While participating in the ritualistic post college graduation tour of Europe with my fellow drifters in search of that one final adventure before the inevitable transformation from free spirit to working stiff, I was fortunate enough to be traveling with one hardcore buzzard and a few curious sorts who all had Hockenheim on our list of events to conquer that summer. Our two car caravan of Renault 19 diesels rolled out of Barcelona a couple of weeks prior to the race and while I was at the wheel for my daily stint, I must have been influenced by Adrian Campos because I charged a stretch of open road and managed to lose our sister car. These were the days before cell phones, internet or backup plans so it was c’est la vie and see you at Hockenheim. That is unless they were to have the good fortune of running into a group of Swedish girls seeking American companionship out on the open road.
When we arrived at the circuit on the Thursday afternoon the day before the first free practice started, there was still a dark shadow cast over F1 with the tragic death of Senna not even four months old. But while the world at large was still coping with the loss of one of the all time great sportsmen, it was readily apparent that a large sector of Germany had moved on and was totally swept up in Schu-mania! The campgrounds surrounding the track were sold out and the party was already in full swing. There may be a perception that all F1 fans are sophisticated wine and cheese types but what we were witnessing was like a
bizarro Bristol parking lot. Take your prototypical 245lbs Dale Jr. loving redneck and remove the Bud in a coozy, Dale shirt and cap, Chevy pickup and Toby Keith tracks. Keep the jean shorts and the grill. Now replace with a 245lbs Schumi loving redneck with Bitburger beer, Dekra hat and shirt, BMW or Mercedes sedan and a techno soundtrack and you can see the parallels. It could have been Billy Bob or his cousin Deiter. It was unquestionably Dieter when we stumbled upon a group with a smoke machine and a strobe light in their 4 man pup tent pumping the jams to 11 at 5:00pm.
Through our interaction with the locals there was a rumor circulating that the FIA was going to penalize Schumacher and not allow him to drive due to the DQ he received the previous race at Silverstone for passing Hill on the formation lap and the subsequent two race ban that he received for ignoring the black flags. Benetton had appealed the ban so he was likely going to race, but the whole affair added intrigue and an element of danger to the camp ground. Many there had placed the blame on Hill and there was a swelling lynch mob gathering at the circuit exit waiting to let Hill have it should he dare leave the circuit. We managed to find Friday/Saturday tickets but were told by all that Sunday was completely sold out. As we left the circuit that evening to find a suitable piece of dirt to lay our tents for the night, we were envisioning the scenario of Schumacher not being allowed to participate and the Germans literally tearing apart the race track by hand.
The next day we were seated bright and early in the grand Hockenheim stadium with 50,000+ buzzards raring to go for the first practice of the weekend. Schumacher was there suited up and Hill was still in one piece so cooler heads had prevailed. In fact there was a story going around that Hill had evaded the
mob by leaving the circuit in the trunk of a car. Regardless you could feel the electricity in the air as F1 cars took to the track. On Schumacher’s first flying lap, the stadium exploded as personal bottle rockets, Roman candles, M-80’s and airhorns went off in unison. I need to say it again: personal bottle rockets being fired over the cars by the fans! I still can’t wrap my head around that one. Can you imagine taking your seat at Indy and pulling out a Roman candle to fire past the ear of the guy in front of you every time JR Hildebrand went by? Buzzardly! This pyrotechnic display became just as entertaining as hearing the Ferrari’s blast off into the forest with their screaming V-12’s or watching Schumacher balance his Benetton on a knife edge. As more beers were consumed for the afternoon practice the trajectory of the bottle rockets began to vary with the occasional rogue rocket blasting sideways through the crowd. Usually the culprit would be a swaying, shirtless redneck with a cig dangling from the lip in the final moments of coherence before settling into a nap on the concrete slap style seats.
And then there was our introduction to false buzzardry! Every time that Schumacher’s teammate, Jos Verstappen aka “The Dutch Devil”, would enter the stadium he would get the Schumi greeting from the drunkards that saw Benetton colors and started blasting. This would often be met with a ribbing from those that refrained creating a scene that was straight out of a Saturday afternoon primate special on PBS. The stadium was brilliant to behold and it all came to a thrilling climax when Berger dropped oil in turn 1 and the next 5-7 cars all ended up in the gravel against the tires right in front of us to finish the day off in style.
Heading out to our car in a lot of 20,000 cars, we were still riding high but became a little confused to find a bunch of new stickers from an Austrian youth
hostel called Balmers plastered on our trusty Renault hatchback. Was this some sort of German joke? We did have French plates after all. But before we could launch an investigation our long lost friends that we dropped somewhere back down the road in Spain materialized out of nowhere with mischievous smirks and we had a joyous reunion. This really got the juices flowing and we set about the grounds to get our hands on some frosty cold stuff to celebrate. It wasn’t long after we had our hands on some of Bavaria’s finest that we witnessed a men’s choir unlike anything else on earth. Standing arm in arm were 40 men all singing Amazing Grace but the only lyric was Senna. It was phenomenal! There were tears all around. It was a good old fashioned group cry in honor of the fastest driver ever. I’m not afraid to admit that I cried like a baby for days after Ayrton’s passing but to see that I was not alone was astonishing. For the next few hours we all shared our personal stories of grief and the raw emotions that we experienced. It was therapeutic and a truly remarkable experience which I will never forget.
But before I get too sappy, this tale quickly shifts back to hardcore buzzardry. Sometime shortly after leaving our sensitive brothers behind, we fell in step with some professional Belgian buzzards hell bent on getting to the box. If that sounds confusing I have to admit that I didn’t know what they were talking about either until they produced a bag of tools and pointed at the fence. Their leader was a strange dude that cackled like a hyena but it certainly didn’t deter our pack from signing up for the mission. Within minutes we had a mag light out and a set of wire clippers chomping away at the fence until we had our way in. I couldn’t believe it. I suddenly found myself standing on the track under the moonlight on the run out of turn 1 off into the forest. To celebrate I started peeing on the racing line and while doing so I started to feel the ghost of Jimmy Clark looking over me. Keep in mind Jimmy perished at the track in 1968 so it was a bit of an eerie feeling. I felt ashamed but I didn’t get to think about it for too long because suddenly there were flashlights coming at us fast from all directions. Our Belgian counterparts coolly slipped off into the darkness to continue their quest but our group of amateur Americans froze and I was immediately envisioning being interrogated by some SS officer while strapped in a chair looking into bright lights in a dark room. I was terrified but after a stern lecture in German that I couldn’t understand yet still managed to produce butterflies in my stomach, they herded us up and led us back to the party without inflicting bodily harm. We dodged a bullet and left to squat on the side of an industrial river for the night.
I wish I could say that Saturday topped Friday but to be honest it was really just another excellent day at the track. Ferrari locked out the front row of the grid, Ukyo Katayama qualified 5th, there were still firework hijinks and drunken
shenanigans galore and as a bonus Mika Hakkinen proved that he was insane by attempting to take turn one 30mph faster than anybody had carried all weekend. He hung on mid corner but lost the car on the exit and went into quarter mile spin that ended against the inside barriers. His experiment may have failed but just the attempt alone spelled future World Champion.
After the F3000 race won by Franck Lagorce over JC Boullion and Gil De Ferran, we took to our Renault 19’s and headed to Heidelberg for a taste of civilization. We had been shut out in all attempts to find Sunday tickets so as I sat at a table munching on a plate of spaetzle I was resigned to the fact that my GP weekend was over. Thankfully the beers started to kick in and in a moment of bravado I proclaimed that I was going back and marching into that stadium for the race come hell or high water. I managed to rally one fellow maniac and spent the rest of the evening devising a strategy.
On Sunday July 31st, 1994 I found myself pacing the perimeter of the Hockenheim gates in an attempt to witness my 11th F1 race in person. In my hand I held my Saturday ticket and after a detailed reconnaissance mission I found my mark. Manning a busy gate solo was a man who looked to be around 70 years old and was clearly getting flustered with the flood of people trying to get through. I took a deep breath, straightened the back and cued up. When it came time to meet face to face I gave him the annoyed, all business flash of my ticket with my finger over the date and kept moving. He tried to focus but it was too late. I was in. I kept waiting for the tap on the shoulder but it never came. Buzzardry has been very very good to me! I watched as my friend Timmy tried various strategies to no avail until he spotted a hole under the fence. Like a bunch of convicts running for the hills, buzzards were racing for the breach and Timmy was rolling like a dog with the rest of them. We were both in. Buzzard mission complete!
Looking back at the race is just a blur. We sat near the start finish line and I was shocked when the field came around to complete the first lap with 10 cars missing and was punching my thighs in anger after we lost Jean Alesi seconds later and Ukyo Katayama after lap 6. There was a strange vibe to the race and it
became downright scary a few laps later when Jos “The Dutch Devil” Verstappen’s car went up in flames during his first stop. I’ve never seen flames surge like that in person and I had a panic vision of the entire garage, hospitality suites and all, going up in flames. Just as I was getting over that shock Schumacher retired from 2nd place and the entire stadium let out a collective sigh and started to sober up. The only redeeming fact from that race is F1 avoided another dark day and Berger brought home the win and dedicated it to Ayrton.
A buzzardly weekend indeed!