2014 Mazda Adventure Rally. Click image to enlarge
Articles and photos by Jonathan Yarkony
I heard about the Tail of the Dragon years ago, probably reading this article about making the most of precious little time in one of those monumental cars that has crossed our path in recent years. I can’t blame them; given an Audi R8, I took it to Ontario’s version of the Tail of the Dragon, though sadly it can’t quite compare to the real thing.
When I signed up for this event, I had no idea where we were going or what we would be driving, but after sending Brendan McAleer on last year’s Mazda Adventure Rally, I knew it would be good. I also knew it was one of those rare opportunities to share the experience with my wife, who eagerly signed on as my navigator, eager to sample this mini-Amazing Race style event.
The challenges started right on the plane, where we had the opportunity to complete a word search, ponder some clues and study some pictures for later identification and bonus points on our route.
So when we found out upon landing at Chattanooga, Tennessee airport and saw them pulling a pair of red and black Mazda MX-5s onto the tarmac to greet the plane, we knew we were in for something special and that they would find us some great roads. When somebody pointed out the little barbed tail in the event logo, it all clicked. Tail of the Dragon, here we come.
We would be staying in Georgia and driving various roads around Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia hunting for clues and completing challenges as part of the second annual Mazda Adventure Rally. And we would be driving the MX-5, a car I’ve driven on multiple occasions, and love even more every time I slip into its tight little cabin.
Now is as good a time as any to introduce our hero car. The 2014 Mazda MX-5 is eight years into its current generation, known as NC (first generation was NA, second generation was NB) and has been running a naturally aspirated 2.0L inline-four making 167 hp and 140 lb-ft of torque. It doesn’t sound like much, and it really isn’t much. It’s the kind of engine you need to wind up to its peak output rpm (7,000 for hp and 5,000 for torque), but it’s a pleasure to do so. We would have several opportunities to exercise its full power.
Taking off is not one of them. This isn’t a car built for taking off in a smokeshow of burning rubber. Even launching with revs built, the MX-5’s rear wheels were able to deliver clean launches.
As soon as we cleared customs and disembarked, we were given a chance to snap some early pictures (while the cars were still clean), then sent off on our first route, this one programmed into the GPS guidance. The challenge on this leg was to identify churches from the list of churches supplied.
With the GPS guiding us turn by turn, we were perfect, and even found a couple of the bonus landmarks, though one of them we had to double back for after figuring it out only a few kilometres after we had passed it.
2014 Mazda Adventure Rally. Click image to enlarge
This was also on the first of two gravel roads that we traversed, surprising me in Mazda’s willingness to send these cars out to be so treated. I can see why they weren’t worried. The MX-5 runs independent double-wishbone suspension in the front with aluminum arms and mono-tube dampers and independent multi-link rear suspension with aluminum bearing support and also mono-tube dampers. It offers precise control and a surprisingly forgiving ride for a car with a 2,329 mm wheelbase. That wheelbase is significantly shorter than the Scion FR-S, Mini Cooper Hatch or even Toyota Yaris, although it sits between those last two in overall length.
Its ride is comfortable enough, but you will note plenty of wind and road noise – limiting sound insulation saves weight and although heavier than previous generations, it is still a featherweight. With only 1,182 kg of mass evenly distributed between front and rear tire patches, the MX-5 is all about balance. Because of its superb balance and advanced suspension, the MX-5 has a preternatural ability to turn in and hold a line, though it is not completely free from body roll. Plus, the MX-5s we drove were on sticky Bridgestone Potenza RE050As measuring 205/45P17. Sticky!
I can also report that these tires performed exceptionally in the rain. Our first leg saw some torrential downpours that had some teams pulling off, while I was doing 40 km/h on roads with higher limits than that in mph. For most of the trip, the weather was rainy or about to rain. Nonetheless, the rain eased up as we meandered back and forth through Chattahoochee National Forest before checking in at our base of operations, the Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa just outside the town of Young Harris, Georgia near the North Carolina border. The roads were already spectacular, winding through the hills and passes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachian range that runs down the American east coast.
2014 Mazda Adventure Rally – Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa, Welcome sign. Click image to enlarge
Unlike last year, we were sent to bed after dinner without any further information. After breakfast, we were given our missions for Day 2, with only a half hour to make use of the hotel’s wifi before setting off at about 8 AM. The first section was super simple, with a clue to the challenge question and time for a quick pit stop (gas and Starbucks).
The second section of the day was a little more interesting where we had to plot out a course based on a route marked on a map with minimal markings and certain route requirements. This route would take us north into North Carolina, driving through the Nantahala National Forest then crossing over into Tennessee and winding back down Route 68 to finish in Copperhill, TN. A brief detour to visit Hiwassee dam offered a bathroom break and the answer to another challenge question, as well as a photo op. The Hiwassee Dam is part of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) network of dams that produce power and control water levels along the Tennessee River.