On Saturday, Audi acknowledged their cars were only the third fastest but an R8 LMS GT3 went on to win and it didn’t even rain

The Nurburgring-Nordschleife road course that sits hidden in the thick forest of the Eiffel Mountains in Germany is an automotive enthusiast’s heaven, and we were there to report from the 2019 Nurburgring 24 Hours race, the most important motorsport event that takes place annually on the old host of the German Grand Prix. The positives? Everything. The negatives? Only one: that the 2020 edition of the race is 12 months away.

When I started covering sports car endurance racing, some six years ago, I quickly established in my head that there are endurance races and there are endurance races. In the latter category, I’ve put the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Sebring 12 Hours, the Spa-Francorchamps 24 Hours, the Bathurst 12 Hours, and the Nurburgring 24 Hours - all for obvious reasons. As a result, all of these events found their way to my bucket list and, now, I’ve ticked one of them, and I’m here to tell you what’s like to experience this twice-around-the-clock race for the first time - both from behind and in front of the fences.

The Nurburgring 24 Hours remains a record-breaking event

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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I know I might’ve bored at least some of you in the first installment of this (more or less) impromptu series of articles, "Days At The Races," so I’ll try to keep the introduction short this time.

You all know why the Nurburgring-Nordschleife is such an amazing place and why each year thousands of people flock the track in anything from small hatchbacks to SUVs, sedans, RVs, pickup trucks, and motorcycles for the famous ’touristenfahrten’ or tourist rides.

It'll cost you $30 to drive one lap of the Nordschleife behind the wheel of your own car (or a rented one) from Monday to Thursday and $34 on Friday.

You can obviously go for the ’Ring Taxi’ service that ensures you’ll be driven around the track by a professional in a properly fast car.

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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Many have lamented about the Nurburgring’s future over the past 10 years, and the well-known Save The Ring initiative still fights to keep the track away from those that may want to see it go away due to the valuable land it sits on. People have also talked about all the accidents happening during the tourist rides, German newspaper General Anzeiger reporting that there were no less than 81 crashes on the Nordschleife in 2016 that have claimed the lives of two people.

While all this may be worrying for some, I can tell you that the Nordschleife is alive and well and that motorsport isn't dead either.

This year, 230,000 people came from all over the world to attend the 24-hour race, a traditional event that’s been around since 1970. Over the course of the years only thrice did the race not take place: in 1974 and 1975 due to the OPEC oil crisis and, then, in 1983 due to the construction of the modern Grand Prix loop. This proves that almost nothing can stop the event from coming back every year and, frankly, the world would be a sadder place without it.

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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To put it into context, over 300,000 attend the Indy 500 every year, and almost 200,000 come to watch NASCAR’s marquee event, the Daytona 500. The Le Mans 24 Hours too sees hundreds of thousands of people show up, this year’s total surpassing 250,000. All of these are events that have run longer than the Nurburgring 24 Hours and are, arguably, more famous around the world but none offer quite the same atmosphere like the one you’ll find in the Eiffel Mountains because, well, the Indy 500 takes place on an oval as does the Daytona 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours is nowadays catering towards a rich clientele and has somewhat moved away from its more grassroots days. But not the Nurburgring.

Most of those 230,000 people arrived at the track with their own motorhomes or, at least, with tents ready for a weekend of camping, barbecues, beer, and fun - all while following the race and listening to its gas-burning (in the case of most of the cars) soundtrack.

There are many camping areas around Nurburg, and the other towns along the route of the Nordschleife and all of them were packed with people on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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Now, besides the large amounts of people trackside, there are thousands working more or less behind the scenes to make it all happen. No less than 35 people form the team that operates everything from the Race Control room, and there are 130 other people that act as scrutineers, stewards, technical delegates, timekeepers, and many more key roles that ensure the race goes on without a hitch.

With over 100 marshal posts around the 14.8-mile track, there are also hundreds of marshals working throughout the 24 hours of the race as well as all of the practice and qualifying sessions. In all, 960 marshals are spread all over the track which is split into 17 sections (and nine timed sectors). Given the length of the track, the number of safety vehicles and safety personnel is significant as well with 52 DMSB-Staffel members (organized in rapid response units) on duty across the weekend - besides the 100 paramedics and 90 firefighters at the ready.

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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Add to that the Nurburgring’s full-time personnel and the hundreds of part-time workers that safeguard the access gates and work in different areas of the venue and you start to realize just how difficult it is to have a race like this take place on a track like this. That’s why you can’t help but be taken aback when you’re finally there, and you see it all for yourself. That and the fact that the track was animated by some 160 cars of all shapes and sizes!

What Went Down

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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If you want to attend a race, you must always plan ahead: book the plane tickets months in advance, as well as the place you're going to sleep in because at least in the case of the Nurburgring, accommodation isn't plentiful and hotels are few and far between.

You’re probably going to end up looking for locals who rent their apartments on the weekend of the race, but you must take into account the fact that prices can be steep depending on how fast you act.

In my case, tickets were booked long before I even applied for the press credentials so there was no longer a question of if I’m going. The only question hovered above the credentials since I missed out on them at Zolder and it really hindered me. But the Nordschleife is a different animal, much more old-school and you can really cover the event without ever touching a media pass of any sort - although you won’t get close to the pit lane either but that’s all right, even as a photographer you need overalls to be allowed to roam free on the pit lane, much like in the IMSA Weathertech SportsCar Championship and in the SRO-governed series.

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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After the confirmation arrived via e-mail, I could look forward to a full weekend of fun. Well, not really, since I flew in on Friday and only got to the track around the time the Top 30 Shootout was about to kick-off. The Top 30 Shootout is a sort of a super-pole session that’s in effect the decider: each driver gets two flying laps, and the fastest starts the race from pole position and receives the Glickenhaus Pole Position Award. The system that elects who gets in the Top 30 Shootout is quite complicated as it relies on a number of factors including best average sector times in the two qualifying sessions on the weekend of the race, the best lap times in the first two VLN rounds and the results of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Qualifying Race that took place a month and a bit ago. You can read more about the qualifying procedure here.

What really matters is that, after a drive of over an hour from Cologne, the track finally revealed itself to me. The media credentials and the all-important tabard were picked from a nearby guest house next to a gas station.

Once you have the pass, you can get in the press center, and that's just one of the perks of being granted a media pass.

Another one is that you’re being served warm food throughout the event as well as drinks. Granted, the food isn’t outstanding, but a wurst of some variety is better than no wurst. On the topic of wursts, I’ll have you know that the fans are said to consume in excess of 80.000 sausages and 14,000 pounds of fries over the course of the weekend - quite the feast!

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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After watching the Top 30 Shootout - which ended with a Mercedes-AMG lockout of the front row of the grid - I wandered down into the paddock as being late meant I completely missed the action from the three-hour historic car race. Luckily, not all of the teams had packed up and left by the time I arrived so I got to see some rather nice cars like a pair of outrageously wide Porsche 934/5s and a hefty Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL hidden away in a trailer. You really start to wonder how that thing must’ve felt being urged into the fast corners of the old Spa-Francorchamps road course back in 1971 when an example quite like that one finished on the overall podium in the 24-hour race. It must’ve been quite a tiring job for both Hens Heyer and Clemens Schickentanz.

What I didn’t miss, however, were the second and third WTCR races that kick-started the action on Saturday. The World Championship for TCR machinery is the only FIA-approved series that actually races on the Nordschleife, but the tin tops only do three laps of the track in each of their three races. While the competition is always very close in TCR due to the Balance of Performance, this was just the appetizer for the main course - the 24-hour race.

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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When it was finally time to descend to the grid, it all felt quite surreal. I’ve seen footage of the 100-minute grid walk opened to all the fans, and that mass of people scattered across the start/finish straight offers quite a staggering sight. But being in the thick of it is that much more amazing and what was cool was that Volkswagen brought the I.D.R (the fastest EV ever around the Nordschleife) to the event and parked it in front of all of the cars. As a bit of a side note, the cars within the top 30 are parked at an angle on the left-hand side of the straight as if ready to launch away in a Le Mans-style start. Last year, in the I.D.-R’s place there was Timo Bernhard’s 919 Evo that had just broken the all-time fastest lap around the Nordschleife, and next to it there was Bellof’s 956. The I.D.-R is cool, but it’s not that cool...

The race got underway at 3:00 PM local time after everybody had cleared the grid. 158 cars started the race divided into 23 different classes - here’s a guide to the madness. At the sharp end, obviously, there were the +30 GT3 cars (split between the Pro and Pro-Am divisions of the SP9 category) and they were followed by a myriad of Porsche Cup cars and two unique cars: the Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus SCG 003C that raced for the last time around the ’Green Hell’ and the Lexus LC500 brought straight from Japan by Toyota Gazoo Racing. The former raced in the SPX class (the only car in that category), and the latter in SP-Pro as neither follow the GT3 rulebook although, on paper, they are quite close to the specifications of a GT3 car.

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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During the opening 60 minutes of the race, all I could do is think back to the cacophony of sounds and images from the gird: all of the cars, the people, the noises, the huge crowd in the main grandstands and in the Mercedes Arena

. It’s something that’s hard to put into words and that you can only really understand when you’re there - a picture may be worth 1,000 words, but words aren’t enough to convey this experience.

As you’ll have read already, the race was quite eventful, and many of the key players encountered issues early on, despite the fact that the race ran dry throughout all of the 24 hours. If you know anything about the ’Ring, you know that a twice-around-the-clock race there that’s not affected by rain (or hail, or snow) at all is something very, very rare, a true gift from the Gods. As I’ve come to realize later, the fact that it didn’t rain at all was a true blessing as I really wasn’t prepared for the muddy conditions that would’ve been trackside had it rained.

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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I first went out to shoot on the Nordschleife in the early hours of the evening on Saturday, having previously been out on the Grand Prix loop to snap some pictures of one of the WTCR races. What makes the Nurburgring special is that it was built in the middle of a forest. This is also what makes the track very difficult to traverse. Basically, all you’ve got at your disposal are a series of dirt-covered backroads that run along the track. You can’t really get lost there as the roads do show up on the GPS, but with some rather daunting drops and with most of them only being wide enough to fit one car, they aren’t particularly welcoming at night.

Still, I manage to make my way to the famous jump at Pflanzgarten.

That’s one of the sections that’s been repaved recently and, in spite of the fact that the hump there has been flattened a few times over the years, the cars still get airborne before breaking for a rather tight right-hander with a blind exit. You’ve gotta start your breaking before the wheels on your carriage leave the ground or else you’re going to stuff it in the guardrail. Seeing cars get all four wheels off the ground, there is hair-raising, and I’m not exaggerating. If the race would’ve lasted 84 hours like the old ’Marathon de la Route’ events held there in the ’60s and ’70s, I might’ve stayed put at Pflanzgarten for a long while.

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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As it was, I left and headed for another key section, the Caracciola Karussell. As it took almost an hour to get to the Karussell, the sun was about to set by the time we started shooting on the outside of that famous banked hairpin. I’ve driven through there countless times in a variety of racing games, but the banked bit itself looks a bit scarier when seen in person. I hope I’ll find out how it is to drive it too and fell the massive compression on your way out and onto the second half (ish) of the track.

After checking out a few other vantage points, it was time to head back to the press center for a refill of the body (with food and liquids) and some actual work, namely editing images. I’m probably not the best photographer in my extended family and maybe not the best writer either, but I’m trying and, in more ways than one, the Nurburgring helps you feel that you’re better at it. The backdrops are often interesting, the lighting can be very dramatic, and the sheer length of the track means there are tons of places where you can shoot without worrying about another guy snapping the same exact image as you did.

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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Evening turned into night soon enough, and I decided I’d rather not venture into the ’wilderness’ of the Nordschleife on my first visit - I want to come back, remember? What I did, do, though, was take a stroll through the areas that the fans can actually access at the side of the track, a few feet away from the guard rail, sometimes behind a protective fence. Access at the Nurburgring is really good for the fans, as I’ve said, and the atmosphere is second to none.

In the Adenau area, cohorts of people were drinking various sorts of alcoholic (and non-alcoholic) beverages and indulging in generic types of sausages with sides of fries.

It was an ongoing party that somewhat matched the symphony of racing engines out on the track. While some folks seemed to have drunk a bit too much, most attendees proved to be properly German and, as such, very orderly in their behaviour. Yes, the Nurburgring 24-hour race is an old-fashioned event with huge campsites and can be seen as a place where fans simply go to get wasted while cars go round and round in the background but it’s a lot more than that and reducing it to such a narrow image simply means that you’re missing the point. What is the point, you may ask? The point is that races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans have lost this down-to-Earth feeling that the Nurburgring still retains. You won’t see huge barbecues and folks like those that build their own makeshift viewing areas and special high-rising platforms at Le Mans. Le Mans is a lot more clinical nowadays, maybe too clinical and lacking in the fun department.

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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Adenau, though, was brimming with energy, with the light from the fires that burned inside barrels intertwining with the blinding light of the cars - all carried on heavy beats of rock music, of course. The whole picture was so amazing that it made me consider to come back without a media pass one day and just enjoy the event as a fan with an RV - it’s that cool.

The early hours of the morning are the toughest, as you’d expect, but some taurine-filled drinks later and it’s already dawn. What happens in a press room around dawn? Not much. The press room is half empty as some are out on track chasing the rising sun, some ran away to find a bed to rest their heads on, while others sleep on the tables or under the tables. The few that are still in running order seem to work tirelessly as if it hadn’t been 12 hours since the race had started.

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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The second half of the race is a bit of a blur for me due to the fact that my eyelids were starting to refuse to stay open.

I fought through, however, and what helped was some fresh air taken in from the side of the track. There’s no better way to get you wide awake than sitting mere inches away from fast-moving race cars, and that’s what I did on Sunday morning - wish all my Sunday mornings were like that!

Alas, all the fun had to end at one point and, when the chequered flag was finally waved, a surprise winner was crowned. The team? Phoenix Racing, one that had won two other times in the past. The manufacturer? Audi, who’d racked up four wins in the past decade. This wasn’t Audi’s race to win. It was Porsche’s race to lose, and that’s exactly what the Stuttgart brand did. A hefty penalty applied to the No. 911 Manthey Racing-entered car that disobeyed the speed limit in a slow zone by a whopping 52 km/h (32.3 mph) dashed its chances of victory after leading the race since 11:00 PM on Saturday. Mercedes’ top guns also fell by the wayside as did the leading BMW crews, other serious Porsches, the lone SCG, and the Octane126 Ferrari that burnt beautifully (but painfully) on the GP loop early on.

Days At The Races, The 2019 Edition of the Nurburgring 24 Hours Proves You Need Luck To Win A Race On The "Green Hell"
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As I head back to the airport on Monday morning, I could only think of one thing: how I should’ve attended this race way earlier than I actually did and how I won’t miss any other future running until they cancel it if that ever happens. If not, then I guess you’ll find me at the Nurburgring at least once a year in time for the 24-hour race.

Further reading

2018 ADAC 24 Hours of Nurburgring - Race Report
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2018 Nurburgring 24 Hours Report

2017 24 Hours of Nurburgring Exterior High Resolution
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2017 Nurburgring 24 Hours Report

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