Great Roads – The Tail of the Dragon

 This summer I enjoyed the opportunity to travel the sections of Route 66 that still exist and it was an experience to remember driving America’s Loneliest Highway, but in terms of driving experience nothing compares to the Tail of the Dragon.

In 2005 I joined over a dozen other Mitsubishi Evolution owners at Deal’s Gap in North Carolina for a weekend of runs on this addictive two lane mountain road.

Its statistics are not trivial.  It is an eleven mile section of Route 129 and most of it is in Tennessee.  Over those eleven miles are 318 turns, many of them switchbacks and all of them challenging, exhilarating, and a bit scary.  

This is a public road and some of the public on it are tourists trying to enjoy the spectacular views.  The vast majority of the drivers are there for the challenge.  It is a Mecca for those on two wheels as well as four.  At Deal’s Gap there is a motel designed for motorcycles, a restaurant, and a gas station.  In front of the motel is “the Tree of Shame” hung with bits and pieces of what is left over when a two-wheeler makes a mistake.

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It is a two lane mountain road which means that traffic moves in both directions.  It also means that there is a double line that must be respected.  The margins of the road also deserve respect as they consist of seventy-five foot drop offs or unforgiving mountainside. 

Take everything you ever learned at track day and double your concentration.  You can keep the 3 and 9 o’clock steering wheel grip or try out shuffle steer, but you will be kept completely busy.

A place like this attracts just what you would expect.  Car clubs, formal or informal, will show up and strings of a half a dozen cars at a time will take the Dragon’s challenge.  Honda S2000’s, Mini Coopers, Porsche’s, and many more all take on the Tail.

It is said that Michael Schumacher of Formula 1 fame would travel to Deal’s Gap to exercise his motorcycle on this section of 129.

I arrived late on a Friday night and found my way to Fontana Village where I had rented a cabin for the weekend.  It was late September and the trees were signaling that they were itching to start their fall show of colors, but it was dark when I arrived.  It was chilly enough to light a fire in the fireplace, but that just meant that it would be good intercooler weather.

After getting some dinner I drove around the village to see if any other Evolutions had arrived.  None were in evidence so I read a book until I could doze off.

Early the next morning I drove around the village again.  It’s called a village, but it consists of small one-and-a-half lane roads that wind amongst the cabins and rooms that Fontana Village consists of.  There were clusters of Evolutions around several cabins, but no one was stirring.  Then as I passed a cabin with a solitary Evo I saw someone come out and get in their car.   I backed up and drove over to introduce myself.  He let me know that several of them arrived very late and the younger ones stayed up until early morning.  It would be the two of us that would take on the Tail of the Dragon that early in the morning.

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The road to Deal’s Gap is a great warm up road.  We got to drive some excellent curves and a couple of switchbacks.  I felt that if the Tail of the Dragon is like this it will be a lot of fun and not too much of a workout.  

Finally the gas station pulled into view and I saw that the start of the run is a mountain climb of well over five degrees.  Starting out the road surface is a bit rough on the North Carolina side and I thought about how much of my soft Yokahama Advan tires I would be scrubbing off.  Then I started on the rapid fire curves.  I hit Tennessee and the road surface got much better but I never saw so many curves on a road in my life.  It averages 29 curves for every mile.  I found myself very busy steering, shifting, braking, and accelerating.  Oh yeah, and trying to have my brain keep up with processing all that is coming at me.  Can I remember any of this for my next run?  I will have a next run.  I know that already.  Corners come one after another but thankfully the road is always on camber.  The switchbacks feel like they will twist the chassis into a pretzel as you rollercoaster your way around them.  When the road takes a short break and straightens out the 200 feet of no turns feels like a mile long straight and I build a ton of speed I have to manage as the next turn will come up quickly.

We did four runs that morning before we stopped for breakfast.  It was like swimming twenty laps in the pool.  I was ready for something to eat and felt like I had used everything my brain and body had to give.  I also couldn’t stop grinning either.  I had the whole rest of the weekend to do runs.

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12 Responses to Great Roads – The Tail of the Dragon

  1. Tim says:

    Great narrative, you have more balls than I sir! 😛

    Maybe it’s just me, but an Evolution looks weird without the wing…just looks like a plain Lancer. Sleeper is good, but not when it looks like an econo-car. My $0.02

  2. Noel says:

    Wings are definitely a matter of taste.

    I think the Evo looks much better without the wing, mostly because it is so over done and screams “boy racer.” I think they look like shopping cart handles. I’m sure they could be just as effective aerodynamically without the heavy-handed styling. And although they are factory parts I think they look like after-market bolt ons.

    I also figure a cop is much less likely to give you any slack when there’s a giant wing on the trunk. As an inveterate speeder, I consider stealth a virtue. If you want to go fast it helps to have a car that, if it doesn’t blend into traffic like a guardrail, at least doesn’t stand out.

    That’s my $0.02

  3. Tim says:

    I agree with you in that regard Noel. Take the STi: I think the STi Limited (sans wing) looks much better and less ricey than the regular STi. The Evo does evoke more of that ricer boy image (turbo lag!) with the wing, but without it and the other aerodynamic enhancements, it looks like a regular (econobox) Lancer from behind. It doesn’t have the same visual effect IMO. And it doesn’t have the ricer effect on me, as I have respect for its power 😀

  4. Noel says:

    Agree on the STi. Followed one for a few miles a week or so bakc and thought the same thing. That’s kinda my point. A wing (on any car) can be done so it doesn’t look like a bolt-on from AutoZone. For example, there were a couple of different wings for the last two models of the Eclipse. One was low and really helped the lines of the car. The other was much higher but still looked nice because it integrated well into the lines of the car. Not so with the wing on the Evo which seems out of proportion to the car. But I suspect that’s intentional.

    IMO, the Evo could use a much cleaner wing design that separates it from the econobox look but still would be effective for track days, triple digit runs down the interstate, and to keep the driver’s image intact. I have no idea whether the wing on the Evo makes a real difference at track speeds or not. I would assume it does at some speeds.

    But overall, the “need” for wings on street cars is interesting. They are primarily for looks. Unless you do some high speed track days, no one really gets the benefit here in the U.S. with its low speed limits. Even in Europe, where you can often drive at well over 100, you don’t see many cars with much in the way of aero aids, even the M sedans from BMW and Mercedes AMG. Some RUF Porsches and other truly fast cars have some big spoilers and wings, but that’s mostly it. But they also can go well north of 180 mph.

    For that matter, the simple deck lid spoiler on my Saab may or may not make a difference, but I’ve never had it faster than 125 (it’ll do 145 or so) and I haven’t driven one without the spoiler over about 90.

  5. jimsgarage says:

    I guess I better wade into the Piranha tank…

    The wing on the Evolution is for real and so is the “Sonic the Hedge Hog” arrangement on the back of the aluminum roof. A well known automotive magazine confirmed with its own wind tunnel tests as well as track runs with the three versions of the ’05 Evolution (the RS – sans wing, the standard Evo, and the MR). The wing made a significant difference in lap times (the MR was fastest even though the RS was the lightest). The spikes on the roof disrupt the laminar flow of the air to produce greater down force out of the wing. The wing is placed at the best spot for catching the air coming over the roof although it works best if you are in the 100+ mph range.

    The idea behind the wing on the Evolution is the fact that it is the same wing they used on their WRC car. They used it because it worked and knew the the hard core buyers of a car like the Evolution would expect it to be a road going rally car or, as my UK friends at the local watering hole say so eloquently: “It’s a fookin’ raleigh car”.

    While Subaru gave in and added horsepower through increasing the displacement of the WRX and called it the STi, the folks at Mitsubishi retain the spirit of WRC and kept to the 2.0 litre limit.

  6. Noel says:

    As I said, I assumed the wing on the Evo makes a difference on the track, where you can really put the hammer down. And Mitsu keeps it on the production model because buyers want or expect it.

    So it’s both marketing and aerodynamics!

    The styling is purely subjective. Each to his own there.

    Jim, do you see many Evolutions on track days? I see plenty of them on the street (Subie WRX and STi’s , too), usually driven sedately, and wonder how many of the drivers actually take them on the track–where they can put the wing to use.

  7. jimsgarage says:

    That’s an interesting question – or at least the answer is interesting. What I’ve seen is that at autocrosses you will see plenty of WRX Subarus and at HPDE’s you’ll see the Evolutions.

  8. markitude says:

    Jim,

    Maybe it’s worth a blog post in of itself. You could really research the subject, or just go with your gut and “wing it”. Ok, my indulgence for crappy puns aside, it might be interesting to do piece on wings over the years, like the giant one on the charger daytona / superbird , replete with fiberglass nose cone, to the Whale tale Porche 911’s. You might note the difference in a wing vs a rear spoiler, as many cars have rear spoilers as add on pieces at the factory vs something more subtle, integrated into the rear hatch or trunk lid. For instance, if you looked at 70’s firebird and camaros, no rear spoiler, by the Trans-am and Z28 had them. Some of the 70’s vetts came with them, and some did not, while it was definitely part of the body work in the 68-73 models, just a bit more subtle. Post 82, I can’t think of any Corvette with a factory rear spoiler. So, which were functional, and which were just part of a styling package? When they were legitimately needed for the down force, what did the factory do in later generations to provide higher speed stability without it.
    Staying with the Corvette a moment, I’ll note that the late 70’s and early 80’s vetts probably wouldn’t do much better than 130 stock, due to low HP, heavy weight, and poor gearing with a 3 speed auto, yet they had rear spoilers. An 88′ Vette would do 154 mph, and had no rear spoiler, and neither does the next generation of Vett that would best 170. Was it a combination of the overall flatter and wider shapes, with better under car air management? Less down force needed when you keep the lift air out from under it? Anyway – could be a neat post – wings vs spoilers over the years – hype or high performance?

  9. Noel says:

    That would be an interesting bit of research.

    There’s no doubt that wings, spoilers and front air dams make a difference at track speeds and even at high road speeds. I had a mostly stock-engined VW beetle back in 1973 or ’74 which had front air dam and had a scoop below the rear window. (Jim will remember that car). The scoop altered the air flow over the rear of the car which reduced the drag substantially and that sucker would do over 100 mph with just 60-65 hp. This was pretty good for the time.

    Markitude’s note on the Corvette is interesting, noting that the more recent ‘vettes don’t have spoilers or wings. And as I noted in an earlier post, you don’t see much beyond a spoiler on M-series Bimmers or AMG Mercedes, all of which can go well past 150. I suspect both under- and over-car air management has a lot to do with the need for aero aids. But then you look at some Porsches (or the Veyron) with their retractable wings and spoilers.

    How much is necessary and how much is wretched excess? There must be an answer out there somewhere!!

  10. Pingback: Supples’ Pub » Blog Archive » Hennessey Viper beats Veyron in 0-200 dash - Autoblog

  11. Tim says:

    Just for you Jim:

    “Tennessee Cracking Down on Tail of the Dragon”
    http://www.autoblog.com/2007/08/24/tennessee-cracking-down-on-tail-of-the-dragon/

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