I Stayed Up All Night to Watch the Shortest 24h Nürburgring Race Ever

Mike Schlee
by Mike Schlee

Photos by Mike Schlee and Hyundai

The Hyundai Elantra N navigates the difficult night-time conditions

When attending a race like the Nürburgring 24h, it’s probably best to not plan for any specific thing, but rather plan for everything. In a world of unpredictability, the Green Hell as it's called, laughs in the face of forethought and common sense. The Nurburg region can encounter sweltering humidity, rain, wind, fog, and snow, or all the locals call it, a typical Tuesday morning.

Adding to the weather complexity, the track is unlike any other in the world. Built in a lush forestry region, the track earns the moniker Green Hell for its endless miles of twisting greenery. The 24-hour endurance configuration of the Nürburgring combines the Nordschleife with portions of the Grand Prix circuit. In total, it makes for a track of15.77 miles (25.38 km) per lap. Yes, per lap.

Arguably, the 24h Nürburgring is one of the top 24-hour endurance races in the world. Many consider it the best to attend in person as tickets are more attainable than the 24 hours of Le Mans, while the rural camping experience is something unmatched by the 24 hours of Daytona or Spa.

Finally Making the Show

The bottom of the famed Nurburgring Grand Prix track

After decades of watching the race broadcast from 3,975 mi (6,400 km) away, this year I finally got to make the pilgrimage. Hyundai Motorsports and Hyundai Canada invited me to attend the race to see the brand’s Elantra N racecar’s multi-pronged attack on the TCR Touring class.

Before the invitation email had fully loaded into my inbox, I had already replied affirming my attendance. This was it; I was finally going to travel overseas to watch the famed 24 hour race on the craziest professional motorsport circuit in the world.

The Journey is Part of the Fun

The sights on the way to the track through Germany. Definitely worth taking the long way there.

Flying into the Nürburgring from North America isn’t a direct route. Although there are ways to get closer, we flew into Frankfurt and drove to the track the next day. Although the ‘Ring is about 2 hours from the home of the pork sausage, we took the scenic route, visiting breathe-taking overlooks, ferrying across the Rhine River, and exploring multiple small German villages.

There were a few instances where we got to explore unrestricted sections of the German autobahn as well. For those keeping score at home, the 2024 Hyundai Kona Hybrid will top out at 173 km/h (108 mph) while the 2024 Hyundai Ioniq 6 AWD EV pulls hard until a limiter stops the fun at 194 km/h (120.5 mph).

We Should Have Known

Lots of lights are needed for night time driving

The drive to the Nürburgring couldn’t have been any nicer. It was a clear sunny day, with temperatures peaking around 70 F (21 C). While we were acting like tourists, teams were starting their qualifying sessions. Despite the beautiful weather we experienced on our drive, it was teeming rain at the track. As I mentioned earlier, that’s just how the weather goes at the Nürburgring.

Despite the poor conditions, Team Hyundai was looking good, currently in the top 3 positions within their racing class. While on the topic of classes, the Nürburgring 24h is unique in another way, as dozens of classes run the endurance race at the same time. The fastest of these cars are the GT3 touring cars, while on the slower end there’s a Dacia Logan that can barely get out of its own way.

We Are Here

One of the warm up races before the big 24 hour feature included these 1980s and 1990s touring cars

Thursday would see qualifying sessions two and three, as well as my first trip to the track. Despite the aura built around the Nürburgring, arriving at the track felt no different than any other major track I’ve visited. This mostly boiled down to us being stationed within the Grand Prix portion of the track which does indeed resemble a modern racing complex.

Deeper into the woods, the historic portions of Nordschleife resides. Remotely accessed by car or foot, the wet weather had turned all the popular camping spots into a soupy mud bog. Hundreds of sporty cars lay parked up to their rocker panels in thick brown goo. But that’s a problem to worry about on Sunday. For now is the time for bratwurst, beer, and racing.

No One Told Them It’s an Endurance Race

The racing action was intense right from the drop of the green flag

After all the qualifying sessions were done, Hyundai remained in the top three positions within the brand’s class. The field is split into 3 sections, based on speed. This prevents 120 cars steaming into the turn 1 hairpin all at once.

The race began at 4 pm on Saturday afternoon and despite the separation, there were still plenty of lap 1 incidents, some of which would end the race for a few teams. Can you imagine all the time, preparation, and money invested just to have your 24-hour race end within 2 minutes of the start?

Part of the chaos was the rain that arrived just before the start of the race. Teams scrambling to choose between slick, grooved, or full wet tires. For the next 7.5 hours, the racing action didn’t relent. Cars were battling for both class and overall position. The commentators more than once describe how this was some of the best racing action they’ve ever witnessed at the Nürburgring 24 hour race.

“Controlled” Chaos

One of the Hyundai Elantra N TCR cars comes in for service

As day turned to night, around the seven-hour mark we got an invite to visit the live pits. With so many teams and only so many pit garages, most garages housed four or five teams. In a space meant for one car and about 10 team members, upwards of 40 people were sardined in, milling around, all focused on their particular car.

For many with less patience, this would be an anxiety riddled nightmare. But the teams are used to this chaos and handle it in stride. We stuck around to witness one of the Hyundai Elantra N TCR cars receive a full-service stop. The drivers were swapped out, new tires were put on, the lights were cleaned, and the fuel tank topped off. Although the track was drying out, fog was also rolling in. At this point Hyundai was equipping the Elantras with an usual combination of slick tires up front, grooved tires on the rear.

Precision Indecision Due to a Lack of Vision

Fog began creeping in on the Nurburgring 24h race around 11 pm

For the entire race weekend, we had a hotel about 45 minutes away from the track, which could triple the commute time with race day traffic. During the race we had nowhere to sleep at the track, but Hyundai had constructed a three-level temporary super complex that could rival some luxury condominiums. It was the brand's onsite racing headquarters for employees, race teams, VIPs, and media like me.

Being a 24-hour race, I was torn about what to do Saturday night. I could either head back to the hotel around midnight or stay at the track the full 24 hours. From the moment the race began until our hotel shuttle arrived around 11:45 pm, I probably changed my mind as to whether I’d stay or not every 10 minutes or so.

The spot we spent the night during the heavy fog light

After witnessing the pitstop, full of adrenalin, gas vapours, and schnitzel, I decided to stay the night. This might be my only time ever attending this event and I didn't want to regret not taking the opportunity to stick out the entire race. Turns out I already had.

While everyone else headed off to the hotel shuttle, I wandered over to the luxury suite, ready to set up camp for the night. I commandeered a meeting room that had a couch, big screen tv broadcasting the English race feed, and a view of the Grand Prix track’s famous back straight chicane. Oh, this was living. I was all set for a full night of action.

Ten minutes later, the race was halted.

My Racetrack is a Ghost Town

Pit lane becomes empty during the fog delay at the Nurburgring 24h race

The fog had gotten so bad around sections of the track, the course marshals could no longer see each other, and the drivers could barely see anything. It wasn’t just a brief pause to hope conditions improved either. The organizers know this region and how long fog can stick around for (I was about to find out as well).

Postponed at midnight until at least 7 am the next morning, I now had a lot of time to kill. By 1 am everyone at the Hyundai headquarters had left for the night and I had the giant complex to myself. I was like Kevin McCallister, but I wasn’t home alone. I was abroad alone, in a fancy three story temporary building with near unlimited snacks and drinks. I even had a security out front like a VIP

Around 2 am I went for a wander around the paddock. Turns out it wasn’t just those around me that had left for the night. The paddock was a ghost town. 240,000 people had either gone back to their hotels, back to their camping spot, or were sleeping in the various rigs. One of the few teams that did stick around were having a bit of fun blasting the song Ghost Town by Adam Lambert

Seeing such a bustling paddock near abandoned was an eerie feeling, but it did allow me to check out a lot of the sights and booths that would normally be crowded. I could also hear in the distance the sounds of spectators at nearby campgrounds, blasting ‘80s rock, ‘90s dance, and having a wild old time.

Do You Even Pace Lap Bro?

Fog would never let the race restart. Two Hyundai Elantra N TCR cars drive behind pace laps

After watching some German television, taking a quick nap, and more wandering, it was finally 7 am. The fog had not lifted in the slightest though. The drivers for the Hyundai team arrived shortly after and we joked that racing might not resume until 1 pm. Turns out the joke was on us…we were grossly underestimating the delay.

The track announced the next update would come at 8 am. Then that was pushed back to 9am, then 10 am, then 11 am, and so on. During this time the camera operators on the live feed were clearly sleep deprived. The entertained us, and themselves, with shots of various campers struggling to get their vehicles out of the mud or looking miserably hungover. One camera operator even tried to zoom in on a camper to see what they were typing on their phone.

The fog was thick during the second day of the Nurburgring 24h

Finally, around 1 pm the track announced it would begin pace laps at 1:30 pm. There would be up to five pace laps. At the end of each lap, if conditions were good enough, the race would resume. If at the end of the fifth lap there was no improvement, the race would be called and ended.

There’s two important points to make here. With the track being so long and run at pace lap speeds, each lap was about 20 minutes, so this was going to take a while. While mentioning the length of the track, sections were in perfectly clear conditions, while our location on the Grand Prix circuit offered about 5 feet of visibility.

It Was the Worst of Races, It Was the Best of Races

Despite the shortened race, Hyundai still managed a 1, 2, 3 finish in class

As the final pace lap ended just before 3 pm, the race was declared over. As a cruel trick by Mother Nature, the fog lifted from the Grand Prix circuit a few minutes later. But for those, like me, who thought the race ending an hour before the scheduled time might be premature, the fog didn’t actually lift from the Grand Prix circuit. It just relocated further down the track.

So, after 24 hours straight staying up at the track, I saw a bit over 7 hours of racing. Word on the street is this is the shortest amount of time ever run at the Nürburgring 24h. But you know what, it was still amazing. The atmosphere, the competition, the variety of entires. It was everything I hoped for and more, even though I spent over two thirds of the race starting into the fog. Oh, and Hyundai Motorsports came 1-2-3 in the TCR class too.

I will do everything I Can to make it back to the race again soon.

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Mike Schlee
Mike Schlee

A 20+ year industry veteran, Mike rejoins the AutoGuide team as the Managing Editor. He started his career at a young age working at dealerships, car rentals, and used car advertisers. He then found his true passion, automotive writing. After contributing to multiple websites for several years, he spent the next six years working at the head office of an automotive OEM, before returning back to the field he loves. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). He's the recipient of a feature writing of the year award and multiple video of the year awards.

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