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Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Surreal Experience

There is nothing quite like trying to keep up with Hans Herrmann and Jacky Ickx through traffic. This is specially true when Herrmann is in a 917K and Ickx is driving his 1976 Le Mans-winning 936 Sypder.  On the Autobahn. Into a tunnel. 

German Police blocked our side of the autobahn and stopped the other. We passed thousands of motorists who were parked on the opposite side of roadways. Some looked excited when we passed, honking, waving, taking pictures. Others looked a little less enthused. We shot through three separate tunnels en route to City Hall. Following a 220 mph Le Mans winner on public roads was a surreal experience.
It was easy for me. I was just holding the route card for my driver, former racing director Peter Falk, who was driving the 1983 Paris-Dakar 4-wheel-drive 911SC Typ 953 that he helped invent. Our excuse was a huge celebration of 125 Years of the Automobile in the German province of Baden-Wurttemburg, home of Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz. Each of these manufacturers pulled treasures from their museums to make a total of 125 cars that drove a 17.5-kilometer route from the Porsche Museum to the Mercedes-Benz Museum to the center of Stuttgart and the city hall.

My most capable pilot, Peter Falk, at the wheel. The 953 rode on tall bias-ply off-road tires meant for desert racing—in 1983. So on the road, this car jumped skipped and around, changing lanes at its own whim. I would have loved to drive it. And I was glad I didn't have to.
The parade started at 11 a.m. and the pace alternately stalled and sprinted, some of the cars reaching speeds above 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph) on three separate autobahn stretches. Through the city, crowds closed in on the cars narrowing roadways to single lanes lined with men, women, children, and thousands of cameras. When progress stopped, people recognized Herrmann in the 917 and Ickx in his 936 and ran out to get autographs. We haven't heard crowd estimates but it's easy to imagine as many as 25,000 people lined the parade route and another 10,000 to 15,000 came to City Hall square to see the cars and greet the heroes.  

Heading toward the Mercedes-Benz Museum still on the Autobahn. We rounded a corner and came to a halt as thousands of spectators had crowded the road to take pictures. 

We dive back into interviews Monday with a full slate of great and important talent: Norbert Singer, engineer extraordinaire, was responsible for everything from 935s to efforts in the Indy Car series. First thing after lunch we talk to another legend, Hans Mezger, who ran the Race Car Development Department. His work started before—and included creating—the 917 that Herrmann drove and the 936 that Ickx drove in the parade. Last on our schedule tomorrow is an unsung, and never-interviewed, engineer, Eugen Kolb, who is father of long-tail aerodynamics. Those extraordinary-looking racers with the back ends stretched out and tapering to a sliver are the work of this man. His cars routinely went 20 to 30 mph faster along the Le Mans Mulsanne Straight than the cars with the close-cropped tails. 

Stuttgart Neuschloss is the home of many of the state's ministries and division offices. Today it was host to the launch event for a summer-long celebration of 125 years of manufacturing automobiles in this part of Germany. This 917K, in a livery like that of Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood's 1970 Le Mans winner, was a star of the day's events. Hans Herrmann drove the car.
We have, in all, ten interviews to accomplish this week, so, unglamourously, most of Friday and much of Saturday was spent researching for these upcoming conversations. There's so much to learn and so little time!

Stay tuned.

This was my ride Sunday. Many people have called it one of Porsche's loudest race cars. I couldn't hear them. This was Porsche's 1983 entry in the Paris-Dakar Rally, the 4-wheel drive 911SC, also known as the Typ 953. 

We interviewed each of these guys this past week. From left, rally hero Walter Rohrl; mechanic/racer Herbert Linge; mechanic/engineer and now historic collection manager Klaus Bischof, and racer Hans Herrmann. They still laugh at our jokes, so I guess we did well! 

One of Mercedes-Benz most fascinating combinations was this W196 race car on its specially-built transporter capable of speeds up to 170 kilometers - 105 miles per hour. This was a replica built by a devoted Dutch enthusiast several years ago. Owned by Mercedes now, it normally is on display in the museum. Amazingly, compared to American car events, there were no ropes around cars and no intrusive and abusive security guards. Visitors could look in windows and get very close to cars. But everyone was respectful - no one opened a car door to peek inside.

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