The future, or rather the character, of one of Germany’s most popular racetracks is under threat. The venue in question is the Norisring, the Bavarian street circuit which was first used in 1947 and provides Germany’s biggest race series with their most tumultuous and atmospheric amphitheatre.
The 2.3km circuit is built around a vast concrete edifice, measuring 360 metres in length, which acts as the main grandstand. When a Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) touring car event really lights up, it is when there are tens of thousands of passionate fans backing their chosen brand – Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Because the Norisring is a street circuit with a colossal grandstand towering over it the atmosphere becomes like a cup final, with hooting and hollering and intensity the like of which is seldom seen in motor sport.
But then, this is a venue that was built for just such pyrotechnic displays of bombast. The Norisring has a unique bit of history attached as well…
The Zeppelinfeld upon which the Norisring exists was not designed for motor sport. The colossal grandstand is in fact the ‘Führer’s Rostrum’ designed and built by Albert Speer from which Adolf Hitler would lead the Nazi Party’s annual Nuremberg rallies.
Speer’s handiwork is now beginning to crumble. At the back of the gigantic structure there is considerable netting and signs that warn “Danger of collapse!” and “Enter At Your Own Risk”.
“We will only be able to prevent permanent decay if we start carrying out the necessary repair work soon,” Daniel Ulrich, Nuremberg’s building maintenance department chief, told The Independent this week. “Otherwise we will end up with nothing more here than a heap of rubble.”
Speer claimed that he had used special building materials and that the complex – which featured a parade ground the size of 12 football pitches, a two-mile-long “Great Way” paved with 6,000 granite blocks for mass stormtrooper marches, a congress hall the size of London’s Royal Albert Hall, and the tribune with its balustrades and ceilings decorated with golden stars and Nazi swastikas – would last for 1,000 years. As it turns out, Speer’s calculations were a little bit optimistic.
When the Norisring was first in use as a circuit, the entire Führer’s Rostrum was virtually intact, minus the most obvious Nazi motifs but retaining the quarter mile of balustrade upon which Speer built his ‘cathedral of light’ by mounting 150 searchlights to bring a bit of extra ‘wow factor’.
Today all of those pillars have gone, leaving the tribunes where once the Party faithful flanked their leader to look out over an endless sea of banner-carrying and flag-waving members of the Master Race. Today these are the most celebrated seats in German motor sport; looking out over the temporary pits and main straight of a circuit that always delivers fast and frenetic action.
In the beginning, the Norisring was primarily used for motorcycle races – not least due to the severe restrictions that were imposed upon Germany’s automotive industry and motor sport the defeat of 1945. Cars and motor sport were major tools of Hitler’s social order and the level of suppression was extraordinary when viewed from today.
Eventually, in the 1950s, German cars returned to action on a regular basis. New German-made Formula 2 cars, Volkswagen-based ‘specials’ and the emergence of top quality machinery from Porsche reinvigorated the national racing scene. The Norisring flourished, and in the 1980s it even hosted frenetic and spectacular sprint races for Le Mans machinery, joining the World Sportscar Championship in 1986 to provide spectacle such as this:
The venue is now best known as the most popular round of the DTM, and the series’ own website describes the Norisring thus: The spectacular street circuit – incidentally the last surviving racetrack of its kind, in Germany – is popular with drivers and fans in equal measure and winning here counts slightly more than winning elsewhere.
There is no doubt that the Norisring is a special place and for many reasons. Should the old tribunes be torn down? At the S&G, the feeling is that they should not. For one thing, what would replace them? Certainly it is unlikely that Nuremberg council could create a grandstand that could rival it, or that was designed to generate the sort of fervour that this one does. Students of history and lovers of motor sport cannot fail to marvel at the place in all its insane pomposity.
It is impossible to understand something unless it can be witnessed, and the giganticism of the Norisring tribune, just like that of Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, offers a beacon to navigate history: to understand the means by which Germany was so catastrophically seduced in the 1930s. If we do not understand the threat that humanity can pose to itself then we are failing as a race.
Meanwhile as a sporting venue, the tribunes would be utterly impossible to replace and losing them would rob motor sport of a unique asset. While the past of the Zeppelinfeld is an abomination, the heritage of the Norisring is anything but. Bringing joy to a place like this, through the very best in motor racing action, and creating a new history of almost 70 years of achievement, is something well worth preserving.