The business of pleasure

Anyone with a licence and a few spare euros can drive the legendary Nordschleife. It’s a scary prospect, but it’s also big business for the local economy
By Ed Foster

Consider this: the ADAC Eifelrennen races – held during the early 1920s on public roads around the Eifel Mountains – were thought to be so dangerous that a sanitised race track was needed. The result was the Nordschleife, or the old Nürburgring, which is now considered one of the most dangerous circuits in the world.

After two years of construction (the building was prolonged so that jobs in the area could be kept going for longer) the circuit was finished in 1927 and staged the first World Cycling Championship race in June that year. A month later the ’Ring hosted the first German Grand Prix, but that wasn’t all. As soon as the track was finished it was opened to the public during the evenings as a one-way, adrenaline-filled toll road of driving nirvana.

To many the Touristenfahrt (or tourist drive) is the most famous aspect of the circuit, and also the most dangerous. Nearby residents and regular users of the ’Ring are understandably cagey when it comes to saying how many people are injured or lose their lives on the graffitied asphalt each year, but by all accounts it’s a significant number. It’s also fair to say that if the Nordschleife was based in Britain, the place would have been closed down many years ago after a predictable and extremely boring intervention by Health and Safety.

For those of you who haven’t been there – and I fully recommend it to you if you haven’t – let me explain the problem. Anybody can pay 21 euros and drive round the 22.81km of track, which has just under 100 turns and is bordered by Armco which is only a metre from the track in most places.

Add to this the different types of asphalt and concrete surface, track altitude varying 300 metres and almost every corner being blind, with camber that changes more quickly than a 60-year-old undergoing plastic surgery. Oh, and there’s also the fact that everything from scooters (provided they can do 50mph) to buses are allowed on track at the same time. As long as you have an MOT and a licence, even if you are to driving what Cilla Black was to singing, you can get your ticket stamped, put your helmet on and drive your little heart out. This, of course, creates a situation that is far from ideal.

To find out exactly how the ’Ring has been kept alive and just how hard it is to drive I joined up with the 75 Experience, which is owned and run by Ron Simons. Ron does an average of 1500 laps a year and is considered to be one of the authorities on the Nordschleife. He teaches customers using the biggest fleet of Alfa Romeo 75s I’ve ever seen. “I was racing for 10, 15 years. I had a professional career, I had my own team,” says Ron when asked about how he ended up teaching. “When you are racing, you need sponsors, but they want something back for their money, right?

“You can supply a barbecue at races for a couple of years, but then they want more. They want to sit in and do some demonstration laps. And then they want to drive themselves. You don’t want to put them in a Radical series race car, then they get killed and you lose the sponsor and the car. It’s a little stupid, and it’s not the way to go. So we bought a few Alfas and took the sponsors to the ’Ring. And that’s how it all started.”

While waiting for Ron I had a chat with Dale Lomas, one of the instructors at the 75 Experience, and discovered the ‘driving force’ behind the Touristenfahrt. “It’s a political animal; the Nordschleife is owned by the State and run by the county,” he says.

“It’s run by elected officials. They are interesting characters, but the good thing is that because it’s politically favourable to bring industry to this region and because they are a political party that’s running it (the SPD, or Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Germany’s oldest political party), it’s beneficial to have the Nürburgring running the Touristenfahrt, because Touristenfahrt means that anybody and everybody can drive.

“You’ve got five barriers and a car passing through every eight to 10 seconds at 21 euros a time. It’s ka-ching, ka-ching. It’s something like 25,000 euros an hour. And there is no other industry here. So the Nordschleife, in Touristenfahrt, in racing, in industry driving makes s***loads of money, and if the government was to say, ‘well, no more Touristenfahrt’, there would be less attraction for the racing, and there would be less reason for the manufacturers to be testing here. As it drops off the radar for the public, it drops off the radar for the industry.”

So the SPD is happy, and everyone hammering round the track seems quite content, so what am I doing wasting time with a lesson? Surely the hire car would suffice after my handful of laps on the PlayStation?

Ron isn’t convinced. “You can have a very fluent lap after maybe 50 laps, and be safe and on the move,” he explains. “But if you want to really, really learn it, in the dry, you need 100 or 200 laps. To know where it’s going and to feel where the bumps are, again it’s difficult. I’m talking dry now. In the wet, it’s 10 times as difficult.”

The fact that a current Formula 1 driver managed to career into the Armco, backwards, while learning the track is brought up. Blimey.

I’m not such a fan of having a professional sitting next to me in the car – it usually ends up as an opportunity for them to remind me how many bad driving habits I have and how many more lessons I need. But for once, I was secretly looking forward to having Ron there telling me what to do and where to go. This is of course a race track, which are historically quite hard to get lost on, but when you come to a blind crest nudging 80mph, even the most experienced driver likes to know which way the road dives afterwards.

I’m finally on the track, and I realise just what an unforgiving place this is. After a few laps I still have no idea where the track goes, let alone where the apexes are on all the corners. With a constant stream of information coming from Ron, I manage to emerge on the other side with little more than a trickle of sweat on my forehead and a tear of fear running down my cheek. This is, without doubt, the most awesome and at the same time amazingly scary track in the world.

Yes, the Alfas are old, and not the most beautiful cars in the world, but as Ron puts it, “they create a huge amount of fun, without the excessive cost of a 911. You learn much more in a slower car, you learn to carry speed right.” And most importantly you don’t have to explain to the hire car company why the Ford Fiesta you rented a day earlier only has three wheels left and no front end…