Wearing a thousand-yard stare after his first night stint in the Nürburgring 24 Hours, Kevin Gleason looks like a soldier who's just returned from a brutal firefight.
"It was insane out there," says Gleason, who was one of the winning co-drivers in last year's 25 Hours of Thunderhill, the longest race in North America. "It's the most intense thing I've ever done in a race car. It was Thunderhill times one-thousand."
The Nordschleife -- the original portion of the Nürburgring -- is the most fearsome racetrack in the world. Formula 1 stopped going there after Niki Lauda's horrific wreck in 1976, and professional sports car racing ceased on the circuit in 1983 because of safety concerns. But the Nordschleife remains open for lapping days and a series of endurance races headlined by an early summer 24-hour event.
In recent years, the Nürburgring 24 Hours has been contested by Le Mans-spec GT cars run by professional quasi-works teams from Audi, Porsche, Subaru, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. (An Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT3 car finished fifth overall this year.) But the race also draws amateurs in pedestrian Ford Fiestas and VW Golfs. This year, there were 165 entries with speed differentials of more than 60 miles per hour and drivers of wildly varying skills sharing a 15.8-mile-long circuit so fast, narrow, and dangerous that it's no longer considered viable for professional racing.
The result, says Rolex 24 class-winner and Le Mans veteran Shane Lewis, is that the Nürburgring 24 Hours is the greatest enduro in the world. "You can take all of the racetracks in the world and put them together and they wouldn't be as good as one lap around this place," he says.
Rides can be rented for anywhere from $5000 to $50,000. This year's Nürburgring 24 Hours race drew about a dozen Americans, ranging from Grand Am regular Charles Espenlaub to Jim Michaelian, CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach. The most experienced, though, is club racer Matt McFadden, who started coming to the Nordschleife 10 years ago.
This year, McFarland spent five hours languishing in the pits after a co-driver wrecked the Opel Astra he was renting. "I'm a little disappointed," he admits near the end of the race, "but I still got three stints -- in the night, at dawn, and during a beautiful day when you could smell the barbecue and hear the music blaring around the track."
Espenlaub was smiling, too, despite destroying a 911 when a tire failed at 140 miles per hour and he backed the Porsche into a guardrail. "I'd do this again in a heartbeat," he says. "You're not fulfilling your passion for motorsports if you don't come here at least once."