If you're reading this on our site, I'm going to go ahead and assume you've at least heard of The Nürburgring—you know, the longest and most dangerous racetrack in the world, the one hidden away in epic German hill country, the place car manufacturers from across the globe come to torture test street and race cars alike... Ring a bell? If you haven't heard of the 'Ring, at this point in the game my advice is to just lie and say you have so it doesn't look like you live under a rock.
There is one event that really defines what the Nürburgring is all about; imagine a week-long rave out in the woods, covering four towns and dozens of square miles, fueled by epic GT car racing, bratwursts, and Bitburger. That basically sums up the annual 24 Hour endurance race (N24). *euro beat intensifies*
While it's a big party for spectators, the N24 is a major stage for racing teams and manufacturers to test and prove cars. Most of the teams and manufacturers involved are German, one major exception being Toyota's GAZOO Racing, the big boy Toyota/Lexus works team handling WRC and WEC, among others. GAZOO Racing have spent a lot of time at The 'Ring in the past, having raced the likes of the GT86, Camry, CH-R, IS, RC, and LF-A, just to name a few. This year they brought out a new toy; a specially prepared Lexus LC 500 built just for N24. Details about its specs are sparse but the car is classified as "SP PRO" (aka prototype), so it's not on the level of a Super GT LC 500 or any of the normal GT3 SP9 class cars out there (Porsches, BMWs, AMGs, etc.) but it's still fully factory backed and fast as hell.
GAZOO says the purpose of all its racing efforts is essentially to help make better road going cars, which is a pretty universal truth across brands. In the case of the LC, which is already available at your local Lexus dealer (and already a very good car; I've flogged one about), the things learned from this year's N24 will also help further develop the racing chassis for next year, and future cars. Plus, there's the whole "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" thing.
'18 marked my fifth year in a row attending N24. When I arrived and I had a chance, I checked out the GAZOO Racing pit box and things were looking pretty solid. The LC was doing well, turning fast times in practice and ultimately qualifying 32nd overall in a field of 146 starting cars. Not bad, right?
As race day edged closer, I took some time to explore the campgrounds, drink beers with the locals, eat some fried pork and attempt to get some rest. What I said earlier about the race basically being a giant party is no joke. People arrive five days prior and pretty much drink the entire week (it wouldn't be fair for me to be there and not participate a little). One thing I did know for sure was that there would not be very much sleep in my immediate future, so I paced myself. Sleep deprivation is pretty much the only thing about photographing a 24-hour race that you can predict with any amount of certainty. I was pumped, though; this is fun for me and I'm always happy to see the teams I follow qualify well. One thing was looming over everyone's head; an ever-changing weather forecast was predicting rain in some amount, beggining at some point shortly after race start. No one could tell how bad it would be or how long it would last, but it would no doubt happen. Thankfully I brought my hiking boots; leopard print Vans might look dope, but shockingly, not so great in the mud traction department.
I woke up Saturday morning, race day, ready to rock! The energy at the paddock is intense right before the green flag; I made my way through the starting grid and saw a lot of smiles among the GAZOO team, and rightfully so. The car was looking sexy; they had a good starting position, not a lot more you can ask at that point. I hauled ass to the part of the track called Hatzenbach where I wanted to shoot the race start. This section of the track is pretty close to start/finish, just a few turns out of the Grand Prix circuit onto the Nordschleife (aka the cool part of the track.) All the cars go out on a formation lap, separated basically in half to avoid massive pileups. After that, it was on and I was engulfed by the sounds of flat-sixes, V8s, turbo fours, all the good stuff. The GAZOO Lexus passed by without issue for a few laps. Apparently they had some contact at the very beginning but from where I was standing it all looked gravy.
It's hard to give an accurate play by play of all the happenings of the car throughout the race, so I won't try. Instead, I'm going to tell you what the race was like from my end. I can tell you that over the course of the race, the LC did experience a few problems. Since I wasn't in the pit box I don't know exactly what went wrong, but the car was in for electrical work, something with the brakes, and I believe a powertrain issue as well. I kept shooting, and I kept seeing the car every nine minutes, although I do believe the car was down for a while. No matter! The honest truth about a 24-hour race is that for the vast majority of the field, it's not really about winning. It's more about finishing.
As the sun began set, I had made my way over to a section of the track called Schwalbenschwanz, which means "Swallow's Tail" in English. (Side note: The second half of that word "Schwanz" also means another thing, part of the male anatomy, so this part of the track is hilarious if you're an immature like me.) Anyhow, Small Carousel (as it's also called) is a good place to watch and shoot. Surrounded by a giant campground full of drunken Germans, the cars make their way around a banked left hander, often scraping, lifting wheels and over steering as they exit, they round the last couple of turns typically over 100mph and then it's onto the long front straight. The LC 500 was handling the track well from where I was standing. I hung out there for sunset, although it was cloudy so it just kind of got dark, which is a bit of a bummer, photographically speaking. I decided to head over to the campgrounds at Brunnchen after dark; this section of the track is famously called YouTube Corner since this is where most of the epic fail videos you've seen take place. It's also the wildest campground at the whole track in my experience, so I had to go. It was calling me. I'm not gonna lie, I had some beers and shot some pictures, but mostly at night when it's totally dark I wanted to relax a bit and just enjoy the race. I really do love this event more than any other. There's something truly special about this track. It's crazy how old it is, how dangerous it is, and yet they still do this. The Nürburgring is the antithesis of sterile, safety first, participation trophy culture. People die here every year. The Germans built this place as a way to boost the economy in 1927 after World War I. 1927. World War I. Are you kidding me?
The weather was holding but everyone knew it would start to rain sometime after sun down. And boy did it. After a few nice feierabendbierchen (that single word basically means "a small after work beer," because Germany) and a few hours of terrible sleep in the front seat of my Passat Kombi (aka wagon, hey at least it had a 6MT) I awoke to a very different scene. It was dark, misty; my car was covered in rain. It was cold. There were less cars on track and I could tell after watching a lap or two that the night had claimed a few victims but thankfully, the GAZOO Racing LC 500 was alive!
I decided to shoot sunrise, or in this case, the slow transformation of black sky to grey sky, at Adenauer Forst, which is another great section of track to shoot and spectate. Seeing a pattern here? There really aren't any "bad" places to shoot or spectate at The Ring. I digress.
The campground was a mess. Beer and Jagermeister bottles everywhere. Burnt sausages. Smoldering campfires with not a soul in tend. Piles of puke and what kind of looked like puke but was blue for some reason. Dudes passed out with sharpie artwork all over their faces. Sam Du-style club music blasting but no one dancing. And yet amazingly, next to the track itself, a good amount of people were still awake and watching the race. These I find are the truest hardcore fans, the ones who came to party but also want to see (and remember) some of the race.
As the morning progressed, the rain increased, but I was happy to see the LC making its way round time and time again. The weather was getting extremely dicey, cars were only able to do a fraction of their normal cornering speeds. Giant rooster tails, water spraying everywhere. This was interesting and very different than normal dry racing; you could still see some cars were better suited for wet than others. The leading cars were still fast, at this point I really had no idea what position GAZOO held, but as the rain got worse and the fog rolled in, we all got thrown for a loop.
Extremely thick fog forming on the fastest part of the track meant race organizers had no choice but to red flag the race and bring the cars in. Trust me when I tell you that it takes A LOT to red flag the Nürburgring 24 Hours. But straight up, visibility along Dottinger Hohe was only maybe 50 meters, and the fastest cars are going 150 plus. Annoying as it may be to stop, you literally cannot race like that.
At this point, we were 20 hours in and the possibility of finishing under red reared its ugly head. Not a lot of more anticlimactic ways to end a race than by timing out when all the cars are pitted due to weather. I decided to head to pit lane in case they restarted, and thankfully with just about an hour and a half left, organizers decided to restart, even though to be totally honest, the fog was only slightly improved.
So, here's why this is crazy... Imagine for a moment that you have been racing for 22 hours and the leading two cars are still on the same lap, granted with a gap of several minutes between cars since the track is so long. This alone is crazy since so much can happen in 22 hours of racing. Now, the red flag means everyone pits, and when they restart, there's no gap anymore. 1st and 2nd place are literally neck and neck again; the leading cars were now in a sprint race to the end, in the pouring rain and fog, the teams and drivers exhausted after having already raced for 22 hours. Fucking mental.
The energy in pit lane was explosive and everyone knew that the smallest slip up in the wet would mean a tragic last-minute retirement. While the media attention was all surrounding the Black Falcon AMG and Manthey Racing Porsche battle for 1st and 2nd, similar stories were unfolding across all the other classes. No one wants to race 22 of a 24-hour race and crash at the very end. Talk about a crushing feeling.
GAZOO Racing was in a class of their own, (literally though, they were the only car in their prototype class) so for them the battle was seemingly simple. Survive the last moments, don't slip up, and try not to ruin anyone else's race if possible. Easier said than done, but they pulled it off finishing 96th overall. Might not sound that great, but let me remind you that nearly 150 cars started, a number of teams retired early due to crashes or mechanical failures, but GAZOO made it. They finished the Nürburgring 24 Hours with a brand new car, and that really is an epic success. I personally can't wait to see how the LC improves for next year. GAZOO Racing will be back and you better believe I'll be there. Hell, I couldn't stay away even if I tried.