THE SUNDAY DRIVE TAKES LISTENERS ALONG ON A TRIP THAT USUALLY CAN BE REACHED IN A FEW HOURS DRIVE FROM PITTSBURGH. THERE ARE SO MANY GREAT PLACES TO EXPLORE OUT THERE...GET UP OFFA THAT COUCH AND GO FOR A RIDE!
BY VINNIE RICHICHI PHOTOS BY VINNIE RICHICHI
It was the one thing on my 'to do' list for this year that I hadn’t done…drive the famous ‘Tail of the Dragon’ stretch of US 129 that winds through the butt end of the Smoky Mountains straddling the Tennessee/ North Carolina border. What does the t shirt say? '318 curves in 11 miles'? This run which is listed on many of ‘America’s Best Drives’ lists is something I always had wanted to do but just never seemed to be able to get to even earlier this year when I did the Blue Ridge Parkway in the 2014 Corvette Convertible, time ran short and I wasn’t able to finish the parkway past Asheville and do the Tail.
It was bugging me.
But things got strange the last week of October…the Wednesday of Game 7 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals, a brand spanking new 2015 Hyundai Sonata Sport 2.0 T in bright orange with an orange and black interior was delivered to my home as the Drivetime Road Test car of the week. It looked like a pumpkin sitting in the driveway among the Halloween decorations. But orange and black are the Giants colors and I was pulling for them so I took it as an omen. That night the Giants won the World Series and I was looking for deeper meaning from my Hyundai.
In checking the weather reports over the next few days I saw that the Tail was going to see some snow but there was a window of two days…Sunday and Monday where the weather was going to be a summer like 65 degrees and sunny. Maybe, the last nice days of the year for awhile. The fall colors were still in full bloom, the sky was going to be clear and me and this Sonata were going to take a road trip.
I know what you are thinking…with all the cool cars you drive, you are going to a road like this in a Hyundai? An econobox at best? C’mon wait for the Porsche! But that was what was cool about it…in driving the Sonata around the streets of my hometown, it started to grow on me…especially in its sport mode. The more I drove the car the more it kept saying to me…Take me! Take me! I can do this!
So early Sunday morning I threw some stuff in a bag and off to the Tail we did go.
The more I drove the Hyundai on the interstate the more I enjoyed it. Plenty of power from the 2.0 liter twin turbo engine, a six speed automatic with paddle shifters and a roomy interior with excellent front seats including bolsters and heat was just the ticket for the 8 hour drive from Pittsburgh to Knoxville. You get to know a car on a drive like this and again the more I drove the Hyundai the more I couldn’t wait to see what it could do on the Tail.
Monday morning up early after a comfortable night at a local hotel it was off to the Tail. I wanted to do it early…new sun and less traffic.
AS THE SUN ROSE OVER THE TENNESSEE HILLS MAKING FALL COLORS EVEN BRIGHTER AND THE STEAM WAFTING OFF OF THE WATER IT WAS ALL TOO CLEAR THAT YOU WERE IN A SPECIAL PLACE THIS MONDAY MORNING
THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF DRAGONS TO GREET YOU ON THE TENNESSEE END OF THE TAIL OF THE DRAGON
As I passed the sign that foretold the shape of the road…Dangerous Curves…trucks turn back…it got me going even more! Maybe I was a bit pumped on a half gallon of Hampton Inn coffee as well but in any case after pulling over to shoot some pictures across from the Harley Davidson dealership at the south end of the Tail, I was ready for Freddy!
I wasn’t looking to push the car to its limits or burn the brakes or get through it in record time…I have seen the accident photos. When you pull over in the lot across from the Harley Davidson Dealership at the start of the Dragon, you see the landing pad for the lifeflight helicopter. Kind of a reminder…don’t be an idiot…this road has eaten up better than you.
Seatbelt on…slap it into manual mode and away we go….
It kind of sneaks up on you. Actually you don’t realize you are on it until you are in it as the first few curves are soft, but all of a sudden you start to realize that you are in for a ride as the curves get closer and tighter before starting a climb up the pass. I had the extra added attraction of some snow left over from Sunday morning which added a powdered sugar coating to the vivid colors of fall.
A LIGHT SNOW THAT FELL THE DAY BEFORE MY DRIVE ADDED TO THE COLORS OF FALL THAT WE WERE ENJOYING AS WE WOUND THROUGH THE TAIL
Senses were on alert everywhere…Visually you had to stay with the road while absorbing some of the most beautiful oranges, reds and greens along with autumn browns you have ever seen. All while rolling next to a pretty big drop on the other side of the white line. Your eyes are shooting left, shooting right, looking ahead, taking in the color and oh did I mention it’s hunting season so you are looking for that deer, bear or wild boar that might just decide to cross the road while you are going for your little joyride.
While your eyes are sending this to your brain which is sloshing side to side in your head from g forces you are calculating shift points and braking so that you can get somewhat of an elevated driving experience out of the ride. That’s where the Sonata shone! The warm tires gripping the road, the steering feeling a tad light but sending the car exactly where you pointed it, the turbos kicking in and out giving what you needed when you needed it. Only once in the whole 11 mile journey did I feel anything close to front wheel drive hop and that was when I punched it hard in mid curve in the middle of a downshift.
Moving through short tight curves, small straightaways, more drawn out curves and hairpin turns and switchbacks I understood more and more about this road. It was work to drive it. You had to be alert but you also had to suck it in and feel the curves in the seat of your pants…let the motor wind out a bit and let the car throw you around inside. All of that while absorbing the color and personality of one of America’s most beautiful roads and now 8 miles or so into it trying to keep that Hampton Inn coffee down. I was sweatin profusely even though the windows were all open wide. This drive was work as well as pleasure. I didn’t push the Hyundai as hard as I could have either the first second or third time through. I really wanted to take in the motoring treasure and I did. It was worth the 500 mile ride to experience this ribbon of asphalt that cuts through nature and across a state line.
I was also especially pleased with the fact that I had the nerve, no, the foresight to take a car that one would never expect to do the Dragon. The Sonata Sport 2.0 T was everything I didn’t expect…a car that handled whatever I threw at it, behaved admirably when asked to be a sports car stand in and seemed to like the drive as much as I did with no overheated brakes, no complaints just a constant supply of its engine power to the ground feeding my lust for this piece of road. Add to that it’s shining as a road car on the Interstate drive there and back, never getting boring or uncomfortable to drive on a two day, thousand mile journey.
As I was pulled over shooting a few pictures a flannel shirted guy in a big ol’ pickup pulled into the parking lot towing his boat…he hollered out in a North Carolina accent…”what’d y’all do…bring your pumpkin to drive?” I shot back with a smile…nah just a car that could handle the road!
THE TAIL STRETCHES ACROSS TWO STATES
SOME MORE OF THE VIVID COLOR OF FALL ALONG THE TAIL OF THE DRAGON AS I WAVE GOODBYE TO A ROAD I ALWAYS WANTED TO DRIVE
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