The Tail of the Dragon is probably the closest thing in spirit to a place like the Nurburgring that we have in North America. While there are countless great roads all over the US and Canada, nothing I have ever seen quite compares to that 11 miles stretch of Highway 129: the on camber-corners; the elevation changes; the smooth glass-like surface; and the deadly surroundings. It all comes together to give you an experience that is as thrilling as it can be scary.
Driving the Dragon requires the kind of concentration generally needed for track days. Hands in their proper place, a decent pair of driving shoes, and complete focus on the road, the car, and your surrounding. I’m not afraid to say that I found myself mentally worn out after three quick and rather intense runs – to the point I felt the need to take a break and gather my thoughts.
My first run was with full gear and a copilot. While had intended to take my time and learn the road without pushing myself, I almost felt taunted by each corner. I just had to push.
There was a deceptive quality to many of the corners the first time through. For starters there is no run-off and thus no room for error. With lanes that are very narrow and aggressive – and with oncoming traffic a common occurrence – you must be on your toes. The blind corners are also quite a challenge. In fact it didn’t take long for Ken (my copilot for most weekend) to start reading corner information via the GPS like you might hear on the WRC. With that technique we were both able to get ahead of each corner and drive in a much more controlled yet aggressive fashion. After an entire weekend using the GPS I actually can’t imagine going back without it.
All told the road was better and more demanding than I could have imagined. While you can’t (or shouldn’t) drive 10/10ths of it like you can a track, I believe the Dragon requires even more attention and skill to truly drive quickly. Much of the road is so technical and tight that you don’t really have room for any of the missteps that are easily correctable on the track. Further, like a place such as Nurburgring, it’s simply too long and complex to fully memorize easily.
But all this is what makes the Dragon such a challenge. It also makes it the most demanding road I’ve ever driven. So while I’ve graduated from my first Dragon experience, it’s the kind of place that I’ll never stop learning from.
There’s so much to say that it’s really hard to know where to start. First off the folks who helped put on MOTD 2006 all deserve hearty pat on the back. They managed to treat over 600 of us to a fantastic weekend of events while keeping it grassroots and laid-back.
It was great to meet so many folks that I’ve only talked to on email over the years. And despite trepidation, I did indeed wear my name badge and try to meet as many peeps as possible.
Upon arriving at Fontana on Thursday afternoon we checked in and headed to our cabin. After meeting up with Jonathan Souza (who kindly offered us two of the bedrooms in his cabin a few months back) we settled in and headed over for the welcome dinner. The rest of the night consisted of checking out cars, talking with owners, and watching pulley installs under the lights.
I spent Friday morning trying to clear out the cobwebs from Thursday night before heading out for the panoramic photo. Once that was over it was time to attack the dragon.
However, once on the road we started to run into what can only be described as a torrential downpour. To make matters worse, fog rolled into some sections of the road and gave you the feeling of driving in and out of the clouds. Through it all however, my car felt planted and completely sure of itself. Having experienced an autocross in severe weather last year, I was very aware of the car’s limits and when and where to push them. To put it another way, I wasn’t about the let a little rain stop me from having one of the best drives of my life.
After several Dragon runs, some chili judging, and a fantastic brew swap later that evening, we settled in for the night hoping for some sun and dry roads for our last full day.
Saturday was brilliant. The sun was out, the roads were fairly dry, and just about 500 cars were in dire need of a wash. Following an abbreviated wash our group headed out to Fontana Dam to meet for the 11am “Scenic Drive”. This was our first real group event of the weekend and the first time I had driven with more than two or three other cars. I now can understand why a lot of folks stay away from the larger events. It’s not that it wasn’t a great experience, it’s just a change of pace was a bit of a shock to the system.
The farewell dinner was notable for me in that I was introduced to the southern delicacy, “hush puppies” (AKA, fried corn “material”). After the dinner we headed down the hill and to the Ice Cream social where all the big prizes were to be given away. Oddly half of the people at our table actually won prizes. In fact two out of the four of us that regularly do garage nights together won garage creepers. We were so successful at winning just about everything for awhile that I thought the crowd might start to turn on us. I believe I may have heard a few jeers.
The rest of the night was filled with the kind of revelry that you might expect from people saying goodbye to new friends, talking cars and smoking cigars. We headed down to see off the folks who were doing the Midnight Dragon run and then back to the cabin to make an honest effort at finishing off the remaining beer we had brought from Chicago.
Sunday brought one more drive through the Dragon and an incredibly long drive north back to Chicago.
MINIs on the Dragon is a fantastic event that I can’t recommend enough to MINI owners. It’s got the scenery, the people and the events that make it truly special. But at it’s core, it’s got the Dragon. The kind of thing that gets in your blood for the rest of your life. And that’s what truly makes MOTD so special. In fact I can’t imagine it not becoming a personal rite of spring.
I managed to hit an epic pothole in Gary Indiana (you know, birthplace of Michael Jackson) that was so harsh the guys in the MINI behind us actually heard me swear. Okay, maybe not, but I do believe it was actually a crater left from a small meteorite. After the hit, the steering wheel had the characteristic twitch that one gets after a bent rim.
Later in the trip, Ken (who piloted the car about half the time) managed to nail a pile of metal chain in Knoxville TN. I don’t blame him. I’m sure anyone would have hit it… cough… Anyway, by the time I got down the Dragon, we were pretty certain there was some wheel damage on my left front.
Interestingly after getting back to the dealer this week, they found absolutely no damage to the wheel or tire. Instead they found that the wheel weights had been thrown off by (surprise) some sort of epic pothole collision. After a quick rebalance the car was perfect.
My 11 month old MCS hit 10,000 miles while on the Dragon. Without the trip I probably would have been right around 9,000 miles for the year.
We averaged just less 30 mpg on the way down with four cases of beer, four bottles of San Pellegrino, six bottles of Vitamin Water, luggage and two rather tall guys. All things considered, not bad.
I borrowed both a Valentine One and Magellan GPS for the trip. Both are highly recommended for anyone considering taking a long trip in the US let alone a trek down to the Dragon. The V1 probably saved me from at least one ticket.
Otherwise, there was really nothing else (thankfully) to report in over 1200 miles.
A big thanks to the following people for being a part of a great event (in no particular order): Eric and Carol; Peter from M7; Chad from Detroit Tuned; Jason for Coopersport.ca; Jonathan; Jim #1; Jim #2; Aaron (and the whole crew) from Outmotoring; Matt from the Brew Swap; Traci from BSSP; Edge; Matt for showing me his various hangover cures; Ken for insisting on making Espresso every morning; Steve for fresh Roundel; Taylor, Francis, Paul, Deb, Amanda, and finally Brian who just happened to have his camera around his neck the whole freakin’ weekend.
Photos: 1, 3, 4, 6 courtesy of Kill Boy. Photo 2 courtesy of Driving_Hamster. Everything else courtesy of yours truly.