The thing about first times is that you only get one.
I won’t patronise you on the importance and significance of an event like the Nürburgring 24 Hour. Similarly, I won’t cover that well worn ground celebrating the Nürburgring and the Nordschleife itself. We’re all familiar now, so it doesn’t require repeating.
This weekend was supposed to be the 2020 running of the world’s most fierce endurance race, but you only have to think for a brief moment as to why it has been postponed until September. While Le Mans might continue to steal the headlines in the popular press, for me, the N24 will always be the ultimate endurance race. On a circuit, at least.
Back in 2010, I was only just settling into my second month as a full-time Speedhunters contributor when I was sent on my first press trip to the N24. I would join a contingency of US journalists at Frankfurt airport before we headed directly to the Eifel.
It was a Thursday, I think, but it was definitely my first time in Germany. Previous to this, my overseas experience was limited to the United Kingdom, the USA for a childhood vacation, and English-speaking holiday resorts in Spain.
This was all very foreign to me, as someone who had perfected social distancing before it would become a thing.
The weather was what I would come to learn as being typically Nürburgring on arrival; damp and grey with occasional bursts of rain and sunshine, often at the same time.
Sorting through the folders from the event – organised by capture time of course – there’s a bit of a blank between arriving and suddenly being trackside on the GP circuit shooting an M1 Procar with an appropriate for the occasion Nordschleife-based livery.
I do distinctly remember being beyond eager to start shooting, but I would have to wait until the next day to have my first proper Nürburgring photo experience.
Instead, our group was herded around in shuttles on a whistle-stop tour of various corners before being brought back to our hotel in the middle of practice. Fair enough, some of the US journalists on this trip had a very long day getting here, and there was still three more days to go.
Still, those first impressions were something else.
Come Friday morning, we started out with a press briefing with a gentleman called Olaf Manthey. You may be familiar with the company that bears his name.
Following what turned out to be a rather painful Q&A session (none of us had been prepared for it) we were finally let loose to shoot the next practice, albeit with instructions to stay close to the paddock so we could be easily corralled for the next press activity.
While some of the journalists were happy to stay within the comfortable confines of the press centre with endless free drinks and snacks, two of us in particular felt a bit too confined.
Of course, it’s always a privilege to shoot on a famous GP circuit, but when you’re next door to the Nordschleife, you don’t want to spend your weekend looking over the proverbial garden wall.
So, we did what any reasonable people would do, and made a break for freedom by boarding a media shuttle and politely asking to be brought to Karussell. We might have conveniently overlooked the fact that neither of our phones worked very well in Germany, just to add to the unfortunate press handler’s soon-to-be woes.
My partner in crime was someone who I had only previously spoken to online via the Dieselstation forums. His username there was Nike SB’d, but you probably know him better as Sean Klingelhoefer. As you can see by his choice of footwear, neither of us were very prepared for what we encountered, but I don’t think either of us would have changed it for the world.
We had obviously lucked out on our breakout, as never again has the media shuttle driver brought us this close to the track. Sliding open the doors, we stepped out to be greeted by a Cobra on fire at the bottom of the hill before the Karussell, known as Steilstrecke.
We certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore, that was for sure.
We had arrived in the middle of the 24H Classic, which incidentally only lasts for around four hours. To this day, though, I will never forget the sound of the M1 Procar on approach. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, or as loud as it, since.
I remain convinced that you could hear it coming from as far away as Adenau village, even over the other cars ahead of it on track.
Neither Sean nor I had ever been trackside at the Nordschleife before, so we just made our way around the inside of the Armco as much as possible.
It had rained pretty much the whole week before (quelle surprise) which made progress slow in the deep mud, where we often used the catch fence to pull ourselves along.
It’s not nearly as obvious in video games or video, but the elevation changes at the Nordschleife are so much more extreme than you can imagine if you haven’t been there. In fact, it’s very easy to become disorientated as to where you actually are on the track.
Thankfully, since we had started our journey at probably the most iconic part of the track, it wasn’t so bad and we know to just keep following the track until we could get back to Brunnchen.
Eventually, it became impossible to continue along the Armco, so we ventured through the forest and campsites, trying to follow an approximate direction back towards civilisation.
With the 24h Classic race over, the track opened for the fans to walk on, update their graffiti, and party until the proper race started the very next day. We might have not been the most popular pair when we arrived back to the press centre (very late, might I add), but I don’t think either of us regretted it.
As for the proper race start, I have zero recollection of it, aside from wandering around on the starting grid and trying to figure out how this many cars (easily 120+) would fare during a rolling start. As it happens, they stagger the groups, but it’s no less manic than you think it is.
Teaming up with Sean again – and this time with the knowing nod from the press handler – we headed to Flugplatz. We were accompanied by another US journalist who wanted to join our adventure, but made the mistake of accepting free beer from fans and eventually got lost.
He did survive, for what it’s worth. Although I still have no idea how he made it back.
Flugplatz is one of those photo locations where you always feel that you shouldn’t really be standing there, despite the marshall’s insistence that it’s fine.
Your proximity to the cars as they come up the hill, flat out, leave the ground momentarily before they seemingly defy physics by taking the immediate right-hand corner is simply breathtaking. I can distinctly recall the frustration as my camera’s auto-focus couldn’t keep up with the cars, resulting in hundreds of lost shots.
This was before the resurfacing of Flugplatz in 2016, following a fatal accident at this spot during the 2015 event. Even between my first event here in 2010, to the last time I covered the race, the difference in speed over this section was barely believable as the Mercedes-AMG GT3 cars were pulling actual wheelies over the crest at biblical speeds.
From the top of Flugplatz, we decided to make our way back towards the paddock against the race traffic and towards Hocheichen and Hatzenbach.
The cars fighting for the overall win will always receive more coverage, but the real charm of the N24 is smaller classes and underdog entrants. This Honda Integra Type R was sharing the track with the GT3-equivalent leaders, while racing its own race. The difference in speed between the cars is another one of those eye-opening moments.
As far as perfect evenings shooting race cars go, this was definitely up there. As a random aside, this photo ended up being the cover for the original Volume Zero Speedhunters book, a prototype we developed before releasing A Year In Global Automotive Culture: Volume One not long after.
Whenever you get the opportunity to share an LFA race car, you should always do so.
The only blight on this near-perfect first Nürburgring experience was the shutter failing on my Canon EOS 1D Mark II N. See that black bar on the lower right-hand side of the second photo? Yeah, that’s the shutter itself having thrown the camera equivalent of a con-rod.
It’s pretty much all the reason one would ever need to carry two bodies, although the second camera wasn’t designed with motorsports in mind. Still, it was better than my then semi-state-of-the-art iPhone 3G.
Again, another bit of a blank between sunset and returning to the paddock to find the favourite and leading Manthey Porsche having crashed out of the race. If I recall correctly (which is to say that I’m probably wrong), they were taken out by dosing driver in a car from a lower class.
It’s honestly a miracle that any cars even finish the race.
I think Ross I’Anson once aptly described photographing a night drift event under a solitary light in Newcastle as being akin to trying to shoot a black cat in a coal shed, and his metaphor certainly rang true that night at the Nürburgring as well.
This was when sensor technology was just a tad inferior to what we have today, and anything over ISO1600 was utterly useless. I won’t even get into auto-focus, which essentially stopped working once the sun went down. But at least we didn’t have to wear fire suits and helmets, so every cloud and all that…
Also, the Schubert Motorsport Need for Speed BMW Z4 GT3 was one of the best-looking race cars I’ve ever shot. I adored that car, and tried for years to get a 1:43 scale die-cast of it, but never could.
Another blank time period in my recollection, but I suspect we were either sleeping or eating at Pistenklause. Anyway, the next morning, while the race was still going, we were treated to a proper treat by our hosts…
Yes, a motherf**king helicopter.
There’s a few catches, though. The first, is that I despise helicopters – they’re basically just rocks with propellers. The second was that our pilot was insistent on trying to impress us by flying a lap of the actual track, turn for turn.
I was very appreciative not to have died during this particular adventure, and was surprised to have got at least a few usable shots through the window. Much better than that one time in Sweden where the pilot removed the doors while we only had lap belts on…
Those blank spots in my memory are more prominent when it comes to the end of the race. I vaguely recall the hybrid Porsche bailing out while leading with a couple of hours left, the NFS Z4 finishing a brilliant 4th overall, and the race being won by the #25 BMW M3 GT2.
The results aren’t really that important to me (although I did pick up a 1:43 of the winning BMW last year), but to have had all of this as my first ever experience of the Nürburgring was, and remains, pretty special. To have had the privilege of documenting this ultimate endurance event, in only my second month on the job, isn’t something I’ve ever taken for granted.
It’s highly unlikely that I’ll be even able to attend the 2020 event when it happens in September, but I know I’ll be watching on and trying to relive these memories from 10 years ago.