Leaving Gridlife South, our plan for the trip home was identical to the trip south – minus being stuck wrenching on Mike’s Infiniti for ten hours. Drive from Atlanta to Tennessee, terrorize our cars on Tail of the Dragon, and embark on the twelve hour drive home. Simple. That said – Mike and myself have difficulty agreeing on almost anything, and we had the choice between two very different routes going north.
One was a 173 mile stretch of twisting mountain switchbacks that cut straight through Chattahoochee National Forest. The other was a 247 mile stretch of highway that ran around the perimeter of my new touge; officially the faster trip according to Google. But Google be damned – driving a Scion FRS sitting on sticky Hankook RS4s, nothing was going to stop me from attacking the mountain. Mike took a far more pragmatic approach and pointed out that our cars were packed in shit – camping gear, beer, luggage – shit that he didn’t want getting tossed around. What a loser.
So it was decided – we’d race, Top Gear style. I’d take the mountain road, Mike would take the highway, and the winner got some insurmountable amount of bragging rights. With so much on the line, I did something I’ve never done before – I got strategic.
From the start, it was clear that I was going to have to drive like an asshole if I was going to have a chance in hell of winning. Mike had the benefit of passing lanes and a 65 mph speed limit. My route consisted of two-lane back roads filled with an endless slog of locals meandering along at 40 mph. I got into a rhythm – drive as fast as I could without getting into ‘you’re going to jail’ territory while finding gaps to pass. Then the road got twisty, and the car was effortless.
Here’s one of the paradoxes of the FRS. Toyota dedicated significant resources to ensure the car had a massive aftermarket upon release, but I haven’t driven a car that’s this flat and balanced from the factory that didn’t cost sixty-grand. Point the nose at the apex, spin the little-boxer past 7000 rpm, and I was flying. It also helped that I was sitting on Hankook RS4s – the stickiest tire i’d ever dare do a roadtrip on. The available grip also meant that my carpet was getting quickly soaked with cooler water, but I had bigger priorities.
That’s when I came across those people. They cover themselves head-to-toe in in armoured leather like villains in an early-2000s superhero movie, and they ride around on two-wheeled machines with a puny excuse of an engine. Bikers. To make matters worse, they clog up fun roads in swarms and ride desperately slow despite having a power-to-weight ratio rivaling supercars. Eventually, the road opened up and I got past the swarm, not without getting flipped-off by at least one of them.
While I was attacking the mountain, Mike was casually cruising along in the left-hand lane at 90 mph. To make matters worse – he found a speeding buddy; a blacked out Ram 1500 that proved particularly effective at moving law-abiding motorists out of the way. With an hour left in the trip and the road ahead of me straightening out, I called him.
“Mike, what’s your ETA?”
“About 2:30 – yours?”
“2:32” – *click*
Now was when things got a little silly. It felt like every motorist I came across had a personal vendetta against me. Every speed limit felt too low. Every straight was just un-straight-enough to make passing too risky. Every minute I shaved off Waze’s eta felt like sweet victory.
2:31, 2:30, 2:29, 2:28..
After a series of arguably stupid passes, taking advantage of every corner Waze underestimated me on, I shaved off five minutes over the span of an hour. Victory was in reach. That’s when I started to wonder why beating Mike felt so damn critical. The only plausible explanation was that he’s one of the smartest people I know. And as such, he was probably right about this trip. But he couldn’t be. I was in a front-mid-engined weapon with a center of gravity rivaling supercars on wonderfully sticky tires, tackling exactly the kind of road this car was built for – the touge. And I had already shaved upwards of half-an-hour off the trip at the expense of my carpet.
The best way to explain what happened next is with a question. What the hell is with Americans and biker cruises? Is there absolutely nothing else the god-damn Tennessee police department has to do than block off the stretch of road ahead without warning in order to let what felt like every god-forsaken motorcyclist in the bible-belt through before letting us car-welding peasants by? Traffic ground to a halt for five grueling minutes. This was karma, it had to be. In some other life I must have abused animals or stanced an NSX. Nothing else could explain the sheer number of motorcycles that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Mercifully, it ended, but I was already doomed. I tried to make up time on the remaining 7 miles of the journey, but sure enough, when i pulled into the driveway there he was – leaning against his Infiniti like a bad Jeremy Clarkson impressionist, smartphone in hand. He beat me by five minutes.
I always wondered how Top Gear managed to make all of their ‘races’ seem so close, and I think I’ve figured it out. They probably started with a legitimate, non-scripted debate, where James literally thought his motorcycle/airplane/boat/unicycle would actually be faster than Jeremy’s Bugatti in a painfully specific set of circumstances. And during the endeavour, they knew where each other were at all times. From there, all you needed was an ego vulnerable to bruising, and bam: great television.
Five fucking minutes.