Last year the folks at Mazda Canada decided to begin hosting an annual event that was unlike the usual car launch. Called the Mazda Adventure Rally, the event pitted journalist teams against each other in an attempt to win $10,000 for the charity of their choice. I was fortunate to be selected as part of the Toronto Star Wheels team, aptly named Team Star Wars along with my fellow Wheels scribe, Peter Bleakney. Of course our ride wore the most Canadian of all numbers, #27. The event took us through Colorado and Utah, across gold rush era mountain paths and through desert canyons. You can read about our incredible experience here and here.
For this year’s event, Team Star Wars was again invited to compete in the event, which would have much much greater secrecy leading up to the event to ensure that none of the competitors had a leg up on the other teams. That meant that we were boarded onto a chartered flight without any idea where we might be going. Ok, so that isn’t quite true. A few of us had it figured out and I had seen a tractor trailer loaded full of stickered MX-5s cruising down the highway in Toronto, so I knew what were were driving. I was a good boy though and didn’t spill the beans.
When we arrived at our destination, we found out that we were in Chattanooga, Tennessee and a pair of MX-5s were on the tarmac waiting for us. We learned that our event would start immediately as we had to navigate the back roads of Tennessee and northern Georgia to get to our hotel.
It was fitting that our somewhat rag-tag bunch of auto journos, many of whom are typically cynics about things of the religious variety, were set loose smack dab in the heart of the bible belt as a storm that would have made Noah nervous descended upon the area. The deluge made driving nearly impossible for a short period, due to non-existent visibility. Once the rain slowed down a bit, we put our top down again and kept our speed up to stay dry, until we were flagged down and told that the road ahead was blocked by a downed tree.
Never ones to do something so mundane as listen to a warning, Peter and I continued on our way until we found a small gathering of our competitors line up behind a pickup truck and a downed tree. Naturally, we took the opportunity to totally block the road by pulling up beside the truck, only to find that a local gent of the senior variety was about to make short work of the tree with one of the chainsaws he keeps in the truck for moments just like this.
We were soon on our way, as the roads turned from wet pavement to gravel and straights turned to what seemed like hundreds of beautifully linked turns. Ex-rally driver that I am, I was in heaven and the Miata was in its element. With the stability control turned off, the little machine, now with its top up again, chewed through the turns like Pac-Man chasing a cherry. After a while the gravel made way for more pavement and I was having so much fun looking out the side windows that I just kept right on drifting along the soggy tarmac turns.
Day two began with a bit of a panic as route organizer Keith Townsend informed us that we were going to love the mystery portion of the day. This sent Bleakney and I into a bit of a tizzy as we scoured the route book trying to find some mention of a mystery. After spending our morning carving through hills and hollers, we came around a corner only to find that we were arriving at Atlanta Motorsports Park. A great mystery indeed!
The lunch challenge was to set the fastest lap of the country club track’s kart track. The real trick was that no track walks were allowed and we had just three laps to lay down a quick time. This was to be no easy task, as the short track boasts 43 feet of elevation change in under a mile! The approach to turn one is a steep uphill, with the crest past the apex. All the driver can see is sky before the road drops off steeply towards a right hand hairpin. If you have driven Mosport and think turn 2 is steep, this drop will blow your mind.
As the numbers started coming in, it looked like 1:12 was going to be the time to beat. I messed up huge on my first lap, taking a 1:14, but while I did put two wheels off, I didn’t clobber any cones. Time to settle down and be patient. Lap two came and I got it down to a 1:12.4 which was better, but it was still far from a clean lap. My third lap felt great and turned out to be a 1:11.9, which was the best time so far. It has been years since I’ve had an FTD, so I was pretty stoked, even though I think that with another couple of laps I could shave another 2 seconds off it. Unfortunately, that time didn’t stand as FTD, as that bastard Ronnie Fung from Autoblog Canada came along and ripped a full second off my time! I’m kidding, I love the dude and I’m happy to be beaten by guys I love.
Peter’s strong lap and my second place did wonders for our score and plopped us at the top of the leader board for the start of Day 3. Throughout the first two days, it seemed like the roads just seemed to get better with every turn and our final day was no different. Although the rain continued, Peter and I continued to soldier on with our top down as we wound our way towards the intended highlight of the event, the legendary Tail of the Dragon.
We had only one pass, so after the obligatory shopping stop to buy some Route 129 stickers and a tee shirt, we decided to split the drive half way down the road. It was pissing rain, but there was no way in hell that we were putting the top up for this bit of driving heaven. My drive partner had a hoot zipping along the tight and twisty road, but when it was my turn I turned up the wick a bit. Some guys like the wide open, fast sections, by I have always excelled at crazy tight roads, so it was time to turn off the TCS and go into full attack mode. The MX-5 was absolutely the perfect dance partner for this battle, reveling in being tossed hard from corner to corner, wagging its tail through every bend. It seems as if the Tail was carved for no reason but to entertain Miata drivers. Perhaps the opposite was true, perhaps the Miata was conceived just for roads like this.
Ever conscious of missing details on the route that might cost us valuable points, at the end of the event, it turns out that we had missed a portion of a word search puzzle that we did on the plane during the flight down. That portion came at the expense of whopping 50 point bonus that we missed, leaving Team Star Wars to finish in 4th place. A heck of an improvement over last year, but with those fiddy, we would have won by 3.
Big congrats to Michael Schlee and Sami Haj-Assaad from Autoguide for taking the win even after a bit of an embarrassing setback!