Above the music, 8000rpm screams though a tuned Skunk2 Mega Power stainless steel exhaust on the S2000 echoed off the canyons for miles. The haunting sound was so intense, it prompted one RX-7 owner to say it’s the best exhaust note he’s ever heard and thanked us for the soundtrack on his in-car video.
Written by Dave Pankew | Photos by Darryl Cannon

Like most gear heads, you probably indulge in as many Top Gear episodes that you can handle. While everyone has a favorite episode involving the antics of the cast, my Sign-Metal-Dragon_optpersonal favorites are the ones that highlight exotic destinations. As a magazine Editor, I am behind the wheel of many spicy sports cars and aggressive sport sedans but I’m stuck in a sprawling urban zone, built on flat land, which is policed by overzealous officials. When I watch Top Gear, I don’t necessarily yearn to drive the supercars as much as I do the unbelievable stretches of road they film them on. Case in point, the episode where Clarkson, Hammond and May scour all of Europe for the best road in the World while driving a Porsche GT3 RS, Aston Martin V8 Vantage N24 and a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera.

Without having to scour North America, we already found the best stretch of road for our readers. Some may think it might be along the shoreline of the Pacific Coast Highway, or perhaps in the Rocky Mountains or the forests of the Adirondacks in upstate New York. All of these areas have great roads but we’re positive nothing compares to the twisties though the Smoky Mountains where North Carolina and Tennessee meet. Nestled in the Chattahoochee National Forest is the US129, a road so outrageously twisted it has been dubbed the ‘Tail of the Dragon’ to describe both its physical shape and its dangerous history.

Nestled in the Chattahoochee National Forest is the US129, a road so outrageously twisted it has been dubbed the ‘Tail of the Dragon’ to describe both its physical shape and its dangerous history.

Our trip to the Tail of the Dragon started in Miami, Florida. While taking in the sun and some of the renowned nightlife, the mission was actually to pick up the weapon of choice to slay the dragon. The purchase was a mint Honda S2000 with only 24,622 kilometres (15,300 miles) on the clock. Since this was a pristine one-owner car, we knew it had been meticulously maintained but were skeptical the aging factory gear could handle a road such as US129. To that end, we made a stop at BC Racing in Casselberry, Florida to meet with owner Pete Melian and gain some perspective on improving the stock suspension.

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Melian maintained that although the stock dampers were very capable, they couldn’t compare with his adjustable coilover suspension. In response, a set of BC Racing ER Series coilovers with external reservoirs were installed and the independent compression and rebound settings were dialed to “Attack Mode.” We then headed over to Salerno Auto in Casselberry so they could apply their racing suspension expertise gained from campaigning in the Spec Miata Series. After the S2000 was lowered 2-inches all around, the camber and caster were set up on Salerno’s laser alignment rack. With the modifications done, we began the 8-hour drive to the North Carolina border.

About an hour after passing though Atlanta, the surroundings became very dark and very desolate as we ascended uphill. The straight roads turned into insane ribbons of narrow passes and not even moonlight could permeate the dense forest. Further in, all mobile phone service was lost, not simply a spotty signal, but totally dead. Road signs backed up our fears reading: ‘No mobile phone service’ and ‘limited medical response’ meaning any mistake could be your last. Although the mountain roads were treacherous and pitch black, the urge to go faster while carving the heavy camber turns pulled us in like a vortex.

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Although very near our destination, we got lost because every road looks the same and there are no proper intersections, only forks. We rolled up on an eerie sight at 2:00 a.m., a solemn tree in the middle of a motel parking lot with hundreds of motorcycle parts hanging off it. Dubbed the ‘Tree of Shame’ it serves as a chilling record of riders who made mistakes on the Dragon. Those who destroy their bikes, gather the parts and write their story on them in marker and then mount them on the tree. The display was a glaring reminder for us to keep it relatively safe on the way to finding our mountain lodge.

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We met up with our friends from Canada who arrived at the lodge earlier. After a late night of good times and bad decisions, we hit the pillow. In the morning, the sounds of screaming cars and bikes awoke us and it was time to gear up for the experience of a lifetime. One of our crew had developed alternator problems the night before and a band-aid solution was the first order of business. We hit the makeshift car wash at the base of the lodge to be ready for the many photo ops to come. It became quite apparent in the daylight, that it was almost all car clubs staying at the lodge. We counted dozens of one-make clubs from: GTG Crossfires, Rotary RX-7 Rally and the MR2 Spyder Club in addition to our rag tag crew of three BMWs and one Honda.

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By late morning, we were mentally alert enough to start our trek to the Tail of the Dragon. After filling up with the 93 octane, we set out on our 200km (120mi) round trip experience around the Smoky Mountains. First up, was the Tail of the Dragon itself. A severe landslide near the tip of the Tail meant the road was open but drivers had to turn around at the end and drive the treacherous stretch in reverse. The speed limit was dropped years ago from 88 km/h to 64 km/h (55mph to 40mph), which sounds like a downer, but those speeds on these curves is more than exciting. Speed limits aren’t even really enforced but rather the State Troopers are only looking for those acting foolish, or breaking the cardinal rule of crossing the double yellow line.

The speed limit was dropped years ago from 88 km/h to 64 km/h (55mph to 40mph), which sounds like a downer, but those speeds on these curves is exciting. Speed limits aren’t even really enforced but rather the State Troopers are only looking for those acting foolish, or breaking the cardinal rule – crossing the double yellow line.

The geography of the US129 is insane as it is carved into a rocky mountainside with a vertical rock face on one side and a sheer drop on the other. With sparse guard rails, any mistake 

Comprised of 318 turns spanning 17.7 kilometres (11 miles), driving the Tail of the Dragon is the equivalent of 20 laps on a road course. The turns consist of hairpins, elevation changes, switchbacks, chicanes, blinds and even bowls with seriously banked asphalt.would be costly and potentially life-threatening but at the same time, what a way to go! Comprised of 318 turns spanning 17.7 kilometres (11 miles), driving the Tail of the Dragon is the equivalent of 20 laps on a road course. The turns consist of hairpins, elevation changes, switchbacks, chicanes, blinds and even bowls with seriously banked asphalt. The banks are so steep in some areas, I was startled by a motorcycle that literally appeared out of nowhere as he popped up from his knee-drag in the bottom of a turn. The potential to generate some substantial G's in many directions is huge and the demand placed on tires and brakes is immense.

 

Locals and slower traffic are alerted to the fact that this isn’t really a commuter road and they pull off to the right as soon as there is a clearing. Since there is no opportunity to pass, this courtesy is a big part of the overall driving experience. Gear down and it’s back on again, battling the turns to fight oversteer and understeer to stay within the confines of your lane. The road requires your full attention and both hands on the wheel, with the only safe distraction being the soundtrack of your choice. Above the music, 8000rpm screams though a tuned Skunk2 Mega Power stainless steel exhaust on the S2000 echoed off the canyons for miles. The haunting sound was so intense, it prompted one RX-7 owner to say it’s the best exhaust note he’s ever heard and thanked us for the soundtrack for his in-car video.

 

After a few runs, it was clear that a light and agile roadster with a high revving motor was a missile though these tight turns. Heavier, high horsepower cars or those with turbo lag were totally in the way as the S2000 filled the rearview of everything blocking its path. Local resident and fellow S2000 owner Darryl Cannon from Killboy.com agreed with this notion as a veteran of many outings on US129 himself.

Comprised of 318 turns spanning 17.7 kilometres (11 miles), driving the Tail of the Dragon is the equivalent of 20 laps on a road course.

With the Tail of the Dragon slain by the S2000, it was time to head out into the stunning Cherokee wilderness. For hours we toured dramatic landscapes, through perfectly smooth twisty roads with varying levels of complexity. When we entered a tunnel, it was time to open up the collective throttle for a howling quartet of 22-cylinders. Along the way, we reduced speed for many quaint towns, not only for safety but to take in the sights during a much deserved break in the intensity. The temperature dropped dramatically as we reached an elevation of 1,524 metres (5000 feet) along the Cherohala Skyway, yet it was hot and humid in the low valleys along the rivers.

Along the return, night fell as we entered back along the US28, the Hellbender. Although not as curvaceous as the Tail of the Dragon, the Hellbender has more sweeping flat curves but is decidedly narrower in places.

Along the return, night fell as we entered back along the US28 known as the Hellbender. Although not as curvaceous as the Tail of the Dragon, the Hellbender has more sweeping flat curves but is decidedly narrower in places. As darkness became pitch black, we decided to turn our headlights off for a split-second and it is literally like closing your eyes even though they are open. Upon returning to the lodge it was time to party it up and exchange stories about our first tour of the Smoky Mountains. There truly is nothing like this road in North America because you’d have to ship your car over to Europe to find anything close to it. If you are a car or bike enthusiast, the Tail of the Dragon should be on your “bucket list” because it is on ours, not once but every year.