MINIs on the Dragon: For nine years now, hundreds of MINI fans from all states in the USA, Canada and recently Germany, have been meeting in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the Southeastern United States to get their annual fill of MINI together with like-minded people and to sample the delights of "street surfing" on wonderful mountain roads. But what makes this MINI event so special that one travels across the land of opportunity or even flies in from Germany? Are there really dragons?
A legendary stretch of US Highway 129 is what it's all about. This is no boring, dead-straight, 5-lane freeway that pilots would take for a touchdown if engines failed. No, we are talking, believe it or not, of 318 curves over the course of 11 miles. Gasoline junkies call this "The Tail of the Dragon" - on the map it looks like the tail of this mythical creature.
Tail of the Dragon sounds like drama, excitement and adventure, and this is exactly what the road is: on one side a steep mountain face with a stock of trees, on the other a wooded abyss. In between lies a mass of curves, hairpins, bumps, inclines and declines. This road is quaintly located in one of the oldest National Parks in the USA - which is also one of the most diverse. Breathtaking views of forests, valleys and water bodies adorn this asphalt delight. If this road could talk, every meter would tell of a different adventure.
Drivers can also talk of adventure when at the end of The Dragon the curve radii become bigger again and the street takes to following the banks of Lake Chilhowee. From North Carolina the Dragon curls high into the forest, and one has hardly passed the border to Tennessee when a wide grin starts to form. It's then that you dive into a regular rhythm of accelerating, braking, downshifting deep and taking corners at speed. Any MINI can dive straight through the accentuated curves into the tail motion in order to immediately glide over the wave into the middle of the road before the next curve. One quickly notices that a MINI is completely at home in these environs. Childhood memories of super rollercoaster rides at fairs become so real that you can almost taste popcorn on the tongue. In all the excitement of curves you must take care not to change from curve chaser to an easy kill for the Highway Patrol, who could lurk behind any curve. When one rolls onto the parking area at the Tabcat Bridge at the bank of the lake, the pulse steadies a bit and the palms dry. Grins remain.
Once a year the usually quiet Fontana Village resort, located not far from the Dragon, is populated with hundreds of MINI of all shapes and sizes. Fans get goose bumps when they drive through the holiday village quaintly located in the middle of the forest and see at least 2 MINI in front of each of the small wooden cabins. Fontana Village becomes MINI Village for four days, with one darting past every crossroad. No matter where you goes in the National Park during this time your meet beckoning and saluting MINIacs.
Given all this, it's still hard to believe the numbers that "Project Manager" Barry Patascher - A.K.A. "Snooter" - from SunshineMinis in Florida and the small team of voluntary helpers on MINIsonthedragon.com put up. With 8 months of hard work this troop organizes a chock-a-block event plan year after year. This year the event attracted 832 MINIacs in 543 MINIs, a new record.
A diverse range of approximately 40 different events are planned, of which some have already achieved cult status, such as the Ice-Cream Run (drive to long-established ice-cream parlor), Midnight on the Dragon (midnight drive at a full throttle), the Dragon Parade (the annual street surfing of many colorful MINIs on the Dragon), the Dragon Car Show with the award for the fanciest MINI or the Brewswap followed by a karaoke evening. As the Dragon is actually a tough and testing run, the organizers offer newbie orientation, a safety briefing for Dragon first-timers.
Much is on offer - from the diversity of driving to culinary destinations, and the appropriate care of MINI in mountainous regions and a host of social events.
Not only the US 129 is charming, but also the surrounding mountain roads and passes which becon MINIacs to street-surf. With a little luck one can also spy rare animals such as black bears or mountain lions along the roadside, but ultimately one only finds one type of animal in the souvenir shops: the legendary Dragon.