Hardly a more enthusiastic troupe of ne’er-do-wells has existed than the quarter-million strong who traipse into the distant greenery of western Germany each year to set up a temporary civilization around the 24-hour car race at the Nürburgring. Watching it online is fun. Being a part of it in person is something else entirely.
Gathered champions of lunacy will drink heavily, largely ignore the only few hundred more foolish than they as they pilot their impossible parade around a road leading nowhere, completely dismantle the temporary city by Sunday afternoon, and fail to remember most of it by Monday. Desiring to count myself among their number at least once in my lifetime, I endeavored to jump directly into the deep end. I went for a hike. At midnight. To the Carracciola-Karussel.
Don’t worry, I survived.
(Full Disclosure: Hyundai brought me to Germany to watch its Veloster N and i30N race cars take on the field, as well as eat and stay free of charge.)
The N24 is a full day of racing from 2PM on Saturday until 2PM on Sunday taking place at none other than the famed ‘Ring. For this specific event, the Grand Prix Circuit is combined with the hairy Nordschliefe to make a massive 16.123 mile race course. The race allows many types of cars to race, with the top class being filled with factory-supported cars built to FIA GT3 regulations [Porsche GT3R, Ferrari 488 GT3, Audi R8 LMS, and Mercedes AMG GT3 to name a few] as well as a slew of privateer entered oddities. Over 100 cars race all at the same time. It’s a free for all.
My German is limited, but I know how to say “Eine Bier, bitte” so I knew I’d be able to acquire the necessary rations. Armed with nothing more than an iPhone and a rain jacket (which ultimately was little more than dead weight), I left the bright lights and safety of the Grand Prix Strecke, and headed out into the gathered mass. Hold on to your Goddamn hats, folks, we’re going native.
Before I was dropped off in the middle of the shit, I asked someone who had been in this situation before how to assure the Germans around me that I was a friendly American who just needed a beer. He looked me up and down and replied “Don’t worry, they will know.” As I sit here typing this, I’m chuckling to myself about the absurdity of the call and the accuracy of the response.
What I witnessed once my compatriots left the track to go sleep in hotel beds for the night was an entirely next level of preparation for race spectating. If you’ve ever been dumbfounded by the contraptions fans build in the infield of a NASCAR race, or the scaffolding fortresses of a Sebring 12 Hour encampment, then you’d be struck by the ingenuity of the N24 fanatics.
These folks have been camping out for a week or more sometimes, and the layers of empty bottles, spent campfire wood, and well-worn pathways are the proof. These people don’t do things in half measures. It rules.
As the night comes to the track, the party livens up. The music gets louder, the whole circuit is fuzzy with campfire and firework smoke. Some of the drivers complain about this visibility issue, especially in the darkest sections of night, but others relish the challenge as part of the N24 mystique. It’s an extra layer of talent necessary to win. And of course they wouldn’t want to curtail the Germans’ revelry.
Out in the forest around the circuit are a million discothek built to house a dozen each. Every one is playing a louder and more absurd tune. At one point I saw a group of three dancing to a version of “Seven Nation Army” that sounded like it was performed on kazoos and bells.
Others were playing some form of “Stump.” I don’t exactly get how the game works, but there are a bunch of stumps around the circuit with a half dozen nails sticking up out of them. A group of heavily intoxicated enthusiasts stand around trying to be the first one to drive the nail home one poorly aimed hit at a time. It looked to be highly competitive from an outsider view.
This year, because the race was moved back a month to June, the weather was spectacular. It didn’t rain even a little bit. I carried a coat with me on my trip, but I never needed it. The overnight low was in the mid-60s F, and fan-hauled fire barrels were spaced every 200 feet or so if you got chilly.
In some of the darker sections of the hiking path back to the Karussel, I made sure to have my cell phone flashlight on so that I could avoid rolling my ankle on empties.
In spite of the fact that I’m hardly in the kind of shape to take an impromptu seven-mile hike, I enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I made it out to the Karussel at exactly midnight and stood like a little kid with my fingers interlocked with the chain link fence lining the track. I was as close to the action as you can possibly be.
For several hours I was out in the middle of nowhere, exploring and enjoying. Drinking in the local culture and several bottles of Bitburger. While I normally enjoy poring over time tables, sector times, and gaps between competitors, it was refreshing to dive into the murky blackness and know nothing of what was happening in the race aside from engine notes and headlights. Trackside, it’s nearly impossible to follow the race. And once I came to grips with that, I felt okay.
This is what it looks like to my iTelephone’s camera, which is to say it is pretty close to what it looks like to my naked eye.
Thankfully, a few intrepid campers hauled electric connections and a whole ass big screen television out to the trackside to be able to follow along the action. During my hike I stopped a few times to see what was going on. It was nice to still be able to know that the Porsche was leading all night, and the Mercedes Benz was hard charging in second. It’s also interesting that neither of those cars won the race.
When you’re looking at the photos of the giant campsite accouterments that were out at the track, it does well to remember that most of these campsites are at least a couple miles from the main road. People had to haul all of this shit out into the woods, erect it for the week, and then tear it down Sunday afternoon and haul it back out again.
And here are three of the best race camp rigs I saw all weekend. The MAN truck owns so hard I almost died when I saw it. I want to be friends with this person.
And of course, because Germany might be the most efficient and rule-adherent country in the world, everything was cleaned up and as they left it by Monday morning.
This event has been on my bucket list for quite some time, and it did not disappoint. The racing was excellent, as expected, but the atmosphere was so much more than I thought it would be. If you have the opportunity to attend, it’s an absolute must. One ticket will get you in to all of the campground areas, and you can take a shuttle to a handful of locations on the track. If you want to do it right, bring lots of beer, and wear comfortable shoes.