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.
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.
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.