NÜRBURG, Germany - As Ring cycles go, this one may have nothing to do with Richard Wagner's operatic opus, but it's just as likely to induce a sense of awe-inspiring rapture - not to mention respect and a strong case of butterflies.
I'm about to take a lap on one of the most famous tracks on the Formula One car racing circuit, the original Nürburgring, known as the Nordschleife.
Last summer marked the 70th anniversary of "the Ring" as it is known by racing enthusiasts, making it one of the oldest courses of the Grand Prix. It's also one of the most dangerous. Racing legend Jackie Stewart dubbed this circuit the "Green Hell."
Wolfgang Kaufmann is all smiles when he greets our group trackside on a misty October day in the Eifel region of western Germany. All around us the autumn-tinged Harz Mountains peek through the low-hanging clouds. Kaufmann is a professional driver who moonlights taking people for a ride on the Nordschleife.
"Most drivers spin out on the second curve," he cautions. "Each driver has to use his brain, check his mirrors, and never assume the track is his alone."
One of the many unusual features of the Nürburgring is that from its debut in 1927 this track has been open to the public to test their skill where the pros do battle. And unlike more modern Formula One racetracks that tend to be about 3 miles in length, this one is an astonishing 12.9 miles long with 73 corners and 1,000 feet of elevation change. It's a racetrack roller coaster that has taxed the best drivers in the world and taken its toll in tragic endings.
Kaufmann ticks off a list of the most spectacular crashes as we climb into his Skoda and accelerate out of the pit and onto the track. The Nürburgring had its first racing fatality the year after it opened; seven pros have died and a few amateurs die each year during public hours. It was Niki Lauda's fiery collision in 1976 that ended Formula One racing here.
For 19 euros anyone with wheels and nerve can drive this circuit on weekends and Monday afternoons. (It's best to check ahead in case it's closed for maintenance or for one of the 20 races held here each year.) I opted for the more expensive escorted tour not only to learn more about the course from a pro but also because car rental insurance policies won't cover the cost of accidents on the track.
We're not out to set any speed records, but neither is Kaufmann about to give us a leisure cruise. He grips the wheel tightly as we bank into a corner and run up on a raised curb before veering sharply into a hairpin turn. My legs tense and I push back in the front passenger seat as we speed over a blind crest. "Here's where you go airborne in a race," he says as the car flies over the hump and down into a series of tight curves through a forest setting.
This is not like driving on the autobahn, which is engineered to keep traffic flowing at high speeds. German drivers may be adept at going fast on their highways but this track constantly challenges a driver's ability to keep the car under control.
The Nordschleife is, in effect, a one-way, public toll road subject to the same rules that apply on all German highways. Passing on the right, for example, could get you a traffic ticket.
The practice of letting Sunday drivers on the course brings all manner of motorized vehicles out for a spin, including RVs, trucks, cars with trailers, and motorcycles. Without having to worry about oncoming traffic and intersections, drivers can concentrate on the many demands of the course.
We come up on an Audi that's fishtailing on the rain-slicked track. "I'm not sure if he knows what he's doing so I want to pass," Kaufmann says, jostling the stick shift into overdrive.
As we approach Bergwerk, a tight, downhill right-hand corner, Wolfgang glances out his window and says this is where Lauda crashed when his rear suspension failed. Before that fateful race, the reigning world champion and only person to lap the full length of the Nordschleife in less than seven minutes wanted drivers to boycott this circuit because he felt it was no longer safe for the faster cars of the day. Lauda survived with serious burns, and a new 3.1-mile circuit for Formula One was built next to this one.
On the last straightaway I spot the turret of the Nürburg castle. Not many racetracks are constructed around a medieval village on their infield.
We cross the finish line and though there's no checkered flag, it's high-fives all around for the thrill of having completed this infamous track and having felt every dip and curve and heart-pounding moment. Kaufmann topped out at 100 miles per hour, but he tells us he clocked 192 miles an hour racing a Gemballa
To continue the Grand Prix experience, a museum at the Nürburgring displays vintage and modern racing cars; film highlights, including Lauda's crash, shown in slow-motion replays over the driver's commentary; and a hyper-realistic racetrack simulator. Climb into the tight confines of this box, strap on the seat belt, and prepare to drive the Nordschleife. The only thing that's likely to be injured is your ego: A large screen displays your driving ability to all those waiting in line. But at least you won't have to worry about putting any dents in your car.
Paul French, a freelance writer in Toronto, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.