Three hundred eighteen corners. Eleven miles. Two states. Practically zero guard rails. Highway 129, also known as the Tail of the Dragon, is one of the greatest roads in all of North America.
It's also one of the most dangerous. Since it's in the middle of nowhere, it takes forever to get to a hospital. More than 24 people have been killed on the Dragon since 2000. In the summer, the Dragon is crawling with motorcycles, cars, and tractor trailers. It's a scary combination.
But in the winter, it's dead. We scarcely saw a car, leaving us plenty of room to make awful decisions.
(Full Disclosure: Audi wanted us to drive the Tail of the Dragon so bad that we concocted a plan to borrow an RS5 to drive there during a drunken dinner after the Paris Motor Show. They also gave me Audi branded sunscreen, mugs, and hats for the journey.)
The journey begins on a Friday morning, where I set out from Washington, DC with an RS5 that I somehow coerced the folks at Audi HQ to let us have for a weekend for a trek to Atlanta. The first leg is solo as I head to pick up my boss, Matt Hardigree.
I've been slinging words at Jalopnik for a few months now, but I've spent about six days total with him. That's not a long time. And now we're going to be in a small German coupe together for the next two days. That's prime bonding (READ: Sucking up) time.
The trip starts innocuously enough after I grab Matt. The RS5 eats up hundreds of miles of highway at 85 MPH without any issues whatsoever. Set in comfort, the RS is actually a pretty great tourer. As we relax, Matt regales me with the tale of the history of Jalopnik.
Then the first thing goes wrong.
We get off the highway in Bristol, VA for dinner — we eat at a place that advertises a band called "Spank" and has sushi on the menu that I don't imagine is all that fresh — and I decide to stop on the open road to try out the launch control without investigating how it works. Hint: it doesn't in manual mode. Instead of a clean launch, I get four spinning tires, bad smells, and a copilot that thinks his newest writer might not actually be the driving God he made himself out to be.
"this has launch control I think... Ohhhhh no it doesn't" — Travis #taleofthedragon— MattHardigree (@MattHardigree) December 8, 2012
Matt takes over for leg two, and we make it to an Econolodge outside of Knoxville, TN in that hotbed of nightlife, Lenoir City. Two notes about Lenoir City: The Econolodge has no water, but an abundance of Mello Yello, in the vending machines. Also, it seems you can buy fireworks anywhere.
The next morning we set off early to get to the Dragon for sunrise. At this point, the RS5 needs a drink. This will be its third fuel stop in 24 hours and it drinks premium, as all great German uber-coupes do.
I'm behind the wheel as we get to the Dragon, and the first thing I decide to do is attempt another launch control start. The road is empty and Matt takes out the manual to make sure that we're doing it correctly this time. Foot flat on brake? Check. Car in sport? Check. DSC off? Check. Gas pedal mashed to the floor? Check. Glovebox closed? Uhhhhhhhhhh.
We tear off the line and the contents of the glovebox fly out, pelting the man that signs my paychecks in the chest. The only consolation is that the 450-horse V8 sounds amazing.
Still, that's strike two.
Not like it matters as we hit the Dragon. It's a road like few I've driven. There are sheer drops on one side and a rock face on the other. A wheel off the road will almost definitely spell disaster. You better pay attention.
This is also my first chance to really sample the RS5. My overwhelming sense is just how planted it is on corner entry. But once you get to the middle of the corner, things change. You can feel the torque transferring side to side between the wheels thanks to the incredibly active quattro differential.
Initially, it's disconcerting. The rear rotates quicker than you might expect and results in unpredictability. And on a road covered in undulating corners where I am driving very quickly, it could be a problem. You get used to it, but it's just weird to have an all-wheel drive car rotate so much from the rear because it's not what you'd expect. That's not to say it isn't welcome. I prefer oversteer, so the RS5 suits my driving style.
And damn is this car fast. It's definitely too fast for the road, which has a speed limit of 30. The entirety of the Dragon is second and third gear corners, and speeds still get up to the level where you'll be heading home in the back of a police car if the wrong person sees you. I'm not really getting to stretch the Audi's legs. This is more a Miata road. Momentum, momentum, momentum.
The elevation changes, variable radius corners, and scenery are breathtaking. I'm working hard to hit the apexes and not run off the mountain. Matt is working hard to take random pictures of the landscape and me driving. Combined, it's mentally exhausting.
There is very little traffic on the road, and what we do catch up to pulls off to let us by. Except one old man in a Civic EX. It didn't seem to matter how many LEDs were in his mirrors, he isn't budging. It is infuriating and we end up pulling off to give ourselves a gap.
After my 11-mile run, I turn over the keys to Monsieur Hardigree, and my earlier strikes are quickly rectified. While driving the Tail, Matt somehow manages to put four wheels off the road, just not all at the same time. "How many wheels did you drop off Travis," you ask? None, I put none wheels off the road. Matt is good humored about it and realizes that maybe he should pay attention to this road instead of trying to compare this with his other roads. I'm only slightly terrified.
The Dragon is about concentration and it just isn't there. This car is really, really good, but it isn't a magician that can keep you from crashing.
We calm down and stop at a scenic overlook at the end of the road. Now that we've run the Dragon twice, we add a Jalopnik sticker to the hall of fame, and stop for a brief modeling shoot so I can show off all of my Audi branded wares. Then we notice other people have used the area to brag about all the mothers they've had sex with. We decide we don't need to brag about the mothers we've been with on a roadside guardrail.
We decide to take one more run through the Dragon and head on to our final destination: ATL to visit Mr. Rutledge Wood, which includes a brief stopover at a delicious barbecue joint endorsed by Grover Norquist. It was Conservalicious!
At Rut's garage, we get to go for a ride in his excellent VW Micro Bus, but that's not the reason we're there. As you may remember, a Merkur XR4Ti played a pretty substantial role in an episode of Top Gear last season. Rutledge bought it after the show. Matt loves the Merkur XR4Ti. Rut's wife doesn't. Money was exchanged, and our own Hardigreezy is the proud owner of an XR4Ti with a welded differential, no real intercooler, and a driver's side door that only opens from the inside (more on that from Matt later).
After an awesome tour of Rut's town from him and his daughter, as well as an impromptu juggling show in Rut's kitchen, We have one last dinner together, a pizza in name only. It's slathered in sour cream, cheese, and potatoes. It's something that Guy Fieri would think of on a bad day and easily took a decade off my life expectancy.
Matt leaves the next morning for a trek back to Virginia in a car that has a hard time not stalling when it comes to a stop. I drop off the RS5 and fly back to New York.
Matt and I didn't kill each other. I didn't get myself fired... or promoted. Matt got to drive away in one of his dream cars. And I got a new car to aspire to. I've always been an M3 guy, and thought that nobody could beat BMW at its own game. The RS5 makes me think otherwise. It's a real blast to drive and feels so much rawer than I thought it would. Is it as polished or as good as an M3? Nope.
And on these roads, that's what makes it better.