Automakers tout hot Nurburgring laps to win performance credibility
Though Germany's Nurburgring racetrack is little-known here, automakers tout hot laps there to win performance credibility
It's probably raining right now at the Nurburgring, and there are not a dozen American consumers who care.
The average American car buyer probably has never heard of the fabled old racetrack in the dark and rainy German forest. The typical American consumer probably would be challenged to even pronounce the name of its treacherous, twisting, 13-mile Nordschleife (NORD'-shly-fuh) track.
And yet, there is the track appearing like an unfamiliar German movie star in Cadillac's recent advertising efforts for the growling ATS. There it is again in marketing materials for Chrysler Group's upcoming SRT Viper. Here is Nissan North America's GT-R four-seater, touting its Nurburgring speed achievements to American consumers. There is Lexus telling customers about its LFA sports car's performance on the Nordschleife. And just last month, Audi of America let consumers know that its R8 e-tron electric-powered sports car claimed a lap time record for electric cars at the track.
It is hard not to ask the obvious question: Who among American car buyers really cares?
The answer, industry executives say, is plenty of performance-oriented consumers. And that interest -- built on the connoisseurlike cachet of the Nurburgring name among global racing mavens -- keeps automakers hopping to prove themselves at the racetrack. Not with esoteric Grand Prix racers -- although there is a separate Grand Prix track at Nurburgring. But with street-legal cars available in U.S. auto dealerships -- even if those cars are at the higher, performance end of the price range.
Auto company execs say it is getting hard to reserve time on the sprawling track, built in the 1920s about 30 miles from the border with Belgium. Several automakers maintain year-round testing facilities there, such as General Motors, Nissan, Jaguar, Aston Martin and BMW.
'A punishing track'
"I truly think Nurburgring resonates with Americans," says Jenn Hoffman, advertising manager for the Cadillac ATS. "It's a punishing track, and the Europeans have known this for a long time. But the message is that you really have to take your car to Nurburgring to prove it to the world today."
ATS ad copy now reads, "Tested and perfected at the Nurburgring."
Last year while Hoffman and her marketing group were at Nurburgring collecting film footage of the ATS for advertising purposes, GM engineers at the site were also working with the Chevrolet Camaro.
Practically speaking, it's not so much a question of the technical work they do there on braking, handling and tire performance, compared with what automakers might do at their own proving grounds, observes Ralph Gilles, CEO of Chrysler's Street and Racing Technology, or SRT, brand.
It's simply the magic of being able to tell American consumers that a car has proved its mettle at the Ring. That's why, last fall, Chrysler made marketing hay about setting a Nurburgring track record with the Viper.
"Some of our competitors have permanent garages there and just test vehicles all the time," Gilles says. "We can't afford that yet. But I want to establish it as a pillar for SRT that every SRT car will run there eventually."
But do consumers care?
"Oh, yes, people care," Texas dealer Ben Keating responds. "The Nurburgring name matters a lot to some people. It matters to me."
Keating's Port Lavaca Auto Group in south Texas sells Ford, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, SRT, Buick and GMC brand vehicles but he tends to introduce himself as a "Viper dealer." His viperexchange.com Web site claims the world's largest inventory of the Dodge Viper, a V-10-powered monster that was priced at just under $100,000 before a financially exhausted Chrysler halted production in 2010.
Reviving the Viper
Incoming Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne assured sports car aficionados that there would be a new Viper. The sports car, coming as a 2013 model, will be renamed the SRT Viper to herald Chrysler's performance brand. Keating has presold 111 2013 Vipers.
Last summer, to remind sports car fans that the Viper is still a force to be reckoned with, SRT CEO Gilles directed his team to Nurburgring to see if the Viper could claim an industry lap record.
"We previously held the lap record," Gilles says. "We held the record for two years, and then Corvette came along and beat us, and then Porsche beat us, and then the Lexus LFA beat us. So it was really annoying me."
But having ended production of the car, Chrysler had no Vipers to use for the attempt.
Chrysler phoned Keating in Texas.
Keating had become a racing enthusiast a few years earlier after his wife bought him a weekend-at-the-racetrack birthday gift. He is now a bona fide member of the racing world, fielding his own Viper racing team, and racing behind the wheel himself. For a recent race in which he found himself feeling guilty about driving a Porsche instead of a Viper, Keating had the Porsche wrapped with a body message that proclaimed, "My other car is a Viper."
When Chrysler came calling for help, Keating's Dodge store had a new 2010 Viper still sitting in its showroom.
"I took it out of inventory, put dealer plates on it, put it on a boat and sent it to Germany," Keating recalls of his response to the phone call. "I told them, there's only one condition -- I get to come over with it."
Despite numerous delays and downtime caused by rain, which is common at Nurburgring, Gilles' Viper expedition succeeded. The Dodge lapped the track in a record 7 minutes, 12.1 seconds.
Rather than put out word of the feat in traditional advertising, SRT took it viral and released the news to car clubs around the country. The team made sure the Nurburgring record was buzzing in the right ears, being sure to note that it had set the record with a 2010 car from a dealer showroom, riding on a chassis Chrysler engineered in 2003 -- hardly the sort of facts that would appear in a typical new-car ad.
Records on honor system
"Our SRT customers consume every motorsports event they can get their hands on," Gilles says. "NASCAR, American LeMans, Rally, Formula One -- all of it. So when we go to Nurburgring and win, it turns them on. They're like, 'Wow! Look at my brand out there mixing it up with the Europeans.'"
"Win" is not exactly what a carmaker does at the Nordschleife. It is not a race. There is no winner's cup. There is no sanctioning body, or even a governing body.
Nurburgring is in some ways more like an American state park than what U.S. racing enthusiasts would be accustomed to at a tightly controlled NASCAR track. It is owned by the state government of Rhineland-Palatinate. Speed records are established on the honor system, with video proof posted on the Web for popular discussion. Outside auto journalists and Web sites take it on themselves to keep records.
On tourist days, visitors flood the property free of charge to watch the cars go by. If the weather cooperates, a tourist day might draw 30,000 people, who picnic and sit around on blankets and lounge chairs. For about $32, any of them with drivers' licenses can get on the racetrack and attempt it themselves -- in cars or, if they wish, on motorcycles.
Dodging industrial spies
Designed in a more carefree era with few worries about safety precautions and liability threats, the track is known for a sense of danger. The track's Web site uses the word "terrifying" to describe it. But that attribute also makes it a vehicle engineer's paradise. The road boasts 174 corners, hidden bends, bumps and steep hills.
Cadillac's Hoffman notes that these days, Nurburgring appears to be crawling with industrial spies seeking information about competitors' future products. Most advanced testing is done with camouflaged vehicles.
This ambience of controlled chaos may account for the fact that the entire storied facility is on the verge of financial ruin. To gasps of surprise and concern from the worldwide auto-enthusiast community, Nurburgring filed for bankruptcy in July and began looking for a deep-pocketed investor to keep it open.
The problem? In 2004, the German state and its private management contractor embarked on a plan to capitalize on the Nurburgring's mystique and develop it into more of a tourism draw than it already was. The property launched a $400 million project to build a convention hotel and amusement park with a roller coaster. The project was never completed.
Mike Dorn, sales manager for Roxxity Ltd., a London company that markets Nordschleife merchandise to consumers, believes the challenging track, with its propensity for inclement weather, was no place for an amusement park.
"Who wants to ride a roller coaster in the rain?" Dorn asks. "People all over the world know the Ring as the most difficult racetrack there is. It doesn't mean they want to vacation there."
Having discovered that Nurburgring had never registered the word "Nordschleife" as a trademark, Dorn's company did so, and now owns rights to the word. Roxxity sells Nordschleife T-shirts, baseball caps, wheel rim logos, and other accessories around the world, with about a fifth of its sales coming from U.S. consumers via a Web site, nordschleife.us.
But does any of this make the speed mecca a household word worthy of U.S. car ad copy?
Viper dealer Keating sets aside his zeal for the track to concede that the average American consumer probably has never heard of the Nordschleife or Nurburgring.
"But the average American is not a sports car buyer," he says. "Sports car buyers are different. And they do know the word.
"When you're talking about sports cars, Nurburgring has become the common world yardstick to measure ourselves."
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.