For Sabine Schmitz, visiting the famous Nürburgring race track in West Germany was like going to school. Growing up near the track, one of the most famous in the world, she had always loved speed and said she had completed more than 20,000 laps of this route.
“I never had to learn the route,” she said once. “It’s in my blood.”
Schmitz, a popular German racing driver and former leading actress on the BBC show “Top Gear”, known for her expressive comments and a lively personality who excels in a male-dominated industry, died on Tuesday in a hospital in Trier in southwest Germany. She was 51 years old. Her half-brother Beat Schmitz said the cause was cancer.
As a happy and spirited driver, Schmitz was called the “Queen of the Nürburgring” and the “fastest taxi driver in the world” – in order to drive exciting racing fans around the track in a BMW. She won the popular Nürburgring 24-hour race in 1996 – as the first woman – and again the next year. She became known to an even wider audience when she joined Top Gear in 2016 after appearing on the show several times.
She and her husband Klaus Abbelen founded the racing team Frikadelli Racing.
Sabine Schmitz was born on May 14, 1969 in Adenau in West Germany. The daughter of a wholesaler and a hotel manager in the village of Nürburg near the Belgian border, she grew up less than a mile from the Nürburgring complex. Although she was trained as a hotelier, she’s wanted to be a racing driver since she was 13, she said.
The legendary main route of the Nürburgring, the 19 km long Nordschleife, is known as the Green Hell because of its 73 bends that meander through the forest in the Eifel hills. Formula 1 races were held on the track, which has been in operation since 1927, which were later classified as too dangerous and redesigned.
The new Nordschleife, which Schmitz rebuilt when he was 2 years old, became her playground. She could recite the names of the 73 corners by heart and completed them for the first time at the age of 17 – in her mother’s car, before she had a driver’s license.
“They put on racing tires, took off the license plates and drove them on the track,” said Beat Schmitz about Sabine and the family. “My mother would drive the same car to the hairdresser or go grocery shopping.”
He added, “It’s like the kid who was born next to the football stadium and is on a football team when she is 5.”
After Schmitz had taken part in amateur races with her two sisters, she joined a BMW team in the early 1990s. She is still the only driver to have won the 24-hour race at the Nürburgring, in which more than 200 racing teams and tens of thousands of fans take part every June. In the 2008 edition she was third. The event is part of the VLN endurance racing series, in which Schmitz often took part.
As the driver of a BMW “ring taxi”, in which she took paying customers around the track on a high-speed lap, she became one of the main attractions of the racing complex. She bragged about being “the fastest taxi driver in the world”.
“It’s really fun to scare people,” she said in 2010 on Top Gear. “They love to be scared, so pay me for it.”
Schmitz’s time on Top Gear brought a non-British twist to a show that was mostly directed and directed towards men. She preferred antics, where she tried to overtake other drivers while driving a less powerful car than hers.
One of her favorite moments on the show was in 2009 when she tried to complete a lap of the Nürburgring in less than 10 minutes – in a Ford van. She did it in 10:08 minutes.
“I think she loved how much she could shock middle-aged men who thought they could drive a little – until they saw what they could do,” said Chris Harris, a Top Gear host.
Schmitz left “Top Gear” last year and announced that she had been treated for cancer since 2017.
As well as driving cars and later flying helicopters, she was also passionate about animals. Her half-brother Beat believed that her love for animals kept her going throughout her cancer battle.
In addition to her half-brother, her husband, mother and two sisters survive.
Many in the racing world paid tribute to Schmitz on Wednesday. Sophia Floersch, a 20-year-old German driver who was the first woman to compete in Formula 3 last year, described Schmitz’s races as inspiring and motivating.
The Nürburgring said on Twitter that it had lost its most famous female racing driver and added: “Sabine Schmitz died much too early after a long illness.”
Christopher Schuetze contributed to the reporting.