It was a Monday morning: Flying down the left lane of the Autobahn at 200 mph, we shot past what looked like a wicked Maserati, but it was impossible to tell. The cars in the middle lane were traveling at over 100 mph, but they were just a blur, appearing for a moment and then gone, like a muzzle flash in the dark. Cars heeding the recommended speed of 80 mph, and all trucks, clung to the right. There was a pathway of grass between the outside lanes and a guardrail. No medians and oncoming traffic, just a one way track cut through the lush Bavarian forest.
Although we were rushing through the air at breakneck speed, when he let up off the gas the cockpit became surprisingly and eerily quiet. Then when he jammed it down again, the engine howled like a gray wolf and the power was just as harrowing. I was extremely anxious. What’s the point of wearing this seatbelt? I wondered. No one’s getting out of here alive. The instigator of this madness was Reinhard, my cousin. He met me at the Frankfurt airport a few minutes earlier. Now we were heading to Nurberg to check out the 24 hour endurance race at the infamous track.
I was here because I let bitter compromises seep into my life. Choosing the safe path over one that might lead to profound discovery and freedom. Making decisions based on what other people might think. Abandoning passions because they were inconvenient and difficult to realize. Two weeks before I wondered what to do. I knew that I had to get out of my rut. So I poured a glass of scotch and decided that I would go somewhere. That decision will now probably kill me on this godforsaken highway.
“At this rate we should be there in about two and a half minutes,” I said.
“Yes, it is fast,” he replied, not seeming to get my facetiousness Reinhard started studying English back in the sixth grade, and it was good, but sometimes there was still a sense of disconnect. Also, he didn’t have a heavy German accent, just a European dialect. I would attribute this, at least partially, to his fluency in the other languages he speaks: French, Norwegian, Swedish, and Dutch.
“I hope no one decides to pull into this lane all the sudden,” I said, trying to give him a hint. My eyes were glued to the road.
“That would not be good,” he said. “Not at three hundred and twenty kilometers pro hour.”
I grasped my thighs tight. “I wish I had a Xanax and a beer right now, man.”
He chuckled and glanced at me. “I don’t have Xanax, but there is an Biergarten just a few kilometers ahead. We can stop, okay?”
“Okay. So… when did you buy this car?”
“About six months ago. Do you want to hear a funny story about what happened when I bought it?”
Flashes of twisted metal, thoughts of imminent death and the nonstop barrage of trees whizzing by made me dizzy. I tried to focus my attention completely on him. “Sure,” I replied.
He let up off the gas, and the cockpit quieted to a soft hum. “The first time I drove Ulrike in here, she… how do you say… erbrechen?” He gestured with his hand, moving it back and forth from his mouth towards the floor.
“Throw up…vomit,” I said. Ulrike was his wife.
“Yes, she vomited in the car. You know the road to go on the Autobahn in Altdorf?”
Altorf is a small town outside of Nurnberg where he was born and still lives. I had been on the Autobahn on-ramp that he was referring to many times as a teenager, during summer vacation visits. It has a long, sweeping curve.
“Yup, I remember,” I replied.
“I showed her what the launch mode in this car is. We went from null to one hundred in two point eight seconds and…”
I interrupted. “What? How fast?
“Two point eight,” he repeated.
“So you’re at a dead stop. Then one…two… and you’re at 60 mph?”
“Yes, I will show you the launch control…”
“Show me?” I cut him off again. “You’re gonna let me drive this thing, aren’t you?”
“Yes, of course. Okay, so me and Ulrike went into that turn pretty fast and she hit her head on the window.”
“Oh, no.” He laughed lightly. “The door window. I was pulling about two point five Gs in that turn.” He pressed a button above the LED display in the center dashboard.
“That thing shows how many Gs you’re pulling? Like a fucking jet? Shit, that’s cool. I assume two point five is a lot for a car?”
“Yes, it is a lot. That is why I bought this car. Nothing can perform like it. Okay… think of a good car with good anti-lock brakes. When you slam the brake, your body will keep moving forward, correct?”
“Sure. Inertia.” I said.
“Yes, inertia. Well, then you are feeling maybe 1G pulling you forward.”
“So two and a half…hmm, wow.” I said.
“Yes, the weight distribution and downforce is super. Okay, so she was feeling sick and wants me to stop. But we are on the Autobahn now. Then she vomited in the brand new GT-R. On her pants and shoes, too. She did not speak to me for two days…and did not fuck me for two weeks.”
“So she was mad as hell, huh?”
“Yes, she was pissed! I know this because she likes to fuck, you know.”
“Yeah, I was fascinated with fast cars when I was younger,” I said. “Especially in high school, but I was never a gearhead or anything. I had a Trans-Am once, but this car would eat that as a snack.”
“That’s why people call the GT-R Godzilla,” Reinhard said.
I was relieved when he switched to the center lane. I wasn’t gonna die, at least not before having a cold Bavarian beer. We zipped by a Volkswagen Jetta convertible with its top down. He pulled in front of it, then took the next exit.
The Biergarten was a traditional German building, probably pretty old. It was wide, single storied, half-timbered with a steeply pitched gable roof. The entrance was a large, arched, wooden double door stained dark brown. Large lengthwise rectangular windows with multi pane wood frames were on either side of the doors. A fabric awning, white with light blue stripes, spanned the length of the front of the building to the outer edge of the windows.
We walked in the beer hall and followed the straight pathway between the tables and benches to the back. A bar was against the right wall, spanning from the middle of the hall to the far corner. A twelve point buck was mounted up on the wall behind a burly bartender who was laughing loudly with a couple of locals. We went out through the propped open double doors in the back. The ground outside was paved with cobblestone, except around the dozen or so oak trees that were spotted throughout the spacious garden. There were about two dozen big wooden picnic style tables and benches, most of which were shaded by the trees. Some had big outdoor umbrellas, unopened, sticking out from the hole in the center of the tables. There were only a handful of people outside with us. It wasn’t lunchtime yet.
During Octoberfest, the waitress probably dressed in traditional German garb, but that June day our server just wore a lowcut black leotard top, and a blue skirt patterned with flowers which reached just above her knees. She met us a moment after we sat down. I wasn’t starving, but I was thirsty. I ordered a Mass of Helles and a bratwurst Brotchen. There are no menus for beer on tap at German establishments. You get what’s local. The variety is regular or dark. Regular is Helles, and dark is Dunkles. A Mass is a huge mug of beer, at least two-liters. Brotchen is a freshly baked bread roll. Reinhard ordered the same thing to drink, but with a chicken paprikash and noodles meal. Reinhard had been a track star in high school, breaking several of the school’s records. But twenty-five years of traditional German home cooking and rich beer gave him an uncanny resemblance to St. Nick, without the long beard.
“I’m kinda surprised you bought a Nissan, especially here where you can get Mercedes, Beamers, Audi and Porsches at a good price.”
“Those are good cars, but I’m an engineer and understand the best engineering technology for the money. You cannot beat the GT-R.”
“What do they cost, anyway?”
“I paid eighty-eight thousand euros.”
“Just over a hundred grand then. You can get a bad ass Porsche for that, too, you know.”
He leaned forward, piercing me with his blue eyes. “Let me tell you, there are maybe three production cars in the world that can perform a little better than the GT-R that cost less than one million. And I mean a little better. Porsche does makes one of them, the 918 Spyder. Do you know how much it costs?”
“A hundred and fifty maybe, I have no idea,” I said.
“No. In dollars… eight hundred and fifty thousand.”
“Whoa. What about a Ferrari?” I asked.
“No, it will out perform any Ferrari. Lamborghini, too. The Aventador Lambo is a little faster, but it is half a million dollars and has no room for the kids.”
“The GT-R’s a real supercar then, huh,” I said.
“With good tuning, a supercar killer.”
“You know what I really like about your car?”
“It’s not so damn flashy. I mean even if three or four hundred grand was nothing to me, I don’t think I’d wanna drive around town in a yellow Lambo. No offense, but your car doesn’t look that much different than a Nissan Altima. You’ve even got back seats.”
“I don’t think it looks like an Altima, but I know what you are saying. See, even if I wanted a Lambo instead, and even if it only cost what I paid for the GT-R, do you think Ulrike would let me buy it? No way.”
“So you bought a supercar right under her nose.”
Gerhard snickered. “Yes.” Then we both laughed.
The waitress delivered the giant mugs with a smile, thick foam ran down one side of mine. I took several big gulps, and wiped the foam from my mouth. The beer was particularly good.
“Besser als dein Wasserbier in Amerika, Ja?”
I laughed. “Yeah, better than our water beer. Speaking of good quality stuff, do the Turks still hangout downtown? I can’t come to Europe and not smoke, right?”
Gerhard reached into his front pocket and pulled out a foil wrapped package about the size of a 5- pack of Wrigley’s gum. He tossed it on the table in front of me. “It’s good shit.”
“You are the man. Now if we can find a hotel close to the race we’ll be in good shape. I’m assuming neither of us will be in any shape to drive around tonight.”
The race at Nurberg reminded me of a book I read about Niki Lauda, a world champion Formula One driver who crashed into a wall and burst into flames on that track in 1976. At the hospital, a priest read him his last rites. Six weeks later, with bloody bandages wrapped around his head, he entered the Italian Gran Prix. What drives people like that? What made him test his mental and physical capabilities far beyond normal limits in his Formula 1 Ferrari? Money? He was born into an Austrian business and banking dynasty and gave up every penny when he defied his father, quit college and pursued racing. Fame? He gave away his trophies in exchange for car washes. Maybe facing death daily and setting lap records at racetracks like the notoriously dangerous Nurbergring was the outward manifestation of refusing to compromise and dilute himself.
I lit a Marlboro. “Do you know who Niki Lauda is?”
“I’m German, of course I know Lauda. Why?”
“I can’t seem to wrap my head around how someone is willing to give up so much to try to become a race car driver.”
“Well, you only live once,” Reinhard said.
“What would you do if you could do anything,” I asked.
“I would do this. You know, Ulrike, the kids. I am fed well, I am paid well. This. Your passion doesn’t have to be things like being a race car driver or a big rock star. I think if you are living your life the way you want to, then you have found your passion.”
In the center console of the dash was an LCD screen. Under that was the stereo and climate control. Below that were some switches. “So, what does all this do?”
“Everything is computer controlled. Super technology. The most important stuff for you are those switches.” He pointed to the row of three switches below the climate controls. “They let you tune the way the car performs. That one is the transmission, we will put it on R, racing mode. That one the suspension. It changes the setting for the Blistein DampTronic dampers. Switch that to R, too. And that one turns off the stability and traction control. We leave that on.”
“And this red button turns the car on,” I said. I pressed the brake and pushed the button. It sounded powerful, like a muffled dump truck. “What size engine is in here anyway?”
“A 3.8 liter twin turbo 24 valve V6 tuned to 880 horsepower, with a twin clutch GR6 gear-box and Altessa four wheel drive.”
“So just a six cylinder?.” I was screwing with his German analytical mind again, and felt that sense of disconnect when all he said was “take a left, where we came from.” I moved the switches to the instructed positions, and pulled out onto the access road.
I pressed the gas about halfway down to get a feel for it, and the response was instant. I was rocked back. He told me to pull into the filling station that we had passed earlier, which was about a quarter of a mile from the Biergarten. “I’ll show you the launch mode, okay?”
I did a U-turn in the gas station, and stopped before pulling back onto the access road. Two cars were heading our way.
“Okay, after these cars the coast is clear,” he said. He seemed to be having more fun than I was.
They zoomed past us. I slowly pulled out, turned toward the Biergarten and stopped the car.
“To launch, press the brake with your left foot. Then floor the gas with your right. The computer will control everything – you won’t red line – it will stop at 4000 rpm. Then wait about 3 seconds, and let go of the brake, okay?”
“Okay, here goes.”
I rolled forward a few feet, making extra sure that the steering was perfectly straight. I stopped and pressed the brake hard. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a car coming. I floored it, and began to count. One one thousand. The engine revved and wailed. Two one thousand… three one thousand. I popped the brake, and we lunged forward; the tires didn’t peel out at all – just pure torque pinning me back in the seat. The engine screamed. The gears switched and I felt like I was strapped to the front of a rocket. I glanced at the speedometer, it was past 90 km/h already. I had been in fast cars before and knew this would be faster, but I didn’t expect this shit at all. This was unbelievable. The Biergarten was quickly approaching. The tachometer neared the red line again. We were at 160 km/h. I lifted my foot off the gas, and pressed the brake. My heart was racing. “Holy shit, no rollercoaster can hold a candle to that!”
Reinhard grinned. “Pretty good, no?”
“Beats the shit out of walking,” I said.
“You should of tested the brake, too. It will stop from one hundred kilometers an hour in thirty meters.
“I was glad I didn’t have to,” I said. The road came to a T. His phone chirped and he pulled it out of his pocket. “Do you wanna switch back?”
He looked at a text. “No, you drive.” That was music to my ears. I took a left, which led to the Autobahn on ramp.
I was in the middle lane behind a big Mercedes CLS. “Okay, give it some gas,” Reinhard said.
“I can’t, there’s a fucking Benz in front of me.”
Gerhard looked at me, probably wondering if I was serious. I checked the mirror and flipped the turn signal. “I’m just kidding,” I said, and floored it. My heart raced again. The speedometer needle dashed clockwise: 220…240…260. The cars I passed looked like they were just parked in the middle of the highway. Even at this speed, when I jammed the gas down, there was no lag and plenty of torque: 280…290…300. I spotted a car in my lane up ahead. I let off the gas, and pressed the brake, gently.
We were approaching it quickly so it was moving much slower than us.”Flash your lights,” Gerhard said.
I glanced at the speedometer. It read 275 km/h. “I’m not looking for the light switch right now,” I said, somewhat frantically while staring fixedly ahead. Just then the car ahead signaled right, and got out of the way.
I floored it again. The engine roared. Gerhard pressed a button above the video screen, and it displayed the rpm and speed: 280…290…300…310…320. I took a deep breath and felt exhilarated. I was in a world of power and intense focus. I had traded my anxiety for adrenaline and I loved this new universe. But there was much more to it than just the rush; I began to understand Niki Lauda.