To prepare for the closing weeks of the NASCAR Cup Series season, Trackhouse Racing pit crew coach Shaun Peet chose one of the quietest places in the Southeast.
Mount Le Conte, the third-highest mountain in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located in North Carolina and Tennessee, is one of the national park system’s most popular hiking areas. Six trails of varying lengths and difficulties lead to the top of the 6,593-foot mountain, and walking is the only way to reach the summit. The mountain has no roads.
LeConte Lodge, which will observe its 100th anniversary in 2024, sits near the mountain’s summit. A collection of lodges and cabins, it hosts overnight visitors for most of the year. Guests enjoy an evening dinner and a morning breakfast before heading down the mountain. The lodge is so popular that reservations generally are made a year in advance.
The trails of Mount Le Conte are quite the opposite of the pit roads where Trackhouse Racing crews work. Racing obviously is noisy and frantic; the mountain and the lodge offer quiet and relative solitude. And there is a rustic and primitive spin to it all. The lodge facilities do not have electricity or running water.
“It’s one place we’ve found in the world where we can get them out of the noise,” said Peet, who has led six team trips to Le Conte. “In this day and age with social media, they’re never out of the noise. Someone is blasting them on social media for a pit stop they blew. They’re saying that they’re this or that.
“On the mountain, you go up to a place with no electricity and no running water and with cell phone service that is spotty at best. We get them up there and out of the noise where they can reset and refocus and be great for the stretch run of the playoffs.”
Unfortunately, this year’s trip was canceled due to weather conditions. Usually, three vans carry 26 Trackhouse team members from the shop in Concord, N.C. to the Smokies park, and the group hikes to the lodge and back down the mountain the next day. Peet said the group typically hikes the Alum Cave Trail, which at about five miles is the shortest but also the steepest. It can be a difficult hike, particularly for those with little experience.
“I’m a big believer that when you do hard things together it binds you together,” Peet said. “It’s not a free pass to the top. You have to earn it. I feel like it solidifies our team.”
Peet typically hikes near the back of the group to make sure that “rookies” and stragglers don’t lose touch with the rest of the hikers. For some, it’s their first time in the high mountains.
“Everyone else is always trying to scare the new guys,” Peet said. “They talk about how hard it is. Some of our guys are what I call ‘fast-twitch’ athletes. They’re built for going fast, not for hiking. Some of them are worn out before they get halfway up. Everybody just tells them, ‘Hey, it’s just around the corner.’ ’’
Le Conte hikers typically arrive in the lodge area in early afternoon. The hours before the evening meal offer time to walk around the summit, play cards or board games, relax in rocking chairs or catch up on sleep.
Most visitors to the lodge participate in a long-standing LeConte tradition, making a short late-afternoon hike to a rocky point near the mountain’s summit to watch the sun set over the waves of mountains in the distance. It’s a striking view that many hikers rank as the highlight of the trip.
“I guarantee you it’s probably the only time during the year that our guys will sit and watch the sunset,” Peet said. “It’s the whole team watching the sun dip below the horizon. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but when you have everyone there, it’s a neat experience. And it’s brand new for some guys. I have guys on the team who say it’s the first time they’ve ever been in the woods.”
High atop the Great Smokies, it’s a chance to gather thoughts and recharge before the speedway calls again.