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"Schumi-mania" breaths life into hometown
Erik Kirschbaum | October 14, 2003 11:53 IST
Michael Schumacher packed his bags and left his grimy, working-class hometown for glamorous tax exile 10 years ago but that has not stopped Kerpen from turning itself into a shrine to the German champion.
Some 30,000 Schumacher fans made the pilgrimage to the town at the weekend to watch their hero win his record-breaking sixth Formula One world championship on giant television screens and celebrate with parties, concerts and kart races through closed-off streets.
The beer-and bratwurst-fuelled rally by fans in bright red Ferrari colours was only the tip of the "Schumi-mania" iceberg for Kerpen, a once-seedy town of 63,000 people that lies 30 km west of Cologne near an abandoned open pit mine.
Shrugging off the loss of its coal mining industry, Kerpen has reinvented itself in recent years as a centre for transportation and logistics -- and of course as Michael Schumacher's home town.
"He may not live here any more but Kerpen and Michael Schumacher will always be linked to each other," said the town's mayor Ralf Valkysers. "At least 30,000 people came to Kerpen for the weekend to be here to celebrate because of him.
"This will always be his home town," Valkysers added, brushing off suggestions that Kerpen had simply adopted a clever marketing ploy by using Schumacher's name a decade after he moved to Monaco, and later Switzerland, partly to avoid high German taxes.
"He's still got a lot of connections to Kerpen. His father lives here, his friends are here and his roots are here. He'll always be a Kerpen lad no matter where he lives."
Schumacher's name is everywhere in Kerpen, even though he pays only a few short visits each year -- such as in April after his mother Elisabeth died.
There is a Michael Schumacher Kart Centre -- complete with indoor and outdoor tracks -- and a museum called "The World of the Schumachers" that features Formula One cars used by Michael and his younger brother Ralf, a driver for Williams, as well as their first karts, a well-worn workshop bench and hundreds of pictures of the brothers as youngsters.
The Kart Centre is on a road called "Michael-Schumacher-Strasse" where the street signs have been frequently stolen by souvenir hunters.
Before Formula One races at the nearby Nuerburgring, Michael has brought his Ferrari team and Ralf his Williams team to Kerpen for parties and races on his kart track. Michael also took part in a kart world championship in Kerpen in 2001.
"There are 250,000 tourists who come to Kerpen each year just to see the place where Schumacher is from," said Dieter Follmann, a spokesman for city hall and special events director. "People all around the world have heard of Kerpen."
Follmann said one British logistics company had set up operations in Kerpen, which is located on a major motorway not far from the Belgian border, because executives had heard about the town thanks to Schumacher.
"Kerpen was awakened from its sleep thanks to Schumacher," said Follmann. "If we had to pay for the advertising value he's given Kerpen, the town would be bankrupt."
The Schumachers grew up at the kart track. Their father Rolf, a bricklayer, moonlighted at the track, keeping the karts running and collecting tickets while their mother Elisabeth sold sausages.
"Michael was a few years younger than me but I remember seeing him as a little kid out on the kart track helping out," said welder Harald Schwerfel, 41, who wore a bright red, Schumacher-style Ferrari outfit to go kart-racing on Sunday.
"He doesn't live here but Kerpen lives off him," said Schwerfel. "He made Kerpen famous even though he's hardly ever here. The whole 'Schumi town' stuff brought some life here. Before that it was dead, just a real dull, small town."
Schwerfel and the mayor said they were hoping their hero might make an appearance in the town to celebrate the sixth championship he clinched in the final race of the season in Suzuka, Japan.
"It would be nice if he came around more often," said Schwerfel. "But every time he comes here there are thousands of photographers and everyone goes crazy. I can understand why he lives in Switzerland."