Germany's Nürburgring Nordschliefe is 12.9 miles of thick, close forest; 73 corners; and 1000 feet of elevation change. Jackie Stewart called it the Green Hell. It's the world's most dangerous race track, and we drove it in a Buick Regal.
Full Disclosure: Get ready for the most ridiculous disclaimer we've ever had to write. This drive occurred during something called the Buick World Tour, during which GM flew us from Detroit to Beijing, China, put us up in the ridiculously posh Westin Beijing, and fed us crazy food like sea cucumber, which was a special kind of awful. They arranged our entry into the Beijing Motor Show and, following that, paid our way onto the Great Wall of China. They then flew us from Beijing to Frankfurt, Germany, put us up in a so-so hotel, fed us rich German food, gave us a factory tour, and then took us to the Nürburgring, which they had rented for the purpose. Following that, they rented a 900-year-old monastic winery for a wrap-up dinner. You want junket? This was a junket.
Ask an ordinary person what they'd choose to drive around the Nordschliefe, brands like Porsche, Ferrari, or Lamborghini invariably spring forth. Buick, on the other hand, would occupy the territory somewhere between a worn Crosley and a plain baloney sandwich. Buick's sporting efforts of late are limited to the 1980s G-body Grand National/GNX and the Regal GSE of the late 1990s. Those cars were freaky aberrations in a brand known for being just above Chevrolet (sans-SS) and just below everything else GM made. Buick has spent the last 40 years as an also-ran, a brand defined by its lack of definition.
And then something changed. A few years ago, GM began unceremoniously killing off its lesser brands — Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and, chiefly, Saturn — making Buick integral to the future of the company. Suddenly, crappy, badge-engineered Chevys marketed at old people wouldn't cut it anymore: Buick had to change, had to become relevant. The Enclave was a good starting point, the LaCrosse a decent next step. But the Regal is where Buick turns the corner, and to make the point, they set us loose on 73 of them.
It's hard to properly describe the Nürburgring. It's exciting, exhausting, intimidating, and utterly, utterly addictive. Yes, we were driving a Buick on the Nürburging, but the first lap still ticked off at around eleven and a half minutes, the second in ten and a half. Despite the prickly back-of-the-neck sense of cheated death, the adrenaline overload means you must keep at it. Ten fifteen. Ten ten.
Plunging into the dark forests of tall green trees that crowd the track, the Regal's balance is so predictable that you occasionally forget it's front drive. All four wheels sing in chorus, and even in sport mode, the six-speed automatic can't keep up with shifting demands. This is one instance where manually shifting an automatic is not only encouraged, but darn near required. Momentum maintenance is the order of the day, and climbing from the track's low point at the off-camber Breidscheid corner demands all of the 2.0-liter turbocharged four's 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque.
By the second lap, you're mounting curbs to keep from scrubbing precious energy, and the Karrusel punishes your backside and the car in equal measure. Flat out on the back straight at 130 mph, the Regal is poised and planted over surprisingly bumpy pavement. Were you doing 180 mph in a proper racing car, you'd have to be mindful of the wind direction, else you'd be tossed sideways into the rail.
All this violence — the tortured tires, smoking brakes, and steep scale of history — and yet, inside, we were held in place by well-bolstered and exceptionally comfortable leather seats, our hands kept cool by the dual zone air conditioning. If you were so inclined, you watch your track progress on the nav system, assuming that a break in concentration wouldn't end with the emergency crew scraping you off a wall. The juxtaposition of modest luxury against the growing scent of roasting brakes has the mind doing somersaults at the absurdity.
You pass the corner where Niki Lauda lost control in the 1976 German Grand Prix, crashing his F1 car and nearly burning to death. You recognize sweeping bends that you've seen in video of Bernd Rosemeyer man-handling Auto Union Type Ds, 16 cylinders belching brimstone as he speeds past with reckless abandon. Ayrton Senna raced here. Nigel Mansell raced here. Fangio raced here.
Even after a spin 'round the Ring in something as pedestrian as a Buick, you can't help but feel a minuscule sense of accomplishment. And a sense of history. Taking on the Weimar-era monster, driving the same lines as all those legends, working a steering wheel in anger and coming out on the other side with all your extremities in the right places, it's invigorating. That feeling lasts for about 9 seconds after you hop into an Opel Insignia OPC driven by Manuel Reuter, a driver for the team that won the Nürburgring 24-hour race in 2003. You notice how he does everything you did, but at a 33% faster clip and with more skill in the heel of his driving shoe than you've got in your whole body. He knows which bumps to hit to heave the car along a queasy diagonal in a corner, and which will catch it as it lands, preventing you from meeting walls and trees. It's an altogether different experience, and it forces you to respect the Regal's chassis. More important, it forces you to stand in awe of the skill of the drivers who challenge this track and come away whole.
The Nürburgring is the greatest track in the world. It's everything you've heard and everything you've read. It is the world's best adrenaline machine writ large in asphalt. And the Buick ain't half bad, either.
Photo Credits: Nordschliefe landscape shots: Nurburgring.org.uk