24 Hours in the Green Hell 

Story and Photos: Rod Eime

When Rod Eime packed his bags for the Nürburgring, he thought he was off to cover one of the world’s great Touring, GT and Production car events. Well he was, sort of..

The brochure said “the most beautiful and exciting race track in the world” hosting “the largest motor race in the world”. This enticing publicity drew me to the Nürburgring where I was keen to see our own lads throw down a challenge to some of Europe’s best.

They were all but completely overshadowed by the enormity of this insanely oversized world car frenzy. Some 1700 drivers and 750 cars from 23 countries took part in the programme of events that included touring car, historic and formula supports. The organisers received a total of 363 entries for the main event, the 28th International ADAC 24h-Rennen, a number that would ultimately be pruned to just 210 starters!

100 teams were scratched before practice, presumably told not to bother coming, while a further fifty were eliminated after qualifying – a stressful and distressing event in itself. With many drivers and teams literally coming from the other side of the world, being yanked at the last minute was not a cheerful experience. So much so that I heard one official even wore an uppercut as a reward for his intransigence. Aussies Kevin Bell and Chris Smith were among the 150-odd drivers who missed the cut.

116,000 spectators crammed the many vantage points around the track with a great many making a weekend of it in motorhomes, campers and tents. At such romantically named locations as Quiddelbach, Schwalbenschwanz and Pflanzgarten they erected a crazy array of structures ranging from mini-grandstands, towers, scaffolding, concert stages and humpies – each draped in flags, bunting and regalia of all sorts. And it looked like every one of these fans were lining the kerbing (yes, kerbing!) of the entire 25 kilometres during the warm-up lap, patting and slapping panels as their heroes tried in vain to put some heat into their tyres before the rolling “Indianapolis” start.

How do you start 210 vehicles on one track? The organisers, in their abundant wisdom, chose to break the field into three groups of seventy, each based roughly on qualifying times. It took an hour and a half to get the entire field onto the starting “grid”, which was really the entire pit straight of the GP circuit from turn 1 back to turn 12. Each group set off at three-minute intervals, led and tailed by a pace car with the leaders lapping the tail before they had completed even three laps.

The enormous speed differential is startling. Little Minis, Suzukis and VW Polos lapping in the 12s are brutally swept aside by the faster cars hurtling past in the 9s. Malaysian 24hr rookie, Hairol Azmi Bin Buntat, was slammed into the guardrail by a GT on a mission and left spinning on his roof in the middle of the track for several minutes before managing to extricate himself and run for cover.

This type of incident reminds us why the old Nordscheife was shut down in the ‘70s. Even with 1400 marshals and officials, it is impossible to cover every bit of this enormous track and stranded competitors can often find themselves waiting inordinate periods for assistance. When there is an incident, crash crews venture into the fray, load and retrieve the stricken vehicle under the magical protection of waved white flags and flashing yellow lights, then loaf back to the pits at around 50 km/h. As just about every corner is blind on this winding “Green Hell”, the possibility of massed disaster is very real.

It amused me to see expectant drivers waiting on the pit apron nervously clutching mobile phones. I quickly learned that these modern conveniences are absolutely indispensable in case of accident or breakdown with team managers’ numbers etched or stuck onto the dashboard of many cars. Poor Hairol’s little Nokia fell from his pocket when hanging upside down in the stranded Mini, so the more experienced use duct tape or Velcro to attach theirs. Our own Ross Palmer’s team devised a series of coded rings with vibrating batteries for their pit signals!

145 laps and 3,500+ kilometres later the leader is preparing for the finish. Around five minutes before the 24hr mark is sounded, cars start banking up before the finish line, in the hope of avoiding another gruelling lap. Others dash into the pits to be garnished with balloons, flags, soft toys and streamers for the grand finale. By the time our winner appears, there must be at least fifty weary, battered vehicles, four abreast at several points, waiting with clutches slipping before the chequered flag. Officials, photographers and god only knows who else dash out onto the track to wave and gesticulate to our winner, who by this time was running down the grass verge towards the finish line!

All hell breaks loose when the flag is finally waved and the carnivale motorcade grabs first and follows our winner down the track. In the ensuing melee I saw at least one disqualified car reappear, while one BMW pushed its stricken twin across the line amid a cacophony of horns, sirens, whistles and hooters.

For an event that begun with such propriety and earnest deference to procedure this farcical finale saw just about every rule tossed out the window leaving me wondering just what this whole bizarre extravaganza was all about. Was it a race, a party, some kind of strange automotive penance or just an excuse to roar around on knife’s edge for a day in front of a loud beer-swilling crowd? I still don’t know, but one look at the glazed eyes, exhaustion and persistent sense of purpose in these guys (and gals) tells me they are certainly hooked.

Opened in 1927, the misty, damp Nürburgring Nordschleife is the longest permanent racetrack in the world. It hosted Formula One until Niki Lauda’s fiery crash in 1976 highlighted some of the over-length circuit’s safety compromises.

Overseen by the medieval Nürburg castle, it witnessed the titanic struggles of the enormous pre-war Mercedes Benz and Auto-Union cars that were, even then, lapping in sub-10 minute times.

Reopened in 1984 with a copybook 4.5 km Grand Prix circuit, Formula One cars returned to the ‘Ring in 1985. The current full-length Nürburgring consists of a lap of both circuits with cars exiting and rejoining the GP track at the hairpin immediately before the starting grid.

Its 25.5 kilometres contains 33 left-hand and 40 right-hand corners that will be traversed in around 9 minutes by the fastest cars in the 24 Hour. The lap record for the Nordschliefe is an astonishing 6’25.91 (av speed 194.33 km/h) set by Derek Bell in a Porsche 956 in the 1985 1000km event for Sports Cars.

Links: nurburgring.de | thenurburgring.com

Produced on behalf of RACER Magazine 

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