Open Pipes: Keep on Rennstrecken

I’m writing this column from 35,000-odd feet above the Atlantic, aboard Delta Flight 131 from Munich to Atlanta. I mention that not to draw attention to the wonders of technology that allow us modern types to work anywhere, anytime, nor to pimp Delta’s fabulous Economy Comfort seats with 50-percent extra legroom and recline, allowing for much easier laptop operation (although, Delta, I’m happy to take your calls).

No, I mention my variable location for an easy segue into the discussion of my annual trip to the Nürburgring for the ADAC/Zurich 24 Hours of Nürburgring.

Of course, I’m also acutely aware that if you’ve followed this column for the past few months, you’ll know that I frequently focus on themes of travel. That’s because discussing travel is typically much more exciting than describing life at home. The mundane repetitiveness of everyday life is no match for exotic destinations and fascinating international characters.

Hey, you know what’s awesome? Walking around without pants while you’re eating cereal out of the box. Also, don’t you hate getting bitten by parrots all the time, even when they’re supposed to be your friends?

See? Writing about my home life is weird and creepy. For those of you who haven’t tuned out yet, let’s get back to the Nürburgring.

I’ve been going to this 24-hour race for a few years now, and I’m just starting to get a grip on the culture and mystique surrounding this track. You know, I’m not going to come out and say it’s my favorite track ever because I think that shortchanges so many other fabulous circuits, both historic and off the radar. For example, there is simply no other experience on Earth like Turn 12 at Road Atlanta. Heck, I’d raced there for nearly 15 years before I went through Turn 5 in a way that I felt was even close to proper (thanks to Terry Earwood). And there are some lesser-known gems out there that you owe it to yourself to experience, like Oklahoma’s Hallett circuit. There aren’t many tracks that run equally well in both directions, and Hallett is one of the most raceable tracks you’re likely to run across.

But this Nürburgring deal—let’s just say it’s easy to see where the buzz comes from. We’ll give you words and pictures on the race and some tips for experiencing the track in an upcoming issue, but I want to use this space to examine the more ephemeral qualities of what makes a track so special.

First off, it can’t be easy to master.

When drivers make the transition from autocrossing or track days to road racing, they can have a tough time getting their heads around one concept: Negotiating the track during a road race is largely a background activity. At a track day or time trial, 100 percent of their focus is aimed at driving the track: braking points, turn-ins, apexes, etc. In a road race, those concepts need to function autonomously. The driver who can devote the greatest percentage of his or her attention to traffic, tactics and strategy is going to beat the guy concentrating on braking markers every time. And the ’Ring sets the standard for commanding your attention. The course for the 24 Hours covers some 16 miles, including 13-odd miles of the Nordschleife. While the literature may say there are 73 distinct corners, there’s not a meter of track that is remotely straight. Your control inputs are essentially constant. Imagine the intensity of the uphill esses at VIR or the downhill esses at Infineon Raceway, but stretched out over an entire 16-mile lap.

Second, I think any great track must have a sense of history about it. That doesn’t mean it has to be old, because plenty of newer tracks have quickly adopted that sense of distinguished greatness that sometimes comes with age—VIR again comes to mind. Of course, there are tracks like Sebring, where the history is so pervasive that it has eaten the concrete to a nub. It seeps out of cracks in those old bomber runways wide enough to put your fist in.

Imagine, for a moment, a track like Sebring being constructed today. It simply wouldn’t happen. The Nürburgring is built of history. Like Sebring, it’s a product of a time when things were built first and figured out later.

Next, a great track must produce great racing. Whether the competition is between a pack of Spec Miatas or groundpounding GT cars, the track must be diverse enough that each driver can find nuances to create minute advantages.

This doesn’t mean a track needs to be complex, though. A map of Roebling Road looks like a quick sketch someone made minutes before their track design homework was due, but those seemingly simple curves mask the circuit’s highly technical nature. Maintaining momentum around those big sweepers requires a high level of scientific precision.

Finally—and this is a highly personal requirement—a track must have a certain iconic quality to its scenery to make my list. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I think every great track needs a unique look. The Nürburgring has it easy here, with the deep German forest lining every inch of the old track and artistic, Teutonic technology encircling the newer GP circuit.

But I also have a soft spot for the windmills at Thunderhill and the way they rise out of the rolling hills of the Northern California landscape. There’s also something special about Summit Point, where you can crest the hill through Turn 3 and head down the carved-out West Virgina hillside through Turn 4; it’s always seemed more like a video game than reality. Of course, I’ve never hit that hillside that sits just beyond the almost nonexistent runoff area, so I have a feeling the scenery would get very real very fast if I ever got in trouble there.

I guess the point of all this is that, while I make no secret of my love for the Nürburgring—heck, I hope never to miss another 24-hour race there so long as I draw breath—great tracks are all around us. What twisty bits of asphalt come to your mind when you let it wander to thoughts of howling tires and stinking brakes?

It’s a party at the track and everyone’s invited. Subscribe to Grassroots Motorsports now.

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pwelliott
pwelliott None
4/5/14 3:26 a.m.

The happiest days of my life were spent on the old Nürburgring....when all the great pine forests of the "Green Hell" stood tall and dark and there was NO graffiti. Meeting Fangio in '59; the sound of those great green Vanwalls and the many other magnificent front engine machines. Later, in '69, 10:31 and change in my McNamera F-Vee #001. Long live the greatest circuit in the world. P. W. Elliott, "Competition Press & Autoweek" correspondent, 1966-69.

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