The Nurburgring isn't so much a race track as it is an insane German roller coaster that you can fall off of at any moment. My wife, Kelty, sitting next to me, screaming for 11 minutes straight intensified this effect. Except, instead of a roller coaster scream she was screaming like she suddenly found herself on the outside of an airplane at 35,000 feet.
And of course our rented Saab was, without hyperbole, trying to kill us at every corner.
It was September 2002. Kelty and I had a little money and no kids so we cashed in our Skymiles, bought a couple of rucks, and left to see how much of Europe we could experience in a month. After landing at Schiphol we spent three days in Amsterdam (which I have little recollection of, and Kelty will tell you straight up that she's never visited) before heading for Germany. On the way I used an internet cafe to reserve a Mercedes at Hertz in Berlin.
The Mercedes was important because it was the only rear wheel drive choice on the Hertz car menu. I've never warmed up to front-wheel-drive only cars and I sure as hell didn't want to have a FWD asterisk next to the Nurburgring on my bucket list. Naturally, by the time we made it to Berlin (which, FYI, is exactly like America except they speak better English) all that Hertz had left, or would be willing to risk in my hands, was a Saab. Turbo. Wagon. I wheedled, cajoled and pleaded, but the German Hertz clerk was unmoved. It was "Ze Saab or ze Opel Shitbox." She didn't actually say 'shitbox', but it was inferred with the transparent disdain Germans have of anything built to a cost target rather than an ideal.
I knew two things about Saabs- First, I knew they take trees very well because my sister attempted to drive through a two-foot pine while at university and escaped with only a story to tell. Second, I knew from trying to do an e-brake turn in my mom's 900 many years earlier that you don't ever pull the emergency brake in a Saab for anything other than parking. I'd managed to take out a row of mailboxes thanks to the Saab's goddamn front wheel emergency brakes. My father was his usual restrained self and narrowly avoided an aneurysm. In fairness, my explanation not well considered: "Dad, I was trying to do this stunt with mom's car and I'm usually pretty good at it, but..."
Oh, and I also knew it was front wheel drive, which was galling, but since I'd probably have driven a red tricycle around the Ring at this point, it wasn't a deal killer.
The next job at hand was to drive across Germany, which today would mean speaking "Go to the Nurburgring" to a SatNav, but in 2002 it meant reading an expansive Michelin map of the country. I didn't really have to open the map to deduce that I wasn't going to be driving across Germany, but until then I'd had my hopes. Kelty is talented at a great many things, but reading maps (of America, in English) isn't one of them. This map was, of course, notated in German and littered with inscrutable German symbols. A 35000 year-old cave painting would have been easier to follow ("See, these three guys here with sharp objects apparently did something bloody and terminal to that large furry thing there"), where the Michelin map of Germany might well have been visitation plans for the next time Poland started acting up and I'd have not know the difference.
Kelty and I immediately understood that if she were navigating Germany we might end up in Latvia or possibly someplace entirely fictional (Narnia, Latveria, Lilliput, etc.) so not only did I not get to drive on the autobahn, but I had to endure her driving on it. She's a good driver, but I was such a dismal passenger that her driving ability was irrelevant. I was already quite beside myself trying to decipher the Michelin map, when Kelty asked aloud how fast "205 kph is in English". Still focused on the map I started thinking out loud- "Ok, 62+62 is 124, so I guess around 125 miles an hour... JESUS CHRIST YOU"RE GOING 125 MILES AN HOUR?????"
"Well, when you say it like that," she said, taking her foot off the gas as we experienced 1g of deceleration from air resistance.
I was shaken and stirred when we arrived at our inn for the night, but was uncharacteristically up with the dawn the next morning. We arrived at the track in a drinkable fog and bought tickets for a pair of laps. I lined up my Invisible Grey station wagon between cars that looked like their sole purpose was to lap the Nordschleife as quickly as possible. This led Kelty to wonder aloud, with a certain amount of hope in her voice, if they would let a station wagon on the track at all. I assured her they let bread vans on the circuit and she got all "You don't have to be a smart ass, Mr. Saab racer," with me.
We were obliged to wait at pit-out for a motorcycle-only session to complete, but the supposedly brief bike session dragged on because bikers kept getting dragged off. In ambulances. Bikers parked to one side of us were providing a play-by-play by tuning into the track radio system, and it sounded shockingly like the Turkey Drop episode of WKRP in Cincinnati except instead of turkeys hitting the pavement it was motorcyclists. Oh, the humanity.
When the track workers finished scraping the bikers off the track, marshals starting directing cars out at short intervals and before long we pulled the Inviso-Wagon onto the tarmac.
I should preface this by explaining that Kelty had absolutely no idea what she was in for. She had been to racetracks, watched races, watched me race, but had never actually been on a racetrack. And now she was on the Nurburgring in a rented station wagon.
The screams began almost immediately. On a track with 73 corners, most of which are blind with crashing elevation changes, a hysterical passenger is, as the Germans are fond of saying, "Not optimal". Kelty made Joao Barbosa's wife seem positively subtle.
I'm not sure what Kelty had expected, but it only took about two corners for her to grasp that unlike America, in Europe you are permitted to hurt yourself if you're sufficiently inclined. She was used to the envelope of protection that accompanies every activity in the United States because of liability laws, and the nearly instant realization that this didn't apply at the Nurburgring gave her a sort of risk management vertigo.
Of course I should have better prepared her, but I was so awed by being at the Ring that I didn't even think about it. At this point, I had two choices: maturely respect my wife's concerns and slow down to a comprehensible pace or be a dick, focus on the fact that I might never get to do this again and continue driving hell for leather. When you think about it, there really wasn't much of a choice there. I was a dick.
With the "OMYGOD,OMYGOD,OMYGOD!!!" soundtrack cranking, balance full right, fader full front, I mercilessly bombed the Saab through the second series of corners until it started shuddering hard at the apex. It was like the Saab was having a stroke; shuddering, shaking, slowing down, taking me off line.
The hell? My wife is having a seizure and now the car is too??? I pulled my eyes off the road long enough to read something on the tiny LCD display about traction. In 2002, if I'd heard of traction control it would have been as one of those science fiction options on an S-Class that no other car was expected to receive until the end of the decade, and I sure as hell didn't expect it on a rented Saab.
Corner by corner I played around with it until I figured out that if I drove extra smoothly, which is not what I'm best at, that the traction control would stop going into apoplexy. No big slides; all small slip angles. Great, I'm at the Nurburgring and and my car expects me to drive like Alain Prost.
The corners of the Nurburgring came forward like a skydiver's ground rush that never stopped; negotiate one, and another was right there. I had passed quite a few cars but they weren't the sort of cars you write home about passing. Then we passed a large white truck.
"Was that a bread van?" Kelty asked, as if she'd seen a Unicorn.
"Yep." I said
"THEse gerMANS are crazY PEOple!," She yelled, her voice rising and falling with the terrain.
Kelty was beginning to calm down a bit as we headed to the Karussel, which I had told her about ahead of time because, clearly a passenger should be prepared for it. In retrospect, explaining only this part ahead of time was like notifying a passenger on the Titanic that their life insurance had expired, but omitting the fact that an iceberg was on the horizon. What I did explain was that it would probably feel like a car falling into a hole, driving around the hole, and then popping out of it. And it was just like that. Except super fast and with enough violence to blur your vision. When we leapt out of the Karussel, Kelty screamed like she'd been stabbed, shouted that she was done and pronounced that I'd be taking the second lap by myself if I wished to remain married. I said ok, and tried to calm her as the track straightened out for the very long run back to start finish.
But then a funny thing happened. Kelty decided to stay on board, insisting (correctly) that her reel-to-reel tape of a memory would help me navigate the track, as it's direction isn't apparent on most corners until the apex. Basically, my wife had transformed, in a single lap of the Nurburgring, from someone appearing to be in dire need of medical attention to a fully competent rally navigator.
I had passed a fair number of cars as we began the second lap but there was a Honda S2000 about a quarter of a mile ahead which had maintained that gap through the whole first lap. Now I had a target.
We whistled again through the first series of corners, and with the knowledge that I wasn't going to get surprised by a cliff or a stand of trees immediately at the exit of any corners and I began to really push the Saab. The Saab however had other ideas and began to fight me for control; the brakes hammered on at the apex of corners without me touching the pedal, and the car declined full throttle input unless it was in a straight line.
I desperately wanted to catch the S2000 because it was a car that, with equal drivers would be minutes faster than my Saab around the Ring. If I could catch it, I reckoned I'd have a story to tell.
The Saab had other ideas and it's ideas were becoming dangerous. The car would throw itself out of balance at exactly the wrong time and the apex of every tight corner was an automated mechanical agony of braking and tire scrubbing. Then the messages started changing on the tiny LCD display. I had no idea what information the messaging were imparting, but I'm guessing they were HAL9000-ish threats to the driver;
"Keith. I'm afraid I can't allow you to do that."
Despite having to wrestle the Saab, I was inching up on the S2000. I was getting better at mollifying the traction control by squaring the corners as much as possible to limit time spent accelerating laterally, and it was working.
Kelty was calling out corners with startling accuracy and we were almost flowing. The traction control would intervene, but only briefly now at directional changes.
The S2000 was getting closer and closer and I could tell the dark haired driver was aware of us because the passenger kept popping his head up like a Whac-A-Mole gopher to see how close we were. In response the driver was clearly pushing the car harder.
Right about then, near the end of the second lap, the dashboard on the Saab turned into Christmas lights and the LCD message center said something I interpreted to mean Service Is Failing. The car had pretty clearly collapsed into some sort of Safe Mode, so I limped it back to the pits hoping I didn't have to call Hertz and tell them to come get their car. At the Nurburgring.
We got parked and the Saab was clearly in distress. I let it idle, roughly, for a while before turning it off in hopes that, like a computer, it would reset.
Kelty was simultaneously telling me how much fun that was and how much she didn't ever want to do it again, when the S2000 pulled up. The driver was Asian, late 20's and all smiles.
"Hi, excuse me, but I just wanted to ask- who are you?"
"I'm sorry," I said, "I don't understand; I'm just a guy."
"Are you a race car driver?" he asked directly.
"Not really, no. I've been to racing school, and done some racing but it didn't work out as a career." I explained.
"Well," he went on,"I kept asking Jim 'who the hell are those guys in the station wagon?' You were really moving that thing."
"Wow, thanks!" Was all I could say. Kelty and I'd married just a year earlier and for my new wife, who was on the verge of throwing up a few minutes earlier, to be hearing this exchange was just about the coolest thing ever. We talked for a few minutes more, said goodbyes, and wished each other well.
Turning towards me, Kelty said "Even if this stupid car starts, there is no way your head will fit inside of it. You should just sit here and let some of the air out."
"Yeah," I said, "But how cool was that?"
"Very, but you're going to be dining out on it for months. I'm not looking forward to that." Kelty said, smiling.
With that, I did manage to fit my head into the Saab and it did fire, but the 'Service Is Failing' notice on the display stayed on the whole way to the Hertz office in Cologne. They never said a thing about it.
@KeithOri is presently writing a memoir. He holds the record for the world's shortest jump in a Pontiac 6000STE AWD (rendered FWD by the jump), has successfully off-roaded a BMW 2002 and unsuccessfully off-roaded a Jeep Wrangler, the latter necessitating stealing the same recovery truck twice in the same night.