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The speed of the German Autobahn

If I ever get an autograph card printed up, it’s going to be like the one I got from Prince Leopold von Bayern. The card depicted the amiable heir to the throne of Bavaria in a bright red, flame-retardant Nomex racing suit, his long blonde hair curling at his collar, the very picture of the dashing aristocratic sportsman. To give the prince his props, it’s more than image. Until a few years ago the royal scion raced for the BMW in the German Touring Car Championship Series. Twelve times a year he would drive up to such tracks as Hockenheim, Avus, and Norisring, don his racing outfit, pull on his helmet, belt himself into a BMW M3, and go thundering around the course at speeds up to 140 miles an hour.

Afterwards he would change in to a tie and jacket and climb into his own BMW M5 for the drive home. It is then, the royal racer explained, that things start moving really fast, because the road he travels is the Autobahn. “It’s different from the racecourse, where you have a lot of tight turns to keep you from getting up to top speed,” he said. “The Autobahn is mostly straight, so you can.”

What’s more, he can do it legally. Unlike any other road anywhere in the world, the Autobahn has no prevailing speed limit to discourage you from pressing the gas pedal to the floor and keeping it there while the tachometer nestles deep into the red zone and the landscape whooshes past in a blur. “In my M5, I usually drive at about 250 kilometers (155 miles) an hour,” he allowed.

Even at this speed he’ll most likely keep an eye on the rear view mirror for on the Autobahn, there is always something faster coming up behind you. To the politically correct, of course, the idea of unlimited speed is anathema. But the debate is linked to something more fundamental about both sides. Like TV sitcoms, the American highway system is geared to the lowest common denominator, with 55 mph speed limits designed to protect motorists from each other and themselves. In Germany the system is designed to accommodate competence rather than incompetence.

One of those who appreciate the difference is United Airlines captain James Poste, who travels regularly to Germany to drive the Ruf Turbo R – a ready-to-race Porsche conversion — he stores in Bavaria.

Actually, says Captain Poste, considering his car’s lightweight body, racing suspension, and 495 hp engine, he’s a model of restraint. “The Ruf factory has tested the car at 225 mph, but I haven’t taken it above 195 mph,” he said. Even so, this is hardly dawdling, as it’s about 40 mph faster than takeoff speeds on the Boeing 767’s he pilots.

According to Susanne Porsche, whose father-in-law created the eponymous, rear engine sports car, such speeds are as much a matter of culture as horsepower. “There is nothing mystical about it. It’s the system we’ve grown up with. But Americans think of the Autobahn the same way we think about Disneyland . It’s a kind of fantasy.”

Perhaps, but for motoring buffs it’s sometimes hard to tell where the fantasy leaves off and reality begins. Imagine an impeccably maintained network of highways some 7,000 miles long with banked turns and broad travel lanes that winds past snow-capped mountain peaks, along half-timbered Rhineland villages and sun-drenched vineyards, where the only limits are the traffic on the road, the power under the hood, and the nerves of the driver at the wheel. It is not, as race car driver Hurley Haywood points out, for the faint of heart. “On the track you’re all going the same speed,” says Haywood, three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans . “On the Autobahn the differentials in speed are enormous. The trucks in the far right hand lane may be going 40 miles an hour while the cars in the middle lane are doing 70 or 80. Meanwhile the cars in the left hand lane are going 100 mile an hour faster than the traffic in the far right. It’s more stressful than racing.”

Indeed, we’ve all heard stories of tourists who’ve returned home traumatized by their first ride on the Autobahn. The speeds, they say, defy all reason. Paradoxically, when Germans return home from the States they say much the same of American roads. “I recall driving on American highways,” says Dr. Marcus Schmitt, physician for Mercedes AMG German Touring Car Championship racing team, and a man who routinely wheels his E55 AMG at multiples of the limits posted on American roadsides. “I felt a constant state of dread. It was the speeds. You Americans drive so slow.”

In fact, says Dr. Schmitt, who has studied the relationship between speed and attention spans, it’s a wonder there are not more accidents on American roads. “A drive traveling at your speed limits is a safety hazard. It is hard to stay awake. You cannot concentrate.”

Ultimately what separates Germans apart from other drivers is not how fast they drive, but how well. This is, after all a country where nobody is granted a license before completing 24 hours of training in the classroom and more than two dozen driving lessons with an instructor, including four on the AutoBahn. Passing on the right is strictly forbidden, and the motorist who does not pull over to let a faster vehicle pass is both rare and unwise. Perhaps most important of all, driving at high speed is not a way to get from point A to point B, but a birthright. For German carmakers, the Autobahn separate the cars they build and those made anywhere else in the world. “Our engineers drive to work at 220 kilometers an hour (137 mph), observes one BMW official. “The Japanese ride the train.”

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Jack Smith, Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent. Join the Travel Writers Network in the logo at www.jetsettersmagazine.com

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