Friday, October 29, 2010

Nurburgring Pt 2 (or the By a Newb for a Newb guide to the Nurburgring)

Ok... so you've got your mind set on finally driving this famous track that you've wasted so much time playing in Gran Turismo/Forza/GTR etc.  You know where it is (kinda), you know its open to the public, and you have plane/boat/flying donkey tickets that will land you somewhere close-ish. Now what?

Wait... Is it even a good time to go?  Will it be too hot/cold/crowded/rainy/windy etc
From what little experience I have, every season seems to have its advantages and drawback.  Summer is very popular as the weather is definitely adventagous, but it also means MASSIVE crowds, which just means massive traffic jams should the track close (and it WILL close for some reason during the day).  Late season is when I went (late October to be exact), and the weather at that time is VERY volatile.  One minute it will be bright and sunny, the next it will be overcast, then it will start to rain, then the sun might come out again etc.  It was also very cold, and cold + wet = slippery.  Keep that in mind when hitting those corners...

Getting to the Ring
See part 1 of this for an example of how NOT to get to the Ring.  Quite simply, while German public transport is probably one of the best in the world, the Nurburgring is just so far out of the way that even ze Germans kinda said screw it and cut back on the transport options.  If you must get there by public transport, make sure you've planned both directions, as buses have a nasty habit of running only every few hours, and in my case not running at all on the day I was leaving. will be your best friend here.  I haven't seen a trip planner quite like what they have on  It works, its pretty optimal, and it will tell you whether or not your public transport ideas will work.  Your goal from pretty much anywhere in Germany is to get to either Bonn or Remagen, then grab a regional train to Aubruck, at which point you will hop onto a bus (which thankfully runs 7 days a week) to Adenau.  Its actually not a bad journey as you get to see a lot of German countryside and vineyards, and if you've got the time it would probably be a lot of fun to just tour some of the towns along the way.  Adenau will be homebase, unless you're crazy (and cheap) like me and decide to stay "a little further out" in Wiesemscheid.  They have some decent hotels there, its actually closer to the Ring than Adenau, and if you have a rental car this is definitely an option, but for those unlucky enough NOT to have a rental, well... trust me, just stay in Adenau.

Getting a ride for the Ring
I'm assuming you don't know anyone in mainland Europe who has a car and is coming with you or letting you borrow it, cuz then why are you still reading this?  There are really 2 options for cars, taking your rental car to the track or getting a ring prepped car for the track.  Option A is the "how much do you enjoy risk" option and option B is the "how much are you willing to spend" option.  People definitely take rental cars onto the track, but most of them are smart enough to not rent them from either the UK or Germany.  Also, rentals tend to have crap tires, tired brakes, and who-knows-what-else kind of problems, so if you decide you are gonna bomb the course one last time that rental just might crap out on you in a big way.  Oh, and if the companies find out you've been to the ring, who knows what kind of penalties you'll incur...  In short (or not so short) I will only be describing option B, as its the one I went with and had a great time using.

Picking a ride for the Ring
What did you drive around the Ring in GT/Forza/GTR?  Probably something like a M3 or a GT3 or even maybe a STi right?  Well, forget about those for now, cuz as an Honorary Ring Newb (like me) you'll be looking at something all together more mundane.  The beginner car of choice for most of the Ring specialized rental companies seems to be the Suzuki Swift Sport.  Its got 130 roaring horses (they actually roar quite well once the rear insulation is stripped away) and every place preps their car with at least a bit of weight reduction (like insulation removal) and a roll cage.  Its very beginner-friendly car for quite a few reasons actually.  First, its light.  At around 1000KG those 130HP can actually do quite a bit of good.  Second, its FWD.  This will save your ass when you way overcook an entry or exit and need to save yourself from that armco looming in front of you.  Third, its forgiving.  This is a combination of lightweight, low power, and FWD working together here.  Its also forgiving because its got a 5 speed manual, and that means you'll probably really only need 2 gears for the entire track (3rd and 4th).  2nd is useful for a couple of the REALLY slow corners (and powering out of uphill corners) and 5th is only needed on the long back straight and the section before the gantry.  In short, the Swift will be your friend and won't actively help in your attempts to kill yourself around the track.   
"BUT BUT BUT" you may ask "BUT what if I... um... can't drive manual?"
Well first, shame on your for coming all the way out to the Nurburgring and not be able to drive properly.  Second, you're not out of luck, as most of the rental companies carry GTIs and Scirocco with DSG gearboxes.  They're quite a bit more expensive (almost double the price of the Swift really) but they're also more powerful (at ~220HP) and in the case of the Scroccio, much MUCH better looking.

But I'm rich and stupid!  I want something FASTER!
Well then... there's plenty of options for potential ring damage here.  The M3 is a popular choice (both e46 and e92 are available) as are various Porsches (GT3 being the runaway favorite).  However, I don't want to be anywhere near you if you decide to drive one of those on a first time out, no matter how careful you say you're gonna be.  

So Umm... whats the wallet damage gonna be?
Ahh... the inevitable question of how many organs you may have to sell to fund this little endevour.  Well, for those of use who aren't gifted with a trust fund, the total cost is actually quite reasonable.  Now, think about a track day back home.  A normal track day costs around $250-$500 for admission alone.  You may get instructor training, you may not.  You will be paying for your own gas, and after day's lapping probably your own tires and brakes as well.  So in the end, its gonna cost you AT LEAST $300-$600 not counting the cost of those new tires and brakes.  So how much will it actually cost to drive the Ring?  For a "reasonable" car (aka Swift or VW) you're looking at anywhere between 250 euro and 500 euro all inclusive (that means gas, tickets, the works).  For 250 euro (the option I went for) you get 4 laps in 2 hours (well, I took 3 hours, and they weren't too picky about it).  For 500 euro you get 6 laps and 4 hours to do it.  Honestly, if you're doing this with a buddy or 2, go for the 500 euro option.  You'll get a better car and everyone will get more chances to drive.  4 hours is enough for at least 8 laps if you've got two drivers, and thus a couple extra tickets might be needed but you'll definitely get a lot of laps in.  If you're doing it alone then I'm not sure if the extra laps (or time) are gonna be worth it.  There's only so much you can take in the first day, and after 4 laps I was feeling like I would either improve greatly on the 5th or crash.  There's also a 3rd option which is probably worth exploring and thats going through ringprojekt.  They do things a little differently as they charge not by time but by lap, and all their cars are quite interesting, as they're all Lotuses.  The Elise seems to be a great beginner car (low HP, lightweight, RWD) while the 11 looks like great fun in the sun and the Exige just looks nuts.  They're priced quite reasonably for being a "per lap" affair, and on the low end you'll spend around 250 euro for 3 laps in a Elise (something I was seriously considering).  Options options options, always a good thing.  (BTW... for the curious, a half day rental of a E46 M3 WITHOUT gas or tickets was 750 euro.  The guy who ordered it also got an instructor to come along with him, and that was another 250 euro.)

Alright, so I've got my car picked out and my stay sorted.  Now what?
This is where I kinda dropped the ball, as I hadn't forseen actually coming to the ring so I totally forgot to install any racing games onto my laptop.  Definitely grab a copy of GTR or some other game with the Ring on it and bring it with you.  Now, in the game, drive the course SLOWLY (I mean really really slowly) and get an idea of how things are laid out and where (approximately) the major corners are.  At the very least, know what corner comes after what.  This will help you avoid some of my embarassing moments entering a corner I thought was fast way too hot and having the car's ESP step in to keep me from doing anything I would regret.  Staring at a map won't help you as much as virtually driving the course will.

Whoo hoo! Time to drive!
Congrats on making it this far.  There's only a few final things to keep in mind...
1) You WILL do stupid things on the track.  You're driving it for the first time, and you will overcook both entries and exits.  It will look bad, and the guys behind you might laugh, but you'll be fine.
2) You WILL NOT crash.  People go on and on about how dangerous the track is.  The track is only as dangerous as you want it to be.  For the people I saw driving 30-40mph on a family tour... their danger level is practically zero.  For the guy bombing the track HARD in that GT3?  Danger level much MUCH higher.  As a Newb you'll be somehere in between that.  At certain points you'll push yourself a bit too far, and the track will bite you.  Just back off, slow down, and keep driving safe.
3) You WILL see crashes.  Crashes are a regular occurance.  You may not witness one in action, but you will definitely see the aftermath.  The ones I saw didn't look to bad, but then again, the track was shut down for 30 minutes and helicopter was brought in for one of them.  Its a race track and people get hurt.  Make sure you're not one of them.
4) You WILL NOT be afraid of the "scary" corners and places.  Bergwerk, Flutsplatz, Karossel... all famous, all quite tame for the Newb driver cuz you won't be hitting anything too fast (right, RIGHT?).  The corners you should concentrate on are the myrid of esses scattered across the track.  Any single corner give you the option of running wide if you screw it up.  Screw up an S curve and you'll be feeling rumble strip and maybe even a bit of dirt if you're not careful (ask me how I know...)  
5) You WILL have a beer when you're done.  Well, probably not just "a" beer, as Germans seem to have this great fascination with small beer glasses at any place except a biergarten.  

As you can see, I didn't give too much information about things "around" the Ring, like accomedation, things to do, food, etc.  The reason is simple... I didn't experience much of it because of my schedule and my lack of transportation.  There's far better sites with more detailed information on these topics from people who actually have done the research themselves.

I will just say that I had a great time driving the Ring, and its definitely one of those "life accomplishments" you'll be proud about for a long time.  

And finally, the obligatory lap video :)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

On The Nurburgring Pt.1

I did it. 

Four laps, not one scratch on the car and only one "rumble strip incident".  A major life moment has been accomplished, and my only wish is to come back and be able to do it again.

A little background... 

The Nurburgring Nordschleife is located in town of Nurburg, Germany.  Well... "in" is not the right word.  The track actually surrounds most of the town and spreads into neighboring towns as well.  Its located deep in German countryside, and just getting to it is a feat in and of itself (as you will soon see).  This "track" isn't so much of a track as it is a long series of mountain roads that 1) are quite smooth and well maintained 2) is one way only and 3) has some conveniently placed armco and rumble strips.  In total there is 21km of drivable road, not counting the race only southern portion (Sudschleife) and the F1 course nearby.  To drive it, you simply show up in a car (or bike), pay 22 euro a lap, get in line, and go for it.  

Now... what about this place has brought me across a continent and an ocean in order to drive it?  Simply put, if you are at ALL a car enthusiast, this is your Mecca.  This is the holy land of driving, and at some point in your life you will make the pilgrimage here, drive the track, and leave a more enlightened person.  The journey is neither easy nor cheap, but its well worth every dollar (euro, pound... etc) spent.

So how did I get here?  

With much difficulty I must admit.  I'm at the tail end of my journey across Europe, and being a good European traveler I have relied only upon public transportation.  Now... for 99% of Europe this is perfectly acceptable, and is probably more convenient than trying to drive to it yourself in a rental.  For the 'Ring however... its a bit of an issue.  The most basic issue is knowing when the 'Ring is open.  Simply put... you don't.  They have a schedule, but that changes regularly.  Your best bet is to plan at least a couple days nearby just in case something dire happens on the 'Ring and it shuts down.  I unfortunately didn't even have this option, as during the cold season the ring is only open once or twice a week.  

Alright, so I committed to a date, made my reservations to put a roof over my head, checked to make sure Ring rentals were available (another important topic for later).  The trip was now set.  Great... so how do I actually GET to Nurburg?  Or in my case, how do I get to Wiesemscheid (where my hotel was)?  Well... the plan was quite simple in theory.  I start in Mainz, take a train to Remagen, take another train to Aubruck, take a bus to Adenau, and finally take another bus to Wiesemcheid.  Ok... so not so simple, but at least pretty straight forward, as I later found out I'd be taking everything to the end of the line (always a good sign...)  So on the day of, I go to the train station, purchase my tickets (the German train system btw is awesome) and head off.  

Issue #1: I was very short on cash at that point, so I thought I might stop by the bank when I reached Aubruck before I had to pay for my fare to Adenau.  Well, as it turned out my bus was waiting right when I got off the train.  CRAP.  I had about 3.60 euro on me at that point, and the fare was 4 euro.  DAMN.  After a bit of gesturing, some broken English about being short on money and needing a bank, the bus driver obvious knew I had no idea what I was doing and just let me on the bus without paying.  Whew...

So the bus arrives at Adenau market, and I know that I have about an hour to kill before the bus to Wiesemcheid is supposed to leave.  Well, no... I didn't "know" that as I totally forgot to write down the exact time.  I just knew I had time between when I arrived at Adenau and when I would leave.  Good.  Now... time to find a bank...

Issue #2: Finding a bank near Adenau market was an exercise in missing things right under my nose.  I looked like a total idiot wheeling my suitcase in circles asking people where the bank was.  First guy said it was out the door and on the right.  I go there... no bank.  Next guy says no... no bank this way, turn around and head back.  Alright... so I head back and try to see if the tourist office is open.  Of course, they close at 1pm (its near 4pm at this point).  Yeah...  So I head back and happen to spot a post office and a sign that says "Post Bank".  Well there's a start, so I go into the post office and ask the lady at the counter, and she says yes this is a bank, but no she can't give me any money.  I have to go to the ATM.  Now... one thing you have to know about European ATMs is that while numerous, they tend to be shoved into the most inconspicuous locations, often with no signs at all alerting you to the fact that there is indeed an ATM 50 feet from where you're standing.  So the lady tells me the ATM is around the building, and I head out and lo and behold.... AN ATM!  RIGHT NEXT TO THE DAMN BUS STOP!  Sigh...

Issue #3: Getting to Wiesemcheid.  So to bus finally comes (after I thought I had missed it going to find the tourist office), and I take the ride to the stop known only as "Potzdammer Platz".  It’s not on Google Maps, and the only place it showed up (quite literally THE only place) was on a single site for the local buses, which was only found after much stumbling.  Now, Potzdammer Platz is not actually a “Platz” (a traffic circle for everyone else) but rather a highway intersection that happens to have a traffic circle below it.  Getting dropped off there meant I still had about another mile and half to Wiesemcheid by foot.  Now, it was by foot next to not a B road but a two-lane highway.  Things are getting even better…

Picture this will you.  A lone Asian man is in the middle of Germany with a large backpack and a small wheelie suitcase and another small backpack.  He is looking around very confused, and finally decides that wander onto a major two-lane highway between Mainz and Cologne would be a good idea.  It’s also 5pm, which mean in another hour or so it will be getting dark.  You see why I was questioning my planning skills at that point…

Back to first-person view now.  I got up to the top of the highway intersection, and upon realizing that while the overpass had a shoulder protected by a guardrail, the highway really didn’t.  I was not about to wander down the highway with people buzzing me having just gone around the Nurburgring.  Up ahead however was a small path leading into the woods.  Now, I knew that there was a small road just north of the highway, and this path was going north.  Hmm….

So I get started on what has to be a tractor road (2 strips of gravel and dirt with grass everywhere else) and after a while, it begins to turn left.  Great… well, it’s not gonna take me to the other road, but by turning left it meant I was heading in the right direction anyway.  Onward!  Being a dirt road also meant the wheels on the suitcase were useless so it was rather slow progress with me having to stop, rest, and switch hands every so often.  Finally, I heard the highway again (a very good sign) and I paralleled it for a while before meeting up with it again.  This time however, there was what looked to be a marked off bike or pedestrian path on the right hand shoulder.  I say looked to be because there were no signs at that point signifying it as such, but there were also no cars using it as a lane.  Yes!  A paved road!  So now, again with the confused Asian man picture in your mind, think about what it would have looked to all the drivers who passed me as I wheeled my suitcase along this highway.  Another 15 minutes or so later I finally saw buildings, and then a turn off, and I knew that yes… I had finally made it.

And just think that this was all before even setting foot NEAR the track…

Friday, October 15, 2010

On Momentum

Like many things in nature... life tend to follow momentum very well.  My trip had some pretty heavy forward momentum for the past two months for whatever reasons those were.  Not every moment was glorious or deeply satisfying, but there was enough exciting things sprinkled between the long drawn out portions to more than make up for them.  But like a ball rolling into a brick wall, momentum can be taken away just as quickly.  I'm currently sitting in my room in Amsterdam, trying to figure out... well... a lot of things.  First and foremost is trying to figure out what I"m going to do next on this trip.  My options are beginning to dwindle, partially due to cost, partially due to time, and partially due things just not working out the way I had wanted (a typical scenario).  Now... that brick wall I was talking about was this recent bout of flu I managed to pick up and that I'm still trying to get over.  Thankfully the really nasty bits are over and done with, but the linger lethargic feeling as well as the occasional headache still are around to remind me that yes... I was sick... on a trip to Europe.  Just my luck.

The next bit of figuring goes a bit deeper, and thats why I'm here in the first place.  The easy answer of course is that I went "Hey! Europe! Lets go!" and well... that might be the correct one.

Or it might not be.

I don't tend to know what I'm planning until well after I've planned it, and this has certain downsides, one major one being foresight (or the lack thereof).  The "that seemed like a good idea at the time" excuse only works so often before it gets trite, and thus one is left seeking some deeper meaning their own decisionmaking process.  My decision-making process tends toward the agonizingly slow variety, with most things needing a double or triple thinking over before I can commit to it.  I've been trying to avoid doing that on this trip, and for the most part its been a success up until recently, when having lost forward momentum and needing to regain it I've been unable to really plot my next course of action.  The Nurburgring is still on the list, but it looks like it might not be possible to make reservations for that in the near future (by near I mean in the next few days).  This leaves heading farther east into Germany (not something that was really high on my list) or just skipping the Ring for now and heading straight for Milan.  I loath skipping the Ring, but without a car to drive I'm a bit SOL unless I can swing back around and hit it before I leave.  Even Milan or Torino don't seem that exciting anymore, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on other than that well, I'm expecting a solo journey there to be very similar to my solo journeys elsewhere in Europe.  Maybe this is as far as my solo journey can really take me, or that I will allow it to take me at this time.  That little voice in my head saying "It would be more fun with more people" keeps popping up now and again, and there's no denying its correct.  But my situation is what it is, and now I just need to figure out how I'm going to make it work better.  Its kind of strange in that you would expect being here (rather than America) that I would have far more options and thus not run into those things.  But unlike being in America, I can't just decide on a whim to drastically change direction.  Any huge location changes will result in major transportation headaches, and its something that I've been trying to work out since I've gotten to Amsterdam.

An Interlude:
On this topic of transportation, I would just like to say that given a choice, I would take European rail travel over flying any day.  I may take just an hour via plane vs four hours via train, but this does not take into account the transportation from the city to the airport, hour (at least) you lose before the flight, and the transportation from the airport to your destination.  The nice thing about train stations is that they tend to be located really centrally and thus save you quite a bit of transportation time.  Not to mention first class trains feel just as good as any first class flight (though the food was... barely edible) and you have the benefit of wifi for free AND no need to pass through security.  Its a great system that should really be adopted in the states for some of the more highly traveled corridors, like say... Seattle/Portland/SF/LA/SD, or.... Boston/NYC/DC (no... Accela doesn't count... its barely high speed and its far too expensive for what it does), or even NYC/Chicago or NYC/Miami.

Back to Topic:
So where does this leave me?  I'm not sure.  I'm hungry, so I'm going to go eat soon (a good sign that this flu is finally going away), but beyond my immediate needs, I still don't have an answer for why I'm in Europe and doing all that I'm doing.  I'm looking for something, but I'm not sure what it is, and I hope that I don't pass it up when I find it.  Till then, I just have to keep moving one way or another and know that there will always be something new ahead.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

On Origins

"So where are you from?".  This was a question I asked and was asked many times while traveling through Europe.  It also a very tricky question to answer.  Actually, it only gets tricky when the other party becomes presumptuous.  When I ask "Where are you from?" I expect an answer of where they currently reside, or where they've recently decided to take residence.  However, when people ask me the question, its sometimes prefaced with a "So are you Chinese?  Korean?  Japanese?"  Well... yes... I am one of those if by birth and blood, but do I identify myself first and foremost as Chinese?  Hardly, and I would feel awful for doing so.  There's far too much wrong with China as a whole for me to identify with it, and thus being that I'm neither culturally or locationally Chinese, I feel like I can say first and foremost that I am American, and with an addendum of Chinese descent.  The real issue however isn't any malevolent intent on the part of people I talk to but rather a gross misunderstanding in what it is to be American.  I'm not really sure what someone from Argentina, or Brazil, or France really think when they hear "American" but I would guess they they expect to see someone who isn't quite so Chinese-looking.  The thing is, from this initial first impression they don't bother to try and actually figure out where I'm from and just assume that since I look Chinese, I must BE Chinese.  Its actually quite easy to tell that I'm not Chinese, and you just have to wait until I speak and realize that I neither speak English with a thick accent nor do I immediately go to Mandarin first before going to English.  Also, just by my accent alone one can place me as either American or Canadian, and quite honestly I wouldn't mind being identified (rightly or wrongly) as either one.  It would mean that the other party understands me, and that they aren't about to jump to conclusions even before we start speaking.  When I begin a conversation with someone, I would always take into account not only how they look but how they speak, as accent is a far better identifier of origin than looks alone (try picking out a Brazilian in London or Paris... its not easy on looks alone).