Rain, the Dragon, and the Sheriff

Hal Copple SP 672


The two of us had been running hard for over 3 hours, heading east from the Tenn border, stopping only for a 93 octane splash and go, and to throw a Score candy bar on the transmission tunnel.  I keep looking at my watch, guessing that we were nearly out of time to drop down off the Appalachian mountains during daylight.  As the westerly sun dipped over the mountains to our left, we finally swung south on NC 276 for the 13 mile drop to Upstate SC.  Blew past a pickup, then entered the forest with a sweeper, and up ahead Mike flashed his taillights to signal that he was going to push it all the way down.  I took a deep breath, pulled the Simpson belts tight, and like a dive bomber pilot, nosed my car over and with a blip to third we began our spiraling descent to my beloved South Carolina. 


Our Superformance club holds a three day road event every April, and this one was based in Knoxville, so we could run the Dragon and the Cherohala Skyway.  The day before I left, I had packed my car with the necessities, plus appropriate spares; alternator, Redline 10-40, Noah, a variety of relays, and enough tools to rebuild an engine.  Wiped it off with some Speedshine, and patted my Weimerainer on the head, admonishing her to watch over my car as always.  Early Wed, took the Wife to Charlotte for a flight to KC to see our newest grandchild, then hastened back to Rock Hill, where I grabbed two Bojangles biscuits, and then came home to begin the trip. 


The sun was rising with promises of a blue sky as I grabbed the roll bar and shoved my car out of the garage, and as per my usual Le Mans style start, trotted alongside as the Accusump gargled with the Redline, filling the mains, then hopping in and lifting the aircraft toggle, fed electricity to the starter and plugs, and the big stroked Windsor spun then fired, and with a blip to clear the primary’s, I was off.


Met up with Mike on southbound I 85 as arranged, then we jumped onto scenic SC 11, and ran southward with the mountains to our right, me leading.  Came around a curve, and found a police SUV parked on the grass, but his window was heavily tinted, and I could see no activity in the car.  I wondered if the local sheriff’s car had a bad engine, and was parked to slow passerby like us, but as Mike then a white sedan following passed the SUV, I looked back to see it pulling out with blue lights flashing. 


So, I was confronted with a choice that I have not fully resolved.   In circumstances like this, is it best to continue on, and when pulled, profess surprise and chagrin that you had been exceeding the limit, or is it best to just pull over and wait for the Mounties to arrive, in effect throwing one’s self at their mercy, fessing up to speeding as it were.  Choosing the latter course, I coasted onto the grass, Mike doing the same, then saw the sheriff pulling the white sedan, who had seemed to be doing the same speed we were.   I wasted no time in immediately accelerating back onto the asphalt, making my getaway as inconspicuous as possible.  No need to loiter at the scene of a crime.  


We cut north to Rosman, and immediately started to climb.  Pulled up behind a Yukon, and in a moment the lady passenger popped up out of the sunroof with her camera, so we danced a bit for her, then Mike and I pulled off for a potty break in the woods, but soon ran the Yukon down again, but this time it was pulled over, and both guy and girl were standing with camera and video to film our passing, so we both threw them some pipes,  and continued on up the mountainside. 


Soon, running westerly thru the mountains, the skies darkened, and loomed threateningly in our path.  We pulled over at a fuel stop, and the two of us argued about assembling our tops; I protested that we should chance it, Mike was adamant that he did not want to get soaked.  At that moment, a pickup rolled up, as if the driver was lip reading our argument, and simply said to the two of us “ ya’ll have two minutes, maybe three, no more.”  And then drove off.  I nodded my capitulation, and we began to unload our trunks, and began the vexing chore of assembling our tops.  As promised, it began to rain heavily, but I beat Mike to cover over my car, as he got drenched  trying to put his top bows on.  We were too dumb to move our cars over to cover by the pumps.  As I waited for Mike to get ready to continue, he called me over the radio, and told me that he had inadvertently pulled his top down over his side curtains, and now couldn’t open his door and get out of his car.  I don’t think you are supposed to swear over the air, so I told him we would worry about it later. 


Drove in pouring rain with miserable visibility to Franklin, where we met up with Bill and Jerry at a gas station/restaurant, where Mike ordered a fried grouper.  I never eat fried food at a place that also does oil changes, as you just don’t know for sure what oil they use.  Then, with clearing skies, we yanked off our tops, and lit out for the hundred plus miles cross country to our destination.  We paused at Deal’s Gap, aka “the Dragon”, where I put on my lipstick video, and drank three bottles of water, feeling my blood beginning to congeal from dehydration.   Chatted with the Biker guys, and then headed up the Dragon. 


I have run it before; it is something like 318 turns in 11 miles or so, an exhausting experience, with sheer drop-offs on one side, and a rock mountain face on the other.  Ran it mostly in second (I can pull 80+ mph out of my car’s second gear), so I could have some engine braking, and found I was bracing my knees against the door hinge and trans tunnel, and was grunting as I hauled the front of my car thru turn after turn.  Our four car “run group” completed the Dragon without incident, and on the far side we congratulated our selves, and belted up, continued on, and immediately ran into heavy rain.  But we pushed on, topless, water cascading into the cockpits, the rain stinging my forehead and eyes  so much I had to drive one handed, shielding my eyes with my left hand.  I couldn’t see squat. 


Arrived at our meeting hotel cold and wet, looking like one of those hitchhikers you never want to risk picking up, and after appropriately greeting  the over 30+ contestants there, grabbed four brats, and wolfed them down, avoiding the buns, as my doctor says I need to avoid bread calories for my health.  One beer, tossed the Noah on the car, and I went up to bed. 


Next AM, Mike said the grouper was causing him problems, nausea, might even barf if the turns got to him.  My own car had been recently dyno tuned, and the shop had changed my Holley Pro HP’s jetting to much richer for maximum power, but my car was now so “gassy” that the guys had banished me to the rear of the pack, one chap even having to dig out his inhaler because of my gas fumes.  But with the threat of puke on our windscreens, we promptly banished him to the rear, moving me up one car in the pack. 


The now caravan of about 25 Cobra’s headed up into the Great Smokies, climbing winding roads with rock to one side, and rushing icy streams on the other.  Sometimes the trees would arch over us, sometimes we ran so close to the rock that water dripped straight down into our cockpits.  I often wonder what “Old Growth” forests look like, and wish I could see what this country looked like before the forests were felled centuries ago.  When I could snatch a glimpse into the forests, the trees seemed so majestic, the woods so free of underbrush, that I pondered if the Indians of long ago found the untouched forests as beautiful as I did, climbing higher and higher on tight, winding roads. 


Eventually we ended up at the Dragon again, and every minute or so, one of us would stage, and then with a wave off from the rest of us, blast up the hill and out of sight, each on his own personal quest for a personal best.  I kept thinking that it reminded me of vintage film of the Mille Miglia in the ‘50’s, with each Cobra heading off singularly to slay the Dragon.  Then it was my turn, and after yanking hard on the Simpson’s and moving my seat up several clicks, with a last check of the gages I too blasted off, showing off for the biker guys watching us launch.  A few seconds later, at the first turn, I realized that my showboating had put me in a predicament,  as I braked late and had to carve across the double yellow to make the turn.  Crossing the yellow can be fatal, with the sport bikes screaming thru the turns, so I sternly admonished myself to pay attention to my driving, and quit being dumb, or I could hurtle off the side of the mountain, or worse, force a biker off his path, with fateful consequences.  


When it seemed to me that I had covered about half the Dragon’s distance, I dropped down to the end point.  The concentration to wrestle my car thru 318 turns just made time compress, and if someone asked me, I would have said it was maybe 75+ turns, but nowhere near 300+.   I guess as soon as you commit to one turn, and start looking towards the next braking point, you forget the one you just did; it seems that decisions come at you too fast to remember what you just did, because the driver is so focused on what is about confront him.  But made it back to the hotel, racking up over another thousand turns for the day.  Mike kept reminding us that the Grouper had messed up his braking and shifting, and blaming the Grouper for his lousy apexes and generally messy cornering.  On and on about the Grouper Effect, and I was about to be convinced that it was also responsible for Global Warming!


Bed beckoned again, and up in the AM, added some oil, wiped things down, and loaded up my car for the return trip, and soon our caravan was underway, this time working eventually to run the Dragon again, from the Tenn. side.   As before, we staged one by one, this time I had a passenger along, and as before ran fast but within my limits, watching my oil temps climb to 220F, and dropped down again to the far rally point, only to hear in a few minutes that one of our group had run hard into the side of the mountain, when he became airborne for a moment.  A trailer was dispatched, and with condolences to the uninjured driver, we continued onto the Cherohala Skyway, another magnificent  drive.  We clipped right along, stopping occasionally for the older of us men to walk a few feet to the trees for a nature call.  Aiming out over the mountain, several of us commented that when a few ladies ride with the men, we travel under Guy Rules. It’s a prostate thing for us older menfolk.  When the group pulled in for lunch, I ran a mile further, desperately needing fuel.   At a remote  intersection met about a dozen sport bikers about ready to run up the mountain, asked if they knew of any nearby gas, and one pointed up the road to my right. Needing to do a 180, and with the intersection wide and free of gravel, I stabbed the throttle, and in a cloud of rubber smoke, spun a perfect 180 turn, and while this usually stalls my motor, this time I stayed on the gas, and as I rocketed up the road, I could hear a great “YES!!” from the bikers.  A late lunch at a fine restaurant by a trout stream, and it was time for Mike and I to head home.  Leading the 20+ cars out of the parking lot, in less than a mile I was unsure of which turn to take, so I pulled over, as my friends passed by I waved to each of them.  They surely thought I was being friendly as they left, but in truth, I was already lost, and needed to wait for Mike to come up and take over the lead. 


The two of us ran fast thru the rural Tennessee roads, thru tiny towns, using our new found mountain road confidence to fly around turns and up and down ridges and valleys.  Finally, it was a race to beat the sunset, as we needed to drop several thousand feet.   With Mike leading, we made the first turn into the deep and darkening woods.  Down we went; and I forced myself to accept the reality that this was going to be fast and dangerous, and I would have to use my track-honed experience to make it out of the bottom in once piece.   Mike was pushing it faster than I would have driven it solo; the Grouper Effect apparently dissipated,  but as all men know, if the leading car can do it, then so can we, as we are always just a bit better driver than the leading car, no matter who is the pilot.  I was using threshold and trailing braking to put the nose of my car down for the tighter turns, then accelerate hard in usually second to reach the next turn, as mile after mile passed under the hot front tires.  I forced myself to accept that my front tires were getting hot, and would not brake as well, so I moved my braking points back just a bit.  The green forests on each side began to loose their vibrancy as the woods became darker as I used much of the road for apexing S and hairpin turns.   It was hard to keep up with Mike’s leading car, and I reflected that if we both went into the woods, the only thing likely to find us would be the scavengers.  We had the whole downhill run to ourselves, just Hal, Mike,  and over 1,000 horsepower between us and whatever bears were about. 


It seemed that there was no end to the turns and banks and short straights in front of my car.   But after what seemed like an hour, we reached the bottom, and in a few miles, turned in for fuel.  I told Mike that in my 40 or so years of driving sports cars, and several thousand miles of track time, I was sure I had never experienced a run like we just completed.  It was filled with an intensity and fear and need for perfection unlike any driving experience I had ever undergone.  Perhaps it is most accurate to describe our run as making a qualifying lap on virgin track, with really big trees right at the edge of the asphalt. 


Two hours later, split up from Mike, and headed home, arriving about midnight.   As I walked past the garage ‘fridge, grabbed the last remaining Anchor Steam, ripped open a bag a Jalapeno chips, and put on my Dragon video, but I a few minutes, all I could do was drag my body to bed, where I collapsed and slept for 11 hours.  


The total trip mileage was 918.   Not so much as a hiccup from my beloved Superformance. 


All the best,


Hal Copple