Story by Dustin Woods. Photography by Dustin Woods and James Paznar; zMAX Dragway photography by John Davidson.
Sport Mode: engaged. Traction Control: off. Windows: up. Slowly navigating my way into the burnout box, I bring up the revs up to 4,500 rpm. As the 5.0L Coyote motor eagerly winds up, it emits a raucous symphony through the dual-exhaust pipes. I side-step the clutch and the rear performance tires protest with a loud, violent shriek, then spin freely as the rear end snakes and squirms for traction, billowing plumes of smoke.
Pulse racing, hands sweating, I pull my Shadow Black Ford Mustang GT up to the starting line beside a classic red Chevrolet Chevelle that’s eagerly rumbling and snorting with such fervour I can feel it in my chest. I’m lined up under the lights at the legendary zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina, the first all-concrete, four-lane drag strip in the United States.
I engage first and hold the clutch just below its friction point as my left foot trembles. Tension is high as spectators lean in, awaiting the ensuing excitement with anticipation from the surrounding grandstands. Home of the NHRA 4-Wide Nationals where the legendary racer John Force has piloted his 8,000 hp Funny Car down the quarter-mile in under four seconds, I’m strapped in, laser-focussed on the Christmas Tree as its lights start to blink.
Amber. Amber. Amber. Remembering the instructions I’d been given just moments before, I don’t wait for the green light to flash. As fast as my feet can react, I bring up the clutch while simultaneously punching the throttle harder than I’d ever attempt on the street and we’re racing. Tires spinning furiously through first gear, I grab second and put my right foot right to the firewall before doing the same in third, then fourth.
Letting off only after passing the finish line marking a quarter of a mile, I’m unabashedly laughing from pure, unadulterated euphoria as I coast into the parking lot where cars are being staged. It may be a fantasy for many, but it isn’t a dream. It’s just a typical Friday night where anyone with a car in decent working condition can make passes on the legendary strip for US$30. Featuring everything from a stock Infiniti sedan to fully prepped drag cars and everything in between, public “Test and Tune” events are just one of the many draws of the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s vast complex.
Likely best known for the legendary 1.5-mile superspeedway that hosts the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race and more recently home to what is called the Roval (road course + oval), the massive grounds host a full calendar of events all year long. From monster truck rallies, dirt track racing, and the NASCAR Experience to vintage car shows and the Speedway Christmas light show, there’s always something going on. It seemed like a good enough destination for a couple car guys looking for an excuse to do a road trip. It didn’t take long to convince my buddy James to burn his summer vacation and join me.
Not far from the Charlotte Motor Speedway is the Mustang Owners Museum, which seemed a fitting place to visit since I am in fact a Mustang owner. Rather than arranging a vehicle from the Ford media fleet, I decided to do the trip in my own car. I don’t get the chance to enjoy it nearly enough and it was in dire need of a good run.
Featuring over 50 historically relevant Mustangs at any given time, the museum’s carefully curated exhibition shares unique stories behind one of the world’s most renowned and recognizable nameplates. Some firsts, some lasts and some one-offs. Beyond the selection of Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars and police cars, models like the 1976 Mustang II Western prototype illustrate the market research initiatives used to test consumer opinions on a potential new trim option.
Among other notable models are the first Mustang unveiled to the public at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and the final Fox body to roll off the assembly line in 1993. Recognizable names from Mustang’s history such as Iacocca, Shelby, Roush, and Saleen are all prominently featured as well. While most are displayed in pristine condition, one Wimbledon White example that came off the assembly line on the very first day of Mustang production was kept in its original “Barn Find” state. It isn’t where my Mustang was made, but it still felt like a homecoming.
Brevard: Fishing, Brews, and Tunes
Roughly 1,300 kilometres from Toronto, we broke up the drive to Charlotte by spending a night in Baltimore, Maryland, before passing through Virginia and Tennessee en route to North Carolina. Once in the town of Brevard, NC, we didn’t want to leave and ended up spending a few more nights. A mecca for outdoor activities like rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, and fly fishing, the area is known as the Land of Waterfalls since it features no fewer than 250 of them. Some require a long, scenic hike, while others are easily accessible from the roadway. We visited several of these breathtaking geographic irregularities, including one called Sliding Rock. Visitors can actually slide down the 18-metre face of the waterfall before plunging into a cold, refreshing spring-fed pool at the bottom. Not only was it a fun way to cool off from the summer heat, but was also the best hangover cure I’ve experienced – we sampled some of Brevard’s delicious local microbreweries the night before, namely UpCountry Brewing and the Brevard Brewing Company.
As the area’s many rivers draw fishing enthusiasts from all over the country, we decided to try our hand at fly fishing through Headwaters Outfitters, who offer a variety of activities at the North Fork of the French Broad River like canoeing, kayaking, and rafting. Our guide Hannah did all the work, but I managed to catch a beautiful Rainbow Trout. They also feature local food trucks, live music, and a tasty selection of local beers in their tap room should you wish to partake.
I opted instead to explore the surrounding roads. It’s a magical feeling when you’ve got the right tool for a specific task. Often feeling too firm and tightly sprung for the rough roads of Toronto, the handling characteristics of the GT Performance Package complemented these smooth serpentine curves perfectly. Further confirming my commitment to having a third pedal and rowing my own gears for as long as I possibly can, I couldn’t imagine a better vehicle for the trip. The Recaro racing seats held us in place like a mother’s hug and the MBRP Black Series Race version catback exhaust system we recently installed kept us endlessly entertained as it blipped, bellowed, crackled and roared.
Offering all of the quaintness of a small town, Brevard also seemingly features all the draws of a big city – namely fabulous restaurants like Magpie Meat and Three, great coffee shops such as Cup and Saucer, cool, unique vintage shops such as MANtiques, and live music venues like 185 King St. On the opposite side of the musical spectrum, the area is also home to the Brevard Music Center, which attracts some of the best and brightest music students from around the globe at their summer camp every year, and hosts live concerts and a music festival. We were fortunate enough to be in town while legendary singer Lyle Lovett was passing through, who performed in front of a sold-out crowd with His Large Band.
Those looking for comfortable accommodations in town should look no further than The Sunset Motel, a refurbished retro motor inn that’s clean and comfortable. It was also convenient since we could pull the Mustang right up to our front door.
Little Switzerland: Diamondback, BBQ, White Lightning
From there we drove to Little Switzerland, an area that features a route marketed to motorcyclists and sports car owners called the Diamondback. Consisting of a 38-mile loop with 3,475 feet (1,059 m) of elevation changes, its 200 turns in 12 miles is less than the Tail of the Dragon, but also lacks the number of speed-freak tourists and slow-moving traffic. Easily accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can choose to do part of the route or the whole loop.
We did the whole thing, then stopped in Little Switzerland for some amazing homemade BBQ at the Switzerland Café. Unbeknownst to us, there is a contentious battle being waged in this part of the country over whether BBQ sauce should be made with vinegar, mustard, or ketchup. Being Canadian, we had the benefit of being impartial, so were free to try any and all recipes while we visited the area.
In addition to trying as much BBQ as we could get our hands on, another goal of ours while visiting North Carolina was to sample some “white lightning” (aka moonshine), particularly given how bootleggers laid the foundation for what lead to stock car racing and the formation of NASCAR.
Always on the lookout for interesting and unique places to visit when I travel, you can’t get much better than Southern Grace Distilleries. Known as the Whiskey Prison, it is the first distillery to be housed in a former working prison. Touring the facility on a scorching hot August afternoon, it was eerily reminiscent of the Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke, complete with one of the country’s last Hot Boxes used to discipline inmates. Their Conviction Small Batch Bourbon was recently awarded the Best Bourbon Under Four Years at the New Orleans Bourbon Festival, so they are legit. Cocktails using their Sundog 130 Moonshine and Conviction Bourbon are both on the menu at the restaurant down the street, 73 and Main, which boasts the largest rare and antique bourbon collection south of Washington, DC. Located in a beautifully refurbished historical building, the delicious food and drink menus are complimented by attentive and knowledgeable service staff.
Staying in the area as long as we possibly could, we made the gruelling 14.5-hour-long drive home in one shot. Even after that, I can’t think of a car I’d have rather driven on an unforgettable trip that included some serious highway miles, winding country roads, and passes at a world-famous drag strip. We may have added close to 4,000 kms to the odometer, but what I potentially lost in resale value, I more than made up for in memories and sentimental value. And you can’t put a price on those.