The highs and lows of racing at the Nürburgring – Dickie Meaden tells all
Dickie Meaden describes the all-enveloping experience of competing at the Nürburgring with some personal anecdotes
Racing at the N24 in 2006 was a big moment in my personal and professional life. I’d raced on and off for a dozen years prior to the opportunity to drive with Maserati, but nothing I’d done to that point compared to the scale of my first 24-hour race, held on the most intimidating circuit of them all.
Looking back, I was justifiably awed by much of what happened, both before, during and after that 2006 race. And yet, as is often the case when you’re blissfully unaware of just how far in over your head you really are, I never once paused to question what I was doing. It was just one huge adventure.
Working with the Maserati factory team (and sharing the car with Jacques Laffite!) was an amazing experience. Even though our car was entered to generate some publicity first and foremost while the pros went for a result in the GT3 car, the level of professionalism was such that everyone was determined we got safely to the finish.
The team never put any pressure on me, but there were definitely moments where I thought my head was going to explode, such was the pressure I put on myself. Thankfully I managed to settle my nerves, and almost immediately I found the more laps I did, the more I loved it. Being asked to do a double stint that saw me drive from the pitch-blackness into the most glorious sunrise remains one of the greatest experiences of my life.
The resulting story was something of a breakthrough for me. It really seemed to capture readers’ and fellow racers’ imaginations and remains a piece people ask me about to this day. I hadn’t re-read it since I filed the copy for issue 094 some 14 years ago, but reading it now has brought the emotion of those distant days flooding back.
Back then the race was markedly different to how it has become. The number and variety of cars was extraordinary. From Manthey-Racing’s glorious ‘Grello’ RSR to the ancient Merc 500SEC and Foxtail Opel Manta. And although there were some big names taking part, it was very much a race for garagistas who were happy to let a few hardy pros join in the fun. An epic race for us, not them, if that makes sense.
That same year Aston Martin entered a V8 Vantage in the same SP8 class as the Maserati GranSport Trofeo. Built by AML technicians and driven by the boss Ulrich Bez, plus vehicle engineer Chris Porritt, Aston’s Nürburgring test centre director Wolfgang Schuhbauer and legendary Sport Auto ‘Supertest’ journalist Horst von Saurma, it was the first of what would become Aston’s annual ‘engineering sign-off’ exercises. This, as I would come to learn, was the boys at AML cunningly circumventing the contract with AMR that would otherwise preclude them from going racing.
How did I know this? Because for the next eight years I raced an assortment of Aston Martins in the N24. For a good five or six years of that period I was completely besotted with racing at the Nordschleife. Both in the N24 and shorter-format VLN events we used as warm-ups for the Big One.
I always believed that to be invited to race there as an amateur was an enormous privilege, and definitely not something to be taken lightly. For me this meant committing to the notion I was competing at a circuit with inherent dangers, and in a type of multi-class endurance racing where the only factor more dicey than the colossal speed differential between the fastest and slowest cars was the gulf in talent between the best and worst drivers. I always retained a healthy respect for the place.
During those years I became comfortable with all that the N24 entails, gaining the experience and building the necessary self-belief to deal with the reality of racing there day, night and most likely in all weathers. Knowing you have that in you is a feeling that can’t be surpassed. My drug of choice, if you will.
I had some amazing times with AML. An SP8 class win in 2009 in a genuinely close-to-showroom V12 Vantage on the same weekend the car was launched to the world’s media was a dream come true. As was being amongst the drivers who made the V12 Zagato’s racing debut. I also made some great friendships and was very lucky to share some brilliant times (and terrible hangovers) with colleagues Chris Harris, Jethro Bovingdon and John Barker, who also scored themselves drives during this era. We had some fun.
Unfortunately I also had some pretty bleak experiences, the worst being the death of fellow AML driver Leo Löwenstein in a VLN race in 2010. It didn’t stop me returning to race on the Nordschleife, but seeing how his loss left so many people shattered was hard to witness. It also gave the lie to every racer’s internal monologue that tells them ‘it won’t happen to me’.
Like a moth to a flame I kept accepting invites to race (who wouldn’t?), but year-on-year my love for the race ebbed away. In 2014 I had a monumental shunt in qualifying for a VLN race. I emerged unscathed, but the car was a write-off (sorry Kingy). I still did that year’s N24, but there were a few times where I’d have done anything not to get in the car. We scored another class podium, but I knew my heart was no longer in it. That was my last N24.
Six years on I can honestly say I don’t miss it. Especially the restless nights in the Dörint Hotel and the Pavlov’s Dog effect of the pitlane siren, the wail of which would send me scurrying straight to the garage toilet. I can laugh about it now.
Despite it all, I owe the place and the race a great deal. It forged me as a driver and propelled me as a writer – personal advancements that have stood me in good stead in the years that followed.
It also taught me a lot about myself. Admitting I no longer wanted to race there was painful, but once decided, it felt like making peace with an old foe and being reunited with an old friend.
This story was first featured in evo issue 275.