The legend of the Ring has taken on a life of its own, and most enthusiasts know not only how challenging it is, but also how deadly it can be. Countless lives have been lost by incautious drivers who paid the track less than its fair share of respect.
There are plenty of websites dedicated to teaching you how to run the Ring (I used this excellent Nürburgring for Dummies page), and they'll all tell you how dangerous it can be, especially for the cocky and unprepared. They'll even advise you to try to learn the track ahead of time by both watching recorded laps on YouTube and, get this, by playing the video game Gran Turismo. Lance, who I'd met in Stuttgart, was an accomplished gamer, and he said it helped his experience there greatly.
I'd tried to take this advice, by printing out maps of the track and following a video turn by turn, but by the end of the 14-mile Nordschleife, it's very easy to lose track of what corner you're on. After an hour or so of attempting this on the press computers at the Frankfurt show, I realized it was futile to try to learn the track in one day.
I decided to hit the road, and I grabbed a rental car. I'm sure the rental agency would not have been happy about my intended destination, but what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them. I approached the rental place, and sitting right in front of the door was the car I wanted to take to the Ring: the four-door R32 with a true manual transmission. Although I'd asked for a BMW 3-Series (or something similar) my heart started to pound at the thought that this car might be available.
Instead, they dropped a Mercedes C-Class wagon with a little 1.8L low-pressure turbo on me. Needless to say, I was not happy. The fact is, though, it turned out to be a great car for the situation. Too much power would have the potential to get me in a lot of trouble, and with its manual gearbox, I found the car to be fairly peppy and easy to keep on the boil. Nevermind the fact that the car had 14 miles on it when I picked it up. I'm sure running the Ring is a great break-in for any car.
Armed with a sat-nav and the latest Automobile Magazine, which happened to point out a great route through the mountains (don't ask me what road at this point), I high-tailed it out of Dodge with just enough time to get to the Ring as the open track time would be starting, 5:45 pm. It was scheduled to last until 7:30 that night, so I'd have just under two hours to do the four laps I'd planned to buy for €75.
The ride there was fairly uneventful, though the unlimited speed sections I'd been so eager for seemed few and far between. I didn't really have much chance to see what the Benz could do, but that would come later.
I got to the Ring just in time, though it was a little tough for me to find the entrance. Once there, I bought my Ring Card with four laps, and watched some cars take off just to settle myself into the reality of where I was. Eventually I summoned the courage to swipe my Ring Card and take a lap.
As I hit the North Loop, I settled in behind a brand new, bright blue Scirocco who I thought might have a good idea of the appropriate cornering lines. I'm not sure if he was annoyed at me following him for the whole lap, but I wasn't about to pass someone on my very first lap of the Ring. But I began to realize that if I was going to have a good time, I couldn't let those website warnings scare me into driving like a granny in a Lincoln.
On my second lap I confirmed what I had suspected. If you drive the Ring like it's a challenging road that you've never encountered before, you can have lots of fun while still being safe. Sure, it'd definitely be a blast at 90 mph, but you can still have a great Ring experience at 60. On this lap I managed to pass a few people, and was passed a few times by more serious drivers. But for the most part, I had the track to myself. One of the most important things to remember on the Ring is to always be checking your mirrors for faster traffic approaching. If you remember this, and also to not be an idiot, you should be pretty much okay.
Those websites will also tell you not to time yourself, and this is excellent advice. Most drivers who wind up as paint spatters on a Ring guardrail are found to have running timers inside their cars. It'll turn you into a moron. But I couldn't resist at least getting a ballpark number, knowing that I wouldn't be pushing myself much. And the proof is in the pudding. I reset the trip timer in the car just before the lap, and I came off with roughly a 13-minute run. At 14.173 miles, I was averaging around 65 mph. Which was really plenty.
I exited the second lap with a huge grin and a pounding heart. I pulled off to let the car cool down and to rest up for my next attempt. I struck up a conversation with some Britons, driving a Seat and an Audi S3, to compare notes. Finally I felt it was time to get back out there. I pulled up to the gate, only to be told that the track was closed for the night. The inevitable had happened: someone had crashed.
While deeply disappointed, I viewed this as a mixed blessing. I'd had a fairly quick lap (for my comfort level), and who knows, the next go round it could've been me who closed the track for the night. At the Ring, if you crash things can get very expensive, assuming you walk away from it.
Instead, my day ended with a burger at the Devil's Diner. I intended to drive straight from the Ring to Wolfsburg, where VW is located, but underestimated the size of the country. Germany, while only half the size of Texas, is in fact half the size of Texas! It would have been a 4.5 hour drive, and that doesn't even count the great road that I'd read about which I'd wanted to drive. Instead, I was forced to stop over in Cologne for the night, which happened to have one room left in the youth hostel where I wound up. Wolfsburg would have to wait another day.