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2014 Mazda Adventure Rally

NORTH CAROLINA – Before us lay 11 miles (18 km) of serpentine road along the Tennessee, North Carolina State line. One of the most infamous stretches of pavement in the world, the Tail of the Dragon is almost a rite of passage for motorcycle and sports car drivers. With 318 curves over its sinewy length, it's been the downfall of many a driver, and the landmark "Tree of Shame", festooned with miscellaneous car debris is a testament of its treachery.

While completing the "Tail" gave us bragging rights, it was only part of three glorious days spent driving winding, back-country roads and mountain passes during the 2nd Annual Mazda Adventure Rally. Several of the teams were veterans of the previous year's event – but this year there was a catch: we had no idea where we were going or what we'd be driving.

In 2013, Mazda kicked off the inaugural rally to great success, with the result that it's now an annual event. The stakes are high; not only would we be competing for bragging rights, but there would be a first prize of $10,000 to be donated to our favourite charity.

Representing Auto123, there was one fly in our team's ointment: I can't navigate my way out of a wet paper bag. My ace-in-the-hole was long-time friend and Apex driving school instructor, James Mewett who also happens to be an aerospace engineer. Our chosen charity was the James Fund for Neuroblastoma Research in which James has a personal interest: it was founded in honour of his best friend Syd Birrell's late son James, who succumbed to the disease in 2001 at the age of 8.

2014 Mazda Adventure Rally
Photo: Lesley Wimbush

Boarding a charter flight in Toronto, we didn't discover our destination until we touched down in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There, we happily found a fleet of MX-5s, stickered up with our names and team logos. For most of us, it was like being reacquainted with an old friend: the MX-5 is the frolicking border collie of the automotive world, a superbly balanced roadster and the best selling sports car of all time.

Our first day was relatively easy, although it encompassed several hundred kilometres over two states, the route had been pre-calculated into the GPS. There was a catch though - we'd be travelling through the Bible Belt, and our task was to cross off a list of churches. This was made considerably more difficult by torrential downpour reducing visibility to almost nil. By the time we'd arrived, exhausted, at our destination in Young Harris, Georgia, we'd successfully spotted seven churches… but unfortunately we’d missed three. This placed us about mid-pack in the first day's standings, where we quietly endured the smack talk of the front-runners.

Our next couple of days were far more challenging. The routes were designed by Vehicle Dynamic's Group, our driver's meeting presided over by Keith Townsend, who has 16 years experience in motorsports, including three years as the Chief Coordinator of the Rally of the Tall Pines. The pages of notes were as incomprehensible to me as ancient Greek. Not only did we have to correctly determine our course, there were several puzzles to work out for bonus points. Without James's ability to decipher the cryptic instructions and plot the day's course, I'm sure we'd still be driving aimlessly through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

2014 Mazda Adventure Rally
Photo: Lesley Wimbush

And what glorious routes they were! We snaked through the Chatahoochie Forest, crossed the enormous Wawasee Dam and slid around the spine-tingling gravel hairpins of Blue Mountain. Thanks to my intrepid navigator James, we managed to stay entirely on route over the course of the rally, but my impatience was entirely to blame for missing several clues along the way. We'd successfully captured photographic evidence of landmarks such as the "Richard Russell Parkway", the iconic dragon sculpture of Route 129, but we'd unfortunately blasted right by the "Tallest in the TVA" (Tennessee Valley's biggest Dam).

If the gloriously winding and mostly deserted roads weren't glorious enough, our route delivered us to the Atlanta Motorsports Park, where hot laps comprised part of the rally stage. This shook up the standings considerably, with some of the trailing teams displaying admirable hot-shoe prowess and displacing the smack-talking front-runners. We moved up slightly – James's blinding speed was handicapped by my on-track cone dyslexia.

This is not only a terrific event benefitting some very worthy charities, it's a savvy move by Mazda Canada to reignite the passion for the MX-5 within those of us who haven't driven it for a while. Since its debut almost two and a half decades ago, the tiny roadster has come to define the essence of perfect balance, athleticism and fun.

Although we didn't manage to bring home the $10,000 prize, we were exhilarated, yet exhausted by some of the most challenging driving routes either of us had ever experienced. I'd become reacquainted with an old friend, the MX-5, and James was able to scratch the "Tail of the Dragon" off his own personal bucket list.

2014 Mazda Adventure Rally
Photo: Lesley Wimbush