For Sabine Schmitz, going to the storied Nürburgring car racing track in Western Germany was like going to school. Growing up near the track, one of the world’s most famous, she had always loved speed and by her own account completed more than 20,000 laps of that circuit.
“I never had to learn the track,” she once said. “It’s in my blood.”
Schmitz, a popular German racing driver and former presenter of the BBC show “Top Gear,” known for her punchy comments and a buoyant personality that stood out in a male-dominated industry, died on Tuesday at a hospital in Trier, in southwestern Germany. She was 51. Her half brother, Beat Schmitz, said the cause was cancer.
A cheerful and spirited driver, Schmitz was called “Queen of the Nürburgring” and the “fastest taxi driver in the world” — for driving thrill-seeking racing fans around the track in a BMW. She won the popular Nürburgring 24-hour race in 1996 — becoming the first woman to do so — and then again the next year. She became known to an even broader public when she joined “Top Gear” in 2016 after several appearances on the show.
She and her husband, Klaus Abbelen, founded the racing team Frikadelli Racing.
Sabine Schmitz was born on May 14, 1969 in Adenau, in Western Germany. The daughter of a wholesaler and a hotel manager in the village of Nurburg, near the border with Belgium, she grew up less than a mile from the Nürburgring complex, and although she trained as a hotelier, she had wanted to be a racing driver since she was 13, she said.
The fabled main track of the Nürburgring, the 12.9-mile-long Nordschleife, is known as Green Hell for its 73 turns as it weaves through the forest in the Eifel hills. In service since 1927, the track hosted Formula 1 races but was later considered too dangerous and redesigned.
The new Nordschleife, which was modified when Schmitz was 2, became her playground. She was able to recite the names of the 73 turns by heart, and she first completed it at age 17 — with her mother’s car, before she had a driving license.
“They put on racing tires, took off the license plates and raced it on the track,” Beat Schmitz said about Sabine and the family. “My mother would drive that same car to the hairdresser or to do groceries.”
He added, “It’s just like the kid who is born next to the soccer stadium and is in a soccer team at 5.”
After competing in amateur races with her two sisters, Schmitz joined a BMW team in the early 1990s. She remains the only female driver to have won Nürburgring’s 24-hour race, which draws more than 200 racing teams and tens of thousands of fans every June. She finished third in the 2008 edition. The event is part of the VLN endurance racing series, in which Schmitz was a frequent competitor.
She became one of the main attractions at the racing complex as a driver of a BMW “ring taxi,” in which she took paying customers on a high-speed lap around the track. She boasted about being “the fastest taxi driver in the world.”
“It’s really fun to scare people,” she said on “Top Gear” in 2010. “They love to get scared, so they pay me for that.”
Schmitz’s time on “Top Gear” brought a non-British touch to a show mostly run by men and aimed at them. She favored escapades in which she would try to pass other drivers while driving a less powerful car than theirs.
One of her most popular moments on the show occurred in 2009, when she tried to complete a lap on the Nürburgring circuit in less than 10 minutes — with 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 bit — until they saw what she could do,” Chris Harris, another “Top Gear” presenter, said.
Schmitz left “Top Gear” last year, announcing that she had been under treatment for cancer since 2017.
Besides driving cars and later flying helicopters, she was passionate about animals, and her half brother, Beat, said he believed that her love for animals had kept her going throughout her cancer fight.
In addition to her half brother, she is survived by her husband, her mother and two sisters.
Many in the racing world paid tribute to Schmitz on Wednesday. Sophia Floersch, a 20-year-old German driver who became the first woman to compete in Formula 3 last year, called Schmitz’s races inspirational and motivating.
On Twitter, Nürburgring said it had lost its most famous female racing driver, adding, “Sabine Schmitz passed away far too early after a long illness.”
Christopher Schuetze contributed reporting.