So You Want to Autocross?

May
2014
23

posted by on Busy Persons Guide, Featured, Solace

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I’ve been asked by a few people how one can start autocrossing, and I’ve posted quite a few times on Reddit, so I thought I’d just do a write up in one place and link to it.

This is a simple, getting-started guide for anyone who wants to get started autocross racing but doesn’t quite know how to start.

Here’s the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) version. Anyone can autocross the car they are driving right now without any prior racing experience!

It’s fun, it’s exciting, and as a side bonus, it will make you a ridiculously better street driver. Also, as an extra side bonus, the car people you’ll meet there are among the friendliest, most welcoming people you’ll ever meet.

So let’s get down to the questions.

What the hell is autocross?

Autocross is a driving competition involving a course laid out with cones denoting sharp turns and slaloms. You get to drive the course several times over the course of a day. Whichever driver gets through the course the fastest, wins. Typically only one car is on the course at a time, though depending on the size of the course, up to four cars evenly spaced out can be on the course at a time. As a driver, you’ll never see those cars.

The sharp turns and slaloms will require some pretty good driving skills. You’ll notice I said that the “driver” wins, not the car.

That’s because autocross is all about the driving, not so much the car. It takes a lot of skill to get through a course with sharp turns and tight slaloms. You’ll either have your right foot solidly on the floor, or pressed hard on the brakes. You’ll learn very quickly that turning the wheel while pressing on the brake is a very bad idea. You’ll learn just how many seconds you lose if you brake too late and take a turn much too wide.

You’ll learn exactly what your car can really do. You’ll also learn what your personal control limits are.

Depending on the venue, a course can run from 30 seconds to 80 seconds or more to complete, and you’ll do the same course several times over the course of the day.

Oh, there’s one more thing. For every cone you knock over, you’ll get two seconds added to your time. And in autocross time, a tenth of a second is an eternity.

 Who are you actually competing against?

 All the other cars… in your class. That’s the important part. Every car has a size and a weight, and a base amount of horsepower, and even many of those cars at an autocross will be modified (though it’s absolutely NOT a requirement). When you register, you’ll get put into a class. This is important because you’ll never be racing against a car you can’t possibly beat.

The car you’re driving right now? Yeah, there’s a class for that.

In fact, remember when I said that autocross is all about the driver, and not the car? You can even sign up with a friend, to compete against you, in your own car! Every driver is assigned a number. All that has to happen is that in between each run you take (with ample time to let the tires cool down so your friend doesn’t get an unfair advantage against you), you can simply switch numbers on the car.

You hop out of the car after your run, your friend swaps numbers and hops in, and let the smack talk begin! If your friend gets a better time than you in your own car, it’s just more incentive to go faster!

 How will you know how to drive on the course?

This is perhaps the single best part of an autocross – the instruction.

Before you take your first drive through the course, you’ll get to walk it. And if you’re new, you’ll be placed in a novice class. And that means you get the novice walkthrough, which is a fantastic way to get started.

You’ll walk through the course listening to an experienced instructor tell you how to drive it at every turn. Typically in an autocross, you’ll shift into 2nd gear pretty quickly, and stay there for the entire course.

Now, of course walking it is quite different than driving, when a turn is coming up on you at 60MPH.

You can take an instructor with you, in the car. The instructor’s job is to make sure you stay on course (pointing and shouting which way to go), telling you when to brake and when to go faster. At the end, when you are safely parked, they will give you some pointers to use on your next run until you feel confident to go by yourself.

And even then, whenever you feel like you need help, ask for an instructor. You don’t even have to be a novice. I take instructors out with me all the time! That’s what they are there for. To help make you a better driver. They want you to succeed.

OK, so where do I sign up?

You’ll need to find a local car club and join the club first. I can highly recommend BMWCCA (BMW Car Club of America), though I’ve also raced with SCCA (Sports Car Club of America).

But there’s even more clubs than that! On any given weekend, at a track, parking lot or airport runway, there could be any number of clubs running. Mazda, Porsche, BMW, Mustang, etc.

In many of these clubs, you don’t have to have the car that the club is named for. For example, you don’t need to own a BMW to join the BMWCCA.

Look at the racing rules for each club carefully, they are all different. Some clubs will allow you to take passengers out on the course. Some clubs will have more runs per day than other clubs. Some clubs take longer lunch breaks than others, etc.

Once you join a club, look at their calendar of events to find out when and where they are racing, and sign up.

A note about numbers: If you are new, most likely you won’t have magnetic numbers for your car. You can use blue painters tape. Pick a number that contains mostly straight lines. Otherwise you’ll be silently cursing yourself on race day. I have some personal experience with that.

What do I need to do before an autocross?

 Check all your car’s fluids. Check the tire treads. Get the brakes inspected. Make sure the battery is in there tight. Make sure the wheel lug nuts are tight. Make sure your sunscreen hasn’t expired (that one’s from personal experience).

Basically, make sure your car isn’t a deathtrap, and remember to bring your driver’s license to the event. And make sure your sunscreen hasn’t expired.

Now that I’ve signed up, what can I expect on my first event?

Here’s how a typical day goes.

You’ll get up at the crack of dawn, get ready, and head to the venue. In my case, I race at Devens, MA at an unsed airport runway. I usually get there around 7AM.

If I could only pick a few things to bring, they would be:

    • Sunhat
    • Sunscreen
    • Air compressor for tires
    • Snacks
    • More water than I would expect to drink
    • Light-colored clothing (no dark tee shirts, too hot)
    • Blue painter’s tape if you don’t have a magnetic number for your car
    • Helmet, though you don’t need one. Most car clubs will have loaner helmets you can borrow.

Here’s the deal with clothing. You’ll be in a wide-open outdoor space from 7AM until 5PM. The weather will do some drastic changing and you want to be prepared. We race from April-October in New England, and in one day I’ve gone from winter hat and scarf in the morning, to sunhat and tank top in the afternoon, to raincoat in the late afternoon. Oh, and I think it snowed on the way home. True story.

This is very important. Do not race around the town the venue is located in. Well, any town, really, but especially not the town the venue is located in. You’ll get plenty of race time later in the day. It all comes down to one golden rule: Don’t Be Stupid.

When you arrive, you’ll need to find somewhere to park. You’ll see empty spots, but with personal items at the end of them. That signifies that a car has already taken that spot, so look for one with no items (tires, coolers, etc.)

After you arrive, the first thing you should do is empty your car out completely. Everything. Floor mats, ashtrays, glove compartment, and especially don’t forget about a CD holder visor.

Then, you can use painter’s tape to largely put your number on each side of your car, on the door.

Once that’s done, you can drive your car to the tech check line to get inspected. It only takes a few minutes, and then it’s time to re-park your car back in your spot for the driver’s meeting. That’s where you’ll hear all the rules.

After that, you’ll be released to walk the course so you’ll know where the turns are.

You’ll be told what heat your will do your driving, and what heat you’ll do your work assignment. Everyone gets a work assignment. Remember when I said that you get two seconds added to your time if you hit a cone? Someone’s gotta pick those cones up before the next car comes along. You’ve got about ten seconds to run out there, put it back, and get the hell out of the way. It’s exhilarating. And it will teach you how out of shape you are. Again, personal experience.

There’s lots of work assignments. One will be assigned to you, and you’ll be told how to do it. There’s a lot of people who collectively make sure the event goes smoothly.

You’ll be told on a loudspeaker when the heats are swapping, so you’ll know when to get your car and pull it up to the grid for racing, or the paddock when you’re working. One thing’s very important though, when it’s your work assignment, don’t dally. 60+ cars can’t race until every worker is where they are supposed to be.

And that’s it! At the end of the day, it’s time to take your numbers off your car, put all your crap back in your car, and drive home with a post-adrenaline high that makes you want to scream to all the other highway drivers, “I just raced my car this afternoon. What did you do today?”

That night you’ll dream of squealing tires and smelling brakes, and you won’t be able to wait until the next event.

Epilogue: How will this make me a better driver?

First of all, you’ll learn good driving technique. You’ll also learn early on what not to do. You’ll learn that hitting the brakes isn’t always the best option, and you’ll learn how to process these skills quickly.

This means that when you need it, on the street, you can make a wise decision very quickly. You’ll know what the car can do, and you’ll know how to react.

You’ll also learn how even the slightest weather change affects road conditions.

Here in New England, I’ve mentioned that we get some pretty severe weather and temperature changes, even over the course of a single day. You’ll see the difference in the times of all the cars, and you’ll feel the difference when you drive.

You’ll learn how even a sunny day versus a cloudy one can affect the grip your tires have on the street.

You’ll learn to be aware of road conditions, other drivers, and weather conditions, and all of that put together will make you a fantastic driver.

Oh, and it’s really, really fun, too.

Please feel free to share this out. The more people that know how fun, safe, responsible and how easy it is to get started in autocross, the better.

If you want to see what an autocross is actually about, here’s two videos of mine. One is in-car, so you’ll get an idea of the hard steering involved, and the other is a rooftop view.

 

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