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From Woodward Avenue to the Nurburgring

Moment of Zenlea

Detroit's Woodward Avenue is thick with muscle cars of all eras this time of year. At one light, a Pontiac G8 GT rumbles unevenly on an aftermarket camshaft. At another, a Ford Mustang GT rolls on fat rear tires. My machine on this particular night happens to be a 2016 Nissan GT-R. It has been tuned for a place far from the Detroit suburbs, the Nürburgring. But the Nürburgring and the sort of crazy machines being tuned there have kinship with Woodward Avenue and its cars.

Nowadays cruising Woodward is mostly about camp and nostalgia. You'll spot lots of old guys driving nicely restored cars and wearing Dream Cruise T-shirts. Back in the 1960s, it was serious business. Several players in the horsepower war were located within a few blocks of this central artery, and they used it as both a proving ground and marketing arm. At night, the latest and greatest muscle cars raced on this public, mostly suburban road with barely disguised automaker endorsement. Reporting on the phenomenon in its September 1969 issue, Esquire magazine called it "the street racing capital of the world."

"Here, in the hot little fingers of teenage drivers, a large part of the future of the American automobile is being determined. If a car is respected on Woodward, it will be a best seller in the youth market anywhere. The automakers know this. If you're looking, you'll find some high-ranking auto-company boys out there driving casually, taking it all in—and racing. "

A global fuel crisis and an increase in local law enforcement put an end to such factory-backed drag racing antics on Woodward Avenue. But the real problem with the machines of Woodward is that while they were fun and memorable, they were also one-dimensional. Most driving is not at all like stoplight racing. I lust after Hemi 'Cudas, Ram Air IV GTO Judges, and COPO Camaros, but I'd rather drive a contemporary Lotus Elan or even a Datsun 240Z.

A similar scene now exists in the forests of Nürburg, Germany, where engineers come from around the world to perform brutal laps on a public track. As far as development courses go, the Nürburgring is a hell of a lot better than Woodward. It has turns, after all. But make no mistake, the point of going there and posting a monster lap time is to earn respect and marketing cachet.

Which brings me back to the Nissan GT-R. It is in many ways as cartoonish as those old muscle cars. It rides harshly even with the dampers set in Comfort mode because the Nürburgring rewards excellent body control. The clutches grate and whine as I slow for a light because the Nürburgring doesn't care much for how cars perform in stop-and-go traffic. The Nürburgring, like Woodward, produces cars I respect but not necessarily cars I love driving.

Still, I'm grateful for the Nürburgring and Woodward, places where automakers focus single-mindedly on making cars fast. Manufacturers have recently come under pressure to tone down their antics at the 'Ring, reminding us that these places and the cars they produce are not to be taken for granted. Some day, the Nürburgring may become just another winding stretch of road, and cars like the Nissan GT-R may become relics of an innocent time when manufacturers genuinely cared about going fast. For now, I honor the memory of Woodward with the product of the Nürburgring. I punch the throttle, feel the turbos spool, and scream toward the next stoplight.