As we mentioned in our 2014 Mazda Adventure Rally intro, in the days leading up to the event, drive partner Vincent and I did our darnedest to try and coerce Mazda into telling us where the rally would take place.
Having failed that, we started to guess; Vermont, perhaps? The Green Mountains? Alligator Alley in Florida?
We knew nothing, however, about a little road officially called “U.S. Route 129.” Or, unofficially for those in the know about this fantastic ribbon of tarmac, “Tail of the Dragon” (TOTD).
Day two was fitting to be a heavy day of driving through Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. We would be traversing through wetlands—rivers, deltas, lakes—which we knew was good news. Roads often follow rivers, meaning turns aplenty. That’s good when you have a 2014 Mazda MX-5 at your disposal.
Which wouldn’t matter if the roads were potholed and grooved, but they weren’t. These are the kind of roads you dream about: jet-black, divided tarmac, the lines painted thereupon appearing to glow in contrast.
And so very open; we could count on one hand the number of other vehicles we came across. Indeed, the challenge was not avoiding slow-moving pickups and RVs, but dogs off leashes and wild turkeys that don’t seem to understand what a right of way is.
One instance had us playing chicken with a turkey that meandered across the road, to the point we were so close you could feel the wind from its massive wings when it finally took off.
Aside from that, though, the marriage of Mazda MX-5 and pristine North Cackalack roads is one made in heaven.
The MX-5 is one of those cars that is happiest on the open road. The gearing is so short that you can never really find the perfect ‘round town trundling speed, but makes for superb progress when the goings get twisty.
You dive into each corner, hearing the rumble strip under your inside tires as you clip the apex. Then you look up, only to do it all over again. The flow becomes seriously addictive as the road stretches out into the misty green forest ahead, beckoning you to come forth with all your might.
Throttle. Clutch. Short-shift from 4 to 2. Brake. Throttle. 6,500 rpm. Back up to third. Just picture your feet as they dance across the pedals like an old-school rally video, when drivers shifted two, three, four times a minute.
Driving bliss of the highest order.
Take a breath
Inevitably, there are times, though rare, when you want to just sit back a moment and take in your surroundings.
While not as spectacular as the rock bridges and red dust we encountered at last year’s event, there’s lots to see here, if not necessarily of the natural variety.
Take, for instance, the classic Lafrance fire truck—built in the 50s, but in commission until the ‘80s, as indicated by a tattered registration window sticker—standing sentry at the outlet of one of the spidery back roads we tackled. You can still see that it was red, once, but now with a mossy green tinge from the nature surrounding it. A time capsule-like sighting of life on American roads all those years ago.
Or the massive impeller on display at the Hiawasee dam, capable of generating 80,000 hp from just 120 rpm.
Let’s take it off-tarmac, shall we?
One of the challenges we were given was to find a route on a map using only a few hints.
We found the route, and as it turns out, about 15 kilometers was to be spent on a loose gravel road. Thanks to some rain storms of biblical proportions, however, the gravel was damp, providing a little more traction and a lot more fun.
It was a demonstration of the MX-5s robustness that we were able to cane it hard through these gravelly switchbacks, tail out with no traction control, and it just kept right on truckin’. Like the CX-5 and CX-9 last year, not a single puncture occurred, not a single oil pan or exhaust silencer cracked as the 10 cars fought their way through the muck.
From one extreme…
Just when we thought we’d seen it all, the organizers pre-programmed our GPS systems with a 135 km route through another handful of one stop-light, five-church, one gun-store towns.
About a kilometer from our destination, there it appeared on our map: Atlanta Motorsports Park.
We were dispatched on to what we discovered to be the impressive facility’s karting track. Fitting, that; when you think about it, the MX-5 is about as close to a go-kart as you’ll find of any street legal vehicle.
This was no parking lot autocross, either: AMP features a set of rolling hills that hide turn apexes like Tuesday morning fog hides Appalachian hills. This being a time-sensitive event, we were given three laps of the track; hardly enough to get to know it, let alone tackle it with any modicum of mastery.
There were casualties: the tire wall on the track’s savage twin-apex hairpin was fixed in a jif, but one of our competitors’ fenders will take a little longer than that. Since the car is so easy to drive, we saw our times improve, lap by lap. In the end, we finished a respectable fifth, helping us finish the day in the same spot, just 25 points off the lead.
Day 3, and the piece de resistance
It would take awhile to get to it, however; that’s kind of how these rallies work. Just as we did with day two’s track event, we had to earn the chance to tackle one of North America’s more notorious stretches of road.
Not that we had any problem with it, as route 143 towards Robbinsville is another one of those great roads; it just seems so unfair that all these phenomenal roads are in such close quarters.
This drive involved a steep climb, however, which called to light one of the MX-5’s few weaknesses. On the steeper stuff—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—it feels a little underpowered. You just get the feeling that a turbocharged, oh, I dunno, Ford Fiesta ST would handle this just a little better.
Of course, with that car, once the sheen of that shiny turbo wears off with that car, you don’t get the lasting appeal of the MX-5’s superbly sorted chassis and open-air thrills. Anything this side of a drag race, and it becomes a near case of apples and oranges.
The last stop before the final push towards TOTD is the Fontana dam; at 480 feet, it’s the highest of many in the tri-state Tennessee Valley Authority but that’s not the interesting part.
While dams like the Nevada’s Hoover or Washington’s Grand Coulee were built to meet demand for more agriculture and industry, the Fontana’s responsibility was more indicative of its wartime construction. It was tasked with providing power to Oak Ridge, site of the Manhattan Nuclear Project.
Construction started in 1942 and was completed by 1944, a strong feat even by mid-20th century standards. Of course, it also helped provide for the burgeoning agriculture industry of the era.
A brief chat with the locals, photos taken, and it was time to throw on our armour, mount our steeds, and push off.
So it’s time, then
Being unfamiliar with the area, we kept thinking we were coming to Route 129, because the roads were so fantastic that we couldn’t imagine it getting any better.
But there’s no mistaking the Tail of the Dragon once you do arrive.
It starts with a roadhouse-like structure called Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort (Deal’s Gap, NC, being the closest municipality to the area). It’s a kind of base camp to the 11-mile run, with motorcycles lining the front parking lot (although, we thought it may be for show; it was pouring with rain, and we saw very few motorcycles on the route), a 15-foot tall dragon sculpture crafted from motorcycle parts and a palpable sense of gearhead in the air.
Inside the structure, there are the requisite t-shirts and other propaganda, but it’s the photo collage in the back corner that makes you stop.
Yes, there are the photos of bikes leaning heavily into corners and the like, but it’s the portraits of folks showing their battle scars that you focus on; all manner of road rash, bent bikes and slings. And they’re smiling! It’s like a rite of passage; you haven’t really conquered the dragon unless you have the scars to prove it.
One of the most famous photographs you’ll come across when searching “tail of the dragon” is that of a biker, flying through the air after a run-in with a Corvette. You’d think it’s fake, but folks around here say it’s all the way true: the flying man was real, and he got up after the incident with little more than a broken wrist.
That’s the kind of crazy we were up against.
T-shirts bought, we pushed off in the continuing downpour.
Originally used as a bit of a short cut over the Tennessee and North Carolina borders, then a path—along with nearby Route 28—for moonshiners in the Prohibition era, TOTD has now become a haven for thrill-seeking bikers and drivers. Still, it pays to be aware of truckers whose GPS has told them that it was a shortcut; they often don’t have the capacity to make the turn in one shot and end up either clogging the road or marooned in a ditch.
Eleven miles may not sound like much, but when you’re being asked to conquer over 300 turns within those 11 miles, it tends to change your perspective just a little.
And when the turns have actually been given names like “The Whip,” “Beginner’s End” and “Pearly Gates”, well, forget perspective; we just wanted to get through.
Luckily, the weather meant that at least the route’s two lanes wouldn’t’ constantly be clogged, so while we were weary of the traction we may not have, we thought we’d at least have room to work with.
Turns out, we were wrong.
Save for a few overlooks, there is no room, and you’re forced to rely on your wits and reflexes to hash out the plethora of blind curves, decreasing radii and off-camber situations.
Of course, the MX-5, being as spectacular as it is, made it a whole lot easier and more fun. Soon enough, we found our rhythm. It’s kind of funny; have your mind ready to always be looking for the next left-right chicane or hairpin, and your reflexes will follow suit, providing one of the most engaging rides I’ve ever been blessed to endure.
Be ready, and you’re in for one hair-raising, steering wheel-sawing, rev-bangin’ love triangle between driver, car and road. There are few better cars for this than the MX-5; it was made for this, for which we thank Mazda from the bottom of our hearts.
Reflection time, courtesy of some fat riders and their fat bikes
As we made our way back to Robbinsville along the Cherohala Skyway, we had time to reflect on our journey. Lots of time, actually, thanks to the motorcycle group in front of us that could take turns no faster than 10 mph due to their fat, un-leanable Honda Goldwing cruisers and trikes.
Then again, when you’re adrenaline has been so high for so long (about 72 hours, I’d say), it’s nice to have a chance to lean back and take it all in.
While comparing this and last year’s rallies is really a case of apples and oranges, similarities could be found in key areas.
Like last year, the chances of me ever finding the roads we did on my own accord are pretty slim. Few of the actual destinations would be on my number-1 list—my home province of BC is a very similar environment—but the roads that connected them were all-timers that I likely would have missed had it not been for that.
I’ve driven the MX-5 many times, but like the crossovers last year, it found new ways to impress me, especially on greasy tarmac and on gravel. This is a lightweight roadster that rides much better than it should.
Finally, like last year, my team ended up on the podium, earning a spot in next year’s event and $1,000 for our chosen charities, Kids Help Phone and its French equivalent, Jeunesse, J’écoute.
Otherwise, the way this year’s event was centered around a single hub as opposed to last year’s point-to-point structure, the cars we used and the roads we used them on were completely different.
It’s amazing, then, that the such a deviation in criteria could lead to just as many thrills. It’s an indication of how far the traditional road trip has become, thanks to the tools we have available to us.
Makes you wonder: what could they have in store for us next year? California? Africa? Mars? We’ll just have to wait and see.