As much as I love my new life in water skiing, there are times I miss my former life as a race car driver. So I’m going off topic here because you can take the kid out of the race car, you can’t take the race car driver out of the kid.
H and I recently went on a bucket-list drive we will never forget—wringing out a Porsche Cayman GTS on Tennessee’s legendary Tail of the Dragon. The Tail of the Dragon is the kind of mountain pass a driving enthusiast’s dreams are made of. In fact, I’d have to say it’s the best road I have ever encountered anywhere, ever, period, bar none. The Dragon is 318 masterfully engineered, perfectly paved, undulating corners packed into a beautiful 11 mile stretch through Deal’s Gap in southern Tennessee’s Smokey Mountains.
Our Dragon encounter started on a calm, sunny, autumn morning with an early start to avoid traffic. After winding through some remote rural roads, we eventually encountered the Foothills Parkway, a tight twisting mountain pass that anywhere else would be considered a legendary road in its own right. With no traffic in sight, it didn’t take long before I’d all but forgotten about the very real possibility of speed traps, and the pace started sneaking up. By the time we’d carved our way through the pass, we were in full sport mode and wondering how any road could possibly get better. But it did. About five miles later, a rapid-fire series of truly incredible corners made it obvious that we had indeed now … entered the Dragon.
With one tight, long, smooth turn followed immediately by another then another, rising and falling in spellbinding rhythm, I found myself transcending into driving nirvana, and was soon pushing the Porsche hard—really hard. Poor H. She is as good as passengers get, but she eventually had to ask for a break to give her vertigo a chance to clear. I just couldn’t bring myself to dial it back. The combination of the car, road and scenery made for such a soul-stirring driving experience that at one point, it literally brought tears to my eyes.
In my 38 years of racing, I’ve never seen corners anything like this. No race track is this bendy, twisty and undulating—not even close. The Dragon is kart-track tight with no straightaways or intersections to interrupt the seamless rhythm. It was just corner after brilliant corner unfolding in glorious perfection. You’d crest a gentle rise while turning one way, then drop 15 feet into a deeply banked corner in the opposite direction—turn after turn after turn, snaking through the forest. I simply cannot imagine a more beautiful stretch of road!
And the mid-engine Cayman was the IDEAL car for this dream-drive, pointing into each turn with scalpel-like precision, rotating around bends as if perfectly balanced on rails with barely a hint of body roll, the carbon ceramic brakes delivering eye-popping deceleration into 1st gear corners, on-and-on without a hint of fade. But best of all was the song its incredible flat-six engine was singing to the mountain at the top of its lungs.
Its sophisticated Ferrariesque howl would morph through multiple rich tones all the way to its near 8,000 rpm redline. Then the overrun with each downshift would send a delicious cacophony of popping and cracking up and down the valley reverberating through the crisp autumn air. And as if this rockus soundtrack and the high-G corners weren’t enough of a treat for the senses, add the visually stunning backdrop with morning sun streaming through the autumn leaves and the rich, organic aromas of the forest blowing through our open windows. It was a feast for the senses—and I wanted it to never end.
However, I’d be remiss in telling this story without a mention of how seriously challenging this road is. Uncluttered by ugly guardrails, this narrow, two-way, mountainside masterpiece is lined with trees, granite and cliffs. It demands an uncompromising ability to stay within one lane, because when traffic picks up, there’s a dangerous mix of vehicles and driving abilities going both directions. Over the past 25 years, there have been thousands of accidents with over 50 deaths on this short stretch of road. Because of this, the speed limits are low, and the cops do patrol the area and ticket anyone getting too carried away. So while I made sure I drove well within my abilities, I was also grateful that nobody had passed judgement on those limits or abilities from the other side of a radar gun.
On our third pass through the Dragon, we started encountering traffic including everything from Harleys through pickup trucks. So it was time to move on to the slightly less famous, but no less breathtaking, Cherohala Skyway. While the 318-turn Tail of the Dragon is an 11-mile onslaught of tight corners, the Cherohala is 43 miles of mesmerizing sweepers with breathtaking scenery. And by “sweepers” I mean beautiful, long, round corners that only feel like sweepers after the tight confines of the Dragon. It’s another brilliant example of artful road building. Suffice it to say, it was a good thing there was no rain for the rest of the trip. By the time we hit the flatlands, the tires were finished.
And as if it wasn’t quite done strutting its stuff, when we arrived at the hotel that evening, the little Cayman couldn’t resist picking up a date. Within 10 minutes of our arrival, we had a young pop star and her entourage asking if they could use the car in a photo shoot. Then to top it all off, The Hyatt invited the car to spend the night gracing the hotel’s grand front entrance. As if being rewarded for having put in the performance of its life, it was now basking in the glory of full rock star status. What a glorious day for this amazing little sports car.