The Nürburgring, located in western Germany, is one of the most famous, historical racetracks in the world—not least of all because anyone with a license and a road-legal car can try it out for themselves. The Nordschleife (North Loop) section is notoriously long and treacherous: 12.9 miles, 73 turns (40 right and 33 left), a maximum grade of 17 percent—and nearly 1,000 feet of elevation changes, with the track’s lowest point sitting 1,040 feet above sea level and its highest point at 2,021 feet. It’s been reproduced in several racing simulations, and driving it is considered one of the ultimate road trips for car fanatics.
So how did the track three-time Formula 1 champion Jackie Stewart famously nicknamed the “Green Hell” come to be? Let’s take a quick dive into Nürburgring history.
Nürburgring History: Early Racing in Germany
In 1899, James Gordon Bennett Jr., publisher of the New York Herald, established an automobile race in Europe, with the proviso that the race be held in the home country of the previous year’s winning team. Camille Jenatzy, a Belgian driving for Mercedes, took the checkered flag in 1903, bringing the 1904 Gordon Bennett Cup to Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm II suggested a course in the Taunus Forest. Here on his home turf, Jenatzy lost to Frenchman Léon Théry, but the race established an important point: Germany was full of budding race fans, and there was a thriving and profitable industry just waiting to be built.
As in much of the world, early German motor races ran on public roads, and it soon became clear a dedicated circuit was desirable for both racing and automotive development. In 1907—reportedly after Italian driver Felice Nazzaro embarrassed Germany by winning the Kaiserpreis (Emperor’s Prize)—the kaiser suggested a track in the hilly Eifel region, which had little industry and rocky soil that made for difficult farming. The idea simmered until 1922, when the German automobile club ADAC began running the Eifelrennen series in the area. The popularity of those races, as well as their dismal safety record, underlined the need for a new track.
Nürburgring History: The Track Is Born
The town of Nürburg became the focal point of the new raceway, with Gustav Eichler as architect, and Italy’s Targa Florio as the inspiration. Construction began in 1925, with as many as 2,500 laborers working on the track at any one time. The Nürburgring hosted its first race on June 18, 1927 (motorcycles, though car racing followed a day later).
The original historic track consisted of the 14.2-mile North Loop (Nordschleife) and the 4.8-mile South Loop (Südschleife). Most races ran on a 17.6-mile circuit called the Gesamtstrecke, or Whole Course. Right from its opening, the Nürburgring was treated as a public-use toll road, with road-legal vehicles allowed to drive the circuit on days it was not otherwise booked.
Before long, major car races began to concentrate on the North Loop, with motorcycles and minor races using the less-challenging South Loop. Talented drivers soon became known as Ringmeisters. Racing halted with the onset of World War II, and the track’s surface was badly damaged by tank traffic. Repairs were made at the cessation of hostilities, and racing resumed in 1947.
Nürburgring History: Faster Speeds Mean Danger
Racing rapidly gained popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, but as Formula 1 speeds increased, so did fatalities. It was in this period—1968 to be specific—that Stewart gave the track its famous nickname. The Nürburgring’s narrow path and lack of run-off areas made it particularly dangerous, to the point that F1 drivers boycotted the track in 1970. The 1970 German Grand Prix had to be hastily moved to the Hockenheimring, which had been fortified with safety barriers after F1 star Jim Clark’s fatal crash in 1968, in which his Lotus hit a tree.
The Nordschleife was subject to a round of improvements, which included removing some corners and eliminating some of the more serious bumps. Even so, there were still locations on the track where a high-speed car could become airborne, and the rural layout limited the opportunities for emergency vehicle access. The German Grand Prix returned to the Nürburgring for 1971, but the track’s location made TV coverage difficult, and plans were made to move the race back to the Hockenheimring for the 1977 season. Nicky Lauda, who set a track record of 6 minutes, 58.6 seconds in 1975, proposed boycotting the 1976 GP, citing the track’s ongoing safety shortcomings. His fellow drivers overruled him, and Lauda was badly injured in a fiery crash in the race.
Nürburgring History: Moving to Hockenheim
Since options to reconfigure the Nordschleife were limited, the decision was made to construct a new track in place of the Südschleife. The 2.8 mile GP Strecke was completed in 1984, and while it lacked the excitement of the original South Loop, let alone the North Loop, it was a significantly safer circuit. A new bypass shortened the Nordschleife to 12.9 miles, and the two tracks could be combined for a 15.2-mile loop.
The 1985 German Grand Prix was held at the new track, but in 1986 the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) moved the race back to the Hockenheimring, where it remained for the next 20 years. However, the ‘Ring returned to the F1 calendar in 1995 as host of the European Grand Prix. From 2007, the German GP alternated between the two tracks, with the Nürburgring as host for odd-numbered years, though the race did not run in 2015 and 2017.
Nürburgring History: The ‘Ring Today
Today the Nürburgring hosts several important races, including the World Touring Car Championship’s Race of Germany and the ADAC 24 Hour Race Nürburgring, as well as the Rad am Ring bicycle race and the Rock am Ring music festival. The venue houses a hotel and an indoor theme park. The Nürburgring, as originally intended, is a major center of automotive development, with automakers renting the track for a total of three to four months per year. The ongoing war of production-car lap times has become a staple of the automotive industry, with enthusiasts often following the latest ‘Ring times as prime fodder for bench-racing arguments about the merits, or lack thereof, of their favorite and not-so-favorite vehicles.
However, the most famous aspect of the Nürburgring, stretching all the way back to the beginning of its history, may well be that the track remains (mostly) accessible to the public. Anyone with €30 (€25 Monday through Thursday), a valid license, and a road-legal motor vehicle can drive a lap on the Nordschleife, provided it isn’t reserved. Be warned, though, that crashing can get expensive: Drivers can be charged for emergency services, barrier repair, and track closure. Even though the track is, technically, a public road, insurance coverage is iffy. (There are services that rent cars for Nürburgring use, insurance included.)
Regardless, whether you drive it in a race car or an old Fiat, the Nürburgring remains a unique experience, a time portal back to the earliest days of motor-racing history—and one accessible to all. No surprise, then, it’s considered one of the greatest tracks in the world, and stakes a strong claim to being the greatest of them all.
Nürburgring History Quick Facts
- Location: Nürburg, Germany
- Year of construction: 1925
- First race: 1927
- Total circuit length: 17.6 miles (1927)
Nürburgring Nordschleife Stats, 2020
- Length: 12.94 miles (20.8 km)
- Number of right turns: 33
- Number of left turns: 40
- Elevation change: 981 feet
- Direction of travel: Clockwise
- Fee: €25 Monday-Thursday, €30 Thursday-Sunday