Guest contributor: Kevin McCauley on the roads of Texas Hill Country
I spent more than three years living without a car in New York City. So it’s really quite a leap, 18 months later, to find myself driving my own sports car in the remote hills of central Texas.
The car I decided on is a Nissan 350Z (modern-day Japanese cars are a rare breed on this site so I better make a good impression!) and the road is somewhere out west of Austin, TX. This was a drive I’ve been wanting to make for a long time. Usually, you can’t make stops along the way when you’re hurrying, and you can’t drive to the middle of nowhere when the place you’re going to is somewhere.
So I planned a trip without a destination. I drove up to Austin (from Houston), met up with a friend with a loose knowledge of the local roads, and we headed out with a rough idea of where to start— that’s it. Part of me hoped we’d get lost.
Once we left Austin, we quickly found some farm roads with gentle, sweeping corners and lots of elevation changes. The corners weren’t very tight, but they were scenic, empty, and fun for cruising at the 65mph speed limit. This is a part of Texas I’ve really never seen before, and it’s beautiful. No malls, no parking lots – people just don’t build stuff here. Most of what you see is natural and if it’s not, it’s way off in the distance.
The biggest fun-killer I noticed was the pavement. It’s awful. Almost everywhere, it was this bumpy, pebbly stuff that created deafening tire noise and slashed any confidence I may have had to take a corner quickly. It looked like if you had a million round wads of chewing gum and pressed them onto a road and then let them bake in the Texas sun.
Speaking of tire noise, the 350Z is kind of known for having it. This is a 2005 model, which I have slowly converted to the higher-spec ‘Track’ model. That entails the Brembo brakes, lightweight forged wheels, and the rear spoiler. I’ve also added a higher-capacity oil can and a pair of Schroth harnesses.
It’s been just over a year that I’ve been addicted to HPDEs and track days, and it’s been an excellent car for learning to drive well. It’s rear-drive, well balanced and has plenty of power, but not so much that I need to constantly feather the throttle. I can usually put it to the floor in third gear out of corners with no problem. Obviously, HPDEs aren’t a race, but there is still pride involved in passing or being passed. With the Z, I generally feel faster than the slow cars and more confident than the fast cars.
We made our way through a bunch of small towns, some so small they were literally easy to miss. As the afternoon wound down, we hadn’t really found any amazing driving roads like I had hoped for, but did see a lot of nice scenery and had some perfect (albeit hot) weather and skies. It was satisfying to have driven to a place that looked and felt completely different from what we were used to.
The styling of the 350Z took a while to grow on me. Initially after the car’s launch, I thought it was too tall and not aggressive enough. This was the first Japanese sports car to go on sale in the US after the long void caused by the departures of the RX-7, Supra and 300ZX; anything would have a tough act to follow. But I drove a 350Z in 2006, and that must have planted the seed. Or maybe I liked the way it drove so much that I didn’t care what it looked like. But I think with any car you own, over time you love the way it looks and appreciate its angles. I love the side view, and the rear looks like nothing else on the road. The payoff to the possibly-overwrought geometric design theme is the way it has curves and fenders that swell out of the flat planes, and that contrast works for me. Much better than the 370Z, which is all curves blistering out of other curves.
By the time we reached the quaintly-named town of Comfort, we started taking some more major thoroughfares and enjoyed smoother pavement. I was pretty content with all that we had seen. We made stops in Fredericksburg, then Johnson City, and looked at the map for one last windy road to take us back.
That road, Ranch Road 2766, was the absolute best stretch of pavement of the day. It was smooth, nearly completely empty, and had lots of twists, bends, and gradual elevation changes throughout. We parked for some photos, walked around, and then couldn’t believe our luck when the road got even better once we continued. This was the road I had hoped to find.
At some point we came across – don’t laugh – an early ’90s Mitsubishi sedan that clearly knew the road, and it was flying! I don’t encourage this, but following this car egged me on to be less cautious than I otherwise would have been, and we flew through the hairpins and 25-mph-recommended corners at the same speeds he did. It never really got that fast, but it was a thrill taking a completely foreign road at that pace. And it was a perfect end to the road trip.
The Texas Hill Country wasn’t what I was expecting at all. For one, the hills were smaller than I expected. This definitely wasn’t a definitive guide either, because I’m sure I missed a lot and am really only scratching the surface. But it’s a beautiful area and an amazing escape from the parts of Texas I’m used to. Now I need to plan another non-destination trip to go back.
Words and images: Kevin McCauley
Kevin McCauley is a graphic designer and photographer. His website, Distraction Control, can be found here.