The Nürburgring: An Amazing Place to Go for a Sunday Drive

Photography by Terry L. Pearson

[Editor's note: This article originally ran in the November 2008 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

It just doesn’t seem fair. We get the Grand Canyon, Monday Night Football and Oprah, but Germany pretty much trumps all of those with the Nürburgring. Its Nordschleife circuit is 13 miles of unrestricted driving pleasure that’s open to anyone with a car, some free time and a couple of bucks to spare for the toll. A visit could well be the ultimate car enthusiast getaway.

Completed in 1927, the Nordschleife was conceived as a closed racing circuit that encouraged the open-road, Targa Florio-style competition popular at the time. Today it lives on as a one-way public toll road and occasional club race circuit. Nearly everyone who’s ever turned a wheel in anger on a track aspires to one day tackle the 20 kilometers and 73 turns of this historic facility.

Well, it’s easy. All you have to do is pay the toll.

All comers can drive this renowned, historic racing facility—provided they have a licensed, street-legal car—for less per mile than the average track day in the States.

Rocking the ’Ring

On a recent trip to Germany, we had the chance of a lifetime to visit this fabled facility. BMW loaned us a 325i during our visit, and when we asked if we could drive it on the ’Ring, they responded, “Well, it’s a public highway. Of course.” 

And that’s the beauty of the ’Ring. As many as 20 days per month the circuit is open for Touristenfahrten. No, that’s not what tourists do after too much bratwurst; it means “Tourist Travels,” which roughly translates to “Anyone with a street car can show up and run.” 

The procedure is simple: Arrive at the circuit, find a spot in the likely crowded parking lot, walk up to the ticket hut and purchase as many laps as you like. Once you have your ticket, you can pull into the queue and feed your ticket into the automatic toll machine. When the machine spits the ticket back to you and the automatic gate raises, you’re on your own. 

The Nordschleife itself is 13 miles of one-way road with no speed limits except in the shutdown area approaching the finish line pits and in one short series of corners. All German road laws still apply, however, and they are strictly enforced. This means that passing is only allowed on the left—instead of “off” the racing line—and the responsibility to let faster traffic by lies with the car being overtaken. Aside from that, you’re free to take the line you want, as fast as you want. The only thing you can’t do is take a flying lap; the pits must be entered after every lap so the toll machine can be fed.

Laps start at under 20 euros each (about $30 at press time), but multi-lap tickets are offered for a substantial savings. Season passes are even available, allowing unlimited access to the circuit during Touristenfahrten days. 

Ringers

Pulling into the parking lot of the Nordschleife is much like entering the paddock during a track day here in the States. A major portion of the cars are serious track machines, many of them roll cage-equipped beasts piloted by drivers in full safety gear. 

Of course, these firebreathers are sharing the road with tour buses, motor homes full of vacationers, motorcycles and slow-moving tourists. While the concept sounds like a recipe for disaster, car-to-car trouble is rare, although the recovery truck does get plenty of work from single-car incidents.

When you arrive at the 'Ring, expect to see a variety of machinery waiting for a turn to get on track, from the lastest Porsches to tour buses. This is especially true during Touristenfahrten, when there are no special events.

On the Sunday we were there, we met folks from all over Europe, including ’Ring regulars from as far away as the U.K. Of course, a 5- to 6-hour drive from the ’Ring will get you to most of Europe, so it’s rather conveniently located. The local economy is heavily ’Ringer-based, as several of the local hotels also offer garage rentals, car storage, lifts and service bays. 

In keeping with the international theme, we went halfway around the world and ran into someone from right around the corner, relatively speaking. A Corvette Z06 that had just come off the track caught our eye, and when we struck up a conversation with the owner, the slight Tennessee accent gave away his American roots. 

Lt. Col. Terry Pearson makes the most of his deployment to Europe by enjoying the 'Ring with his all-American Corvette Z06.

Turns out that Lt. Col. Terry Pearson—a NATO employee living in the Netherlands—was not only a ’Ring regular but an avid reader of our magazines. His daily driven Corvette sees ’Ring action as often as he can make the 3-hour drive from Holland. “I seem to get here about once a month, but much more than that and I’d be going through tires too fast,” he quipped.

Driving the ’Ring

To take a lap, in addition to the aforementioned ticket, you’ll also need a licensed and registered street car. Since even four-wheeled ATVs can be licensed in Germany, whatever you fancy will probably get the green light. 

Officials will turn you away from the gates if you have a temporary tag, however, and there’s a good chance you’ll get a hard time if you turn up with a regular rental car. Nearly every car rental company specifically forbids driving on the ’Ring, so consider yourself warned. 

If you can’t arrange for a car through borrowing or bringing your own, there are alternatives. Several companies rent out prepped lapping machines complete with roll bars, race seats and full safety gear. 

Want to see the track from the passenger seat before attacking it from behind the wheel? Ask nicely enough and you’re sure to get an offer or two—especially if you have a ticket in your hand and volunteer to pay for the lap. This almost always works and is an excellent way to see the track without having to concentrate so intently on driving. At the very least, a coffee or soda in the cafe is a suitable “tip” for a hot lap.

Another option is a shotgun ride in one of the high-profile, pay-to-ride machines at the track. The most widely known are the Ring-Taxis, a fleet of brand-new BMW M5s driven at 11-tenths by well-known racers. Rides in the taxis are not cheap at 160 euros per lap, but the cost is per car, not per person, so splitting the fare among three people makes it a bit more affordable. The taxis book months in advance, so plan ahead.

First-time visitors to the 'Ring are well advised to take advantage of one of the ride-along tours. Nürburgring professionals like Sabine Schmitz allow passengers to learn the track in a BMW-sponsored Ring-Taxi. If the V10 BMW M5 she's sporting isn't fast enough for your tastes, there's also a Zakspeed Viper that can be hired for a similar service. Drivers who attempt the drive without sufficient reconnaissance might still get the chance for a ride-along—on the tow truck.

There are also rides available from the Zakspeed Viper Jet, which flew by us a few times at what seemed like a purely theoretical speed. Like the BMW Ring-Taxis, these rides cost a few euros—270 to be exact—and book well in advance.

Of course, the ultimate prize is to be able to bang out lap after lap on your own, and it’s worth the effort. Although the ’Ring is more than three times longer than any track in America, there’s hardly a single section that you’d ever call a true straight. 

The circuit’s 20 kilometers are filled with twists and turns of every shape, radius, camber and profile, and no two are even remotely similar. It’s not insanely fast—most cars run the entire ’Ring in third and fourth gear, while some need to take second in spots or a few pucker-inducing trips into fifth. Still, the ’Ring is highly technical thanks to its many interlinking and interdependent corners. It’s not unusual to screw up one corner and have it affect your line for the next kilometer.

Speaking of line, yes, you can learn the track. In fact, most of the folks you’ll see running at Touristenfahrten days know the track pretty well, which is why you’ll get dusted by a diesel VW Polo.

You won’t, however, learn the track quickly, so drive accordingly. The most dangerous lap you’ll ever take there is probably the second or third one. The sequence usually starts with you thinking, “Hey, I remember this section.” And the next thing you know you’re staring at the sky through the hole in the floor that the safety crew cut so they could extricate you. Compounding the pucker factor are the track’s many blind crests; several blind hills are followed by flat-out straights, but some lead to heavy braking areas. Proceed with caution. 

Even after just a couple of laps, though, you will start to become familiar with the rhythm and flow of certain sections. And, mercifully, there are a few spots where the shape of the track allows good visibility through several upcoming corners, making it a little more comfortable to start pushing the limit in the learning phase.

It also helps to find a car to follow. If nothing else, a car in front of you provides some indication of which way the track goes over the next blind rise. Don’t follow anyone too much faster than you, though. Trying too hard to keep up can quickly dunk you in over your head. Also, the track is so twisty that you have to follow quite closely to actually keep a car in sight. When following someone, though, focus on the track and not the car ahead. The goal is to learn the track, not play follow the leader.

Probably the most important thing to remember during any ’Ring excursion is to drive defensively, and watch your mirrors as if you thought the winning lotto numbers were in them. There will be an enormous speed disparity among the cars out there on any given day, and throwing bikes into the mix further complicates matters. Keep aware of your surroundings, and you’ll do fine. Getting in over your head here can be expensive, and if things really start going wrong, you’ll wish you’d paid more attention to the tow truck and accident sections of your English-to-German dictionary.

’Ring of Doom

And, yes, things do go wrong here. In the few hours that we were there we saw the recovery crew pick up three cars that had gotten into the Armco. If you do lose control and bend something, you’ll suffer more than the indignity of the accident—you’ll also be hit with a steep bill for towing and recovery plus any Armco and turf damaged in the incident. And if you hurt yourself, your American insurance might not work very well in Germany.

Terry Pearson spent three weeks in the hospital after an injury at the ’Ring—he crashed hard during a bicycle race and broke his collarbone plus seven ribs. His NATO status helped a little, but even then he reports that his care was logistically trying until he was able to be transported back near his home in the Netherlands. For a regular American, your best bet is to keep from doing anything that requires a hospital stay.

Why You Should Go

To call the ’Ring the ultimate track day experience really doesn’t do the trip justice. Combine one of the most technically challenging driving experiences you’ll ever encounter with nearly a century of history and stir in the eclectic mix of drivers and machinery, and you start to get some perspective on the total picture. 

Going to Germany and not visiting the ’Ring would be like going to the movies and not getting popcorn. It’s simply what you do there, and it’s a remarkable experience for any enthusiast.


The Nürburgring snakes its way through 13 miles of picturesque German countryside. The 73 recognized turns of the Nordschleife have been given some threatening nomenclature, like Eiskurve (Ice Curve), Angstkurve (Fear Curve), Flugplatz (Flight Place) and, of course, the famous Karussell. You can see the modern Gran Prix course in black on this map.

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stu67tiger
stu67tiger Reader
8/21/20 12:27 p.m.

Be sure to check out those Nurburgring Crash videos on Youtube before you decide to drive your car or even a rental  around the course.  Too many wannabe racers in their new Porsches  scatter car parts all over the road.

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