The story below is an excerpt from our March/April 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Maybe you're looking for high-performance driving or a great ATV course. Or maybe instead for a new scenic route to explore in the mountains. Either way, it's spring, and it's time to get motoring.
With winter giving way to spring, our thoughts return to the road and the great outdoors that await us on the far side of our travel lust and imagination. The southern Appalachians have so many interesting places to visit, many within a couple of hours from home, that the journeys to get there are often overlooked.
Motoring, the art and artistry of locomotion, is such a sport that we’ve dedicated these pages to all things automotive. On two wheels or four, spine-tingling experiences await us at performance driving schools, on mud trails and twisting byways, at dirt tracks and drag strips. Here’s a guide to some of the fun that can be had behind the wheel of an automobile, whether it’s your own coupe or a revved-up racecar.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.
And if you’re looking for even more, there’s the Overland Experts driving school in Middleburg, Virginia that trains not only recreational and professional drivers but also those who will be piloting trucks and vans in marginal conditions for the military and humanitarian aid agencies.
Georgia: Go Fast or Go Scenic
Midway between Atlanta and Anderson, S.C., the Skip Barber Racing School (skipbarber.com) in Braselton puts students in Porche 911s and Mazda MX-5 race cars for high-performance driving and racing classes that also test participants’ reflexes on the school’s challenging skid pad. Stay, wine and dine at Chateau Elan Winery & Resort in Braselton (chateauelan.com).
The Atlanta Driving Experience, in Dawsonville, is a scaled-down Indy experience in open-wheel Ariel Atoms that whiz around a 2.0-mile road course designed by formula One architect Hermann Tilke. Half- and full-day sessions are followed by trips around the track. Events like ART in the Garden and the city’s moonshine festival downtown are within easy walking distance of restaurants and shopping.
Also in Dawsonville is the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, where visitors learn how driving moonshine out of the Georgia mountains evolved into NASCAR and how drivers and local celebrities like Sara Christian, Tim Flock and Lloyd Seay pioneered stock car racing. The museum has lots of vintage racecars, as well as the history and driving experience of native son Bill Elliott.
For gorgeous driving, try the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway, a loop accessible most easily from Helen and Blairsville. A 41-mile drive through the Chattahoochee National Forest, the network of highways passes by the high-elevation vistas of Brasstown Bald (Georgia’s tallest mountain), has stops along the Appalachian Trail and includes several scenic overlooks.
South Carolina: Classic Cars, Classic Views
Cornering, downshifting and drifting are all part of the M school at the BMW Performance Driving School (bmwusa.com) in Greer. Tour the BMW manufacturing plant and the Zentrum, a free museum that showcases BMW’s historic cars, including art cars by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichetenstein. Visit nearby Greenville’s downtown for parks, shopping and dining.
One hundred and eighteen miles long, the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway between Gaffney and Fair Play skirts the Blue Ridge Mountains, the ancestral home of the Cherokee, past Lake Keowee and Cowpens National Battlefield. Lunch midway could be at Victoria Valley Vineyards (victoriavalleyvineyards.com) in Cleveland.
The intrepid will continue on from Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway in Fairplay to the 100-mile Savannah River Scenic Byway, the northern portions of which are in the magazine’s mountain-region coverage area. Start your tour with a stay at The Bleckley Inn (bleckleyinn.com) in Anderson and its famous breakfast casserole.
If you’re looking for classic cars, you should be looking at Classic Cars of South Carolina (classiccarsofsc.com), a dealership in Gray Court that traffics in collector cars from all over the U.S. and two dozen other countries. In Greenville, Dream Cars of the Carolinas has all manner of muscle-bound Camaros, Novas, Firebirds and Mustangs.
Motorcyclists love the switchback riding on U.S. 178 from Interstate 85 near Anderson north to U.S. 64 in North Carolina near Brevard. No steep inclines means there is ample opportunity to enjoy to scenery, especially in fall when the leaves break out in a riot of colors. Brevard’s music scene is second only to its inns and restaurants. Oskar Blues Brewery in town is a major-league craft beer maker.
North Carolina: Dragon Tail, Parkway Trails
Considered to be one of the nation’s most challenging motorcycle courses, The Tail of the Dragon (tailofthedragon.com) near Robbinsville packs 318 curvaceous “twisties” into 11 miles of cork-twisting roadway, attracting riders and sports car owners from around the world. The nearby Chasing the Dragon Hillclimb, a two-mile timed ascent, is an annual Sports Car Club of America event held each fall (2015 dates were open at press time). If your tastes run to the somewhat muffled, the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center (stecoahvalleycenter.com) in Robbinsville has a summer concert series and more.
The Land Rover Experience Driving School in Asheville trains beginners and advanced students on Biltmore Estate terrain via steep ascents, side tilts, log crossings and rock crawls. Graduates move on to trails whose challenges provide advanced learning opportunities like expedition planning. Full-day experiences intensify the learning and the fun. Or, if you’d rather, just ride along with an expert driver. Nearby downtown Asheville is one of the South’s premier food and shop-local destinations.
At 469 miles, the Blue Ridge Parkway through North Carolina and Virginia is the country’s most visited unit of the National Park System. Starting in Cherokee in the Great Smoky Mountains, the parkway travels north over the Linn Cove Viaduct and terminates at Shenandoah National Park, passing miles upon miles of hiking trails along the way. A good overnight stop is the Green Park Inn Hotel (greenparkinn.com) in Blowing Rock, with supper at the Best Cellar. Start your night with a pint at Blowing Rock Brewing Co.
Moonshine running in Wilkesboro was instrumental in creating what is now NASCAR racing, and the legacy lives on (in tamer form) at Wilkesboro Raceway (wilkesborodragway.com), a drag strip where hot rods with hemis pair up to blast across a ribbon of asphalt most every Saturday afternoon.
Tennessee: NASCAR and Your Car
In West Knoxville, the East Tennessee Mini Motoring Club (etmmc.org) is all about touring regional scenic byways like the Cherohala Skyway. Claiming the most active Mini Cooper club in the country, it holds regular driving rallies to meet new people. Membership is free. Knoxville abounds in places to play and explore, such as the Knoxville Zoo and the Knoxville Museum of Art. The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge is nearby. Connors Steak & Seafood restaurant in Knoxville gets high marks.
The Cherohala Skyway between Tellico Plains and Robbinsville, North Carolina isn’t the only scenic drive in east Tennessee. Others listed at tennesseeoverhill.com include Tellico River Road, passing by Bald River Falls, and Ocoee Scenic Byway, which traverses mountain peaks and rock bluff for views of Lake Ocoee. The Ocoee Whitewater Center, the canoe slalom venue for the 1996 Summer Olympics and a stop on the Ocoee Scenic Byway, has hiking and biking trails.
Bristol Motor Speedway (bristolmotorspeedway.com) in Bristol, Tenn., lights up the night each April and August with Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races, such as the Food City 500 and the Xfinity Series 300. Bristol Dragway onsite has an extensive schedule of spine-tingling action as well, including the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals in June. One mile north is the Twin-City Drive-In Theatre and Campgrounds. Bristol Caverns takes visitors through vaulted chambers carved millions of years ago.
Also in Bristol is the Richard Petty Driving Experience (drivepetty.com), where you can ride shotgun in the NASCAR ride of your life. Or, if you’d rather, climb behind the wheel for a fling around the ring. Serious food awaits at whimsically named KP Duty restaurant in downtown Bristol. Near Bristol is the aptly named Muddy Creek Raceway (muddycreekraceway.com), host of the 2015 Red Bull Tennessee National on June 6 and other races.