Deal’s Gap, N.C.—“Tail of the Dragon.” It sounds so mythical. So macho. Can you tame the dragon? Oooooh, now there’s a challenge.
I called BMW and asked for “something appropriate.” This is where the choices get difficult. Sure, the Dragon is best with a small car for its tight turns, but there’s a very long day on the interstate to get there first.
Tens of thousands of riders and drivers come down here every year to take it on – to prove themselves against the most legendary road in the Smoky Mountains. Editor Yarkowny (sic) came here last year with a Mazda MX-5 and lived to tell the tale of the Tail. If the weather’s good – hell, even if it’s not good – somebody’s going to crash. A few people die every year. The local police have a special web page warning of its dangers.
So I climbed into a BMW M6 with my friend Peter, a weekend Porsche racer visiting from the U.K., and made the 1,300-kilometre drive south from Toronto to find out the appeal.
Admittedly, the Bimmer wasn’t my first choice. I drove the Dragon a few years ago and remember it as really tight and twisting – 318 curves in 18 kilometres, apparently – so my first choice was a Porsche 911 GTS. Mmmm. The nice guy from Porsche offered to lend me a car. Hell yeah! Then at the last minute, I remembered to mention Peter was coming along, and he wouldn’t let Peter drive it. He didn’t know Peter, and the 911 is worth more than a hundred grand after all.
He was probably smart. Two days before coming over here, Peter set fire to his 968 at Brands Hatch, leaving a trail of fiery smoke all the way from Druids down the Cooper Straight. The oil filter gasket blew. Oops. Bad karma.
With just a few days before leaving, I called BMW and asked for “something appropriate.” This is where the choices get difficult. Sure, the Dragon is best with a small car for its tight turns, but there’s a very long day on the interstate to get there first. Sportbike riders trailer their bikes down to save their wrists and rear tires. A Mini Cooper S or JCW would be perfect, but Peter and I didn’t want to sit that close to each other for hour after hour, all poor coffee, bad breath and flatulence. BMW offered the $125,000 M6 and we grabbed it.
It was a good choice. Peter was very impressed. It came with the Ultimate package, an extra $25,000, which means ventilated, massaging seats in Full Merino leather, a fabulous Bang & Olufsen sound system, a titanium exhaust and, most important, the Competition Package. This boosts the power of the engine from an already-huge 560 hp (up from 445 hp in the regular 6 Series) to a fire-breathing 600 hp, found by raising the boost pressure of the twin-scroll turbos in their upper revs.
Actually, being a public road and all, the Dragon-taming was going to come more from the tighter steering and specially tuned suspension. The M6 offers individual settings for Normal, “Efficiency” and Sport in each of its steering, throttle and active suspension adjustments. We set everything to Efficiency, headed down to Detroit on the 401, then turned left for the mountains.
There’s not much to say about that long drive. It rained a lot. American coffee is crap. I endured Peter’s choice of music while he drove, and he got to enjoy mine when I took the wheel. Cruise control is great. We averaged 10 L/100 km from the 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8, if you care. We didn’t. We drove in two-hour shifts, stayed over in a disgusting motel with a brightly lit lot, and the rest is a blur till Knoxville.
It was early on the Saturday afternoon when we pulled off the interstate in Tennessee and continued south on Hwy. 129. This starts as a wide and busy road with fast-food places and gas stations, but it thins down over the next half-hour as it approaches the Smoky Mountains.
In fact, it’s one of only three roads that cross the Smokys. Interstate 40 passes to the east, another scenic road that crawls with non-passable summer traffic cuts through the middle, and Hwy. 129 passes to the west. Truck drivers used to see it on their GPS and use it – or try to use it. It slowly becomes tighter and tighter, until they’d jackknife on the curves and have to be escorted out. It was only this January that the state finally banned trucks from the road.
The highway is pretty enough for a while, but doesn’t officially start as the Tail of the Dragon until it turns into the mountains beside a reservoir. There’s a pull-out near there with some parked bikes, all large Harleys with large mulletted riders wearing black leather vests. We just drove through a rainstorm and although it’s dry here, they’re looking at the dark clouds and wondering how to avoid them. There aren’t many choices.
And so we punched the settings for the M6 into Sport, pulled out onto the Tail of the Dragon, and Peter, behind the wheel, gave it his best shot.
Which wasn’t much. The smooth road twists as tightly as any well-cambered road can, and the only safe way to overtake slower drivers is for them to pull over on one of the many pull-offs, except most don’t. We ended up behind a Buick that headed a long trail of cars and Harleys and a few sport bikes all the way to the Tennessee–North Carolina state line, and then to our motel here at Deal’s Gap. Its driver was oblivious to the jockeying train behind him. He probably thought he was doing us all a favour by keeping down our speeds.
The political geography of the road is one of its greatest advantages for fast drivers. It continues on to become other, less tortuous roads soon after crossing the state line, which means local Tennessee troopers are responsible for policing the Dragon itself. But the only way for them to get to any of the many speed trap sites is to drive in on the road from the north. To come in from the south means a three-hour drive from Tennessee to get there. So those who know about this, drive slowly north from the state line at Deals Gap, watching for cops. If there are none, then the road’s clear of police all the way back. Air surveillance is impossible because the road is heavily treed, and there are enough people who don’t know about this and drive south without prechecking it to keep the cops busy when they do set up traps.
This road always had a fuzzy relationship with the law. It was built on the route of an old Cherokee trail to service dams back in the 1920s but, like any road down from the mountains during prohibition, it became a moonshine delivery route. Then it was a sleepy stretch of asphalt until a guy named Pete bought the motel here sometime in the 1980s. I couldn’t find Pete – nobody’s sure what happened to him – but he began promoting his motel as a driving destination.
It was Pete who thought up the Tail of the Dragon name, and who decided the road has 318 curves and even named some of them: Copperhead Corner, Brake or Bust Bend, Gravity Cavity – you get the drift. People started coming just to drive, and they brought their tourist dollars to a part of the country that had not much else for an economy.
Now, it seems everyone’s in on the action. More than 500 people come through the store of the motel at Deal’s Gap on most summer days, though it closes for the season once the leaves fall in October. Hotels and motels within an hour of the road have Welcome Bikers signs and are often full on a weekend. Sports car clubs organize drives in the area. Photographers park at pull-offs and take pictures of cars and bikes driving past them like heroes, which can be bought online within a day or so.
And that’s the problem. There are so many visitors – at least on a weekend – that the road becomes crowded and not everyone drives or rides the same way. The Harley guys coast along in large clumps, while the sportbikes and Porsches push to get past. The Buicks are just on their way back home to Robbinsville and don’t care if they slow everyone down – they live here, dammit.
“The problem is the Harleys and the metric cruisers,” said one rider who lives in the area. “They come in from the flatlands – from Illinois or Florida or wherever – on their 900 lb bikes with their 300 lb wives to ‘tame the Dragon.’ They can’t even turn their bikes around on the forecourt of the Harley dealer, let alone ride this road. And they don’t pull over to let others past.”
There are a very few places to overtake, where speeds could reach 80 km/h although the blanket limit is 50, but it’s never safe to do so. It’s a solid dividing line the whole way. The next morning, a frustrated BMW rider pulled out to overtake a slow cruiser and rode into another cruiser coming the other way from behind a curve. The rider went to hospital in Knoxville and parts of the bike might have made it to the Tree of Shame at our motel. It’s covered in wrecked pieces of plastic, cracked chrome and scrawled notes remembering riders who bit the dust.
Peter and I decided the Tree would not look any better for having an M6 bumper tacked to its trunk, or a carbon-fibre roof slung into its canopy. We drove the Dragon a few times each and the BMW torque was great, giving its 500 lb-ft maximum right from 1,500 rpm, but its power was wasted on the tight turns. Its seven gears were fabulous, flicking the paddles through them like zaps of lightning, but we’d have preferred a smaller car, like Yarkowny’s MX-5 or Peter’s 968. Or even that 911 GTS gathering dust up in Toronto.
Instead, to make more of the M6, we headed out on the other roads in the area, all of them beautiful and rewarding to drive. The faster, open curves of the Cherohala Skyway were our favourite, as well as the leafy twists of Hwy. 28 past the Fontana Dam, now promoted as part of the “Moonshiner 28” that leads all the way down to Georgia.
We got back here to Deal’s Gap as it was getting dark, and we’ll kick back tonight with some beer on the porch, bench racing on plastic chairs with the neighbours. They’re all envious of the M6, and it looks pretty good over there, clean and damn near perfect underneath the Tree of Shame.
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We’ll leave tomorrow and we wouldn’t even be bothered to drive the Dragon again, except it’s the only way out of here back north. Not to worry. We’ll turn on the massaging seats and crank up the sound system. There’s a lot more music left on my iPhone for Peter to enjoy.