What follows started out as a simple outline of what a day at autocross is like but got out of control and turned into an essay. Perhaps too long for most but for a few...
Videos at the end...
You know you are in the right place when you see the first cone on the ground laying on its side. To the civilian world this is a meaningless careless accident, a cone that fell off a cable truck. But “we” know it means there’s big fun in the direction the cone is pointing. Next you’ll see the serious guys with purpose built cars unloading from trailers on the outskirts of the “pitts” where competitors set up shop. Don’t be intimidated because deeper into the abyss you find other weekend warriors preening a cross-section of cars with at least half being daily drivers and the rest more specialized hardware from muscle cars to fart-can imports and really fast go-carts. You will find a wonderful cross-section of drivers young and old are all there to have fun and play cars together.
The goal of this article is to assert that Autocross is much more than show up and drive. It is a day-long challenging chess style event played out between 10:30 and 4:30 PM. If you don’t give yourself time to examine the course ahead of time and mentally ‘prepare’, plan to be frustrated the entire day. Folks that leave at lunch usually haven’t studied the course and just get lost every run. Each labyrinth or puzzle is designed by experienced competitors to present a gauntlet of challenges in a unique pattern and order (usually favoring their particular car ;o)). Some end up favoring smaller cars with tight corners, others let a healthy V8 breathe through a couple of gears and hang at-speed through a corner or two. You simply must be up for the challenge of solving a day long puzzle in an epic battle against time or you will not “get” autocross and miss out on the point and a heck of a lot of fun.
Let’s discuss for a minute if your car is ready and/or appropriate. If it can turn, stop and accelerate safely, there is no excuse that passes the red-face test not to go. You will see everything from bone-stock beaters - 250,000 mile VW Golf smoke bomb to daily driver Ford Fusions and Subaru wagons to exotic custom built race cars and everything imaginable in-between including an old rat-survivor Mustang Fastback. If your Mustang isn’t ready, take the wife’s wagon but get out there! It can be confidently asserted that the best way to increase your car’s performance is to learn how to drive it. Sure you could add performance equipment but frankly how do you know what your car needs till you drive the devil out of it. Just throwing parts at it is a total crap shoot. Learning how others at the Autocross set their cars up along with the knowledge of the deficiencies you experience out on the track is the best way to spend money intelligently. No amount of killer suspension work will make up for amateur driving skills – there is just so much to teach your muscles about intense driving, making split micro-second decisions and how your car will react to those decisions.
Back at the track; beyond the pitts is a huge sea of construction cones. Usually a parking lot ranging in size from a small mall lot to larger parking lots at the local fairgrounds, football or baseball stadium, 6 Flags or Watkins Glen International Raceway or if you’re really lucky, an airport runway. The immediate task is to find a place to pitt; park the car, empty the car including the trunk and prepare the car for inspection. In some autocrosses, the Tech inspectors come to your car, others, you have to take your prepared car to them. They will make sure the wheels will stay on, the battery is secure, seatbelts are solid, brake pedal feels firm and your helmet is not outdated if you bring one. They have loaners… The key here is all floor mats, anything not tied down is removed and hubcaps that are not secured in some fashion must come off. Once the car is prepared for tech, the next task find the registration tent and pay $35 to $50. The goal is to get this all behind you and get out to walk the course. For the usual 10:30 race start, you want to be there by 8:30 at the latest – I usually shoot for 8am.
Now your job is to piece together as much of this puzzle as possible and figure out how you are going to apply your current level of driving skill to slay micro-seconds as the weapon of choice in a battle against the others in your car class. This is a mental head-game that goes on the entire day. A sampling of strategies you will learn:
Long straights or anywhere you can lay into the throttle, the sooner you get on it, the faster you’ll be at the other end beating precious milliseconds
The car will always go where you are looking regardless of where you want it to go
Slow is fast – smooth wins
Driver’s job is to manage weight transfer across 4 tires optimizing for best traction
Always be looking at least one turn ahead, the turn you are in has already been won or lost. The only way to plan the next corner is to see the one beyond it – Queen to Knight 7…
All at a breakneck speed (20-45mph ;o)), just picture your elbows executing 20 turns in 40 seconds usually 2 times per run. You will want to walk the course, plan and strategize your chosen route through the course over and over burning key cones in your mind. I like to walk with different people, if your new and/or don’t know anyone, ask around for an instructor or simply, “who is fast” – it’s a very social time but very important as it sets the baseline you will work from the rest of the day. When I think I’ve got it, I usually walk it 2 more times very fast on my line – quietly by myself. After lunch, I can usually mentally run through the entire course in my mind in that 40-100 seconds I sit to the right of the flagman before the flag is dropped. Those are my best runs…
Drivers meeting comes next which always ends in a Novice walk through the course with lots of experts. In the meeting you will learn that there are 2-3 sessions, each with 3-4 of runs per session. Each session is split into work groups. One group runs, one group works the course and if there are a lot of competitors a 3rd group will rest then you rotate. You will be assigned to one of 4 to 6 work stations each with a radio and red flag. You and your team of 2-4 people are responsible to fix cones when people hit them in your area and radio the offense in to the time keeper who will add 1-2 seconds to their time for each cone. There will usually be 1 to 2 very experienced drivers standing with you for 30-40 minutes while another group runs. Working the course and watching every kind of car and driver’s skill take their shot while you and 3 other people arm-chair-quarterback is a great learning experience. By the time your next run group comes you’ve got a strategy. But as one of my army buddies says, plans never survive first contact – so true…
Eventually your run group is called and the butterflies come to find you if you’re someone like me who does maybe 2 to 4 events a year. Grab your helmet (or a loaner) belt in and start ‘er up. In my case it’s a modest mid-range 400 horsepower 351 W that wakes up the Flowmasters (loud mufflers). Heads turn – I pretend not to notice. We rumble into position in one of several lanes, I let the cam do the talking, the throttle will have its turn later. I like to go in the second row, turn the car off and remove the turn signal arm as nothing screams dumb-guy more than turn signals, wipers and horns during a run. Check the GoPro and work to get mentally prepared – oooommmm mannneee padden mae oooooooooommmm – whatever it takes to find your meditative state, soon there will be no time to think. Eventually 4th car ahead rolls up to the starting line while 1 to 2 cars are out on the track. The Mustang fires right up again, get the seat belt as tight as I can to hold me down and ease forward toll booth style. By this time, the lopy idling engine, like meditative Tibetan horns, Mongolian throat singers or Aboriginal Didgeridoo - calms my mind. Old Blue and I settle into our familiar 22 year old ritual-oneness as we roll up on the flagman.
Time gets quite illusive when you your about to hit 20 turns in 40 seconds. Waiting for my turn seems to take forever but finally the flag drops and Old Blue launches into the worm-hole. Unfortunately, the first time out always looks like a sea of cones, but she seems to know her way and squats on her haunches on-throttle out the chute and exit of every corner settling weight on the rear wheels helping them claw at tarmac. If there is room to breathe she comes alive grabbing the seat of your pants with an urgency that hurdles you as hard as you dare toward the next challenge in the Gauntlet. The pedal stays in the carpet cheating each and every microsecond till you flinch and mash the brakes artfully shifting the weight of the car to set the front tires turning into the corner. Now you ride the rear tires with the throttle pivoting her through the corner as the weigh equalizes front to rear heading toward the exit of the corner where you itch to get the pedal into the carpet again. As each turn unwinds you feel the rear tires gaining traction which you neutralize with a little more throttle keeping them right on the hairy edge till you’re are back deep in the pile again. During this entire corner you are already focused on the next corner which requires you to glance two corners ahead to see how to exit the corner in front of you, all while driving through the corner you are in. Fun doesn’t begin to describe the sensation. We take out our share of cones.
In a 100 second blink of an eye and you are squirted out of the worm hole back to reality wondering what the hell just happened while checking your time measured in thousandths of a second. It takes a second or so for things to settle in as you metabolize the adrenaline in your joints. I like to sit and re-live the run before getting out, identifying 1 to 2 changes I intend to focus on next run – Rook to Knight 3… There is adrenalized banter between the drivers talking about different corners and comparing times. You can consult an instructor and they will ride with you if you wish, everybody is approachable, has an opinion and is having a blast. All too quickly the 4th car ahead of you pulls up again and you relive the experience and find you left the GoPro running or more frustrating, forgot to start it…
After the first session, there is usually a lunch break unless there are too many people. Get out on walk the track again. It will be a different experience, examine the corners you had issues with, walk through them and turn around examining them backward and revise your strategy taking into account the exit of the previous corner and entrance of the following corner. Bishop to Queen 6. The second set of runs will be a completely different experience. I usually have my best run in the middle of the second set with the last couple to being over-driven trying desperately to beat my best time – Frustrating but fun! By the end of the day you’ve had 6 to 10 runs, worked the course twice and are sunbaked and mentally exhausted. You’ve had your car sideways, foot to the floor many many times, ridden the edge of traction on both sides and no-doubt set some cones in motion. I usually end up driving home slowly both mentally and physical exhausted but smiling and very happy with Old Blue – and a better driver for the experience. My family knows by now that I’ll be on another planet for the rest of the evening watching the GoPro videos reliving the experience and assessing my performance making mental notes for next time - Queen to King 3.
Dobrostang… Aug 2017
Youtube Run with instructo