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I SLEW THE DRAGON...

Well, maybe I didn't actually "slay" it - the guy in the Elise that blew past me better qualifies as a "slayer." But at least it didn't slay me, and by the fourth time through, I knew it well enough to actually have some fun!

If you are not aware of the "Dragon's Tail," (a.k.a. Deal's Gap, Tail of the Dragon, The Dragon) it's an incredible stretch of two-lane Hwy 129 between Maryville TN and Robbinsville NC, where there are 318 turns in the space of 11 miles. That's 30 turns/mile. That's an 11-mile autocross course with big, brown, car-bruising trees instead of little orange plastic cones. These are the kind of roads I grew up driving (more about that later). Whoo-eeeeee!!!! Details here:
www.dealsgap.com - probably the most complete site, but extremely bike-oriented
www.tailofthedragon.com - check out the most excellent map.

I spent two days in the area. First day (Tue Oct 24) was a "get-to-know-you" drive. I took my Mom's Focus for a few reasons:

1. She drives short trips all the time and I thought the little car needed a good wringing-out.
2. The Passat had just finished 4220 hard road miles and I thought it needed a rest.
3. I was afraid with the Passat I'd get frustrated and impatient, especially behind slower cars, whereas with the base model Focus I could just relax and enjoy the drive.
4. I took my Mom with me (!) see #3.

I soon discovered that the Dragon is not the only attraction in the area. All the roads around there are awesome. The Dragon is the "autocross" course, but the other roads are like Watkins Glen; just one big road course with high-speed 3rd and 4th gear turns and the occasional 2nd gear turn, and enough straights to make passing a possibility. Hwy 129 bracketing the Dragon, and "Hellbender" - Hwy 28 between the Dragon and Fontana Dam, are absolutely fabulous and my favorite roads in the area. The rest of 28, and 143 back to Robbinsville, aren't quite as fun but are still a great drive. The Cherohala Skyway - Hwy 143 between Robbinsville and Tellico Plains - is a beautiful, amazing drive that starts at about 1500 feet, goes up to 5400 feet, and then back down. Beautiful country (the vast sea of changing leaves was incredible), fabulous roads, and not much traffic on a weekday at this time of year.

I decided that I had to come back, and we had to have a GTG here, so next day (Wed) I took the Passat (and Mom again!), to further navigate the roads, chart times and distances, find a lodge where we could stay for a GTG, and attack the Dragon. Mom amazes me. I have had young, strong, athletic women in my car(s) who turned into whining little beetches when I drove fast. Not my 77-year-old mom - she hung in there like a trooper, and was delighted to do it again in the FAST car! She's a great navigator, too! So off we went.

The big attraction for Day Two was being able to use the Passat's power and handling to maintain speed on the fast roads. This car was made to gobble up high-speed sweepers. Wheeee, what fun! It wasn't balls-to-the-wall - there are too many blind curves. Staying near the speed limit was plenty fast; anticipating what might be around the next curve was enough of an adrenaline rush (see Big Ooops Dept. below). We spent hours on these roads. Across the Cherohala Skyway (pronounced "Chair-a-Hay-la" by the locals) from Tellico Plains to Robbinsville. Up the south end of the 129 to the Dragon. [Up the Dragon and back down it.:thumbdown ] Out "Hellbender 28" to Fontana Dam and back to the Dragon. [Up the Dragon again.:thumbup: ] Then the north section of 129 all the way to Maryville. Driving that rivals, and may even exceed, the best backroads that I have done on Colorado and Minnesota GTG's.

[:thumbdown ]...
The Dragon's Tail is a sportbike/sportscar's dream - but an unadulterated nightmare with this heavy, understeering, torque-mad pig of a car. I had more fun yesterday with the base-model Focus than I did today with the Passat - at least on the first two runs. Scirocco78's Passat would be fun on the Dragon, but unless you've done serious, performance-oriented suspension mods to your Passat, forget about pushing it, or you'll be "pushing" into one of those big, brown, bruising cones. Even with my somewhat radical suspension mods, there was too much understeer. The Dragon will have you in second gear the whole time (a burst or three in 3rd), and whereas a touch of understeer is OK in a high-speed sweeper, there is no place for it on an 11-mile auto-x course. Yuck, phooey, ptooie. That touch of understeer plus the hard-to-control, hamfisted explosion of [email protected] from my MBC-controlled K04 made the Dragon a LOT of work.

Run 1 yesterday (in the Focus) was North-to-South, which is "backwards." Like I said before, this was actually fun.

Run 2, in the Passat (first run today) was the normal direction, South-to-North, with Mom playing rally-navigator and calling the turns according to the map. The ones that I can remember clearly are:

0.2 Crud Corner - a tight, nasty LH hairpin. I remembered this one from yesterday, backwards.
1.4 The Wall - a wall of earth on your RH side
2.0-2.7 The Chicanes - jeezus, LRLRLRLRLR whenaretheygonnaend?
2.2 Sunset Corner - an opening in the "cones" on the outside (drop-away) of the road, facing west so you can see the sunset
4.8 Killboy Shadetree Corner - A large-radius LH hairpin that you can comfortably "cruise" around, complete with a photographer in the middle snapping pics the whole way through. Gotta check out www.killboy.com and see if I can get one.
6.4 Mud Corner - A RH turn with a muddy ditch on the inside - from the looks and the name of it, water must seep there year-round
7.1 Picnic Table - A RH with guess what? A stone picnic table on the outside. I guess if you lose it there, you've been "tabled" hah-hah...
7.2 Guard Rail Cliff - the only spot on the run with a guard rail
8.1 Triple Apex Corner - well, duh, it's a triple-apex RH
8.8 Tail of the Dragon Overlook - a south-facing break in the trees where your passenger can enjoy the view for a few brief seconds
10.2 Rocket Corner - a perfect, slightly banked little 90-degree RH that naturally rockets you out onto the following straight. It would require a conscious, willing, rebellious effort to take a bad line through this turn.

Run 3, backwards, wherein I discover that the extreme LH hairpins in the forward direction (outside lane) become hellacious, inside-lane, banked, understeer eliminating, suspension-bottoming RH hairpins. Somewhere between Killboy and Sunset, there is one particular dipping RH hairpin that will take the front bodywork off any lowered Passat (unless you slow waayyy down, or have 600 lb. springs). My 400 lb. springs were no match for it, and I scraped the OEM chin.

Run 3 was followed by a short duck into the Deal's Gap gift shop to pick up some extra souveniers that I didn't get yesterday, then off down Hellbender 28 to the Tail of the Dragon gift shop to pick up some extra souveniers that I didn't get yesterday. Caught up with a Mini "S" - she knew what she was doing, but she wasn't pushing hard. But then neither was I, really. You can't push hard around those blind curves, it's just too dangerous. But oh, what fun. Greater familiarity with the road led to a lot of stay-on-the-throttle trailbraking into the turns, especially on the return trip back up Hellbender to Deal's Gap.

[:thumbup: ]...
Ah, Run 4. The secret to having fun at the Dragon in an overweight, understeering car - and maybe in any car - is momentum. And knowing the road at least a little bit. The last run up the tail was a delight. No heavy braking or shifting, second gear nearly all the way, use the entire rev range from 3000 to 6000, keep light on the throttle and trail-brake into the turns, complete concentration but relax and enjoy, and no vehicles in front until just before Triple Apex at mile marker 8. Mmmmmmmmm, delicious driving. I could definitely come back and do this again.

"Big Ooops" Department:

Ooops #1: On Cherohala Skyway, I am rapidly catching up to an SUV in front of me, about 10 car lengths. There's a downhill followed by a left-hander. I'm starting to enter the turn, and Mom starts saying "oops, OOOPS" with great urgency. All-of-a-sudden, the SUV is stopped in the middle of the turn with its REVERSE LIGHTS ON! Unbelievable. What a F*cking idiot. I'm driving a six-car-length speed and have three car lengths to stop. It doesn't happen. Fortunately there is a wide grassy shoulder, and after scrubbing speed we whip around the SUV and back onto the road, scared sh*tless. I hope the SUV's crew soiled their pants, and their seatcovers, and the foam inside; and I hope they have seat-heaters, and the next time they use them they go up in a blaze of burning defecation; but somehow I think they were so clueless they didn't even realize what almost happened.

Ooops #2: Dragon's Tail, Run 3 (backwards). I think it was the LH just before the RH leading into the Pearly Gates (how prophetic that would have been), I overcook it. There's no big brown cones on this curve, just a nice opening down into Chilhowee Lake. ABS engages just before the turn-in, thank GOD and I steer through it with ABS engaged. Just a few days ago, scirocco78 was telling me how he was starting to *use* ABS and steer through what would otherwise be a cone-buster - THANKS! - that mental seed might have saved my ass.

"Things I Have To Do" Department:

Number 1: The A-pillar gauge pod has to go. Ooops #1 was caused by that big-assed driver's side A-pillar. That stinkin' thing has bugged me ever since I got the car. With my long legs and tall frame, I have to sit way back and down low, so the A-pillar severely restricts forward LH vision. The gauge pod just makes it worse.

Number 2: A8 front brake upgrade. See Ooops #2. I've been trying to keep the stock brakes for less unsprung weight, but with the K04 the car goes too fast too quick. Better Braking > Unsprung Weight.

Number 3: Get back there with friends from PW. Nothing would be finer than to hole up at a nearby lodge, navigate those roads with dependable drivin' buddies, hit the Dragon enough times to actually "slay" it, and retire by the fire at the end of the day with stories to tell. I'm thinking a year from now - October is perfect because of the leaves, the relative lack of traffic, and the crisp, cool air. Not *sure* yet, but let's see what happens. Ideas welcome, especially from the PW locals.

"Way Too Many Souveniers" Department:

Sweatshirt
Polo Shirt
Shot Glass
Road Sign
License Plate Frame
Lapel Pin (for Mom)
Large Poster of the Map.
Assortment of 1" stickers (for both our cars)
And maybe a pic from killboy.com

"What Might Have Been" Department:

I grew up in Chattanooga, an hour's drive from The Dragon. When I was a kid, my Dad use to drive us up to the mountains in his Jeep by way of these roads, but I never paid attention. I went to college in Knoxville, where for three years I had my Scirocco close enough to smell fire and brimstone. But I never knew...

Ciao, y'all! See ya at The Dragon next year (maybe)!
 

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there ain't no maybe for next year - we gotta do it!
glad to see you recorded your thoughts right away on this one. loved reading it!
 

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I hope the SUV's crew soiled their pants, and their seatcovers, and the foam inside; and I hope they have seat-heaters, and the next time they use them they go up in a blaze of burning defecation; but somehow I think they were so clueless they didn't even realize what almost happened.
Hahaha!

A GTG to slay the dragon sounds good :thumbup:
 

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I've always told myself that the only reason Deals Gap is such a "thing" is because it's in an area where really nice roads are few and far between, not sure if that is really true (certainly not the opinion of the people living in that area). The regular stories of some local appalachian-american spreading oil/glass over the surface because they don't like the noise doesn't help my opinion of it either. You should come out to NorCal some time, we have one or two nice roads on this side of the country :)
 

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Punches Dubs. True Story
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Fun!

While I'd love to do something like this, it's out of the question for a bit (driving for a day or two, just to do more driving, does not get the :thumbup: from the warden). However ...

Mom and Dad just moved into a new place in Longmont, CO. And I've got friends in Dillon or Frisco. Or Maybe Breck. (They've moved three times in four years ...I lost track.) I'm really looking forward to our first road trip to visit the (new) grandparents and get in some altitude driving taking the 119 to Idaho Springs and then climbing across 70 to visit friends. (Alternately, I would like to take at least one day to do a 200+ mile loop from Longmont, around RMNP, through Winter Park and then back up to Longmont - via Boulder and the Diagonal.)

Hmmm ...

I think I'm over-excited about my new suspension. (It's still sitting in a pair of boxes in the garage.)
 

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rusty i hope you used a voice rec program for that:)
had a nice trip i see.:thumbup:
 

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I have been trying to find a time in my schedule to do this in the RX-8.

There's a guy in my local sports car club that has run serveral GTG in his autocross Miata (CSP class) and had an absolute blast. He talks about it at every event and it's starting to make me jealous.


If there is a PW GTG, would you guys mind my RX-8 tagging along?
 

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I've always told myself that the only reason Deals Gap is such a "thing" is because it's in an area where really nice roads are few and far between, not sure if that is really true (certainly not the opinion of the people living in that area). The regular stories of some local appalachian-american spreading oil/glass over the surface because they don't like the noise doesn't help my opinion of it either. You should come out to NorCal some time, we have one or two nice roads on this side of the country :)
Socal has some nice roads too around the north mountain range that encloses the LA basin (I totally forget the name of it). Bicyclists use it for training because its almost entirely uphill, so go at night if you don't want to kill anybody.

Edit: its called the Foothills. Around Glendora, there's this: http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&z=14&ll=34.179501,-117.836266&spn=0.049704,0.090809&om=1 and http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&om=1&z=14&ll=34.224648,-117.801418&spn=0.049678,0.090809

I don't live near any mountains, so I'll just have to settle for coughing up money for lapping days. :p
 

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"Socal has some nice roads too around the north mountain range that encloses the LA basin (I totally forget the name of it). Bicyclists use it for training because its almost entirely uphill, so go at night if you don't want to kill anybody."


What stealthx32 says. I used to have fun up there on my 1979 Suzuki GS1000 with my buddies.
 

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Thats awesome Rusty! I took a weekend down there last Oct! Talk about some fun! In fact....I think I remember bringing it up(or someone else did) in the National GTG discussion. Aside from being a hell of an experience driving the Dragon, its absolutly beautiful out there......especially in Oct. with the leaves changing!!!!!! And as you said, the lack of traffic this time of the year. Usually it is OVERWHELMED by bikers.

Im only about an hour away. LMK next time you make the trip and Ill try to join!!!
 

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I would love to but my co-pilot now freaks at the sound of tires squeeling. :nervous:

Starts screaming something about hanging upside down by a seatbelt. :whistle:
 

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Punches Dubs. True Story
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I would love to but my co-pilot now freaks at the sound of tires squeeling. :nervous:

Starts screaming something about hanging upside down by a seatbelt. :whistle:
I gots the same problem!

Maybe you and I can leave our co-pilots elsewhere and go tame the dragon ourselves ...
 

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Great thread Rusty! Your vivid descriptions make it almost like being there.

I'm about out of co-pilots, my 9 year old son loves the feeling of torque and watches my boost closely. I've already had to explain the whole load/requested boost/maf reading/ambient temp relationship to him and I think he understands it better than many on these forums.:D
 

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i am down for running the dragon as well, but at safe speeds... this highway is a widowmaker. don't want to see any passats greasy side up like the pic above!

there is also fantastic whitewater in the area (ocoee, hiwassee, nantahala rivers within 30 minutes), great backpacking (joyce kilmer/slickrock/citco creek) for anyone interested.
 
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