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The most unsettling thing about driving 142 mph on the German autobahn in James Bond's convertible with the top dropped is not the sudden realization that your head juts above the windshield, so that any airborne object—a pebble, a lug nut, the shedding payload of a flatbed truck—will forever be embedded in your coconut, like the coins and keys you sometimes see in the hot asphalt of city streets. Nor is it the banana-yellow Porsche GT3 that draws even with you in the passing lane, lingering off your left flank for 30 seconds, as if attempting the in-flight refueling of a Stealth bomber, while its leering driver hand-gestures you to drag-race him. (That terror passes quickly enough when the pilot of the Porsche loses patience and leaves you in his vapor trail at one fifth of Mach 1.) No. What makes a man vow to change his life, to say nothing of his underpants, should he survive such a journey is this: The journey hasn't even begun.
For you have come to test your driving skills not on the speed-limit-less autobahn but on the N�rburgring, the ribbon of road that Germans drive when they find the autobahn too tame; the ribbon of road that racing legend Jackie Stewart called, without hyperbole, "the Green Hell"; the ribbon of road that a 24-year-old German named Mika Hahn told me, with furrowed brow, "is very, very dangerous"—far too dangerous for him to drive on, and he's a likely future world champion of speedway motorcycle racing.
The N�rburgring has long been too harrowing for Formula One racing. Since 1927 the picturesque Grand Prix track has lain, like a gold necklace on a rumpled bedspread, in the Eifel Mountains of western Germany. But over the decades, as cars became faster, the 14-mile, 170-turn course became deadlier: It closed forever to F/1 racing in 1976, after Austrian star Niki Lauda was famously set alight there when he crashed on the approach to a turn known as Bergwerk. By 1983 the 'Ring prudently had been closed to nearly every form of professional racing. Yet—and here's the rub—the N�rburgring remains open, as it ever has been, for the general public to drive on as fast as it pleases for as long as it pleases in whatever it pleases: race cars, jalopies or crotch-rocket motorcycles, many of which have become sarcophagi for their drivers.
Why on earth would anybody want to race there? "If you studied piano all your life and had a chance to play Carnegie Hall on a Steinway, you would want to do that," says Dan Tackett, 42, a financial services manager from San Diego who has made 11 trips to the N�rburgring in the past 16 years. "This is the most difficult, challenging and rewarding racetrack in the world. For serious drivers, it remains the Holy Grail."
It is Everest in asphalt—"the single greatest piece of motor racing architecture in the world," says Motor Sport magazine of England—and it demands equipment that is up to the task. Which is how it is that I'm heading for the N�rburgring in a cherry-red BMW Z8, the model driven by 007 in The World Is Not Enough but piloted at this moment by English photographer Bob Martin, who is not licensed to kill and is, truth be told, barely licensed to drive.
We retrieved this astonishing feat of automotive engineering at the world headquarters of the Bayerische Motoren Werke in Munich. The company's skyscraper is a kind of architectural pun, constructed of four cylinders. Directly across the street is the 1972 Olympic athletes' village. The site where 11 Israelis were taken hostage at the Summer Games is now the world's most poignant apartment complex. Mesmerized by the view, I absentmindedly signed a three-page document in German that rendered me legally responsible for returning, scratch-free, the $125,000, 400-horse-power, eight-cylinder, zero-to-60-in-4.5-seconds dream car that Bob was soon driving off the lot in the giddily overmatched manner of someone who has been given the keys to the space shuttle.
Or rather Bob, a giant of a man, was not so much driving the two-seater as he was wearing it. He looked like a man in a kayak. A very happy man: As we negotiated the streets of Munich, Bob began speaking in tongues about the "Zed 8" and its "bloody brute" of an engine, its "stop-on-a-sixpence" brakes and, "oooh!—all the beautiful bulgy bits" on its chassis. By the time we entered the autobahn and were swept away like a raft on rapids, all of Bob's bulgy bits were aflame with excitement. He was fearless in his phallic chariot. " BMW!" Bob cackled, merging into traffic, throwing down the hammer, the wind whining in our ears. " Bob Martin's Wheels!"
But he didn't respond. So, with an ever-deepening sense of disquiet, I shut up and rode shotgun toward a 'Ring of Hell unlike any imagined by Dante.
We overnight in the Alps and discover, in the morning, that our five-hour route to the 'Ring will take us roughly from Ulm to Bonn—from the birthplace of Einstein to the birthplace of Beethoven—in a vehicle that weds science and art. Construction of Ulm's M�nster cathedral began in 1377. Its 536-foot steeple remains the tallest in the world. Mankind, alas, no longer builds such wonders. Or do we? "I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals," French social critic Roland Barthes wrote of postwar Western civilization. "I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object."