It was barely seven in the morning when I climbed into my Evolution and started the seven mile drive to Deals Gap and the start of the Tail of the Dragon. These seven miles are an excellent warm up to the Dragon as within a few hundred feet was a tight turn with an eight percent downward grade. After that came the bridge and I passed the entrance to Fontana Dam. The road followed the river winding its way along. Sometimes the curves were fairly gentle and some were tight ones that hugged the rocky hillside. The tires got warmed up and so did the driver.
Not long after came a stop sign and Deals Gap. At the end of the movie “Two Lane Blacktop” is a scene of Deals Gap as it was way back when. Today it has its own motel just for motorcycle riders, a gas station, short order kitchen, and the Tree of Shame.
I pulled away from the stop sign and aimed for the hill that marks the start of the Dragon run. It’s steep grade conveniently forces you to accelerate as you approach the first bend to the left that leads to a far sharper one going to the right. In a moment you are crossing from North Carolina into Tennessee with the boundary marked by a chain link fence that is only interrupted by the tarmac of the road.
I chose to go out early so that traffic would be very light and the chance that police would be out was minimal. Even though it was early the road was clear of moisture and there was plenty of light coming through the green canopy of trees.
It had been about five years since I had run the Dragon and I wanted to see how much of it would come back to me. With 318 turns to remember, I wasn’t overly optimistic. Much of it did come back to me. Certainly not as familiar as it might be if I drove it on a daily basis, but enough so that I felt I could get a good rhythm on the subsequent runs.
While the seven miles of road that I had taken to get to Deals Gap had many tight turns, they were not as serpentine as the Dragon. I had forgotten just how much banking was built in to the turns and especially the tight switchbacks.
I was giving myself time to get used to the road and learn the best gear to take various turns in. I kept the revs lower and the gears higher so I ended up using the brakes more than I would have liked. There was no brake fade with the Brembo’s, but I could feel the heat building up. Finally I came to the scenic overlook that was just a mile or so from the end and stopped to check out the view and see how warm the tires were getting. The car was doing very well and the tires were nice and warm and feeling sticky as my hand ran over the tread. I was anxious to complete the run and head back, this time asking much more out of the car.
The return run was done with a lower gear and much higher revs. The oil temperature gauge had been about 90 degrees C and was now hitting 100 C. That is about 212 F. The grip was amazing on the two-lane mountain road and with the steep banking I could really power my way around the tight switchbacks. The Evolution’s chassis is very ridged and it would lift the inside rear wheel on the tighter corners. Losing that much traction at one wheel didn’t phase the drive-train one bit as the torque was transferred to the tires that had grip.
Driving the Dragon at speed is very much like being on a rollercoaster ride that you are in complete control of.
Then the chain link fence came into view and I was back at Deals Gap and North Carolina.
I smiled at completing my first run of the weekend and I headed back to get some breakfast at Fontana Village. There would be more runs, but in a short while there would be traffic and police adding to the equation.
The drive back along the river was quite different as I was primed to keep the speed at the level I had just used, but my head told me to use the road back as a cool-down lap and give the car a chance to relax. Not to say that I didn’t kick it up a level from what I had driven at when I drove out, but it did give the oil a chance to cool down and it was good for the brakes to have morning air rushing past instead of hot pads clamping down.
Later in the day I went out and sure enough the Tennessee State Police were out scanning with radar along with a couple of Sheriff’s cars. I heard that one person got nailed for doing 84 in a 30 mph zone.
It was still fun to get out and take those turns some more. Now the photographers were out. They hang out at various corners and take thousands of shots of cars as they drive through. Later they post them on their web sites and will gladly sell you any that you find you like.