Lotus Evora GT and McLaren 600LT dance on America’s most dangerous road—in a downpour
Uggggh! Two amped supercars, a curvy road bordered by a calamitous drop-off, and torrential rain. A southern-fried recipe for doom, I think, as we drive south through Tennessee on U.S. Route 129 toward the start of the infamous Tail of the Dragon. Why, oh why, did it have to rain today?
Two months earlier, we had imagined a different scenario. A friend who lives near the Tail had invited me to join a group of enthusiasts for two days of driving. He described the group as a loosely organized bunch of exotic car fanatics from the New York City area who are stereotypically New York boisterous. He added that they’re not only entertaining characters, they’re so committed to driving that they bring a trailer of spare parts for their Lamborghinis, Vipers, and Porsche GT2s. Because, I guess, stuff gets broke.
I mentioned this to the boss, McKeel Hagerty, who has somehow never driven the Tail. He wanted in, not only to drive, but also to commune with people who share the passion—at least, from a safe social distance. Plus, New Yorkers in screwball machines are a spectacle worth traveling for. So we chambered a couple of suitable rounds, including a 2020 Lotus Evora GT and a 2020 McLaren 600LT factory press car, then counted down the days.
Two days before the meetup, the predicted path of Tropical Storm Delta, then rolling over Louisiana, showed it arcing right toward Route 129. This meant heavy rain for days. The apparently water-soluble New Yorkers bailed. McKeel, however, wasn’t about to abandon his chance to drive the Tail. “You can’t change the weather,” he reasoned. “And don’t we have two cars that come from England, a land known for rain?”
Still, I was nervous. For one, the Tail counts no fewer than 318 curves over its 11-mile path through the Great Smoky Mountains, and zero guardrails. It is so well-known among drivers and motorcyclists that it’s like an amusement park on busy days, complete with a company called Killboy that sets up in corners to shoot photos of your hero moment for purchase. The carnival atmosphere has made it so infamous that the Blount County Sheriff’s Office has a website, dragonawareness.com, to “reduce the number of injuries and deaths through education and enforcement.” The site explains, for example, that over a 10-year stretch, 27 people died on those 11 miles compared to 23 people on the county’s other 1100 miles of roads. Not to mention, the Tail is so rural that the injured should expect a 90-minute journey to the nearest hospital. During the busy summer season, the routine chopper airlifts of the injured out of this green hell give it the ambience of Khe Sanh.
Into the maw we would launch in two fire-belching (and seemingly similar) British sports cars. Both carry their engines between the passengers and the rear wheels, and both clothe their chassis with composite bodies, favoring light weight over comfort. Neither car weighs more than 3000 pounds, though they are heavily laden with the racing heritage of their respective pedigrees.
We flash past the small turnout and the graffiti-stained stone walls that mark the start of the Tail, having left the hotel early to avoid traffic, and round into the first corner. Then the second. Then the third-fourthfifth. The thing about the Tail is that you’re never not turning—left, right, left, right, each corner slightly different in radius, camber, and surface than the previous. I keep the Lotus in third gear, gingerly working the controls, remembering how Jackie Stewart used to teach new drivers to envision an egg on the pedals in order to avoid traction-killing spikes.
The Lotus makes it easy. The brake and throttle pedals have unusually long travel and linear action. Press the brake another 10 percent further and the car seemingly slows another 10 percent. The steering wheel minutely twitches over a surface change, confirming what the eyes perceive. The Evora wears Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s, and when the fronts reach their traction limit on the slick roads, I can feel it through my hands.
In 1982, a heart attack killed Colin Chapman, the brilliant and scrappy engineer who’d created the art form of light-weighting in a tiny garage in northeast England 30 years earlier. Back in those days, it was all improvisation, using engines and parts scrounged from other makers, with the sale of road cars a necessity to pay for Chapman’s one true love: racing. Today, the Lotus factory in Hethel still constructs its street cars with scrounged parts—including the 3.5-liter Toyota V-6 in the Evora—and in keeping with Chapman’s philosophy of weight reduction being the only war worth fighting.
Lotus launched the four-seat Evora in 2009 as a grand-touring version of its smaller Elise. As was so often the case with Lotus, the original Evora had the right idea, but it fell short in initial execution. More than a decade of development, however, has finally delivered a Lotus that’s an English version of the Porsche 911. The new-for-2020 Evora GT is a driver-focused car with just enough practicality for regular use. It even has heated seats, plus a supercharger, which gooses the Toyota unit to 416 horsepower. Some might notice that the turn-signal stalks come from European Fords—ever scrounging—but the Lotus method results in a car that, at $120,000, costs far less than the mighty McLaren.
Trees line the road to our right, obscuring the steep drop to the Little Tennessee River below. Natural rock walls appear at times to jut out maybe just a bit too close for comfort, but they have the effect of echoing the Lotus’s enthralling wail. About halfway through, I stop mentally complaining about the rain. Turning left and right, braking, and accelerating—all with more gusto than I would have guessed was possible during a downpour—presses my body alternately between the seat bolsters, the seat back, and the seatbelt. It feels like a self-directed roller coaster. What does one want from the Tail in a car like this? That depends on the driver, but for me, it’s the feeling of machine connection, the mechanical experience, and simply the thrill of traveling in a manner far above what the human body alone is capable of.
About 15 minutes later, we cross the North Carolina border that marks the end of the Tail, pull into a parking lot, and get out. McKeel in the McLaren was never more than a few car lengths off my bumper. “It’s like the car is wired directly into my cerebellum,” he says of the 600LT. “It knows what I want to do before I do it. I never had a moment of panic back there, even in the rain, even in a car that is 100 times faster than I am.”
We switch cars and head back in the other direction. After the Lotus, the McLaren is a sound reminder that there is always someone richer, thinner, and better-looking than you. It’s a luxe experience from the first swing of its scissor door. For starters, the Lotus has an Alpine dash unit of the type anyone can buy from Freddie’s Car Stereo; the 600LT uses a bespoke touch-screen that controls everything from the radio to the HVAC system.
Well, McLaren is the cost-no-object firm. New Zealander Bruce McLaren started the company in 1963, but it was Ron Dennis who set it on its current course when he took the reins in 1981, some 11 years after McLaren died in a testing accident. Dennis is a sweat-every-detail personality who drove McLaren to F1 dominance in the 1980s; he also started its road-car effort with the Gordon Murray-designed F1 of 1992. The 600LT can beat the F1 in every measurable way, thanks to its McLaren-designed and -built twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V-8, automated dual-clutch seven-speed transmission, and zillions of electronic microprocessors—but it will never beat the F1 in cool. Even so, the 600LT is perhaps the lightest and most driver-focused of the company’s current supercar line, with a 592-hp engine (which McLaren states as 600, according to European standards of power measurement, hence the car’s less religiously fraught name) belting out enough fury to push two awestruck occupants over 200 mph. We have the Spider model, which comes with a motorized folding top and the optional carbon-fiber thinly padded seats that combined with other options for a definitely super $306,540 sticker price.
Between our two wedges, the Lotus is more raw, the one to transmit greater information about the road and what the car is doing, then it lets the driver deal. It is also the most well-screwed-together and luxurious GT car the company has ever produced, yet it’s not overpolished. The McLaren is, by contrast, more of a filtered operator. There are brief moments when we each feel the potential violence of that engine, a glimpse to remind us how easily 592 horsepower can unleash chaos. Most of the time, however, the McLaren keeps the engine in check, like the computers are doing some magic in the background to make you feel like you’re an expert with the throttle. Somehow, McLaren found a way to harness all that performance and still allow the driver to feel like he or she is the pilot, not the computer. You’re the hero of the 600LT’s movie.
The most shocking trait is how the 600LT grips in the wet and sloppy conditions, and this will take some explaining. Typically, when the surface is wet, a tire grips up to a limit and then breaks free in dramatic fashion. The difference between “stuck” friction and “sliding” friction is often hair-raisingly wide. Once the tire slides, all hell breaks loose, which is one reason rainy Formula 1 races have more crashes than dry ones. It’s why we were nervous for the rain—overcooking a corner even slightly, which is a minor thing in the dry, can have dire consequences in the wet.
The McLaren’s performance made me curious, so later on, I called the company to ask about it. “The car needs to be always predictable,” says McLaren’s director of chassis and vehicle technology, Leo Pascali, in a thick Italian accent. Pascali has a doctorate in fluid dynamics, and he worked on Porsche racing and sports cars before joining McLaren in 2015.
Upon his arrival at McLaren, Pascali immediately increased wet-weather testing with Pirelli in Northern Italy because, he says, “95 percent of crashes occur in the rain.” The car’s tires were thus specifically developed for the 600LT, but Pascali is careful not to single out one part for the car’s performance but to create a balance. One key trait, he says, was to minimize the vertical load variation on the tires. Tire grip is directly related to how forcibly it’s pushed into the road. The force naturally varies as the car accelerates, brakes, and turns, so the job of managing and minimizing those load changes falls to the suspension. “Someone who drives a McLaren should not have fear,” Pascali says. “It should be fun, even in the rain.”
It is. As we finish our second run of the Tail, traffic is already starting to pick up. My initial skittishness about the conditions, these cars, and the road now seems like hysterics. Stopped at a park, I ask McKeel if he thinks the rain had dampened the experience. He shakes his head and says, “Actually, the rain helped. I always assumed these cars would figuratively melt in the rain. Nope.”
We still have a full but rainy day ahead and a part of the country lousy with world-class roads, like the Cherohala Skyway and a loop on the west side of Knoxville known as the Devil’s Triangle. We drive some 200 miles, Devils and Dragons, almost never holding the steering wheel straight.
As our time with these two cars comes to an unpopular end, we talk about how the older sports cars we typically drive would have been tiptoeing around these roads, leaving the driver entirely in the white-knuckle zone. We often celebrate our old steeds by claiming that the greater skill and care required as compared to modern sports cars results in a much richer experience. Perhaps, but these two cars taught us that modern technology and engineering offer a different but every bit as enthralling ride. Even in the rain.
2020 Lotus Evora GT
ENGINE: 3.5-liter V-6, supercharged
POWER: 416 hp @ 7000 rpm
TORQUE: 317 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm
WEIGHT: 3100 lb
POWER-TO-WEIGHT: 7.5 lb/hp
0–60 MPH: 4.0 sec
TOP SPEED: 188 mph
2020 McLaren 600LT Spider
ENGINE: 3.8-liter V-8, twin-turbocharged
POWER: 592 hp @ 7500 rpm
TORQUE: 457 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm
WEIGHT: 2950 lb
POWER-TO-WEIGHT: 4.98 lb/hp
0–6 MPH: 2.8 sec
TOP SPEED: 204 mph