For one weekend in April each year, the small village of Fontana, North Carolina, hosts a gathering of Volkswagen friends and owners casually known as WITW. What ties these cars together, apart from the VW badge, is that their engines all produce a beloved exhaust note. This year I joined over 100 of these special cars for some fun, both in the village and on the famous roads that surround it.
The Golf R32 and Golf R cars have been a staple in the VW enthusiast community ever since the first model was released in the United States in 2004. The first two generations of the sportiest Volkswagen hatchbacks were powered by the famous compact six-cylinder engine, the 3.2 liter VR6, and it’s this exhaust sound that gives the event its name — namely the similarity between the VR6’s exhaust and a certain popular sci-fi space yeti who communicates in deep, throaty roars.
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What makes WITW so special for the attendees is that it is billed as a car meet up that encourages you to drive more. Fontana, nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains near the North Carolina-Georgia state borders, hosts exactly one fuel station and one ice-cream shop and is a rest stop for Appalachian Trail hikers. Surrounded by forests with exquisite winding roads that do indeed make you want to drive more. There are no cell phone towers in the village, so the main pastimes visitors come for are relaxation, barbecuing, hiking, and driving the spectacular local roads.
The “Tail of the Dragon,” one of the most fun driving routes in North America, features 318 curves over only 11 miles and starts just a few miles away from Fontana. The surrounding valleys and waterfalls vie for your attention, but on the Dragon, the next corner demands your concentration, as you find a rhythm with your car and the curves. There are plenty of parking spots at picturesque vistas throughout, which allow great viewing of the cars and motorbikes as they drive through. Lucky for us, they do continuously throughout the day. Part of the fun is seeing what comes next; a nearly 40-year old Volkswagen Rabbit with gleeful passengers was one highlight, with a cheer going up as it drove by.
My own ride was a brand new 2018 Volkswagen Atlas SEL Premium with the 3.6 liter VR6 power-plant that Volkswagen loaned me for the event. This 276-hp engine shares its design and sportiness with the hatchback Golf R32 but has an even greater power output, and a more family-friendly exhaust system. When configured with the VR6 and the optional factory-installed towing hitch, the Atlas can tow up to 5,000 lbs.1, which would help with getting through the mountains in Tennessee. I was able to tow a twin-axle trailer carrying what might be considered the grandfather of the R, a 1989 VW Golf Rallye, to the event.
For the drive down, the Atlas and I joined a group of enthusiastic employees from the Volkswagen of America headquarters, who I would be cruising on the I-81 highway with. Among their cars was a privately owned low mileage 2004 VW R32, a 2018 Golf R with optional Oettinger body kit, and a special 7th generation VW Golf SportWagen. All three of them were bright blue colors, which would fit well with a popular conversation that would pop up later at the event.
As we entered the village, we were greeted with signs welcoming the WITW attendees, and waves from fellow Volkswagen owners as we drove past. Dan Borin and Saige Sandy, from Barrie, Ontario, brought home-baked cookies which they handed out throughout the weekend. “We brought about 60, and they went really quickly”, said Dan, who quickly added that “next year I’m not allowed to help Paige make them though, as I ruined one batch. We planned to bring 100!”
Dan and Saige had made an 860-mile drive in Dan’s 2004 Golf R32 and were joined by his father driving his 2002 VW Jetta. This was their fifth year at the event; it’s the “laid-back atmosphere, the hanging out, and enjoying the cars on the road” that keep them coming back.
This friendliness and sense of community were one of the nicest things during the weekend. It was quickly apparent that meeting new people and making new friends could be as simple as walking up to any group and simply saying hello, and perhaps asking which car they’re driving. All weekend long everyone shared stories about their Volkswagens, their drives from across the country, and how they have personalized their cars or kept them looking clean and original.
Chris Stogsdill had made the drive in his Lapiz Blue Metallic 2016 Golf R, his second time visiting from Staten Island, N.Y. The Golf R had his own touches applied, and isn’t his first Volkswagen; he had previously owned a Reflex Silver 2004 R32. The color of the cars would continue to pop up in chats all weekend long, and would often be a main topic of conversation. “Red is the fastest!” “Black suits the cars the best,” and quite simply, “blue, of course!” were heard again and again.
By Saturday evening both the cars and drivers had likely driven thousands of twisty corners together, and it was time to unwind. The evening started with a “sound off,” with all Golf R32 and Golf R vehicles in attendance parking together for photographs, followed by a chorus of revved engines that filled the valley with their calls.
Afterward, just a short walk away was the R-BQ, with hundreds of enthusiasts packing into the community hall for the meal, and a chance to give something back via a charity raffle. Each year the raffle raises thousands of dollars, with this year’s proceedings benefiting the local volunteer rescue team, and a children’s hospital in Chicago.
Now fully fed, the crowd moved to a fire pit, or straight to their chalets for one more night’s sleep in the less-than-quiet village. Any chance to spend time with friendly people who like to travel and share great stories should be relished, and when this amount of enthusiasm and fun driving opportunities come together, it makes for a R-eally great time.
Jamie Orr is an ardent enthusiast of the Volkswagen brand, a professional parts and car importer and a freelance automotive journalist. He was compensated by Volkswagen of America for this article, and the opinions expressed are his alone.