Tackling Tail of the Dragon, an infamous stretch of road in the Deep South, Scott Speed continues to take on new challenges 28 years into his auto racing career.
The Tail of the Dragon is a federal highway comprised of 318 turns over 11 miles that weaves across the North Carolina and Tennessee border. It’s a road has been part of racing lore since its inception, with gorgeous terrain and exhilarating hairpin turns that lure drivers and motorcycle riders every season. A driver seldom gets the road to themself and there are always those pesky rules of the road – but earlier this fall, four-time Rallycross champion Speed, was given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to ride the dragon uninterrupted.
“What makes that road special is it’s right on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee so if you leave the NC border and drive 11 miles [into Tennessee] there are no roads that connect to it,” Speed told NBC Sports. “If you don’t pass a cop, you’re turning around and coming back 100% certain that you won’t see a cop. That partnered with the fact that this [is a] beautiful curvy road cultivated this huge following.”
“In this case it was extremely last minute, because it was very unplanned,” Speed explained about his preparation for the course. “Originally we were there to film stuff with the [Red Bull] F1 car. The test driver, Patrick Friesacher got COVID the day before the shoot. All the original plans got thrown out the window. Our good buddy, Darryl [Canon, of Killboy Photography] – he was the one shepherding us around the location, he was the one who was super knowledgeable, and the local expert of the area – and he was like you guys should just do the whole run! Try to break the record.”
With permits in hand and no need to look over his shoulder for police cars, Speed ran the full course and avoided the tree of shame – a place for novice drivers and riders to place pieces of their crashed vehicles on the occasions when the Dragon bites.
“By happenstance, we got the opportunity to run the whole thing, but unfortunately from a prep standpoint, I had zero,” Speed said. “I showed up expecting to do a couple of corners and then that turned into ‘we’re trying to rip 318 of them as fast as we can so good luck’.
“How do you prepare for it? I tried to remember a few corners, but I just tried to be present and run it while seeing only what was in front of me.”
There weren’t 318 turns of fate in Speed’s career to get him behind the wheel of a rally car, but there was an ample amount. Speed’s course through racing has taken him from karts at age 11 in the San Fernando Valley, around the world with Formula 1, back stateside to compete in NASCAR in the Truck and Cup series, to competing in Rallycross and winning at the X-Games.
“I have been so lucky to get so many great opportunities, ” Speed said.
And then he stopped to clarify the statement: “I say ‘lucky’, but I made some hard choices along the way as well. It wasn’t an easy choice to leave F1 and the type of racing I grew up doing my whole life to transition into something I had to learn from scratch.
“It was difficult to change and to go from something that I’m very proficient in. I’m one of the best in the world at road course racing. To go from that into something that I started out extremely average in [stock car racing] was difficult to manage, but I feel like the lessons I learned in life and the experience of having to go through that was so valuable for my personal development as a human.
“I was so glad that I was given that opportunity by Red Bull to do that and thankful for that journey. It was a really great personal one.”
The roads on which we drive and the race tracks we love create a common ground between place and people. The spirit of the Dragon and that of Speed are one and the same: challenging, rebellious, and adaptive.
“It’s a challenging position because I’m trying to break a record and go fast and make it look good for the camera, but I have no idea where I’m going” Speed said. “It’s another thing as well to have a race car on a street. That was super interesting and new.
“You’re not used to seeing corners come so quickly. I’ve never been in a car so fast on the road. I had to adjust to that and try to keep it on the road. There were a couple of sketchy corners. It was stressful.”