USA Today: Driving on 143. Our Green Hell

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Since its construction, the Nordschleife has enjoyed a reputation as a terrifying and merciless route through the Eifel forests, a ”Green Hell”. Here’s our version on US soil

US 143 Green Hell

Cherohala Skyway is one of the places you absolutely need to experience before you go pay respects to Ayrton, Colin, or the other driving deities up there

A good friend and fellow VW R32 enthusiast recently shared with me the angst that entails a proper mountain run

Baked into the anticipation and excitement of the thing, there’s this God-awful feeling.

Part worry part dread. What could end up going south? 

You won’t really settle or breathe relief until she’s tucked in for the night, safe and sound in your garage.

Tension creeps back up once adrenaline stores are depleted and another run beckons. 

I do not wish this on anyone. It is not a healthy thing by any means. Like any addiction, you must learn how to embrace the cravings that come with a peak experience

Maybe a glimpse of what the pros experience during the doldrums. Time spent after the checkered flag drops and before another green waives. 

The definition of empathy – hearing aloud from another what one feels all along. Suffice to say our rides are project cars tuned around a sole purpose.

Driving the twisties

Long gone are bland stock factory settings. Over years of research, setback and fine tuning, they have become thoroughbreds of the touge.

Machines not meant for city traffic unless absolutely necessary. Harsh and loud, putrid beasts. They balk at the idea of what resembles comfort. 

Performance clutches fret and gearboxes lurch in low rpms. Suspensions unfriendly to vertebrae and exhausts a beating to the ear drums – damn, did I just spill my coffee all over my pants again?

Girlfriends and spouses have been known to beg for Dramamine or leave imprints on door handles, cursing your name once laterals load. Mine avoids it like the plague. This is a solitary place to be, as it should be

US 143 Green Hell

Yet there’s the morning dew that burns off by the time you arrive at Tellico Plains, TN on a brisk and clear October day

Top off the tank while metals tick; the lull before Vivaldi’s solo violin drops, better yet Van Halen cueing up the synths on “Jump!”

Gentle breezes rustle auburn and gold foliage drowning all surrounding scenery. Up here is a special kind of place.

You skip a beat knowing what follows

Hands’ bit clammy, tightly wrapped around 9 and 3 on firm alcantara. Pupils dilate and borderline nausea fizzles out, giving way to razor eyes pointed far behind each apex.

Softer compound tires reach operating temps, while the chassis flexes and revs flirt with midrange. Turbos spooling eagerly devouring dense air. Diverter valve flutter with each lift off

Cherohal skyway wide

Enter the infamous playground by the name of Cherohala Skyway, aka U.S. highway 143. A 42-mile stretch of road that is the stuff of petrolhead dreams. Poetry in dark tarmac framed by mayo and mustard. And as you crest that first pass into the Carolinas, glorious sweepers await

Kévin Estre αγώνες αντοχής

Pushing deep into 3rd and 4th gear

EGT’s rising well above 1,700 Fahrenheit, expanding aluminum alloy straight-pipes howling against granite mountain wall.

VW Golf owners

VR6 bliss reverberating all the way down the valley. Raw MK6 torque meets surgical MQB’s. And that’s only us dubs folk. Here you’ll find all the JDM goods. M’s division and yellow-green badge Brits equally represented. Not to mention American muscle. Everyone is here to play

I am in driving heaven

All the mundane tunes out.

My senses flooded with steering rack feedback, the Michelin sonorous chirp, how the single-mass flywheel responds to heel-and-toe inputs on rev-matching downshifts.

A calculus necessary to conquer each incoming corner. That tuned haldex rear diff taking it next level.

Slow in, fast out. Rinse and repeat. Behind rhythm and synchrony lies something almost transcendental. All that angst melts away for a moment. 

To be perfectly clear, such experience is never to be pursued at a track day’s or autocross’ pace. Mistakes here are expensive at best, deadly at worst. The awareness of sharing twisty roads with fellow motorists and cyclists when commanding a near-400hp application warrants utmost caution and respect. Such is the humility that elevates this mountain run into something better than chasing limits in a closed circuit

Perhaps we do have our own little version of the Green Hell this side of the pond after all. Twice as long and half as eminent.

I should be selfish and keep US 143 away from prying eyes (and additional traffic). I am taking risk in publishing this. 

I want to pay it back to my R32 buddy for the validation. Mostly, to share with an awesome petrolhead community. 

Ladies and gents, if you value pure driving, Cherohala Skyway is one of them places you absolutely need to experience before you go pay respects to Ayrton, Colin, or the other driving deities up there.

I realize time has come to drive back home. That stress rears its ugly head. It is worthwhile. 

See you in April.

Photos: I. Ioannou / Google /

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