My first race at the Nurburgring. Part 1
Updated: May 5, 2020
It does not matter how well seasoned a club racing driver is, none would ever deny that a first race on the Nordschleife did not just cause enormous excitement but anxiety also. I remember that day as if it was yesterday.
It’s the dream of every racer to one day compete on the Nurburgring. A close friend had told us about a championship that competed in Europe called the Youngtimer Trophy. Races at Spa, Zolder, Hockenheim, Oschersleben and the Ring with entries open to pre-88 Touring Cars. These races where run over longer distances. One and a half hour races mainly but our ears pricked up when we realised The Youngtimer ran a 500 KM race on the Nurburgring. The seed was sewn. We had competed in many 10 lap sprint races in the UK but our only experience of longer distance races was with our great friend Cem in the Birkett 6 Hour Relay Race and 1.5 Hour races at Pembrey. We were not seasoned endurance racers. Cem had the perfect car. A Group N E30 M3 that he had bought from me. As predicted, it was a short conversation with him to thoroughly lead him astray, recruit him as our third driver and generously donate his car to our cause. His M3 actually had some previous endurance race history having competed in the Nurburgring 24 Hour in period.
A plan was drawn up. We would enter The 500 KM race at the Nurburgring the following year. Cem delivered the car to my brother and I for preparation over the winter months. We knew little about the championship and the regulations and the internet was not what it is now. We sent our entry off and a pack was received in the post a couple of weeks later with the regs carefully written in technical German. We were nervous of getting ourselves and the car all the way to Germany and failing scrutineering. Our only translator was a friends very elderly mother who left Germany when she was twelve years old and had forgotten her technical German. To be safe, we decided to enter the car in a higher class than necessary. Our car was a Group N car but we entered it as a Group A car under the assumption that our very unmodified race car would not get thrown out of a class of more highly modified cars. Over the winter the car was mechanically completely rebuilt. Every component that could possibly fail due to age was replaced, an extensive spares package put together with new slicks and wets ordered. We followed the German rule book as best we could and prayed that we would pass scrutineering. We knew nobody who had raced in Germany before, let alone the Ring. It was a case of the blind leading the blind. We hoped that the German scrutineers would look upon their British visitors favourably and turn a blind eye to any small technicality.
The car was ready. Now it was time to sit in the local pub going over our race strategy. We knew my bother Jody would set the fastest time in practice so he would almost definitely set our grid position for the start. Hours where spent discussing our race strategy, fuel stops, weather, tyres, driver order and as the evenings passed we had almost forgotten that we were not actually seasoned, highly experienced endurance racers. We actually started to feel quite the professional team until one of us pointed out that we knew very little about our fellow competitors. We needed pit crew. For endurance racing with fuel stops you need firemen, refueler, wheel changers and mechanics. At least 6 pit crew would need to be recruited. Six mates soon put themselves forward, supported by wives and girlfriends who offered catering and hospitality services alongside general support. Four days to go and on a particularly cold April morning, the M3 was loaded on to the trailer and the tow-car and motorhome packed with supplies. Off we set for Germany in convoy! It’s a fair old trek to the Ring and all I remember of the journey was the continuing discussions of race strategy which altered every 15 minutes and every hour we got nearer to the Eifel Mountains the temperature dropped. By the time we reached with Ring it was near to dark and now utterly freezing with a thick frost covering everything.
The Youngtimer race is held over one of the busiest race weekends of the calendar. This is the weekend of the Nurburgring 24 Hour. Running alongside the 24 Hour and the 500 KM Youngtimer race are multiple other historic and single seater races. With 174 cars in our race, over 150 in the 24 Hour and all the other race entries, there must have been well over 800 racing cars all trying to arrive with transporters, trailers, support vehicles and crew, not to mention all the other vehicles associated with any normal race weekend. Caterers, tyre suppliers, merchandise sellers, corporate entertainment, sponsors and officials all fighting for space in an already very overcrowded paddock. This is before the 200,000 spectators turn up. I was pleased we had decided to arrive a day early as the queue to get in was already about 2 hours.
Once in the circuit and ushered to our allocated paddock area it was time to set up camp. Us drivers decided to be gentlemen and allow our volunteer crew to sleep in the luxury of our heated motorhome and we would pitch tents for our stay. I can honestly say that those five nights spent in a small two man tent with thick ice forming on the canvas put me off camping for life. The cold was so incredible that the only way to keep warm at night was to actually wear our race gear before getting in our sleeping bags. Fireproof underwear, triple layer race suit, balaclava on, sleeping bag zipped up and a blanket over the top only just stopped the frostbite. I felt like Scott of the Antarctic!
A friend Jamie arrived a day later with his South African girlfriend who had been promised the holiday of a lifetime. She looked horrified at the surroundings. Quite genuinely, I have never seen anybody actually speechless. Jamie broke the news to her that they were sleeping in a tent followed by the words “camping is fun”. Her jaw just dropped and stayed like that for about ½ an hour. Optimistically Jamie kept telling her how very comfy blow up camping mattresses were. She bought into this belief and we saw a glimmer of hope in her eye that it would not be as bad as it all appeared. A tiny, AAA battery operated pump was produced and about 30 minutes later the mattress was still decidedly limp and would have barely supported a feather let alone two adults. My brother decided to offer wisdom and practical assistance. I will sort that he stated! He fetched from our van a 12 volt car jump pack, connected the crocodile clips across the tiny battery terminals of the 3 volt pump and flicked the switch. Well, the high speed whining noise from the pump was deafening but sure enough the mattress quickly started to inflate. Worryingly the whining noise grew faster and faster when suddenly a massive cloud of electrical smoke belched out the pump and it ground to a halt. My brother looked sheepish and fled the scene leaving Jamie trying to persuade his worried looking girlfriend, that a piece of uninflated vinyl could still be made to be very comfortable. The following morning I climbed out of my tent to see Jamie and his girlfriend bailing water out of their tent and the uninflated mattress actually floating. The following day us three drivers attended the mandatory pre-race drivers briefing. We actually had all decided that this was going to be very helpful. Due to the very long 16.2 mile lap, all sort of different safety protocol was used at the Nurburgring. Flags, lights and course cars all needed to be clearly understood to ensure no race mishaps and race penalties imposed on us. We settled down near the front with about 300 other drivers feeling confident we would leave with a clear understanding of the rules of racing on the Nurburgring. The clerk of the course stood up at the front and then spoke to us very clearly for about 45 minutes in his best German. The briefing finished and to our horror every driver in the room stood and walked out. We approached the clerk of the course, asked if there was a driver briefing in English and the response was a very Germanic “nicht”. Well that was that. We looked at each other blankly and agreed we would simply have to do our best.
Scrutineering for any race is always a nervous time for competitors. So much time and effort is put in to preparing for a race. The thought of failing scrutineering by an unhappy scrutineer is daunting. One small error is all it takes for the car or driver to be excluded. A technical infringement with the car, a championship regulation overlooked, the wrong safety equipment, a helmet or race flameproofs out of date is all it takes to be sent packing. With some delight we and the car whistled through scrutineering. End of part 1