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Twenty-five years ago Wednesday, a 27-year-old German driver named Stefan Bellof lost control of his Porsche 956 on a dowhhill turn at a track in Belgium and hit a wall. A fire erupted. An hour later, he was pronounced dead.
Those who knew him and had watched him race weren't entirely surprised. Mr. Bellof had, in his short career, become a sensation for his ability to shave fractions of seconds off lap times by riding closer to the edge of physics, if not sanity, than almost any other driver. If he'd lived, many think he would have been a Formula 1 champion.
"He was blindingly quick," said former teammate and sports-car champion Derek Bell. "Everyone is always looking for the next superstar. People were over the moon about Stefan. He had such incredible flair."
"Stefan was fearless," said David Hobbs, who raced against Mr. Bellof in the 1980s and is now a Speed Channel commentator. "He did things other drivers wouldn't do."
Though he has largely been forgotten outside Germany, Mr. Bellof left behind one accomplishment that has stood the test of time—in fact, with every passing year, it has solidified its place among the greatest achievements in racing history.
On May 29, 1983, at the age of 25, Mr. Bellof climbed into the cockpit of a Porsche racing sports car to turn a qualifying lap before the Nürburgring 1,000 Kilometers, a race that was held at the world's most challenging racetracks, Germany's Nürburgring Nordschleife.
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Built during the 1920s, this 12.94-mile ribbon of pavement, which is known as the Ring, winds through the Eifel mountains with a dizzying combination of 33 left-hand turns, 40 right-handers and massive elevation changes. "The Nürburgring has been the greatest challenge of any form of motorsport in the world," said Sir Jackie Stewart, who nicknamed the Ring "The Green Hell." "It's the giant of them all," he continued. "Anyone who says they like the Nürburgring either is lying or hasn't driven it to the limit. Such high speed and so many corners. Up hills and down dales. It was almost a suicidal experience."
Mario Andretti, who also raced against Mr. Bellof in the early 1980s, said some of the most intimidating aspects of the track are the places where a car reaches "terminal speed" while going downhill and into a hairpin turn. "Any problem with the brakes," he said, "and you're dead."
When his turn came to qualify, Mr. Bellof roared onto the track in his twin-turbo Porsche 956—a car that was capable of 240 miles per hour and had proved nearly unbeatable in the early 1980s. Mr. Belloff knew the course intimately, his teammates say, but the combination of the Porsche's power and Mr. Bellof's hellbent driving style made some of them nervous. "He took ridiculous chances," said Mr. Bell.
During the qualifying lap, Mr. Bellof shaved hundredths of seconds through turn after turn, easing within a hair of catastrophe. When it was over, he crossed the line in 6 minutes, 11.13 seconds.
As he nonchalantly stepped out of the car—as if he'd just commuted to work in his coveralls—fans and teammates were shocked by the record time. "Six eleven," said Mr. Hobbs. "It was staggering, unheard of."
In the time since that run, the world championship sports-car-racing circuit has stopped holding events at the Nordschleife—it's seen as too dangerous. The Ring has been modified over the years to make it more safe, but the configuration today is about 98% the same as it was in 1983. Today it's a tourist attraction for automotive thrillseekers: for a fee, drivers can take their own cars or rented sports cars onto the track at their own risk (and every season, people die doing so).
The track also has become a proving ground for manufacturers who use it to market their new models by turning fast lap times.
For a street-legal production car, anything under eight minutes around the Ring is considered world-class. Just two months ago, Pagani, an Italian supercar manufacturer, drew headlines in the car world by claiming a time of six minutes, 47.5 seconds for its Zonda R.
Despite the millions of increments of technological improvement in cars—from engines to tires to brakes—no one has yet come within five seconds of matching Mr. Bellof's time, and it's becoming increasingly likely that nobody ever will.
After setting the record, Mr. Bellof won the World Sportscar Championship in a Porsche the following year and began racing in Formula 1, international racing's pinnacle. On Sept. 1, 1985, at Belgium's Spa-Francorchamps, he was maneuvering his 956 along a high-speed downhill turn called Eau Rouge, trying to overtake the star driver Jacky Ickx. "Stefan got it all wrong," remembered Mr. Hobbs, who was there that day. "There's a very violent change of direction while almost flat out."
Mr. Bellof clipped Mr. Ickx's car, spun out of control and hit the wall. He was pronounced dead an hour later at the track medical center.
This weekend in his hometown of Giessen, crowds will gather for the Stefan Bellof Memorial Days. He remains a national hero across Germany, where he's known as "the King of the Ring." When you drive the Ring today, you can get there via the Stefan Bellof-Strasse.
To those who saw him break the record in 1983, the tributes are more than fitting. "I'm sure he would've been [Formula 1] World Champion if he'd lived," said Mr. Hobbs.