The unmistakable pops and raps of a Mazda rotary interrupt the whip-poor-will's haunting call. It's past dusk on a sticky June day, and across the valley, the fleeting light outlines the mountain. The road over there is a half-mile away, cut into the hillside, hidden by a lush coating of sugar maples and hemlocks. > Except for the unseen whip-poor-will and an army of chirping crickets, I'm alone, standing on the same road. A few hours ago, this section of U.S. Route 129, alternately known as the Tail of the Dragon (or simply the Dragon), was clogged with Harleys and gawking tourists. But now it's empty, to the wildlife and the man in the Mazda. > His headlights break through the trees every few seconds. He's driving hard, big downshift blips, each upshift coming at what sounds like redline. I'm listening for a mistake, a break in the engine's sweep or the screech of a sliding tire, hoping he's not as good as the locals claim. > After all, I came here to beat him.
Every great driving road has its disciples, the fortunate locals who pray at a blacktop temple. In Japan, enthusiasts flock to the passes around Mount Fuji. The Brits head to Wales, and mainland Europe has too many two-lane meccas to count. In the southeastern U.S., Route 129 is a beacon. Once a footpath carved by Cherokee Indians, the nine-mile section of 129 that heads west from the North Carolina border boasts some 300 corners, most of which are perfectly cambered for speed.
Some say 129 has been ruined by notoriety, a traffic jam of wannabes and police out to nab drivers who come to the area just to blitz through the hills. For that reason, when three friends and I spent a weekend driving in the area last spring, the Dragon wasn't even on the agenda. The region holds plenty of lesser-known but equally challenging routes.
But then, at a gas station, Matt Chambers walked over to talk about the Corvette test car I was driving. Massive sunglasses covered his tan face. His mouth, framed by perfect white teeth, never rested, bragging of speed exploits and a collection of modified cars. Behind him, I could see a Ferrari 360 Spider holding his blonde companion and a squirrel-sized dog.
Forgive me, but those signs don't add up to my kind of guy. So when Chambers offered to lead us on a tour of the area, I demurred, assuming he'd be a roadblock. But he pressed, mentioning the Dragon, which only cemented my perception.
"Isn't that road ruined by tourists?" I asked.
"Not if you know the right time to go," he said.
"What about the cops?"
"Hell, I went to high school with most of them. We know when they're there."
At 6:30 the next morning, we met on the western side of 129, where the road nestles the lakes that were formed when the Little Tennessee River was dammed in 1919. Chambers showed up in a red Corvette Z06, lowered and riding on fat tires.
"I'm not sure I'll have much for you," he hedged. "I used to know every inch of this road, but it's been a while and these tires are old junk." We climbed into the cars, barreling east past the overlook that serves as the Dragon's unofficial start.
For the next nine miles, I barely kept up. Now, before you call our driving reckless, a few important details: This section of 129 has no connecting roads, and during our early drive, it was empty of other cars or bikes. When I'm on a road like this, I religiously stay in my lane and slow heavily for oncoming traffic. And while I despise my advancing age—I'm 44—I welcome the bits of maturity that have come with it. I've seen the consequences of ego and foolishness. We were just out to have fun, and at-the-limit driving belongs on a racetrack. In short, if Chambers dropped me, so be it.
He didn't, but I was impressed. We stopped at the scruffy Deals Gap motel and T-shirt shop, which sits at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line and unofficially ends the Dragon. A few motorcyclists were groggily emerging from their rooms. A fire pit smoldered. Chambers was all teeth.
"Man, I'm so pissed I couldn't run away from you. These tires, they're so hard, they're not even picking up pebbles."
He was right. His tires were clean. Mine were hot to the touch and had a skim coat of parking-lot grit. Still, Chambers's car had rarely been out of shape. The guy knew what he was doing.
"Matt," I said, "where did you learn to drive?"
"Here. There's a bunch of us that used to run from time to time."
I had heard that there's an unofficial record time on the Dragon, measured between the overlook and the state line. So I asked.
"Around 10 minutes," he said.
Nine miles in 10 minutes means an average of 54 mph. During our drive, the Vette's head-up display had never read more than 40. The Dragon is all second-gear corners, like a tight autocross course.
"Sorry, but that's bullsh**," I countered.
"Oh no, it's legit. You should come back when the fast guys are out. There's a guy here who blows everyone away."
"I won't say his name. He's real cagey and doesn't want to be known. But he's been driving this road for almost as long as I've been alive."
Now I know what a CIA operative's life is like. It took a series of calls, informants, and text messages to finally speak to someone who knew the mystery man personally. My was Darryl "Killboy" Cannon, a Dragon regular. The driver, I learned, was informally known as "the King." Cannon wouldn't give me the King's number but agreed to pass along my messages.
Cannon's a 42-year-old former forklift operator who knows the road and its people better than anyone. In 2000, he began regularly hanging around 129, dabbling in a photography hobby by shooting cars on the road. People started asking him for shots, which he gave away. He got so many requests that he began selling images, then eventually walked away from the forklift business. He now spends every day of the warm months on the Dragon, shoots 50,000 pictures a week with the help of three employees, and knocks back part of the winter in the Caribbean. There's a turn on the road known as Killboy Shadetree Corner.
On the phone, Cannon sounded like one of those southerners who use the drawl to disguise his intelligence. He told me the King didn't want publicity and wasn't interested in running with me. All I wanted, I explained, was to drive the road with him and a few die-hards, to hear their stories, to find out why they keep returning to a road that common knowledge says has been ruined by overexposure.
Cannon seconded the King's wariness. Neither man wanted to invite additional patrols or get involved with some journalist's delusions of grandeur. But I pushed, explaining my two decades of amateur road racing, and how a wreck would end my career as a car writer.
All this negotiating prompted questions: If I wrote a story about these characters, would I be encouraging behavior that should be scolded? Or worse, promoting copycats? And if these guys are so into going fast, why not take it to a track? The answers depend on your personal belief system, but I ultimately decided that I wanted to see what made these people tick. The discretion of both Cannon and the King, coupled with the skill I saw in Chambers, meant a lot. If these guys were reckless idiots, they would have crashed out or landed in jail long ago. And finally, illegal street racing is as old as the automobile—I couldn't imagine writing anything that would change the tide. I kept calling Cannon.
Finally, we agreed on terms. Cannon, the King, and any peers they wanted to invite would meet me on a weekend evening in June. The King would lead and I'd follow for one run, and then we'd see what developed. There would be no crossing the road's double yellow line. They wanted to run at night, but not wishing to pad my disadvantage, I nixed that. I assured them that all I wanted was to see how soon the King would drive out of sight, but I secretly fantasized about staying on his bumper. My only hope would be to bring one hell of a car.
I called Ferrari.
Of course, I wanted a LaFerrari, the $1.4 million, 950-hp supercar that's just now seeing customer hands. That car, however, is not on Ferrari's media-loan list, so I got the next best thing: a 458 Speciale.
The Speciale is stacked, the hot-rod version of the 458. Its aluminum-block, flat-crank V-8 makes 597 hp. The suspension is stiffer and less compromised than the standard 458's, and there are downforce-producing aerodynamic aids, Michelin R-compound tires, and a bare carbon-fiber interior. After the LaFerrari and F12berlinetta, the Speciale is the fastest car at Ferrari's private Fiorano road course, 1.4 seconds quicker than the LaFerrari's predecessor, the Enzo. In our tests, the Speciale squirted to 60 mph in 3.0 seconds, 100 in just 6.9. Its light weight and focus help it generate 1.01 g's of lateral grip. It seemed like the perfect unfair advantage.
The Ferrari and I arrived the day before our meeting so I could acclimate with the car and the road. (Yes, I wanted to practice.) At 6:00 that evening, I passed the overlook with the car at full chat, the V-8 ripping out its glorious, ear-splitting howl.
By the first switchback, my luck was obvious. The Ferrari is ungodly fast and always does what you ask. The only catch was the personality—this is a raucous, frenetic car, and it's most confidence-inspiring at the absolute limit of its tires. It was a little worrisome. At my relatively sedate pace, the car was plenty quick, but it was constantly nudging me to go faster. I wondered how long I'd be able to resist.
The very red, very loud 458 and I pulled into the motel parking lot like a peacock strutting into a farmyard. I hopped out, and a small crowd quickly encircled the car. The stares could have cut glass, but then a tattooed gent put his hand on a tire and announced, "It's almost melted!" The mood shifted. I went from pariah to having passed some unspoken test, and the car became a celebrity.
A guy dressed in jeans and a T-shirt claimed to be a former professional stunt-bike rider. I must have unintentionally given him a suspicious look, because he immediately hopped on his motorcycle and pulled a wheelie up a nearby hill. When he returned, he was riding solely on the bike's front wheel. The crowd left me for this impromptu show, which only got hammier as the magazine's photographer started shooting.
"We call this part of the road Wheelie Hell," a man behind me said, "but it should be called Wheelbarrow Hill, for all the crashes they scoop off the pavement. Everyone showboats here."
The words came from a fiftyish man in motorcycle leathers. His suit was zipped down to a slightly protruding belly and most of his hair had long since departed. Before I could introduce myself, a guy drove up in a beige Toyota Avalon, rolled down the window, and said, "What's up, Mr. Davis?"
I recognized the name. The King.
"Oh, I'm just enjoying the show," he said.
Davis—I've changed his name for this story—genially stood there while I peppered him with questions. He's easygoing and pleasant but extremely analytical. He grew up on the far side of Blount County and started coming to Route 129 in 1983 on a motorcycle. "I was extremely lucky," he said, "to have found something I was really passionate about."
He raced motorcycles for 20 years until a wreck put him in the hospital. He had various girlfriends, jobs in Knoxville, setbacks, and successes, yet he says the road is the one constant, the companion that never let him down. He bought his first house because it was nearby, trading an hour commute to Knoxville for a 15-minute one to here. Now he works from home developing software, buzzing the road with either a car or a bike three to five times a week. He seemed relaxed about everything.
"It's just physics," he said. "You know what the car or motorcycle can do, but you don't know if there's a bear, an RV, or a UFO around the bend."
Davis claimed to have developed a special setup for the road. "To be fast here," he said, "you have to be able to count on the front end sticking, and then you hope you've got enough rear grip to stay in line." He looked at the Ferrari. "See, this car's not going to be good here. It's set up for aero grip and doesn't have enough front tire for this low-speed stuff." He wasn't wrong. I was grateful for the Ferrari's stability, but on that road, it washed wide a lot.'
With Davis's car, a modified 1993 Mazda RX-7, he jammed in the widest front tires he could fit: 275-sections, paired with 315s in the rear. "I'm lucky because I could afford a better car than most people."
It took me a while to figure out how to tactfully ask for his run time on the road. When I finally did, there was silence.
"So … is it 10 minutes?"
He sighed. "Yeah, that's about right."
We agreed to meet again the next day at 4:00.
The front page of that day's Maryville Daily Times read "Six Die in Six Weeks from Car Wrecks." Two of those were on Route 129. One involved a motorcyclist who plummeted off a cliff and wasn't found for four days. Looking at the paper, I suddenly remembered Cannon's email from the previous week, where he warned that this season on the Dragon had begun more lethally than most, which might invite more patrols. As if I needed anything else to fret about.
At 4:00 in the afternoon, I pulled off onto a narrow overlook at the Dragon's western endpoint, joining a small crowd of sport bikes and assorted cars. It could've been a clubhouse. The low stone wall on the southern side of the overlook was covered with graffiti, and the guardrail on the northern pullout was plastered with stickers. There was a signpost capped with a metal plate, bare except for a Comp Cams sticker and a few bullet holes. The views of the mountains were postcard-worthy. Power lines crossed the road overhead, a reminder of the cheap hydroelectricity that prompted Alcoa to build a city and a massive aluminum-smelting plant 20 miles to the north, in 1914. Davis pulled up in his red RX-7.
His car was scruffier than I'd expected. The cargo compartment was gutted, and the fenders were flared to fit the wider tires. There was a boost controller mounted on the dash. "It's close to the perfect mountain car," Davis said. "About 300 hp at the wheels, and it weighs close to 2600 pounds. You can't use more power."
Cannon edged in with his car, a gray Honda S2000. It was outfitted with a body kit—massive flared fenders and a huge rear wing. "Yup, it's totally riced-out," he joked.
Then a blacked-out Corvette Z06 arrived, rumbling and whining like something out of Mad Max. Chambers jumped out, grinning. "Seven hundred fifty supercharged horsepower!" he announced. Clearly, he didn't agree with Davis.
We hung around, watching the road's amblers and tourists funnel past, hopefully gone for the night. Every few minutes, someone would see Davis and screech to a halt to chat. Most of it was the usual motorhead banter, but it quickly became obvious that Davis was considered a sort of local wise man. Sometimes, he even mentors.
"If you're serious," he said, "and start showing up, I'll help you. But I gotta be careful what I tell people."
There was, he recalled, an 80-year-old guy who used to come regularly but crashed so often he gave up. Cannon talked about a Honda Prelude-driving kid they nicknamed "Ditch Cleaner" because he constantly slid wide enough to ride the ditch but never went far enough to hit a tree. Each man has had someone try to follow him and crash. They told these stories with an air of disgust. More trouble invites more scrutiny.
I asked Davis if he had ever crashed. He picked up a stick, knocked on it three times, and said, "I can't afford to crash. I need every spare penny to have fun." He said his car costs him $2 per mile in fuel and tires, which is why he mostly rides his motorcycle. And that bike bit him in 2003, when he had his only major accident on the road. He tumbled down the mountain, bouncing off trees and breaking numerous bones. Recovery took months. "And then came the question: Just how serious am I? But I love this. I was back here within half a year. Life is too short not to have fun."
There's a definite kindness to Davis, and I can tell from how he interacts with his fans that he not only enjoys teaching but is good at it. He's instructed at a few track days, but getting paid with free track time doesn't cover travel costs. "I've got a free racetrack right here." Yet I can tell he misses it. "A lot of things in life you can learn at the track," he said.
At 6:00, a cute girl in an S2000 pulled up, yelled, "Hello, boys!" and told Cannon that she hadn't seen any cops along the entire stretch. The group was getting antsy and decided to try a run. I had brought a Racelogic VBOX data system—the same type of equipment used for R&T's performance testing—to record our runs, and we hatched a plan where I would install it first in the Ferrari, then in Davis's car.
Davis led, followed by me, Chambers, and Cannon. Our photographer, Hollis Bennett, decided to ride with Chambers. Roadandtrack.com editor Zach Bowman, who lives in Knoxville, jumped in with Davis. And then we were off.
I managed to keep up, but to be honest, I was terrified. The only way I could hang was to do exactly as Davis did: If I didn't see his brake lights around a blind corner, I'd keep the Ferrari's throttle pinned and watch the distance between cars in case Davis lifted. I didn't brake until he did. This was a fool's strategy and I knew it, but something kept me pressing on, relying on the 458's power advantage to regain what I lost in the turns. On average, I was going 10 mph faster at each corner's braking points, and every time I hit the brakes, I got the gut-wrenching sense that I had waited too long. There's no room for error on 129: Rock walls line one side, trees and a cliff, the other. Yet I was possessed. Chambers filled my mirrors. The Speciale's exhaust echoed off the rocks. Any cop would've long known we were coming.
Halfway to the finish, my hands were so sweaty they were slipping off the wheel, despite the 458's surprisingly cold A/C running full blast. It felt like the car was never not turning. Every time Davis edged ahead, I was saved when he slowed for a motorcycle. At the third such bike, I paused to wipe the sweat from my face, but it was a short respite. The biker pulled off, letting us by. Davis nudged ahead, and I felt myself losing nerve.
I barreled into a right-hander, in a section the locals call Gravity Cavity, a touch hot. The front end pushed over the double yellow. Up to that point, we'd all stayed in our lane, and the error spooked me. What if it had been a left-hander? The car, and I, would've literally fallen off a cliff.
As Davis put distance on me and I lost his guidance, I fell further behind. I leaned on the Ferrari harder, holding gears until the shift lights on the steering wheel flashed. And then we zipped past the fence marking the Dragon's unofficial end. It was over.
We coasted down the hill to the motel. I leaned forward, quivering, and unstuck my back from the Ferrari's seat. When we exited the cars, everyone was charged up. Bennett was white. "Jesus, what was I thinking?" he said.
Chambers was pissed. "You sandblasted my car." Davis walked over. There wasn't a bead of perspiration on him. "Hey, man," he said, "you're good!"
While everyone was discussing the drive, Bowman pulled me aside. "He drove like he was sitting in a La-Z-Boy," he said. "One hand on the wheel, just talking the whole time."
We drove back to the overlook at a slightly less frenetic pace. I asked Davis if I could put the VBOX in his car for a solo run, but he said he wanted to wait until nightfall. In the meantime, I looked at the data. It had taken me 10 minutes to run the Dragon's length, even including the 30 cumulative seconds lost when we caught someone on the road ahead. Since the VBOX relies on satellite reception, which could easily have been thwarted by the area's dense trees, I was suspicious. Chambers thought the number was legit, and later, when I looked at the data more closely, I saw that the actual time was 11 and a half minutes. When I told Davis, he just smiled and shrugged.
By 8:30, we hadn't seen another car for 10 minutes. As I was installing the VBOX in the RX-7, a woman on a motorcycle came hauling up the road and yelled, "Does anyone have a cellphone?" We all looked at each other—this deep in the woods, no one had service. "A motorcyclist drove off a cliff at mile six," she said. "I'm going to get help."
We headed east to the scene, listening to approaching sirens. By the time we arrived, a motorcycle cop and a woman were tending to a leather-clad rider lying on the side of the road. Thankfully, he was moving. I looked down the forested ravine, and although it was almost dark, I could see the scars in the trees where the motorcycle had pinballed before landing in its resting place, almost 100 feet down.
"He's so lucky," Cannon said. "He crawled his way back up. Otherwise, they might not have found him." We stood there for a moment in silence, looking at the skidmark on the pavement.
More police arrived and shooed us away. As we crawled west on the road, back to the overlook, several police cars and an ambulance flashed by in the oncoming lane. Our day was officially over: The road would be closed for hours while authorities tended to the rider and cleaned up the mess.
I still wanted to know what Davis could do, so I offered to leave the VBOX for him to record a time. He thought for minute and fidgeted. "Now why would I want to do that?"
I suggested he run just a small section—all I wanted to see were his cornering speeds relative to mine. Maybe, I thought, I had matched him. He agreed to this.
I got in the RX-7's passenger seat. Davis turned on the defrost full blast, a precaution, he said, to keep the engine cool in the hot Tennessee night air. It was well after 9:00, and there wasn't enough light to see the road. The Mazda quickly outran its headlights. Davis was relaxed, incredibly smooth, and seemingly fearless. I'm a nervous passenger most of the time, but not there.
Davis pulled off at the beginning of a section he calls the Horseshoe, where you can see the road looping back across the ravine. I checked the test gear and he peeled away. I was left alone with that whip-poor-will.
The mistake I'd secretly hoped to hear never happened.
2014 Ferrari 458 Speciale
- Price: $291,744
- Powertrain: 4.5-liter V-8, 597 hp, 398 ft-lb
- Drivetrain: RWD, 7-speed automatic
- Weight: 3199 lb
- Distribution (F/R): 43/57%
- 0-60 MPH: 3.0 sec
- 0-100 MPH: 6.9 sec
- 1/4 mile: 11.1 sec @ 125.7
- Braking, 60-0 MPH: 102 FT
- Roadholding: 1.01 G