MiataWorld II: Day Two

by Alan J. Claffie

Today we got our baptism at The Gap, also known as The Dragon.

This road, US129 on the North Carolina/Tennessee border, is legendary in motorcycle circles and has quite a following among the sporty car crowd as well. The highlight is an eleven-mile stretch that features 318 curves. To fit that many twisties in a short stretch of road, they've got to be fairly close together and relatively compact.

Once we got on the road, all thoughts of what we had considered fun roads were erased. Even yesterday's treat of Skyline Drive paled in comparison as we wound our way through turn after turn, bouncing between second and third gear, lots of brakes, uphill, downhill, and finally out the other side of the woods. After a few minutes to catch our breath, it was back in the cars to try it again going the other way.

Traveling this road usually involves running across motorcycles, and we were worried going in that we'd get in the way of cruisers and/or sport bikers who tend to tackle this stretch pretty aggressively. Common courtesy dictates that those holding up the works pull off where convenient and let the bikers continue on with their recklessness, but it turns out that we were the ones catching traffic and, more often than not, having them clear the way for our intimidating little girlie cars.

It's tough to explain but after the first run through, where I admit I was pretty much in attack mode despite having no idea what was around the next corner, we decided that we weren't going to be boy racers on subsequent runs. So the second time through, Kate led and despite what we agreed on, I had to work hard to keep up with her, at least until we came up on a small parade of slower vehicles and the fun was over after that.

We got the obligatory small US129 Dragon stickers for the cars and pondered our next move. Kate then said that we had to go through one more time since that was the direction we had to go anyway. That was cool. We saddled up one more time and again agreed to play it safe, no squealing tires, etc etc. But two turns in we were banging through the gears and standing on the gas and brakes alternatively and making good time, at least until we came up on a Harley doing the speed limit (anywhere from 20 MPH to 35 in places) and as much as I shouldn't say it, the Dragon isn't really all that fun at legal speeds. I mean it's entertaining and still a bit of a workout, but nowhere near as thrilling.

We're considering ourselves fortunate that we were there on a Tuesday afternoon in May as opposed to a summer weekend. We saw no law enforcement and not that much traffic. I imagine the road could get pretty crowded on weekends and we've heard horror stories about run-ins with the law there.

As we were leaving the area we crossed paths with a number of motorcycles as well as a trio of newish BMW coupes, a Viper, and a Mustang Cobra. And after running the road a few times I have to think that cars like that, while certainly capable of being fun, are probably overkill on such a tight course. Once they get going it's time to slow down and turn again, and I'm sure they do all of that well, but is it that much fun to drive a Viper at 40 MPH? The Miata seems to be made for roads like this in comparison. Not that we wouldn't mind taking a Viper for a spin up and down 129, you know, just for comparison purposes.

What did we learn? We learned that the Kuhmo Ecsta AST tires on the '99 are still cheap tires that are very adequate for everyday driving but not quite up to the task of 8/10ths. The back tires stayed pretty well planted but up front they'd understeer coming out of a turn with power being put down. We had to keep reminding ourselves that we'll be on a real racetrack during the coming weekend, so there was no need to risk life and limb trying to drive a public road like a race track.

We didn't make it much past the Dragon's neighborhood before calling it a night. We found a Holiday Inn Express in Knoxville to rest up and recharge before tackling the balance of the trip to Grapevine, Texas. We don't have any other side trips planned and only 843 miles to cover, so we're looking at a couple of no-rush no-fuss driving days before arriving and getting our social act on.

More later.

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