Chasing the Dragon

by Per Schroeder

Sometimes the best roadtrips arise from happy accidents.  Maybe “accident” is the wrong word choice when talking about a drive in a car, but nonetheless, random happenings make for the best trips. One such bit of randomness got me on the best roads in the country with a set of tires that needed to be worn out before they were thrown away.

I was asked to attend a vintage Porsche get-together in North Carolina—specifically the 356 Registry’s East Coast Holiday. This year’s event was being held at the Fontana Lodge near some of the best roads in the country—specifically the Rt 129, the “Tail of the Dragon” and, Rt 143, the Cherohala Skyway. I've heard from friends about how awesome these roads were and I jumped at the chance to see if all of the hype was justified. 

While I recently restored an early 911 that would have been welcome at the event, it has since gone on to a new owner—so the drive down would have to be in something a bit less interesting.  No problem.  My daily driver is a 2014 Mazda3—a comfortable and efficient car that handles my 100 miles worth of daily commuting very well. It’s already got 17,000 miles on it and hasn’t had a single issue.  The 3 is frisky when the going gets twisty—Mazda really got the suspension tuning nearly perfect for a fun and frugal hatchback.


The Mazda3 isn't a bad choice for commuter, long distance travel companion and responsible hooligan. 

I have autocrossed the car a handful of times, but the Sports Car Club of America’s allowance of the John Cooper Works suspension package for the rival MINI has made the heavier 3 an also-ran.  Things are only getting worse for the Mazda3 in 2015 as a cluster of faster cars has been dumped into SCCA’s slowest autocross class. Good for the sport—not good for my personal competitiveness. 

Thanks to my lighter than expected autocross season this year (see the above mentioned 911 restoration), I’ve got a set of older Hankook RS3s that will soon be illegal for Street Class autocrossing. These tires, purchased at the end of 2012 before Hankook updated them, have a 140 UTQG treadwear rating and the SCCA is moving to 200TW for 2015.  So, that means they’re fair game for some fun and games—or at least some amusing commuting until the snow starts flying.


Nothing like having a set of sticky tires that *must* be worn out in short order.  

So I took the low-rolling resistance Yokohamas that originally came on the Mazda off and the “race tires” were bolted on for the trip.  The Hankooks are clearly biased for maximum performance, as noise and harshness over small pavement irregularities is markedly increased.  That said, it’s nice that SCCA has changed its “Stock” autocross classes with R-compound tires over to “Street” with really much more commuter-friendly tires.  It just makes sense on a variety of levels

The trip down to North Carolina from Northern Ohio was uneventful—about 10 hours with a few quick stops along the way—but my hopes for the weekend improved the closer I got to Fontana.  Even the roads leading into the event venue were spectacular—one of which was Rt 28, also known as the “Hellbender” after a rare aquatic salamander that lives in the nearby rivers.


Just one of the many glorious turns that invite shenanigans.  
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Thursday, October 23, 2014 7:51 AM
Those classic Porsche's are awesome. What a great road tour location for vintage automobiles!
Thursday, October 23, 2014 10:12 AM
I agree with your assessment on the Dragon, still worth a visit though. And you can get some spirited runs in at night or early morning with a minimal amount of hog traffic. I did see a few bears though.

Also worth doing in that area is white water rafting.

I'm also glad SCCA is rethinking their stock classes. As a teenager starting off in auto x, I found it ridiculous that to be competitive in "stock" class you needed another set of wheels with slicks mounted and all the tools and accessories to change them out in a parking lot. Or trailer your "stock" car.
Clay Perrine
Clay Perrinelink
Thursday, October 23, 2014 10:33 AM
Thank you for the wonderful article. The first picture is of my wife driving her 1974 914 on the dragon. We made the 2K round trip from Texas just for the event, in two Vintage 914s. And I agree with you, the street is no place to drive flat out, keep it on the track.

Thank you again.
Thursday, October 23, 2014 11:22 PM
I enjoyed my ride through the area on my motorcycle. Compared to my normal driving venues the sights, sounds, and curves are unmatchable. While it is understood that racetracks and autocross events are preferred places to learn, enjoy, and stretch one's limits of driving skill there is no track anywhere in the United States that has so many curves. Even without the break neck speeds the mountain roads offer a distinct experience I will always cherish.
You could look at using your special tires as increasing the safety margin at sane speeds instead of offering higher thresholds to experience. More capacity for avoidance is a plus whether from slower speeds or higher grip.
If I ever get to travel South again I will definitely revisit US129. Even at the speed limit it is a fun drive.
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