The Story of the Nürburgring

The longest, most challenging racetrack in the world

None other than the great Jackie Stewart coined the nickname “the Green Hell” to describe the Nürburgring—a wild, serpentine hybrid of a Grand Prix track and a street circuit, the whole of it twisting around the Eifel mountains for miles.

Its origin is as unusual as the track itself. The construction was conceived as public work to alleviate unemployment in Germany. To that extent, the Nürburgring cost the Weimar Republic 14.1 million reichsmarks when it opened in 1927, roughly equivalent to over $50 million in today’s money.

Jackie Stewart, Nürburgring, 1969. Photo: Smith Archive.

The builders could not have envisioned that what they created as an 18-plus mile circuit would ultimately become a massive, 150,000-person capacity motorsports complex that holds a very special spot in the hearts of many Germans and most motorsports enthusiasts the world over. One reason for their devotion is that anyone can race the Ring in one’s own car!

Abandoned Steilstrecke of Nürburgring Nordschleife, 2019. Photo: Eifelauge / Alamy.

In the early 1920s, the ADAC (The German Automobile Club) organized Eifelrennen (Eifel-races) on 20-mile street circuits near the cities of Bonn and Cologne. The growing popularity of these races led to a desire for a proper track. The many amazing, twisting roads in the Eifel mountains, combined with the urgency of the economic crisis in the region, convinced city leaders to develop a very long, snaking track near the town of Nürburg. The idea was not as farfetched as it sounds. A similar track-layout formula had already proven very successful with Italy’s Targa Florio.

The original plan consisted of four configurations over 18 miles for the Gesamtstrecke (Whole Course), including 14 miles of the Nordschleife (North Loop) and almost four miles of the Südschleife (South Loop). In addition, there was a 1.5 mile warm-up loop called Betonschleife (Concrete Loop) around the pit area.

Pit crew hard at work on the Nürburgring Nordschleife. Photo: Geert Biesbrouck.

Building a track of that size required a lot of money to maintain. So, in addition to racing events, the track was opened in the evenings and on weekends as a one-way toll road. And that is precisely why, to this day, you can take your street car on the Nordschleife and go as fast as you dare without facing oncoming traffic.

For better or worse, this is widely known in Europe. Therefore, a word of advice: Do not try out the track with a rental car. Rental agencies have spotters and, if they catch you, you’ll pay a huge fine. What’s more, most European car insurance companies have disclaimers in their contracts that exclude “The Ring.” And, if you do crash and cause damage to the track (let’s say to an armco or the pavement), you or your “relatives with money” are on the hook to pay for repairs. Add to this the notoriously unpredictable weather – sometimes rainy or foggy on one side of the circuit while dry on the other – and you’ll understand just how dangerous this track really can be. If you’re not a professional driver, it promises to be a risky undertaking. Every year there are several fatal accidents and the number of cars wrecked is in the thousands.

Nürburgring Nordschleife, Germany. Photo: Johann Hinrichs.

By the 1950s, as Formula 1 cars became way too quick for a rollercoaster track with well over seventy corners and elevation differences of 1,000 feet between the highest and lowest points, and Grand Prix racing became perilous. There were multiple sections where cars would become airborne on a regular basis. Perhaps the final straw for F1 on the Ring were the demands of TV networks broadcasting Grand Prix events live. The sheer size of the circuit meant that networks were unable to cover the entire track; further, TV coverage required many more marshals, emergency vehicles, and emergency staff than one would see at a regular F1 event. And it didn’t help matters that Bernie Ecclestone kept increasing the fees.

Graham Hill in his Lotus 69, Nürburgring GP, 1969. Photo: GP Library.

Subsequently, in the 1980s, the owners decided to build a proper modern Grand Prix circuit in the area that used to hold the Südschleife. Today, the Nürburgring still has the three main configurations – the Grand Prix Circuit; the Nordschleife; and both tracks combined.

For a driver’s view of racing the Nürburgring, our film, “Old Timers Grand Prix,” featuring both the Grand Prix Circuit as well as the Nordschleife, will give you a virtual feeling of what it’s like. You’ll love the cars, too – the famous Aston Martin DP214, Jaguar E-Types, and classic Austin-Healeys.