What Makes a Road Great

For some people it is a freshly paved stretch of asphalt that is straight as an arrow and flat as a pancake.  They look forward to the speed they can attain without the bother of slowing down for curves or fighting gravity’s pull by climbing a hill.  There are even events held out west where public roads are closed off and drivers get to accelerate to their hearts content, at least until they exceed their limits of skill and the laws of physics.

In contrast I prefer a road that begs to be approached with respect and demands to be understood.  A road with curves that undulate with a rhythm that you must discover if you hope to transverse them with alacrity.  These are the roads that reward you with g-forces and tests the coefficient of friction that reveal your tires’ slip angle. 

The road that compresses your suspension as you enter a corner only to fall away at the apex will demand that you time your moves properly or it will let you learn how it feels to have no control.  Sending you into a world of understeer that works in slow motion until you hit an obstruction or regain your contact with the road.

The great roads to drive must have no driveways or side roads.  Those variables spell tragedy and must be respected. 

Such a road should have a reverse banked curve or two to frustrate and tease you.  Such a curve will irritate you until that magic moment when you have finally got it right.  You time your braking and throttle with the input to the steering and you discover that you now know something that you felt you might never discover just a moment before.

The perfect line through a corner has revealed itself and challenges you to come back again and see if you can duplicate it exactly the next time. 

When there are straights you enjoy the exhilaration of acceleration, but find it boring if it lasts too long. 

If the curves are banked to your favor a grin will cross your face as you enjoy the advantages of a road that gives you a helping hand. 

Sometimes a little sand or early morning dew will change a road that you thought you knew.  In an instant it will let you know how it feels to lose that all important contact with the road.

When the road is a race track that you will be able to lap again and again the challenge is to keep it on the edge and not make a mistake.  The repetition will demand that you duplicate your path and your moves making minor adjustments for the wear in your tires and the changes in the track surface.  It is demanding and it take concentration.

Jackie Stewart once mentioned to Jimmy Clark how he almost lost it on a difficult turn and Clark was aghast.  To him you always had to be on the ragged edge of almost losing it or you were not racing. 

It is strange when you tell people that you drove on a race track and they ask you how fast you went because simply telling them a maximum speed doesn’t convey the fact that you were going as fast as you could all the time.  At times that might be 35 mph and you felt on the ragged edge, while when you hit 120 mph on the straight you were waiting for it to get over so you could hit the corners again.

You find that when you have learned the secrets of a roads curves and contours it becomes a shorter road.  You aren’t fighting to understand what you need to prepare for next you are simply there and on top of it.

I think that is why WRC racing is so fascinating.  You know that there are no laps where the drivers can perfect their attack on difficult portion of the road.  It is all difficult and there is very little time allowed to get to know the road.  That is why the navigator has become so important – calling out the turns, gears, speeds, and hills.  When you see a rally driver execute a switchback in a perfectly timed drift you can’t help but admire the skill that it took to accomplish.

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3 Responses to What Makes a Road Great

  1. Noel says:

    So right.
    It’s hard these days to find public roads where you can really run hard, but when you find one and begin to get familiar with it it’s a real treat. I have a few here in New Hampshire and there’s a gnarly 11 mile long road in western Massachusetts that is very lightly traveled and has (depending on how you count them) about 65-70 curves, bends, and corners, some with elevation changes in mid turn. There are a few short straights where you can triple the 30 mph limit and corners where the road narrows, changes elevation and good sense keeps you to 30 mph or less. Half of it has woods on one side and a stream on the other, not much room for error. Knowing this road is essential, because it is spoiled by a couple of roads that feed into it (none blindly) and there are three clusters of 2-4 houses. But most of it is a fine go-fast road. I’ve driven it in rain and sun and blizzard and it is always a treat. But despite the handful of houses, one has to drive it with the knowledge that if you go off it some dark night you’ll be on your own for quite a while before anyone notices your car off in the woods or down in the stream

    But to really have fun–and to use the whole road–you need a track. On public roads I make a point of keeping to my lane as much as possible. It lowers the overall speed but also keeps me from getting as crazy as I know I can get.

  2. jimsgarage says:

    Noel –

    I think back to the Cape you and I enjoyed and realize how lucky we were. I remember when Starboard Lane had almost no homes on it and was a pure joy to negotiate. Eel River Road was another fun one. Marstons Mills was full of fantastic roads with little or no houses on them. Bog Road was a trip.

    Now I have to run 149 just north of Race Lane. No side roads once you get past the golf course and airport. The curves are great and I usually end up scaring the shit out of the oncoming traffic, but its a great piece of road.

    Jim

  3. Noel says:

    We did have it good. But that was back when the Cape was rural and much less populated. I remember taking back roads from Centerville to Falmouth through Marstons Mills and you’d rarely see another car. I rarely get to the Cape these days and always have my family along, so fun roads and higher speeds are not on the agenda. My sense is that it’s way too suburban and crowded. And I’ve forgotten my way around down there.

    I have the same problem here in southern NH. There are still good roads, although there are a few too many driveways and developments for maximum fun. But you can still push it pretty good. The better roads are north and west, or up into Maine. There are roads up that way that are exquisite, although on some you do have to be aware of other traffic and try not to scare them too much. Western Mass. and VT are good, too.

    But sometime I have to get down your way and run the Tail of the Dragon.

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