Autocrossing is the entry point for many low-budget drivers starting out on the journey of enjoying their cars for more than transportation. For the cost of a club membership, an accurate tire gauge, a helmet (can usually be borrowed, or buy one here) and little else, you can begin to experience the thrill of driving your car at its limit (Oops! Sometimes over the limit – a common bit of advise to autocrossers is “If you don’t spin occasionally, you’re not learning anything!”).
Any well-maintained car is suitable for autocrossing, except for some high center-of-gravity pickups and SUV’s. Obviously tires and brakes should be in good condition. (If you’re thinking of buying a car or have a selection to choose from, here’s a list of recommended car models for beginners).
There are a few items that will be specifically checked in the safety inspection on competition day. I’ll address those a little further along.
Manual transmissions are preferred by most autocrossers, but running an automatic is fine, muxh better if it has a lock-in-gear feature – an automatic that shifts at an inappropriate moment (most do, left to their own devices) can provide a frustrating experience.
Autocrossing is different from other types of racing (specifically wheel-to-wheel racing) where many drivers have a cut-throat attitude toward others. In autocrossing you’ll find everyone helpful and supportive, especially when you’re brand new to the sport and “learning the ropes”.
Autocrossing is unique in helping drivers learn accurate car control and quick thinking. In an autocross, it’s a rare moment when you’re not accelerating hard, braking hard, turning at the limit of the tires’ adhesion, or some combination of these. And the transitions come up with a frequency unknown in any other type of racing. Experienced track drivers or drag racers often have trouble on their first exposure to autocrossing – they don’t think fast enough!
So…What’s an Autocross?
An autocross can be conducted on any obstacle-free expanse of pavement that is fairly level. Parking lots (watch for light poles), airports, and race tracks all have suitable surfaces. The next challenge is to get agreement from the owner of the location to hold a motorsports event – sometimes difficult!
The pavement should be in good repair and should have nothing more than gentle slopes. Maximum 5% is a good guideline.
An experienced autocrosser sets up a course using traffic cones. You’ll learn the rules for what various groupings of cones mean and what constitutes a violation leading to an off-course call or cone penalty. Depending on the space available, courses are usually designed to be run in 30-120 seconds. Very accurate timing equipment (measuring thousandths of a second) determines the amount of time each car takes to complete the course.
Even if there is more than one car on the course at a time (see the video below), the event is run so there is virtually no chance of a collision between two cars or between a car and an obstacle. You can be quite sure that the only physical damage to your car will be cone smudges and any mechanical breakdowns (rare in well-maintained cars). In nearly 20 years of active autocrossing, I have seen only three collisions between cars and obstacles (one of the obstacles was a parked car – definitely shouldn’t have been there!).
Here’s a video of my friend in a VW Golf running an autocross in a parking lot at NH Motor Speedway. As is common where space is limited, this is a two-lap run. You’ll see the car doing each section of the course twice. We do this to provide a reasonable length run, in this case just over 60 seconds.
Preliminaries – Getting Started
First, of course, you’ll need to find a club or other group conducting an autocross. Searching on-line for “Sports car clubs” or “Autocross” should accomplish that. Of course contact information will be provided in the search results. Find out how their race day schedule is organized, including the earliest time you can enter the location in the morning. As you’ll see in the next paragraphs, there is a lot to do before you actually do a timed run. So get there as early as you’re allowed to enter. Find out what arrangements are available for lunch. You may need to carry it.
Reserve a spot at an upcoming event!
In the days leading up to race day, you can prepare and think about some things:
- Wear comfortable closed toe shoes. No sandals or slip-ons allowed.
- Select other wear appropriate to the weather (consider the possibility of rain – actually I’ve seen a little snow! – or major temperature change).
- Red shirts, jackets or pants should be avoided. When you’re working on the course (you will), red clothing can be misunderstood as a red flag – very frustrating to a driver who stops unnecessarily in the middle of his “run-of-the-day”.
- Any chance of rain? Arrange some waterproof cover for the stuff you take out of the car (your car must be empty during competition). You’ll want to leave at home any items you don’t need.
- Take appropriate suncreen. You’ll be in the sun a lot!
- Take plenty of fluids (non-alcoholic,of course) to drink, and anything you want to eat.
- Plan to arrive with less than 1/2 tank of gas. You want the car as light as possible.
- Check the oil, coolant and brake fluid levels. You’ll be driving hard and braking hard.
- Take a good tire gauge. If you have a compressed air tank or small compressor, take it. If not, go to a service station and air up the tires to 5 psi above manufacturer’s recommended pressures.
- Buy or try to borrow a helmet with a Snell rating within the last 15 years. If you don’t have one available, check with the race organizers – most clubs have some loaners available.
- Make sure the battery is securely fastened in your car.
- Check for abnormal play in wheel bearings. Make adjustments or repairs as necessary.
- Ensure that the throttle closes unrestrictedly.
- Make sure the brake pedal is solid at a normal height.
- Be rested! Especially while you’re learning all the routines, it will be a long, tiring day.
On Race Day
Take your car to the designated location. You will be told where you can park and prepare (“paddock”) your car. To prepare the car for racing:
- Remove all loose items from inside the car and the trunk.
- Some clubs allow spare tires, jacks, etc. to remain if they are securely fastened, but why carry the extra weight?
- Floor mats MUST be removed – they can interfere with your operation of the pedals – obviously a major safety concern!
- If the glove compartment latches securely it need not be emptied. Remove any heavy items.
- Some of these rules will vary slightly from club to club, so check with the organizers on anything you’re unsure about.
At some point pretty early on you must check in, pay your fee if you haven’t already, and get your work and run group assignments. You’ll also learn what class your car runs in. It should be evident where to go to do this. If not, ask anyone.
For tire pressures, it’s best to get a recommendation from an experienced driver on the best starting pressure for your car/tire combination. If you can’t accomplish that, usually 3-5 PSI above the street recommendation for your car is a pretty good place to start. You’ll be able to get instructions from experienced drivers on how to adjust the pressures for best tire performance – a critical factor in autocrossing! The Tire Rack is a great source of information on pressures, types of tires, considerations in selecting tires, and of course they have numerous brands of tires available to purchase. I’ve found their service support and prices to be about the best available for competition tires.
Items 11-14 on the preliminary list, along with the suitability of your helmet (SA rating within the past 10 or 15 years – may vary between clubs – no visible scarring, and straps in good condition}, will be inspected by a Tech Inspector. Assuming all is in order, some indication that your car has passed “tech” will be applied.
You will be advised of when and where the drivers’ meeting will take place. Here’s where you will get safety rules, updates on the day’s schedule, club announcements and any other necessary information. Attendance is MANDATORY!
In all of this chasing around you also want to walk the course as soon as it’s available for walking. Best to go with an instructor (usually available) or an experienced autocrosser to show you the best lines, meaning of various cone configurations, brake points and other important considerations. You should walk the course again and again, probably as many times as you can find time for, until you can think through it in 10-15 seconds. It will take 15-20 minutes to walk a typical course, sometimes longer.
The Course is “Hot”!
After all the preparations (Think you had a lot to do? During this time, the organizers have been extra busy with timing gear, course adjustments, communications systems, etc. – eventually you may get involved with these activities as well), it’s time to race!. Usually this will be around 10:00 AM.
Here’s a driver’s view (from the office of a Lotus Elise!) of an autocross-type event run on the Canaan Fair speedway, a small road course. This event is unusual in being run on a circuit rather than in a wide-open space (like a parking lot).
Most clubs arrange the cars and drivers into “run groups”, one of which you were assigned to at check-in. So, at any particular moment, some drivers are competing, some are working (starter, timing duties, shagging cones on the course, etc.) and, depending on how the day is organized, some may be free to work on their cars, eat lunch, etc. Make sure you know when your group is running or working, and be ready! Few things are more frustrating than a run group that can’t begin for lack of workers…or drivers! Delays mean fewer runs for everyone.
Most clubs have instructors available to ride with new or struggling drivers to help them learn the course (it looks very different from a car at speed than it did walking!), and drive it efficiently, and FAST!. Take advantage of these people’s expertise – you can steepen the learning curve hugely with their help. Sometimes it’s beneficial to have the instructor drive your car for one run with you riding to see how a good run should look. This usually will not count against your quota of runs.
Autocross Driving Tips – “Rules of Thumb”
Since each course is different, I’ll cover a few general suggestions here, and leave the specifics of any particular course to your instructor. The following techniques and considerations “always” (very few exceptions) apply. If you don’t understand any of these points, ask an instructor:
- Drive your car smoothly – “Squeeze in” power, “squeeze in” brakes, make fluid steering movements, and learn to shift smoothly. Any sudden or jerky movements upset the car’s suspension and can easily lead to a spin, pushing through a turn, or other upset. Drive the way you do on slippery roads – when you’re driving at the limit on dry pavement, the same considerations apply.
- Keep both hands on the OUTSIDE of the steering wheel (9 o’clock and 3 o’clock) except to shift. When you need to turn more than you can with your hands in this position (rarely), “shuffling” is preferable to “hand-over-hand”.
- For most cars, get into second gear as soon as convenient and stay there. Low-torque cars may occasionally need a return to first gear, and short-geared cars may occasionally need third gear. Shifting can upset the suspension, takes time and distracts you from driving, so do it as little as possible. While walking the course, try to plan your shift points. You want to shift between turns, where your workload is lightest. It’s best to shift into second gear early rather than late – shifting 1000 RPM below the redline is better than bouncing off the rev limiter in first gear while you wait for a chance to shift.
- In determining the best line through any course element, seek the shortest distance. At 70 feet/second (a typical autocross speed), adding 10 feet to your line costs you 0.14 seconds – in a game of thousandths of a second, this is huge! It’s extremely rare to find a situation where the longer line allows you to go enough faster to make up for the increased distance. In a long “sweeping” turn, you can go quite a lot faster by leaving the inside line, but you’ll add huge distance to your line – the trade-off is never in your favor.
- As a general rule, give up speed entering an element in favor of speed exiting the element. A common application of this is an optional slalom (you have the option of entering on one side or the other of the first cone) – pick the entry that allows the fastest exit, UNLESS it adds distance. This is also why a late “apex” is recommended for most turns.
- Learn to drive within an inch (2 cm) of critical cones. An extra inch adds distance (see item 4) and usually results in a slower line – you lose on both ends of that deal!
- Look…and think…at least one element ahead of where your car is now. The element you’re in will come out according to how well you set up for it – it’s time to think about the next critical point. You MUST be planning and setting up for the next element. You’ll see experienced drivers looking over their shoulder at the important exit from a switchback or transition to the next element!
There’s so Much to Recommend Autocrossing
Autocrossing is a unique type of sports car competition in many ways – it is:
- Less expensive than any other type of racing
- Better than most forms of racing for learning quick thinking and accurate car control
- A great way to build new friendships – the camaraderie in a sports car club is a great part of the fun.