I drive a 2006 Mini Cooper S. I am, in every sense, just your typical Mini owner, in that I am as fanatically obsessed with my Mini as the next guy or gal.
I love my Mini. I love driving my Mini. And I love my Mini adventures.
I’ve got a running list of adventures that I’ve had in my Mini. It looks something like this:
* Going full throttle on the autobahn
* Driving the Odenwald
* Sunday drives the Black Forest / Schwarzwald
* Driving the Black Forest from end to end
* Driving Poppa Bear Point
* Turning laps on the Nordschleife at the N?rburgring
* Minis in the Alps 2008
And this weekend, I added another one to that list.
I joined 8 others, mostly from the Tar Heel Mini Motoring Club, for a few days of driving through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and on into Tennessee. The trip was organized by my “brother from another mother”, Paul. He’s a veteran of five trips up to Deal’s Gap, and he organized a great weekend.
The coordination for the trip was ongoing, and it was online. Paul’s plan was to meet Friday night near Asheville, NC, have some dinner and a beer or ten, and stay at the Days Inn. Saturday, we’re make a wandering drive through the countryside, ending at the Dragon and staying at the Fontana Village Resort. Sunday, we’d have some breakfast, drive the Dragon again, and then head out separate ways in order to make it home at a decent hour — some folks had to work this morning.
Friday I popped smoke around noon and started the drive north. Dropping the address of the hotel into Tess’ GPS, she wanted me to head an hour east to Columbia SC and then north on interstate the rest of the way. Well, this was going to be a weekend about the drive, and that wouldn’t do at all. So, I had Tess re-plot a new route — the shortest one possible.
Much better. Much. The new route was almost entirely on 2 lane roads headed through the country side. I took a peak into Greenville, SC, as the only real detour from heading north, stopping to see the city some — no reason, other than it was there. Once I got north of the city, though, the low mountains started to come into sight, and I knew it was going to be a good weekend — the looked like the mountains around where we just were living in Germany.
I was the first to arrive, so i was able to relax and settle in some. We’d only be there the one night, so I kicked off my shoes and relaxed some. Just when I was starting get a little bit hungry, the convoy of 5 Minis from NC arrived.
We turned around and headed into Asheville, figuring we’d find some place to eat. Asheville is a nice, nice little city. I rode with Rudy and Paul, and the two of them told me the history of the founding of the city. Rudy had gone to college nearby, and Paul, having come up that way often enough to drive the Dragon and for work, is in love with the city. We didn’t have a chance to stop off and see the Biltmore Estate, which would be on my list of things to do if Tess were hanging around some more. We walked through the city some — on such a nice evening on a long weekend, everyone was out and about, and parking was limited — and ended up at Tupelo Honey, a nice restaurant with great food, great atmosphere, and great beer, and a wait that was probably less than an hour. I opted for chicken, vice the shrimp with grits that a few people had. Yes, I am not Southern.
(L to R: Frank, me, Paul, Mike, Van)
After dinner, we were teenagers — we stood around the back of a car in the parking lot, drinking beer from 5 liter kegs, using the ubiquitous red cups, and smoking (cigars, because we’re civilized). This weekend was advertised by Paul as being his Tour of Terror, and he was promising to show us a “spirited” drive. There had been much debate on what he meant by spirited — I was hoping it meant good German bier, and I was not disappointed. But other clearly wanted it to mean going fast, and it was that, too. Paul is fast — just look at this photo. He’s that fast.
Saturday was indeed about driving. Here is the actual route we took (it’s in Google Maps). We were assembled and on our way at 0800, in military precision. Eight Minis, 9 people, and not much extra stuff other than a cooler of beer. Paul had laid out this elaborate drive to get there, and I was not disappointed at all. It was fantastic. Easily, any one part of the drive to the Dragon would have been a good day, and we did it all. Without a doubt, my favorite stretch of the road was Wayah Road — it was fantastic. It’s marked in here, my Google Earth file for the trip.
Just driving Wayah Road would have made it a great day. We did so much more than that.
Lunch was at the Sweetwater BBQ, in Robbinsville NC — and the food was out of this world. Somehow I doubt I’ll find BBQ like that in Hawaii or Iraq.
After lunch, it was a good drive up to Highway 129 and Deal’s Gap, the Tail of the Dragon. And let me be clear — we were deep in motorcycle country. It was clear when we arrived at lunch, and there was no doubt, as we got closer to Deal’s Gap, that cars were the minority. I think they cut us some slack — eight Minis is a pretty cool sight. And, well, we drive like the dickens — that helps. We got up to Deal’s Gap, bought goodies and stickers and shirts and stuff, and then made a slow drive out the Tail of the Dragon for orientation and to check for police — who were out in numbers. We stopped at the dam at the far end, and took a group photo. I snuck in a photo of the 300Z guys who had gone before us and gone a little too fast (it’s a 30 mph zone), and they got to meet the TN fuzz.
The Dragon itself is 11 miles. It starts at Deal’s Gap, and goes out along a ridge and then on down to the water. It’s not a lot of changes in altitude, no massive climbs or descents. It’s all turns.
And by turns, I mean 318 of them. In 11 miles.
Is there any wonder why it’s motorcycle country?
The best part, as I see it, is that the route starts in NC and heads into TN, and there is nothing along those 11 miles. No driveways. No intersections. No stop signs. Nothing. Just turns. And since it starts in NC, and since there are very few places to even pull off the road, the only police are from TN, and if you don’t see any on the way out, there won’t be any on the way back in.
But we’d seen some on the way out, so we had a nice, tame drive back in. Once back at Deal’s Gap, we turned left and headed out Hellbender, the stretch of road to Fontana Village where we were staying. Nice, nice place, loaded to the gills with motorcyclists, of course. We dropped bags, changed, had a beer or three and then had some dinner. The Fontana Village is a very nice resort, and the rates were very, very good. And yes, there’s a military discount — always a good sign. There was no free ‘net access in the rooms, and we had drinking to do, so we only loaded and shared photos on thumbdrives, stood outside drinking and telling lies, before we called it a day and headed to bed at a decent hour.
One Mini driver had to head out early, so we were down to seven Minis. Five of us headed out around 7 am, to drive the Dragon and then meet the others for breakfast. The drive out was, um, spirited indeed, and the drive back was, um, terrorizing. On the way back in, I loaded Sara’s camera onto the camera mount in my car, and chaser her the whole way. I’ll link to the video when she posts it — it was awesome.
The driving. Let’s see. I have dynamic stability control on my car; if the front tires are going to break free, the DSC kicks in to get the car back under control (and a light goes off on my control panel). It’s front wheel drive, and those front wheels are getting about 190 horsepower — maybe a little bit more. The car is supercharged, and I’ve replaced the supercharger pulley with a smaller one (for more pressure and more horsepower). The car weighs nothing.
That warning light from the DSC? Yeah, I saw it — a lot. The front tires? Thoroughly abused. The brakes? Needed cooling off time from excessive use. I learned how to torque steer when the ass of the car broke contact with the ground and I’d tripped the DSC at the same time. Ponder that one for a minute.
There are a few photography shops that go out to the Dragon every day and post their photos online. I am waiting for them to do so — I am dying to see them! I’ll link to them later when they go up.
Most made one run on the Dragon Sunday morning, before we had breakfast and before they headed home. Paul and Rudy are known for going fast. I was known for liking pretty roads. They’re the terrorists, I’m the prettiest. Paul and Rudy and I made a second go of it — and it was the slowest, “prettiest” drive on the Dragon, ever. Nice, though. At the far end, we said our goodbyes, and headed our separate ways. Actually, I headed out while they let their brakes cool some more.
I headed for Helen, GA. Why Helen? It’s Bavaria, in Georgia. Really, it is. Spot on tourist reproduction. And there happen to be some amazing routes to get there. It was just me, one Mini driving solo, and I really, really enjoyed the drive. At felt at one with Tess again, and I’d missed that feeling. Once I got out of Helen, though, it was pretty mundane driving (in comparison to the rest of the weekend, I suppose), though it was mostly smaller roads. When it was all done, I was really, really tired. I was asleep by 2000 / 8 pm.
I’ve got two videos from the weekend. The first one is on Google Video and is on the drive getting to the Dragon. It’s filmed with my camera, but a borrowed mount that just didn’t see to want to work with me on finding an angle to see around the damn mirror. The second video is on my server, and it’s in an iPhone-friendly format, just for the cool kids. The second one is actually a good chunk of the Dragon, but I had no idea that that run was going to be soooooo sloooooooow. I ran out of disk space, it was so slow.
One last topic: How does it compare?
It’s not the N?rburgring. The Dragon is not built for speed. You’ll never hit even 4th gear on the Dragon, when you can wind it out past 100 or 120 mph on the Ring if you know what you’re doing (and are in a capable car). The Dragon is no racetrack, that’s for sure. The Dragon is all turns — which makes for an entirely different experience. But — both the N?rburgring and the Dragon are public roads; the only difference, I suppose, is that the N?rburgring has no speed limit. And it’s car country, without a doubt, while the Dragon isn’t.
It’s not the Alps. Holy crap, it’s not the Alps. Both have lots of turns, but the Dragon slinks along across the spine of a ridge. Lots of small turns. The Alps? Massive changes in altitude, and lots of switchbacks. Granted, the Dragon is 11 miles long, while we did 1100 miles through the Alps. But still. Even if you add in the miles getting to and from the Dragon, there’s no comparison. The area around the Dragon might, at best, qualify as foothills for the Alps. Foothills for the foothills of the Alps. Maybe.
It’s not the Black Forest. It’s close to the Odenwald (here and here). It could easily be Poppa Bear Point Run. The area absolutely reminds me of the area around Annweiler, out west of where I use to live in Baden-W?rttemberg. The Dragon would be an intense section of one of those drives. However — and there’s always one of those — there are a couple of differences. You wouldn’t see cops in the back woods in Germany, unless it was something unusual (I think I saw them once on Poppa Bear Point Run). Also, the roads in Germany were in better shape — this is more clearly shown if you include all of the miles I drove getting to and from the Dragon. Lastly, there are some great, great stretches I use to drive that were maybe wide enough for a car and a half, but were in fact two lane roads. Zippy fast, very smooth, very curvy — and very narrow, with the highest chance of an encounter with a tractor and not another car.
I’d do this weekend again, though — in a heartbeat. Great group. Great drive getting there, especially Saturday. The Dragon itself? Yeah, it’s OK. I got my sticker to put on the car later. But really, it was all of the other driving that made it awesome. I’d move to Wayah Road tomorrow if I could. I am glad that we had that one, um, aggressive run on Sunday morning, and I am dying to see Sara’s video of how I was driving. But really, it was great time spent in my beloved Tess Turbo, doing what we do best. I wish the kids had been with me, too — they’ve have gotten a kick out of it.
Oh, and as thanks for putting it all together, I bought Paul something pretty for his Mini. He’s a Dragon Slayer, and a Lady Killer.