More Upheaval for Germany's Historic Nürburgring
2 years of mismanagement come to an end, and the world's greatest racetrack turns a corner.
Germany's hallowed Nürburgring Nordschliefe is many things -- long, storied, awesome. At 85 years old, it's also ancient. The track that Formula 1 driver Jackie Stewart once called "the Green Hell" has been featured in so many books and Internet videos that it almost seems like a permanent part of car culture -- something that can't change or disappear.
Only it's not. Permanent, that is. As most enthusiasts know, the 'Ring is owned by the German government. For the past two years, the track and its operating rights have been leased to a private company called Nürburgring Automotive GmbH (NAG). After the lease engagement, the 12.9-mile track and its grounds changed; a shopping mall and roller coaster (!) were erected, and track regulars reported repeated clashes with management over relatively minor issues. It was not the friendly, seemingly lawless speed palace it had always been.
The truth, of course, is that the Nürburgring has never been lawless or friendly. People have died there, and since the advent -- decades ago -- of public lapping days, the place has been watched over cautiously by the German state. The company that took over the track just shifted the management focus from the track itself to moneymaking endeavors. In the process, it racked up a 350 million-euro debt and alienated virtually everyone who had anything to do with the place, including a few legends.
Thanks to the German government, the Nürburgring is now free. But it may not stay that way.
Short of driver death, the Ring's recent troubles are as close to scandal as the track has come. The impact was great enough that the German government held a press conference Tuesday, finally announcing the expulsion of NAG from the lease. In other words, the guys behind the roller coaster (who ever thought that was a good idea, anyway?) screwed up so badly that they were fired. Many view this as a small victory; no management, the thinking goes, has to be better than bad management.
There's no word as to who will manage the track next. The government says it has received many inquiries from interested parties, and there's talk of a so-called "tender period," a public decision process that could take up to a year. The opportunity is a unique one -- imagine if the Library of Congress stretched over almost 13 miles of expensive, constantly deteriorating pavement, and had the potential to kill anyone who visited, and yet people still walked through the door in droves. Now put it in private hands but try to keep liability to a minimum. Except for the Egyptian pyramids, few national landmarks take up as much space or engage the public in such a physical way. (There are also damage costs: Bump into a wall in one of the pyramids, you don't have to pay for the damage done by your oily skin; crash a car at the Ring, you're responsible for the guardrail you just bent.)
It should go without saying that the Nürburgring means a lot to an awful lot of people. Manufacturers test on it extensively -- a fact that ad companies often mine -- enthusiasts and historians revere it, and racers flock to it annually, many of them attending or competing in the greatest endurance competition on the planet. Germans consider it a treasure, a landmark piece of engineering that represents some of their country's greatest qualities and brightest hours. No other place in the world is quite like it.
Me, I just want to fulfill a lifelong dream and go there -- unlike a lot of journalists and professional car fools, I've never been -- which means it needs to stay alive, stay solvent and stay dangerous, at least for a few more years. At the risk of sounding selfish, here's hoping.
Postscript: If you want to see some truly weird video of an open-wheel race car driving the Ring in the snow -- I know, it's random, but it popped up yesterday on Bridge to Gantry, a Ring enthusiast's blog -- click this link. It's not really related to this post or the news therein, but it's a good way to spend a few minutes.
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