[This is a piece I originally wrote in the Fall of 1996. It was sold to a now defunct magazine and was apropos for the season ...]


A disproportionately large number of race car drivers come from North Carolina -- usually from towns with names that end in something-something-Falls or something-or-other-Gap. In the mountains that border Georgia and Tennessee you can find plenty of road signs that look like the snapshot of a cracking whip and speed limits of thirty-five. Which is about right. The Interstates near Raleigh are posted at fifty-five and are easily driven at twice that in a pickup truck. In the West Mountains though, the posted speed limit is a fair guide to how fast you can actually go on a sunny day in a competent machine with good tires, if you're paying real close attention. Which we all try to do.

The local gas and gear fringe elements hang out at the social center of Shoal Creek, a place that has no sign over the door but is generally known as Smokey's. Smokey runs the garage and his wife Jeanne holds down the attached store that we're not allowed inside anymore. I popped in early Saturday morning, ostensibly to see Mike about getting my torque wrench back, but really just to hang out and see who was building what.

As usual, the talk turned to the Telling Of Lies, and to who was going to Chimney Rock, a hill climbing race where white-knuckled drivers thunder up the mountain in low gear with breathless navigators calling distance to the edge. Too bad you can't buy adrenaline over-the-counter.

"Yeah, gonna win it all this year." said Smokey as he overtorqued, cracked, and finally broke a BMW oil pressure sender. "Aw, shit."

"Chimney Rock's no big gig." said Mike, who'd won three of the last five races. "We need to get a crowd up for a road race. Something large, maybe Deal's Gap, or the Winding Stair. On the road it's man to man, and if you don't drive you don't survive."

Chris had his feet on the ancient, blue chrome foot warmers that Smokey welded to the woodstove that was Shoal Creek's answer to the Eternal Flame:

"The Winding Stair. Uh huh. Bull. Shit. Too fast, too far out of town. Deals Gap might happen, but The Stair's too fast for anything but death-wish bikers and no one's gonna drive way the hell out there anyway."

Chris is a machinist and tends to think things out to the last thousandth of an inch before he does anything. Heli-arc welds aluminum cages for his tomato plants, that sort of thing.

Smokey grunted, cracked another piece of plastic, broke it, and muttering something about "Overpriced" and "Sauerkraut" and "Piece of Shit", set his tools on the air cleaner. I like Smokey. He's got a lot of soul, cares about people and loves machinery. I also wouldn't let him tune up my weedeater. Got a 1960 Case 430 Diesel with a stuck piston? Smoke's your man but anything built after, say, 1970 and he's lost. Smoke should probably stick to old cars and tractors but, as he'll tell anyone who'll listen, it's his name that's not on the door.

I'd been moved in to Shoal Creek for about a year and still haven't completely explored the mountains surrounding my place, so I had no clue: "What's this Winding Stair, man? Where's it at and what's the deal?"

Smokey gave the BMW a dirty look and sat down at a desk covered with parts, receipts, bills and soon new Bosch sensors unless Mike bailed him out of the 318 he was butchering:

"Well, I'll tell ya'. The race down Winding Stair Gap was a sanctioned event until '58. A man could run anything on four wheels, and drive it hard from the top of Telegraph Mountain across the ridge and down the Stair. No rules, no tech inspection, just more turns than a man can count in twelve miles. Fastest man took half the entrance fees. The rest probably went in Ledford's pocket. He took the tickets and Lord know what-all else. Was a regular October 15th picnic until a man won and lost at the same time."

"Won and lost?"

"Hell yeah. Man came out of the straight across the ridge and was cookin' down the Stair. Passed the last two cars in plain sight of the bridge at the bottom. Mister, he was flyin'. Flew right across the bridge, took the flag, then flew his ass clear over the edge. Was a damn good driver, but he was too fast for that turn. Way too damn fast."

"So he won, but he lost."

"Yeah, buddy. Took out a couple of Spectatores too."

Smokey sometimes lapses into bogus Italian for effect. He was stationed there during The War for about 15 minutes while his plane took on fuel, but wasted no time in becoming cultured. It's best not to bring it up. You could be trapped for hours.

Mike leaned over the Acura intake he was removing and smiled one of his famous Yeah-But-Not-Exactly smiles:

"Go ahead Smoke. Tell him the rest of it. Tell it like it was." Mike loves to rag the old man and was currently smiling like a Cheshire Cat that hit the Georgia Lottery.

Smokey put his feet up on a pile of illegally removed catalytic converters an lit one of those nasty White Owl cigars we all wish he'd stop smoking:

"Good man lost it in '58. Man name of Stiles. Loved exotics and drove a white Porsche 356, which was pretty exotic back then." Smokey was looking around like he was about to say something he shouldn't.

"Didn't believe a word of it until I saw it myself. Few year back I was headin' to Franklin to pick up a set of sleeve for Nipper's tractor and ... well, you know how they say out west they say a man can sometimes see Indians on horseback racing the trains? Well, sure as I'm standing here ... I'm comin' over the ridge and there's Stiles in the 356. Man's been dead damn near 50 year, but there he is sure as I'm sittin' here."

Smokey looked rattled. He put down the cigar and got very quiet. He was almost whispering:

"They say he's out there every damn October. I don't _even_ know, but Grey Wolf up at Cherokee Res damn sure does and Wolf says his soul won't rest until somebody beats him. THAT'S why Mike's all up for The Stair. He's took everyone's money at Chimney Rock so now he wants to race a damn ghost."

We both looked over at Mike who finished in the top five every year at Chimney Rock, and won three of the last five. "Is that the deal bro? You bored with the 'Rock, so you wanna run some dead guy down the mountain?"

Mike clearly didn't know Smokey was this freaked about it all, so he tried to blow it off:

"Yeah, it'd be cool if there WAS a ghost but no, man, I don't wanna go after Ichabod Crane in the headless Porsche" He smiled. "Don't want his job either, but check this: it's a kill place for race and the ghost thing is just the hook we need to get some real sponsors for a change. I'm not talking the local bullshit bank, I'm talking Coke and Shell and, you know, the fuckin' adults. Tell ya' what, what say we ride out there and take a look around? You're the SCCA guy. I've got the RX ready to roll, and I can't think of a better place to try her out."

The week went by quickly, and Saturday morning Mike rolled up to my shop at Shoal Creek Falls. Mike is a Mazda nut and believes that the design of the rotary engine came to Felix Wankel directly from God. He was driving a deep blue RX-8 that he'd lowered and stuffed a 3 rotor Cosmo engine into. Cosmos are only sold in Japan and parts are harder to come by than liberal democrats at the VFW. The engines are pure un-obtainium. I knew he was working on one, but couldn't guess where he got the pieces. Probably made some of them.

"Dude, is that what I think it is?"

"Yessir. The only three rotor RX in North Carolina."

"Probably the world."

Mike popped in a CD from the North Mississippi All-Stars as we slid through the turns on NC 294. The boys from Memphis were hammering through the blues about a woman-that's-so-hard-to-please, and my grip on the prayer bar was tightening. I like the blues but this particular CD can get scary at ninety, wheel-drifting through turns posted for thirty-five.

We were well into side two and the All-Stars were carrying on about not being able to take their eyes off of some Memphis hottie when Mike pulled off the road at the top of a ridge clustered with radio towers and small, stunted trees. We must have been thirty miles out of town, the first leaves of Fall taking the mountains from their standard issue OD Green to the spectacular show of color that attracts Florida weenies by the RV load every year. Mike stopped the car, switched it off, and got out.

"You know where we are man?" he asked.

"Lost?"

"Negative, Holmes. This is Telegraph Mountain. That nasty little road that drops over the ridge and down? Looks like Smoke's signature on a bad check? That, is the nearly famous Winding Stair Gap."

"Sweet. See any antique Porsches with dead drivers looking to run title for title?"

"Not yet, but ever hopeful."

We drove across the gap and swooped our way down the Stair. Mike's Cosmo-RX-8 handled beautifully, taking the turns like it was on rails; the exhaust note half turboprop, half Ferrari V-12. Absolutely incredible ... Now, I've always liked rotaries, even flew one in my plane for a while, but I've never worked my way up to the full-blown religion that Mike has. The view out the window, though, might prompt a man to toss out a prayer or two: faded asphalt twisted between signs indicating that both deer and falling rock occasionally conspire to make things more exciting. Spring water flowed from old blast holes. Leaves and sand piled up inside the corners. The guard rails looked used in places. The one thing that really got my attention was the runaway truck ramps every few miles. No traffic, nice road surface, exciting but not impossible for modern cars.

"You're right, man, this place rocks."

"Yessir. I figure to set up hay bales for catch fencing and have a killer good local event for a change. Why drive halfway across the state for something that isn't half what this could be?"

Mike was in full-on race-promoter mode. With his back-to-back wins at Chimney Rock, he might just pull it off too. Winding Stair Gap would be great, ghost or no, so we pitched the idea to the Powers That Be as Fall turned into Winter. We laid out a course, proposed entrance fees, safety standards and Mike's No-Holds-Barred, Full-Tilt-Boogie rules and hoped they'd go for it.

But they didn't. The SCCA concluded that there were too many places to slide off the mountain, not enough interest, and most importantly, no major sponsor. We all pretty much gave up on the idea, and Mike went back to rolling people at Chimney Rock.

Years slid by and we'd pretty much all forgotten Smokey's tale. I'd taken riding my bike down the Stair whenever I could, sometimes alone, sometimes with a crew swooping through the turns on the way to Franklin, then on to Asheville. The road had all the attributes Pirsig said make for a great place to ride: It went from nowhere to nowhere else and had an alternate that got you there quicker. It was smooth, curvy and fast with very little through traffic. Beats me why they ever built it, but it doesn't pay to question the motives of the North Carolina DOT.

So:

As the year turned and the trees once again brought color to the West Mountains, Cindi and I took the bike over to Franklin to check out the new vegetarian place. We both had a case of the Adrenaline Jones, so we headed for the Stair instead of down NC 64 which is faster, but has zero coolness coefficient. We crossed the gap and started down the middle section where there's a small straightaway for about a mile and a half. Cindi squeezed her legs -- she likes to pretend that motorcycles respond to leg pressure like horses, and I haven't told her otherwise.

I twisted the throttle and buried it until the bike was screaming down the straight. The tach was pushing six grand and we were coming up on 80 MPH. 6500 RPM and down the stair. Lean left, right, left, seven grand -- Blast and Burn.

Then:

Something that shouldn't be there. Something that wasn't there a second ago. In the left mirror, small, white and coming up fast. This is crazy. Beside me and running in the left lane. 7500 RPM, eight grand. He's still with me and the turns are coming fast. October 15th. White Porsche 356. LEFT, RIGHT, lean HARD over. Oh goddammit this is too fast. Cindi's stopped squeezing with her legs and is now squeezing the breath out of me. I'm racing a dead man down the mountain and she's having fun ... Hard left, right, lean with me now, over and down. The Bridge. Shit-o-dear ... HARD over, drag a footpeg, pop up and we're nose to nose.

The little Porsche is wide open as we cross the bridge at the bottom and he drops in behind me as I signal to pull off at the Citgo. I know, but I've still gotta ask.

I stop the bike and we both get off. Cindi's holding her helmet, her long chestnut hair cascading down her back and she shakes it out. She's smiling and breathing like she ran down the mountain. Adrenaline freak; I hope she doesn't want me to do it again. She's also looking at the thin man leaning out the window of the little Porsche. He's wearing a crew cut under an old RC Cola cap and is smiling like Mike does when he knows something he's not going to tell you. He looks about thirty-five. The car looks new.

"You've got a pretty fast motorcycle there, mister." He smiled a and pointed his left index finger, guessing. "An Indian, right?"

I thought of the ghost warriors who race the trains in New Mexico. Yeah. Might as well be.

"It's a Suzuki." I splutter. Oh god. It's my first date with Cindi again. Smile, stare, mumble, oops.

"Zoo-zuke-eee. Hmm. Never heard of 'em, but I'll bet you've never seen a car like this one either. She's a model three-five-six, made by Porsche in West Germany. Four cylinder opposed engine and air-cooled like your bike. Hmmf. Too close to call at the bridge, I'd say. Anyway, got to get over to see Smokey about these front springs. Floats a little too much in the turns."

... Oh really?

He started the little four-banger, tipped his RC cap and was gone. Cindi said the car just flickered and disappeared, but in the mountains your eyes can play tricks on you. Sure they can. All the time. She was also giving me The Look like she was missing some private joke:

"So who was that guy? I thought we knew every Porsche Q-tip artist between Asheville and Memphis."

"I think that was a guy named Stiles. He's an old friend of Smokey's. Helluva restoration, huh?"

There are certain things you just can't tell your lady. This whole deal, without question, was one of them.