Dream Walking: The Journey To The Karussell

Two guys. Four boots. Four cameras. Four miles. No car. It’s a slightly different premise from the regular Dream Drive features that we have here on Speedhunters, but for the opening story of our coverage from the 2013 Nürburgring 24 Hours we decided that it deserved something different – and special.

A trek out to one of the most famous corners on the planet: a Dream Walk, if you will. Muddy tracks would be our roads, as we set out to find the anti-corner for cars. We would go in search of the Caracciola Karussell.

The Nürburgring 24 Hours is a strange event. It’s a race that lasts 24 hours but starts weeks and even months before the green flag drops for the massed rolling starts: drivers have to prepare for the race by taking part in national VLN races on the Nordschliefe before having a chance of being given an entry; fans turn up weeks in advance to mark out their territory in the forest campsites. The Green Hell awakens.

The Nürburgring circuit is certainly schizophrenic. It has two faces: the relatively sanitised, modern Grand Prix layout with all its glass and steel…

…and then Out There. In the wild. The legendary, fearsome track that is the Nordschleife. It’s an anathema to modern tracks, the antithesis of what anyone would be allowed to build now. And that’s why it’s so beloved of all who experience it. And that’s where we would head for.

This year, the Speedhunters team would consist of myself, Larry Chen and new recruit Hide Ishiura. Arriving on the Thursday ahead of the race, already the rain had begun to fall and the drive to the track on Friday morning didn’t bode well for the day ahead. The fog was so thick that it was like driving through grey soup, and it was interspersed with biblical rain storms.

But that hadn’t got in the way of our plan for the day: scouting out locations for the coming weekend, with Larry a ‘Ring virgin and me with only limited exploration of the furthest reaches of the track. So with Hide’s local knowledge helping us, we started out at the classic spots around Breidscheid and Adenau.

Here Larry got his first views of the Nordschleife and began to truly appreciate the brain overload that people always talk about. The scale of the track. The proximity of the crowd. The thin barriers. The fire. The beer. The gardening?!

The rain was falling again with a vengeance, but we moved around a quarter turn of the track to the rollercoaster ridge of Flugplatz.

But the late afternoon we saved for the big objective. Both of us wanted our first sight of the famous Caracciola Karussell. Larry and I paired up and set off in our rental car, precariously parking up outside the main Brünnchen campsite. This is also where a slight element of deception came in: I’m a terrible one for saying things like, ‘No, it’s only five minutes away’, when actually the destination requires a taxi and plane ride.

So I might have suggested that it would only be a short walk from where we were parked to the Karussell… No need to try and drive! Except for the four mile hike in between. But it was the correct decision, on every level. Three hours of discovery, with the heart of the N24 revealing more of itself to us at every step.

The Nürburgring 24 Hours is as much if not more about the fans in the forest as the racing on track. You don’t get the true spirit of the race if you don’t experience what’s going on under the trees around the track, and our Dream Walk proved it.

The initial uphill section was through a claustrophobic tunnel of trees, with the forest stretching away to either side of us.

Tents in this area poked out of the darkness, small splashes of alternate colour to contrast against the wash of greens.

The track then opened out into the first camping area on the exterior of the Eschbach corner. Strange, unidentifiable things were brewing over campfires. We didn’t linger…

We moved deeper in the forest to the spectator fence by the track, and through one of the many access points for marshals and media to get a glimpse of what the action is like this far out.

Naturally, ‘very cool’ would be appropriate answer.

This section was indicative of what was ranged around most of the accessible areas of the Nordschleife: more tents and people than you can imagine, concealed by the forest canopy and crammed together under the trees to create week-long village communities.

They have tents.

They have food.

They have fire.

A lot of fire. (I think this was a strategic use of bad white wine to actually keep the fire raging).

They have alcohol.

A lot of very well organised alcohol.

And they’re not afraid to drink it, from early morning until, well, the next early morning. This beer armada is backed up by Warsteiner bars tactically placed throughout the forest.

Just as big water butts are mounted around the forest by the organisers, so the idea is that you should never be more than 100 feet from a beer dispenser. It’s like a health and safety thing I presume.

Campers even come loaded up on games to pass the time between sessions. Yes, that is an electronic scoreboard, which highlights another thing about camping at the Nordschliefe. Power. When the noise of racing engines isn’t echoing around the trees, then hearing multiple the output from multiple console gamers hammering around a virtual Nordscleife was the norm.

These guys arrive with infrastructure to install. N24 campers are professionals.

After all, they’d probably be spending a week at the ‘Ring, and you can’t watch racing all the time. Not when there are games to play…

Most non computer games typically seemed to revolve around alcohol, with the ‘hit the nail with a hammer’ game being particularly popular. For every thud of an axe falling to chop wood for the myriad fires, there was another followed by a cheer as someone else got to take a swig of whatever drink was on the menu.

There’s nothing subsistence about the N24 campsites. You might spot the odd first-time Brit who’s made the pilgrimage: a British car next to a small two-man tent. The German veterans? Sure, tents, but if you’re really putting the effort in then there’s more likely a huge marquee, a jacked-up trailer and then, who knows, maybe a foxhole – just in case.

If you’ve got time for the N24, then of course you’ve got time to make a garden.

Some tents resembled military encampments in both size and construction. There are normally heavy restrictions on camping in the forests around the Nürburgring, so for this one event it means that incredibly some people come just to camp. Not even one tiny bit for the race! I don’t think that included this area.

But most impressive were the homebuilt grandstands which line the fences. These amazing constructions vary in size and material, but most use scaffolding and are either lashed or even bolted to the catch fence uprights.

In the background to all this is the constant low thump of diesel generators, which power both tents and stands. Power lines hang in the trees as electric roots, bringing artificial power and light to the forest.

The N24 foresters might be communing with nature, but that shouldn’t mean preclude missing out on home comforts. The electricity powers everything from all-important fridges to computers and satellite TV. Got to get that signal just right…

And there are a hell of a large number of stereos. The forest reverberates to every kind of music imaginable. It’s like a hundred music festivals all going on at one time, with the race as the background. Banging techno, German oompah, power metal, inadvisable ’80s pop… it’s all going on, all the time, all around you. Then I don’t know, maybe add in a lighting rig. And a heated swimming pool. And a sauna. Yes, that’s a sauna on the left.

But each tribe does have their stretch of track. A couple of hundred yards of the Nordschleife, where the fans can amble from the campsite to the fence (or sit in their personalised luxury grandstand of course) and enjoy the madness out on track. Once in place, there’s really no need to move away. It means a personal connection with both the forest and the race.

We made our way slowly through all these encampments and further around the track: through Wipperman and Hedwigshöhe to Höhe Acht. I kept promising that the Karussell was only just around the next corner, but there was always another sign put up by enthusiastic locals…

As we stopped for a comfort break, I spotted a familiar flag adorning a marshal’s post. It turned out we were entering the British Zone. The track is so huge that the Nürburgring have to call on every available marshal to keep the track safe, and a couple of kilometres from Steilstrecke, through the Karussell and up to near Brünnchen are overseen by a combination of different English-speaking marshals. Most are Brits, but there are also Americans, Belgians and English-speaking Germans all doing invaluable work.

After an hour and half, ‘around the next corner’ finally turned out to be true, much to my surprise.

There is was, in the distance. Unmistakeable. The Caracciola Karussell. We’d arrived.

There were many reasons for smiley faces.

There were so many things that were unexpected about the Karussell. Firstly, the steep uphill approach from Steilstrecke…

…and the braking zone for the banking on a track touched by god, the sign seemed to be suggesting?

We’d been talking to Edward Sandstrøm before qualifying, who is driving the #29 WRT Audi R8 LMS, and he had explained that a whole lot of the track has been resurfaced: it was particularly noticeable at the Karussell, with the shining bitumen a stark contrast to the old concrete slabs of the banking.

So it’s no surprise that no one tackles the Karussell head on. You need to be circumspect and drop in, like a skateboarder. Except in a racing car. Once in, it goes on and on: cars are in there for a good five seconds. The location presents a unique look, as the wide clearing on the interior makes it look very different from most other parts of the track.

Riding the Karussell looks like a bone rattling experience. The slabs are anything but seamless, and every car judders and shakes as it bounces around the inside of the corner.

On the apex, another marshals post: one person facing the post down-track, the other the next post up, looking out for signalling flags.

Then there’s the exit, and another harsh transition back from concrete to tarmac.

Choose your exit point, deep breath and jump out.

Then it’s hard on the throttle and back into the forest.

With the light beginning to die, it was time to head back into the tunnel of trees and home, safe in the knowledge that getting to and from the Karussell was now tucked away in our collective memory banks. Though maybe next time we would drive…

With the horrible weather having turned the forest tracks into slops of mud even days before the race, it meant you have to be careful where you tread around the Nürburgring… Already we’ve heard of one photographer ‘retired’ from the weekend with a broken foot, joining the growing list of injured cars from practice and initial qualifying requiring remedial attention.

So that was our journey to and from the Karussell: nothing could stop us (not even red lights at this… junction?). We had our first chance to get away from the mainstream of the main paddock and GP track, and see just what the Nürburgring 24 Hours is all about for the majority of fans who turn up every year. And we got to the Karussell. Not for the first time this weekend, no doubt.

So now we can turn our attention to the race itself. The 24 Hours starts tomorrow at 5pm CET, and as the cars enter darkness we’ll be taking a look at all the things that make the Nürburgring 24 a race you have to attend once in your life.

Words & Photos by Jonathan Moore
Instagram: speedhunters_jonathan

Photos by Larry Chen
Instagram: larry_chen_foto

Speedhunters at the Nürburgring
The 2013 Nürburgring 24HR on Speedhunters