Welcome to Germany, the land of the speed-unlimited autobahn but also the world's most comprehensive highway code enforcement apparatus. On unrestricted highways it is perfectly legal to do 200-plus mph whenever you feel like it and when conditions permit, but on main thoroughfares, speed limits are ubiquitous, automatic distance checks via modern measuring equipment mounted on bridges can cost money and your license, and, in addition to increasingly common radar traps, there are plenty of camouflaged cops ready to point their laser guns at you. So instead of getting up at 3 a.m. to find an empty stretch of unrestricted highway (and perhaps to encounter crossing deer or a hoard of stray boars), you should consider sampling the country's most challenging stretch of public toll road, better known as the Nuerburgring Nordschleife. All you have to do is fly to Germany, rent a car, buy a track ticket, and, most important, don't crash. Because even though rental cars can be comprehensively insured, reckless driving can easily void that coverage.
The Nuerburgring Nordschleife opened in 1927. It is 20,832 meters (12.94 miles) long, and its course has changed very little over the years, although minor adjustments were made when the grand prix track was added in 1984. The Nuerburgring racetracks and surroundings, which are owned by the state of Rheinland-Pfalz and by the county of Ahrweiler, currently face insolvency proceedings due to a debt burden of about $500 million. Day-to-day operation -- primarily test drives conducted by numerous carmakers -- has not yet been affected by the pending court case. The lap record on the Nordschleife is still held by Stefan Bellof, who mastered the monster track in 6:11.13 minutes back in 1983 in a Porsche 956. He is the only man to average more than 125 mph. The fastest Formula 1 driver was Clay Regazzoni in 7:06.40 minutes at the wheel of a 1975 Ferrari. Tourist drives are conducted on a lap-by-lap basis. While there, make sure to mind the speed limits at the entrance and exit of the circuit and in the vicinity of the nearby villages of Nuerburg and Breidscheid.
Cologne's airport, a ninety-minute drive away, is the closest, but there are no direct flights from the United States. Therefore, Frankfurt and Duesseldorf are the best options. Both airports are about two hours from the 'Ring, and most of the trip is on speed-restricted highways. Set the navigation system for Nuerburg, but make sure you don't end up at the less interesting GP track. The entrance to the Nordschleife is outside of town and is clearly marked. One more piece of advice: don't hop off the plane and drive straight to the track. The Green Hell deserves a clear head, a relaxed demeanor, and all the attention and guts you can summon, so a full night's rest is recommended.
Go to the website www.nuerburgring.de and click on the Union Jack for the English-language version. Then look under the Fun and Action tab for "Tourist rides Nordschleife," where you will find most of the information you need. In the summer, the track is open almost every day, but beware: operating hours vary. Midweek access is often limited to two or three hours in late afternoon and early evening. On weekends, however, you may be lucky and get a dozen or more laps under your belt. Predictably, prices have gone up. One lap costs [euro]26 (about $32), four laps is [euro]95 ($120), nine laps set you back [euro]198 ($250), and for twenty-five laps you'll be charged [euro]490 ($600). For real addicts, a season ticket is available for [euro]1445 (about $1800).
The choice of cars to drive on the Nordschleife is about as wide as your pockets are deep. Since many visitors can't bring their own track machine, specially prepared pseudo-race cars -- complete with a roll cage, fire extinguisher, racing seats, and a five-point safety harness -- are available to rent. A dressed-up Suzuki Swift costs [euro]99 ($125) for the first lap and [euro]299 ($370) for four laps. The faster Volkswagen Scirocco Cup+ is more expensive: [euro]139 ($170) for one lap and [euro]439 ($550) for four laps. Although these cars (they can be found on the website listed above) are fully insured, the deductible is [euro]2500 ($3100) in the case of the Swift and a hefty [euro]8000 (almost $10,000) for the Scirocco. Bringing the cars back in one piece is definitely a must if you want to stay within your travel budget.
Almost all major car-rental companies have interesting rear-wheel-drive models in their German fleets. The smallest selection is at Hertz, which has 1- and 3-series BMWs as well as the Jaguar XF and XK. Avis offers a broader portfolio of cars, along with competitive rates. Although the Mercedes-Benz C-, E-, and S-class -- not to mention any convertible -- aren't ideal cars for a hot lap on the 'Ring, you might consider the latest Porsche 911 or the 3-series. Sixt prides itself on keeping the widest selection of high-performance premium German metal. In addition to 1-, 3-, 5-, 6-, and 7-series BMWs, the market leader will hand you the keys to a Mercedes C63 AMG or a BMW M3, M5, or M6. For seasonal rates and special offers, go to www.sixt.de. Prebooking is essential, and a backup plan isn't a bad idea in case the car you reserve isn't available when you arrive.
A good way to familiarize yourself with this difficult and challenging roller coaster of a track is to sit next to a pro and have him or her scare the wits out of you. Beginners are advised to try the Ring Taxi. It's a BMW-sponsored M5 piloted by such seasoned endurance-racing veterans as the multiple twenty-four-hour race-winner Claudia Huertgen. The cost is [euro]216 ($270) per lap. If an air-conditioned 5-series isn't macho enough, you can try the deafening and rock-hard Aston Martin V8 Vantage N24 ([euro]295, or $370) or, for the same price, the even tail-happier 934-chassis Porsche 911 Turbo. Both can be booked through www.nuerburgring.de
Synchronizing a holiday or a business trip with a dedicated driver-training event isn't easy, but it can be done if you plan far enough ahead. The web lists a number of different courses that cater to drivers of all levels, from beginners to track-day specialists. One particularly desirable event is staged by the German Sport Auto magazine in collaboration with Porsche. The two-day, total-immersion training takes place a couple of times per year. You can also book a one-and-a-half-day driving academy priced at [euro]945 ($1175), including hotel and meals.
The first computer game that offered a virtual drive on the Nuerburgring was Grand Prix Legends, released in 1998. Since then, the video-game companies have come out with better, faster, more versatile, and more realistic simulations of this exhilarating racetrack. While the Playstation 3 crowd should concentrate on Gran Turismo 5 or the lesser-known Enthusia Professional Racing, Xbox players might want to zoom in on the latest Need for Speed or Forza 4. Although a video console will never relay the same excitement as reality, it's the next best thing when it comes to learning a track and finding the right line.
There are two convenient trackside hotels, the Dorint, which directly faces the pit lane and is framed by grandstands, and the large Lindner Congress & Motorsport hotel, adjacent to the stillborn Nuerburgring Experience complex. We also enjoyed our stay at Zum Wilden Schwein and the Ringhotel Blaue Ecke in Adenau, a fifteen-minute drive down the hill. Other digs worth a try are the Ringvilla in Adenau, the Hotel am Tiergarten in Nuerburg, and the Berghotel Hohe Acht
To Russia, with Love
Find an affordable Mercedes-Benz W111 (250 or 280SE cabriolet, not the megabucks 3.5), load her up with Raphaela (wife) and Frida (dog), shut down the office for three months, and drive to Saint Petersburg -- via Scotland, Sweden, and Finland.