NÜRBURG, Germany — Former racing driver Sabine Schmitz, the 'Queen of the Nürburgring' who was also a presenter of the popular BBC "Top Gear" television program, has died at age 51.
Schmitz won the 24 Hours of Nürburgring touring car race with BMW in 1996 and 1997. She was the first and only female driver ever to win there.
Schmitz grew up near the Nürburgring, a fearsome track which winds through the hills of western Germany. Its 13-mile Nordschleife configuration is regarded as one of the most demanding and dangerous tracks in the world.
The German circuit announced on Wednesday that it had "lost its most famous female racing driver."
"Sabine Schmitz passed away far too early after a long illness. We will miss her and her cheerful nature. Rest in peace, Sabine," it said on Twitter.
She revealed last year that she was diagnosed with cancer in 2017. She continued racing until 2019.
Also known as 'the world's fastest taxi driver' for the passenger rides she gave around the 20.8km Nordschleife — the north loop of the old "Green Hell" circuit — Schmitz estimated she had lapped it more than 20,000 times.
Schmitz moved through lower-level racing categories before winning the 24-hour race in 1996 and 1997 as part of a team driving a BMW M3. She also won the VLN championship of endurance races at the Nürburgring in 1998.
In 2004, she drove a Ford diesel van around the track for a "Top Gear" episode, lapping in just over 10 minutes — only nine seconds slower than fellow presenter Jeremy Clarkson's best effort in a Jaguar S-type.
"Terrible news about Sabine Schmitz. Such a sunny person and so full of beans," Clarkson said on Twitter.
She soon became a regular guest star and fan favorite on "Top Gear," and from 2016 on was part of the show’s regular team.
The BBC said the next episode of the long-running show will be dedicated to Schmitz.
“Sabine radiated positivity, always wore her cheeky smile no matter how hard things got — and was a force of nature for women drivers in the motoring world,” executive producer Clare Pizey told the BBC.
Schmitz also worked on a show on German TV and ran a tourist ranch near the Nürburgring.
Information from Reuters was included in this report.