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Nürburgring

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ABOVE: Wolfgang Kaufmann has been winning races since the 1980s. When he isn't competing, he teaches race driving and drives an Auto Motor und Sport "race taxi" on the Nürburgring's Nordschleife circuit (usually on Monday afternoons). TOP INSET: Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. BOTTOM INSET: A Zakspeed Viper-Jet race taxi.

Nordschleife (North Loop) racetrack

photoThe Nordschleife, or North Loop, represents the heart and soul of the Nürburgring: It was built between 1925 and 1927 at a cost of 15 million Reichsmarks, providing employment for some 3,000 workers in one of Germany's poorest regions at the time.

The Nordschleife measures 20.8 km (13 miles) in length, with 73 curves and a maximum gradient of 17 percent. On a map, the track doesn't look especially twisty, but when you're blasting along the narrow roadway at high speeds, the hairpins and doglegs start to look hairy--especially when you see a towtruck getting ready to drag away a sports car that spun off the track and (fortunately for the driver) stopped in the grass before it reached the trees.

Formula I racing was suspended on the Nordschleife after Austrian race driver Niki Lauda was badly burned in a fiery accident in 1976. Today, the Nordschleife is still the site of frequent accidents--some of them fatal--and it continues to be used for car and motorcycle races. (The annual 24-hour race attracts more than 300,000 fans.) However, Formula I events now take place on the newer Grand Prix track (see next page).

You can drive the Nordschleife yourself in anything from a motorbike to a bus at designated times, though a "race taxi" (see below) will give you bigger thrills with less risk--and you won't be frustrated by having to share the track with 1,000 or more other vehicles on busy days during the peak tourist season.

Race taxis

photoUnless you're seriously into car racing, the most exciting way to hurtle around the Nürburgring is with a professional race driver. Several companies offer a "Ring Taxi" service--among them, the BMW Ring Taxi and the Zakspeed Viper-Jet Co-Driver program. I whipped around the Nordschleife on a rainy day with Wolfgang Kaufmann, who piloted a street-legal Škoda Ottavia through the North Loop's 20.8 km of zigs, zags, and spin-out spots in about 10 minutes. (Student race drivers on the course were overtaken and left behind as Kaufmann expertly used every inch of the wet track, including the red-and-white-striped warning zones on the outer edges of corners.)

Tip: The race taxis are popular--if expensive--so book ahead, especially if you're visiting in peak season. Still, if you don't have a reservation, you might get lucky: Nervous passengers sometimes cancel in rainy weather.

Driver education

Auto Motor und Sport magazine's Driving Safety Centre, the Motorsport Akademie, and other companies offer courses in race driving, highway driving under extreme conditions, etc. For more possibilities, including the chance to drive a race car on the Grand Prix track, browse the official Nürburgring Web site.

Next page: Grand Prix track and museum



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