Matt McFadden: The American Nürburgring Whisperer

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Matt McFadden

Matt McFadden’s first lap around Germany’s Nürburging was in a rental car. Not one of those bad-ass ‘Ring rentals optimized with suspension work and sticky tires for blasting around the Nordschleife—the undulating 14-mile circuit that’s generally regarded as the most fearsome challenge in modern road racing. No, he was in a lowly Ford Mondeo family sedan rented from Europecar. And he couldn’t have been happier.

“I was keeping an audio diary of my trip to Europe,” he recalls. “After I finished my first lap, I pulled over to the side of the road and pulled out my microcassette recorder and said, ‘Now I know what I’m doing with the rest of my life.’ That’s literally all it took—one lap. I’m a guy who loves to drive anything, anywhere, any chance I get. I mean, I’ll drive a lawnmower. I used to go to the golf course with my parents just because they let me drive the golf cart. I’ve always driven fast on the road, and I love canyon roads. I got into track days, and then I started racing. By the time I got to the Nürburgring, I was doing well in Porsche club races. And I realized after that first lap that this is the greatest track on earth.

Since that lap in 1996, McFadden has raced nine times in the 24 Hours of the Nürburging and done a half-dozen shorter races and time trials. He also visits the track at least once a year to participate in public days, in a lightly modded R-model Mazda Miata that he stores in England for just this purpose. During the past two-and-a-half decades, he’s logged more than 1,000 laps around the Nordschleife, and he’s recognized as a rare American Nürburgring whisperer.

“Either you get it or you don’t,” he says of the course that Sir Jackie Stewart infamously nicknamed “The Green Hell.” “The combination of elevation, curves and speed make it the most challenging racetrack in the world. If you can go fast at the Nürburgring, you can go fast anywhere. A lot of tracks—especially the Formula 1-spec tracks —are boring if you’re not driving a car that’s really fast. The Nürburgring has all that history and the constant element of danger. It’s like bullfighting: You’re always on the edge of disaster.”

BMW

McFadden, 65, has been obsessed by racing since watching the opening sequence of the movie Grand Prix, in 1967. A career as a union sound boom operator in the film and television industry has enabled him to amass an eclectic collection of seven cars ranging from an Acura Integra with 305,000 miles on the odometer to a 911 RSR tribute car that he runs in vintage races.

In 2004, McFadden attended the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring as a spectator. “It’s like Burning Man meets Woodstock meets an endurance race,” he says. “Out in the woods, people get drunk, build porno theaters, fire all kinds of crazy fireworks. We saw a guy in a Supercup 911 pull over to the side of the track, get out of the car, jump over the guardrail, take a leak, get back in the car and keep on racing.”

24-hour race at the Nürburgring crowd lifestyle
Thomas Frey/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

Two years later, he spotted a piece of notebook paper taped to a garage door: “Driver Wanted.” Turned out that an English team had a seat to fill in its diesel-powered Alfa Romeo hatchback. The price was a paltry $2,000. Although McFadden had nearly a decade of laps during public days under his belt, he was intimidated by the prospect of wheel-to-wheel racing, day and night, rain or shine, on the Nordschleife. “But after a few laps,” he says, “I thought, ‘This is exactly like driving a public day, except somebody’s keeping score.’”

McFadden rented rides in a series of interesting cars for eight more enduros. He enjoyed plenty of thrills and chills, ranging from a stint in mist so thick that all he could see was the white line at the edge of the track to a costly crash that wasn’t his fault. Inevitably, the price to rent a ride ratcheted ever upward, reaching $16,000 for his last race in 2016. (Expect to pay more now.) Even more dispiriting, the character of the event changed as German manufacturers started competing with full-on factory teams racing pure-bred GT3 cars. The action on the track became more cutthroat, while the ambience in the pits grew less collegial. “I compare the race to doing cocaine,” he says. “You spend all your time fruitlessly trying to reproduce how much fun it was the first couple of times you did it. And it never is.”

Nurburgring 24H Endurance racing dusk Audi
Nürburgring 24 Hours

Still, McFadden remains a hard-core devotee of the public days. Yes, the price has skyrocketed (from about $7 dollars a lap to $30 these days even with a favorable exchange rate), and the track is always crowded (unlike in the 1990s, when he once remembers sharing the circuit with only one other car). But he remains passionate about the sense of community and the adrenaline rush of roaring through the Fuchsröhre and around the Karussell.

McFadden suggests that anybody determined to master the Nordschleife should budget more time than he initially thinks is necessary (and factor in jet lag). Not only is the circuit difficult to learn, but the public days are limited and the hours are short. Also, it’s hard to get a clear lap, which is a problem if you’re chasing a lap time. Weather is another issue. “It’s going to rain,” he says. “It can rain for 10 minutes, and it can rain for three days. It could rain on one part of the track, and the rest of it is in full sunshine.”

24-hour race at the Nürburgring
Thomas Frey/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

McFadden advises newbies to study the track layout before traveling to Germany. When he started, the only training aid was the cult-classic in-car videotape—remember videotape?—of Derek Bell in a Porsche 956. Now, there are countless videos on YouTube, not to mention video games and racing sims showcasing photo-realistic versions of the track. But no matter how hard you cram, McFadden says you’ll be unprepared for the elevation changes, lack of runoff areas and sheer speed of the circuit, so be super-duper cautious on that first lap unless you want to enjoy your 15 minutes of fame in a Nürburgring wreck compilation video.

“I remember driving on the autobahn to the track, and we saw a gorgeous E30 M3,” he says. “He went out a little before us, and when we came along in the Miata, his car was in a steaming heap on the side of the road with the front bumper sticking out of the guardrail like an arrow. And he hadn’t even gotten past Hatzenbach, which is six or seven corners in!”

Thomas Frey/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

The Nordschleife repays the standard techniques of late apexing and keeping your eyes up, only more so. The circuit features a ton of connected corners, so if you’re improperly placed for the first one, you may not make it through the last one, hence McFadden’s emphasis on late apexes. Also, corner workers are few and far between on public days, so drivers have to look far ahead to avoid accidents that have occurred beyond their line of sight.

And crashes occur—all the time. “I warn people that you crash at the Nürburgring under one of two circumstances,” McFadden says. “The first lap, because you don’t respect it enough, and it’ll bite you. Or on that first lap when you think you know what you’re doing.”

McFadden speaks from personal experience. On about his seventh day at the track, he was confident enough to start drifting his rental BMW 316i four-door. But he carried too much speed into Eschbach, lost the rear end and spun into a guardrail. Fortunately, this was before rental car companies prohibited patrons from lapping on the Nordschleife, and insurance covered the damage. (In fact, McFadden immediately returned to the track in a replacement rental car.)

Nordschleife Nurburgring Circuit
Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Although the circuit is fast and flowy, it doesn’t have many obvious passing zones, so track etiquette is crucial. “You don’t want to be that person– the driver who goes fast in a straight line and parks it in the corners so everybody stacks up behind you,” he says. On public days, all passing is supposed to be done on the left. But McFadden often follows Nürburgring endurance-racing protocol, which is to use your turn signal to alert passing drivers about which side you’re choosing. In races, after executing passes, drivers often hit their flashers to show their gratitude to helpful slower traffic. Hans Stuck would go a step further and flick the steering wheel to cause the rear end of his car to wiggle.

McFadden didn’t visit Germany during the pandemic. But like swallows returning to Capistrano, he made his annual pilgrimage to the Nürburging this past summer. “Every lap I do, when I came out of that last corner and pass under the gantry, I tap the steering wheel and go, ‘Thank you, car,’” he says. “Even now, 26 years after my first visit, every lap is still rewarding.”

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