There's a reason this 11-mile stretch of U.S. 129 is called the Dragon: because it can kill you. Any doubt should be erased by the large oak tree that stands in the parking lot of the Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort. The jumping- off point for the Dragon's 318 curves, this "Tree of Shame" is festooned with motorcycle parts and prosthetic devices, a monument to the ill fortune and poor judgment of those who have gone before. More-explicit warnings are inside the store, on the bulletin board covered with photos of road-rashed riders and wrecked bikes, including one that's actually been broken in half.
You look at the wall, buy the obligatory sticker (either a silhouette of a flying dragon, or one reading "At the gap there be dragons") and go out to the parking lot. There's constant movement: bikes and cars come in, and people mill around--guys in full race leathers and others to whom a one-percenter is an accounting problem. Look at bikes and the wreckage, drool over the 690-plus-horse ZR1 parked by the pinstriping booth, and think about whether what you're about to do is a good idea.
To be perfectly candid, no one really knows where the figure of 318 curves came from. There are at least three credible stories, and all of them reinforce the fact that it's probably not an accurate number. Who cares? I've never tried to count, and once you start uncoiling this serpent's tail, you won't either.
Regardless of what the actual number is, unless you travel the road regularly, it's virtually impossible to anticipate what's coming next. Switchbacks, decreasing-radius curves, curves that last far longer than you expected--there are plenty of surprises.
This unpredictability contributes to one of the Dragon's wiles. After you've weathered a few of the initial hard downhill, lefthand switchbacks, you tend to get confident, a potentially fatal inclination. Let that complacency take hold as you bring your Corvette into a curve a tick too hot, and newfound humility comes in concert with the realization that you're about to wad the thing up. Better to respect the reptile.
The speed limit on the Dragon is 30, and I tend to stay at or within striking distance of that number. There's plenty of fun to be had at that rate, especially since 129 is aggressively patrolled by the Tennessee Highway Patrol as well as local agencies in both cars and nominally marked bikes.
Aside from tickets, one of the other real dangers is fellow motorists. This is a nationally known stretch of road, and people come from all over the country. Some are competent, safe drivers or riders, and some aren't. The first time I took my '72 down the Dragon, I came around a curve to find a sport bike coming at me head-on, centered in my lane and even with the SUV in the oncoming lane. With nowhere to go, he cracked the throttle, brought his front wheel off the pavement, and passed the SUV in the curve while doing a wheelie, zinging to safety with milliseconds to spare.
Part of this irrepressible urge to "kick it" can be traced to the photographers who work the corners, such as Killboy, who snapped the accompanying beauty shot of Scarlett in action. It's a simple setup: They photograph every vehicle that comes through certain curves, and post the proofs online. You go to the website, find your photos, and purchase prints or digital files. It's a great service, since you can't take pictures of your own car or bike while driving, but it can encourage people to get a little crazy for the camera. (Witness the shot on Killboy's website of a guy in leathers who's just parted ways with his bike, apparently after pushing it a little too hard.) Once you've made it down the Dragon (it goes downhill as you head north), you'll cross the Tabcat Bridge. Pull off at one of the parking areas on the left side of the road and breathe. On your left are the waters of Chilhowee Lake; on your right, the endless ebb and flow of cars and motorcycles streaming by, tensing for the challenge to come.
Congratulations. Having braved the test, you can now put the sticker on your back glass. Dragon tastes like chicken. Just remember that the Dragon feels the same way about you.
Special thanks to Darryl Cannon at Killboy and John Gray.