the paperwork they’ll need for your
application, and you’ll have to pay the few
hundred bucks to the FIA.
The other route–which is probably the
preferable one if this is something you’re
only going to do once, or occasionally–is the “letter of approval” route. Basically you’ll need a
current national U.S. racing license of some sort, and
at least one (preferably more) letter of recommendation
from a national racing steward.
In my case I had SCCA Pro Racing write a short letter
detailing my successful competition in the Pirelli World
Challenge series, and I had a NASA steward write a letter
detailing my successful history with NASA. Supplied
letters should be on official letterhead and originals if
possible, but we got by with a couple of PDFs (though
the officials in Germany did have me plug in my laptop
so they could run hard copies for their files).
My paperwork was well scrutinized at registration,
but the RCN officials had seen plenty of NASA and
SCCA competitors in their events before, so this was
nothing new for them. Once I was deemed worthy,
they gave me a laminated driver’s badge that I was
required to wear everywhere, which is a stupid requirement
because if you hand me a badge with my name
and the words “driver” and “ Nürburgring” on it, I’m
never going to take it off anyway.
My co-driver for the event, Gilles Neve, had a bit
easier time in registration because he was racing on a
Swiss national license, which is also an FIA-approved
national license. He breezed through with a quick
glance at his license, while my paperwork took a bit
more scrutiny. The FIA license is the easy button,
but letters of recommendation are just as valid even
though they may be examined a little more closely.
Registration is the first time you will be struck with
the realization that what you are getting into is a Big
Deal. Even though the RCN is a feeder series for the
VLN, and thus very much a “club” racing group like
we are familiar with in the U.S., the level of regimentation,
standardization and excitement surrounding
this event takes it to a whole other level.
In my case, the this-is-big moment was partially
due to the fact that the RCN event I was running was
part of the Nürburgring 24 Hours weekend. Although
our event would run Thursday morning as the first
competition of the weekend, there were already tens
of thousands of campers, fans, spectators, partiers
and general car enthusiasts gathered in the woods,
grandstands and surrounding areas of the world’s
most famous racetrack. Just getting from the parking
area to registration required navigating through a
huge crowd of other race cars, their crews, and even
fans gathered to see the RCN field unloading their
Tech followed registration, and anyone who has
ever been through tech in the U.S. knows exactly what
that was like: A conga line of cars paraded toward a
10-by-10 pop-up tent in the paddock where scrutineers
checked logbooks, safety gear and car compliance.
Just like in the U.S., that guy with the Porsche
911 walked away from his car and held up the line
while everyone tried to find him.
Wear the Right Gear
Tech may present an additional challenge for the
American racer in Germany for the first time, however:
To compete in the RCN, all of your gear must
be FIA certified, where U.S. racing requires all gear to
be SFI certified. Although much of the premium race
equipment on the market today is both SFI and FIA
certified, not all of it is. My helmet and shoes were
completely up to spec, but my suit–although tagged
as meeting the most current SFI standard–was not.
A quick call to Race Suit Rental solved this issue.
Owner Dave Schaal specializes in outfitting endurance
racing teams, first-timers, people shopping race suits
and occasional racers with complete driver gear. It’s a
cool business model, and even better, all of his suits
are FIA certified. A couple of days later, UPS brought
me a beautiful blue OMP suit with an FIA tag on the
back of the neck and a Grassroots Motorsports patch
on the left breast.
The men and women in tech looked over my gear
and affixed the proper stickers, double-checked the
driver credential now hanging proudly around my
neck (where it would remain undisturbed for several
days) and sent me about my way with kind words and
smiles. At least I think they were kind words; I’m not
completely sure, since they were all in German and
even some kind German words don’t sound very kind.
Go to the Drivers Meeting
Race day started early, with a 7:15 drivers meeting
in anticipation of a 7:45 green flag. Much like registration,
the drivers meeting had a very familiar, only
slightly foreign feel to it. The latter was due to the
fact that it was conducted entirely in German, which
I can read somewhat, but certainly can’t follow when
it’s being spoken at full speed through a PA system.
Luckily, having attended many drivers meetings in my
life, I found it pretty easy to follow along.
Gilles was kind enough to translate the important
parts for me. These were the instructions regarding
the safety regulations for racers at the Nürburgring,
which are unique because of the track’s enormous size
and the fact that it’s all but impossible for a pace car
to gather a field stretched over 25 km.
Unless an incident is so catastrophic as to require a
total race stoppage, pretty much any yellow flag at the
Nürburgring is essentially a local yellow. But there are
various grades of local yellow, from an informative,
gently waving yellow flag indicating that there may
be a car off the racing surface or a minor incident has
occurred, to a “code 60” event, which requires safety car
intervention and additional countermeasures to slow
and guide competition cars around the affected area.
In a code 60 yellow, you’ll see a double yellow flag at
the corner station, followed at the next corner station
by another double yellow flag accompanied by a sign
with the number 60 on it. Typically this is an incident
requiring a tow truck, safety car or additional personnel
to be on scene, and there will be traffic pylons or marshals
guiding race cars around the affected area–even
taking them off into the grass if necessary.
The speed limit in the affected area is–as the term
“code 60” indicates–60 kmh. After you pass the area
of the incident, the marshal’s stand will display a green
flag indicating you are now returning to a hot condition
and racing is again underway.
Get to the Paddock
The paddock and starting area for the RCN was the
tourist parking area, which lies along the front straight.
As this was a 24-hour weekend, we would also be using
the complete 24-hour course that would be used by the
cars in that race, including its pit lane, which is where
any refueling and driver changes would take place.
This created an additional logistical hassle because
teams would have to get their equipment from the start
to the hot pits, which meant going through an incredibly
crowded countryside and paddock area choked by
throngs of race fans there for the 24-hour weekend.
Because of its size and legions of fans, however, you
quickly realize that everything at the Nürburgring is
a bit of a logistical hassle.
Discuss Your Race Strategy
Before we sent Gilles off for the start, we talked a bit
of strategy. We had no radios in the car because they
were being used for Rotek’s 24-hour effort, so we’d use
pit boards to signal lap numbers and when to pit. We
were the only car in our class, so ultimately Gilles and I
were just there for the experience. This meant our goal
was to simply go out, have fun, drive fast, maybe find
someone who seemed to know what they were doing
and use them to help us learn the track a bit better,
and–most important–bring the car back in one piece.
Gilles Neve, by the way, is someone you’ll probably
be hearing much more about as his racing career
progresses. Although he has a bit of an insider’s ticket
to the motorsport world–his father is the series administrator
of the World Touring Car Championship–
Gilles’s dad made him this offer when he announced
his intentions to go racing: “I’ll make any phone call
or any introduction that you would like me to make.
I will not, however, write you a single check.”
To his credit, Gilles recognized pretty quickly that this
was by far the more realistic and generous offer. Overall,
he has the game figured out pretty well. He spent most
of his free time over the weekend walking up and down
the pit lane soliciting his services as a graduate-level
physical therapy student to teams with tired and sore
drivers, all the while collecting business cards, making
friends and ensuring that his talents as a race car driver
will probably not go unnoticed later in his career.
After we saw Gilles off for the start, Robb Holland
and I drove over to the driver parking area outside of
the Grand Prix circuit, which was still nearly a milelong
walk from the hotpits. (I didn’t have the heart
to tell Robb that my media parking pass would have
allowed us to park much closer than the driver’s parking
pass got us.)
Count the Minutes to Your Start
As I mentioned before, the RCN is essentially a time
trial, but instead of only counting your best lap, all
of your laps contribute in some way to your overall
score. Generous time allowances are given for out laps,
cool-down laps and pit laps, but aside from that it’s
Cars are sent off single file with a minimal gap
between each one. Even then, with nearly 25 km of track
to cover, the front of the field is almost within sight of
the starting area when the last of the nearly 150 entrants
leaves the paddock. This density of cars means that you
are essentially always running in some sort of traffic.
I’ll freely admit, the hour and a half or so that I
waited in the hot pits for my stint to begin was one of
the more nerve-wracking times I’ve spent in the pits at
a racetrack. It’s just impossible not to look around and
see history and significance everywhere. I felt a bit like
one of those peewee football players who comes out
during halftime at an NFL game to play a couple of
downs as entertainment during the break. Although
there were no real stakes involved, the significance of
the venue created enough pressure to form a true sense of urgency. As I prepared to get in the car, I could only
hope that none of the Nürburgring mascots would
come out and put a flying clothesline tackle on me as
I headed toward the end zone and a lifetime of glory.
As Gilles began his final lap on track and prepared
to head into the pits, other events were set in motion.
Team manager Uli Baumert informed the pit stewards
that we would be performing a driver change during
our stop, and showed them the official card he had
filled out earlier stating that Gilles Neve would be starting
the car and John Pasterjak (yes, I was John, because
that is what’s on my passport and the Germans are very
precise when it comes to identifying you according to
your international identification) would be entering
the car after the stop. The pit marshal looked over the
card, initialed something, and waited for our snarling
Audi RS4 to enter the pits.
Once we were stopped, the marshal stuck around to
ensure that our stop was completed in a safe manner
and that the person identified on the driver change
card was the one who was belted into the car. It was
all very similar to racing in the States, with a couple
added layers of officiousness because a) the Germans
like it that way and b) with 150 teams and nearly 300
drivers and a tight schedule to keep, chaos would be
an unwelcome visitor.
I’ve been involved in motorsports for nearly three
decades, but I will freely admit that there were a few
butterflies in my stomach when I heard that famous
Nürburgring pit row “hooter” wail signifying that a car
had entered the hot pits. The sight of that dark gray
Audi with race-the-ring.com all over the hood and big
GRM decals on the flanks coming down the pit row
at the Nürburgring was one of those tunnel-vision
moments that will remain burned into my memory
until something cooler happens to me. (It won’t.)
Gilles and I exchanged a few words about track
conditions, traffic, probably some other stuff, too.
After his first competitive stint at the legendary track,
he was as star-struck as I was. Then, with my best
Steve McQueen swagger, I swung my leg inside the
Audi, lowered my shoulder… and promptly banged
my helmet against the roll bar.
Turns out with my helmet and HANS in place
there was no way I was getting into the car that way. I
stepped back, gave the Germans my coolest “I meant
to do that” look, and clambered in head first. It was
less McQueen and more Chevy Chase, but sometimes
you have to improvise.
The Rotek crew helped belt me in, adjusted my mirrors,
closed the doors, and waved me out of the pit space.
It was just like I’d done hundreds of times before, in a
variety of different cars on racetracks all over America.
Except it wasn’t.
I’m not sure exactly how the human brain does it,
but it seemed like the time between the sound of the
door closing and my exiting pit road lasted several
hours–or, to be more accurate, several thousand
thoughts. Not the least of which was the fact that I
had never actually worked the clutch, throttle or brake
pedals on the car I was currently sitting in. You know,
the one I was about to drive competitively against other
cars on the world’s most famous ribbon of asphalt.
So here’s where I’ll pause to say that if you’ve harbored
any sort of desire to do this type of thing, don’t
wait. Stop talking yourself out of it. Allow yourself to experience your dreams for once; I can guarantee you
won’t regret it. As I said, you’ll pay about the same
amount to rent a seat in a race car at the Nürburgring
as you would in the States. Sure, there are other
considerations, like airfare and lodging and food and
whatnot, but, hey, you’re in Germany. Have a little
extra fun while you’re there and call it a vacation.
Bottom line is you’ve probably spent more on one of
your own racing weekends.
So back to the action: Because we were using the
full 24-hour course, the first couple of miles of my
first lap would be on the Grand Prix circuit portion
of the course. The Nürburgring’s Grand Prix course
is exceptionally well maintained, wide, smooth,
with plenty of run-off, braking markers, excellent
sightlines and pretty much what an American would
think of when the term “race track” pops into his
head. It was an excellent place to get introduced to
the competent and benign power delivery of the allwheel-
drive Audi RS4. That’s a good thing, because
as soon as you make that transition from the wide,
smooth, predictable confines of the Grand Prix course
to the Nordschleife, all bets are off; the sharks have
been allowed to enter the shallow end of the pool,
and you realize that whatever skill you thought you
possessed was only an elaborate ruse perpetrated by
a hyper-intelligent alien race whose only joy comes
in seeing fat Americans panic.
I’m at the point with the Nordschleife where I’m
comfortable that I know the rhythm and flow of the
track. Many trips to Germany for press events, tourist
driving days and the like have all given me a pretty good
knowledge of the basic approach to each section of
track. But while knowing the direction and approximate
speed and shape of the next turn is helpful, knowing
the intricacies of such a complex stretch of asphalt is
something that takes years of practice, trial and error,
coaching, and sheer hard work and determination.
I will say that all the hours I spent in the Gran Turismo
and Forza recreations of the track were not wasted
hours. Modern games and sims have extremely faithful
reproductions of the track, down to a lot of the off-track
visual cues that you will use for reference during a lap.
What no simulation can convey, however, is the
bluntly extreme nature of this facility: the claustrophobic
narrowness of parts of the track, where it feels
like the simple act of passing another car puts both of
you in jeopardy, and the bumps, which are so bad on
the front straight, they actually feel like they threaten
to upset the balance of the car and spin you off into
the guardrail. Nor can the sims reproduce the impact
of the fans–who, even though we ran in a Thursday
morning race in support of the main feature of the
weekend, were stacked several deep at every fence.
Even during our RCN event, those fans were in
a constant state of exhilaration, and they cheered loudly as their favorite cars did battle for
By midway through my first lap on the
Nordschleife, I became comfortable enough
with the Audi, and confident enough in
my own knowledge of the track, that I was
actually able to start passing other cars and
dicing a bit with those that were at or near
my own pace. It was probably just the huge
gulps of adrenaline giving me superior situational
awareness, but even on the chaotic
asphalt roller coaster that is the Nordschleife,
I never felt as though the situation was
beyond my control.
I attribute part of this comfort to the
exceptional corner workers at the track.
There are over 130 corner stations, each
with at least two workers, and every single
one of them is hyper-vigilant in communicating
the situation on track to the
drivers in an effective fashion. Rather than
just standing there and waving flags, the
marshals communicated through body
language, eye contact, and highly expressive
use of the flags. A glance at each corner
station gave me as much information as a
look in my mirror, and sometimes more.
The on-track action was also conducted
at an extremely high level. Since everyone
was competing for lap time, not track
position, there was a bit of a gentlemen’s
agreement that everyone be vigilant to stay
out of each other’s way. Faster cars were
still responsible for making a clean pass,
however, as slower cars did not need to
yield the racing line. But slower cars would
occasionally act in such a way as to allow
the faster car a bit larger or more obvious
window of opportunity.
It also became quickly obvious how
much of an advantage track knowledge
was on a complex, chaotic circuit like
the Nordschleife. I had a multi-lap battle
with a Benz touring car that I could easily
overtake on the more straightforward GP
circuit. Shortly after making the transition
to the more technical Nordschleife, however,
he would be by me in short order. He
actually became a fantastic rabbit for me
to learn more of the secrets of that twisty
ribbon of asphalt, and each subsequent
lap saw me passing him earlier on the GP
course, and him passing me later on the
Nordschleife and pulling less of a gap.
After the final lap, we exchanged a firm
handshake in the impound paddock. I
think he had kind words for me; he was
As if the on-track activity wasn’t scary
enough already, we also had to contend with the additional frustration of speed-limited
areas. Due to the recent horrific crash of a
GT3 Nissan, speed limits had been posted
in certain areas of the track. These limits
were high–some slower cars could not even
approach the 220 kph (about 135 mph)
limits in some of the areas–but some of the
faster cars, including our Audi RS4, had to
back off to make sure we were under the
limit. It was a bit of a clunky solution to a
horrible tragedy, and it looks like there will
be changes for 2016 that will allow the full
track to go back to green again.
Exit the Veteran
At the race’s end, competitors report to
impound and quickly get the hell out of
the cars. They’ll soon be parking the next
one too close for you to get your door
open, so you’ll have to do your decompression
elsewhere. You’re also expected to get
away from your car, as impound is closed
to competitors until the results are final.
As the lone American in the race, I got
more than a few handshakes and even
signed a few autographs for the scores of
fans that were milling around the paddock
area after the event. German fans take their
racing seriously at every level, and appreciate
the people who put on a show for them.
Wrapping up a story like this is difficult.
Much like the experience itself, I don’t want
it to end. I suppose the takeaway message
is that if you really want to experience all
that motorsports has to offer, do not be
shy about experiencing it outside of your
usual comfort zone. You may find that
what you once thought was a dream is
And if you’re worried about being a
“foreigner,” just walk around the impound
paddock for a while. I had no idea what
most of the other drivers were saying to
me after the race, but the smiles, the hand
gestures, the sweaty, rumpled helmet hair,
and the all-inclusive feeling of community
were rather universal.
This article is from an old issue of Grassroots Motorsports. Get all the latest how-tos and stories for just $20 a year. Subscribe now.
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View comments on the GRM forums
2/6/17 9:19 a.m.
"... They’re basically your Mr. Roarke for this particular fantasy."
I had to read that twice. From my math, anyone younger that 34 years old wasn't even born yet to understand the reference, so people maybe older than 44 or so might (not sure about the rerun schedule). So by some luck, your reference still works, given the demographic of the potential audience. Thanks, you've been great, I'll be here all week.
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