Autocrossing Basics to Get You Started

Autocrossing Basics to Get You Started
By John Kuykendall What is Autocross?
It’s a timed competition event, involving cars of various descriptions competing against the stopwatch rather than against one another. The Sports Car Club of America calls it SOLO II. The “course” is essentially a miniature racecourse, set up on a parking lot or other large, flat, paved and relatively obstruction-free area. The course starts and ends with a set of “timing lights”, which start and stop the timing clock. Orange traffic pylons (cones) line the course and establish the boundaries for the “road”. Go outside of these boundaries, and you are off-course (OC, or DNF – Did Not Finish). Knock over one or more cones, and each one adds a two-second penalty to your timed run. The object is to get around the course as quickly as possible, without knocking down cones or going off-course. You’ll usually get three or four timed runs and your quickest time counts (including any cone penalties) towards the final placing.How Do I Get Started?
Ideally, you’d join one of the sponsoring organizations, like SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) or NASA (National Auto Sport Association). But, you don’t have to be a member to participate in most SCCA or NASA sponsored autocrosses. The main thing you need to do is find out when an autocross is being held nearby, then plan to attend and participate. Try these links for local schedules:

There is no previous training, licensing or certification required to run your first autocross. You don’t need any experience, other than being a licensed driver. There are even some classes (like junior karts) where pre-driving-age children and teens can participate. Teens with a learner’s permit can compete, as long as a licensed adult is riding in the right seat, subject to local/regional rules.

What Do I Need?
You need a car, a driver’s license, and a helmet (although you can often borrow a “loaner” from the event organizers or a friend, you’ll eventually want your own). What type of car? If you have a Miata, you already have a car capable of winning its class (B or C Stock) with proper preparation and some autocross driving “seat time”. Any other car will do, although you’ll probably have more fun and be more competitive if you’re driving a “sportscar” or “sports sedan”. Cars are classed according to their performance potential, so you won’t be running against a Corvette or open-wheel racecar with your Miata. Certain high-CG vehicles like SUV’s are not allowed to run autocross. Don’t worry too much about your vehicle or equipment for a while, as you are best off concentrating on getting the driving part right. A good autocross driver, driving a “slow” car can often beat an “average” driver in a supposedly “fast” car.

What Will Autocrossing Do to My Miata?
Autocrossing does not cause an undue amount of wear and tear, and normally will not harm your car in any way. The risks of sheet metal damage are minimal, since there is no wheel-to-wheel racing, and the courses are laid out well away from hazards or obstructions. You will probably wear your tires out a little faster than you would driving sedately around town. Clutches on some high-powered vehicles will wear more quickly than in street driving, but this is not usually a big issue with a Miata. Hitting cones may create smudges on your car’s finish, that you will have to polish out when you get home. But, compared to most other forms of automotive competition, autocrossing has very little detrimental effect on your car.

How Do I Prepare My Car?
For your first few events, you need to do nothing more than the usual maintenance items like checking fluid levels, changing your oil and filter regularly, verifying the condition of hoses, belts, and other critical parts. Your car should be in good-to-excellent operating condition. Your tires should be in good shape with sufficient tread depth to pass a typical state inspection. There should be no significant bald or worn spots. Seat belts must be in place and in working order. Your car’s suspension should be tight, with no loose bearings, ball joints or steering, and your brakes should be in good shape. Shock absorbers should not be worn-out or “soft”. Wheel lug nuts should be torqued to specifications found in your Owners Manual or Shop Manual. You’ll want to pump your tires up to a pressure well above what is recommended by the manufacturer, maybe as high as 40-45 psi. Do this at the gas station on your way to the event, since there will probably be no air pump at the event site. This high pressure is to keep your tires from “rolling over” on the rim during hard cornering, and will help make your car handle more responsively.

Later on, as you gain more experience, you’ll probably want to begin to add some or all of the modifications that are allowed for your car in the class that you are running. This may include changing things like shocks, sway bars, tires, wheels, brake pads, and exhaust systems; or adding strut tower braces, roll bars, racing seat belt harnesses and the like.

What Can I Expect at My First Autocross Event?
Before you leave for the first event, make sure you have packed some basic needs. Bring some water, maybe some snacks, an umbrella if rain is possible, warm or cool clothing as appropriate, sunscreen, a folding chair, a hat and sunglasses, and wear comfortable shoes that you can both walk and drive in. Bring your driver’s license and enough money or a check to pay for your entry fee, and $ to buy lunch and maybe dinner. Bring a jack, any tools or other special items (like an air pressure gage) that you need to prepare your car to run. Don’t forget your wheel lock key, if you’re removing or tightening your wheels at the event. Make sure you’ve got directions to the event, and plan on getting there on time!

When you show up at the event, try to locate the “paddock” where all the competitors will be parking, and park your car there. Try to get to the event as early as possible, at least by the time that is advertised as “Registration Opens”, so you’ll have plenty of time to get oriented. Locate the Registration Table, which will be where you’ll sign up for the event. There you will fill out your registration form, pay your entry fee (usually $15-20), sign any waivers, and get any special instructions. You’ll then take your registration card with you, and place it under your cars’ windshield wiper, in preparation for Technical Inspection.

You’ll need to drive your car to “Tech”, but first, you need to get it ready. You need to remove all “loose” items from the interior and trunk or hatch area of your car. This means remove all floor mats, trash, bags, ice scrapers, pillows, unsecured speakers and anything else that might go flying around when you start doing sharp and sudden maneuvers with your car. The general rule is, if it’s not fastened down, remove it from the car. Loose items may be left in your glove compartment or other securely closed compartments, but may prove annoying if they are crashing around in there during your runs. Removal of the spare tire, jack, and jack handle is optional, as long as they are securely fastened down – remove them to be sure, and to remove some weight and improve your car’s performance. Remove any hubcaps or trim rings that are not bolted or similarly secured to your wheels. Remove bike racks (and bikes!), receiver-style trailer hitches, and other removable appendages.

When your car is “Tech’ed”, the inspectors will be looking for things like removal of all loose items, tightness of wheels and steering, tire condition, security of battery hold-down, presence of seat belts, positive throttle return, and firm brake pedal. You’ll need to open your hood, trunk or hatchback, and passenger door to allow them to do their work. The inspectors will also confirm the correct classing of your car, based on the equipment and modifications present. Upon satisfactory completion of the tech inspection, the inspectors will mark your car number and class on your windshield or side glass with white shoe polish or similar type marker (which will wash off), that is, if you don’t have your own car numbers.

After you’re tech’ed, you can park your car back in the paddock area. The next step is to go “walk the course”. This is a critical part of the autocross experience, as you will be driving the course much faster than you would normally drive on the street or in a parking lot, and you will not have much time (milliseconds, typically) to think about which way to go. The course must be “imprinted” in your mind, so that you know what is coming before you get there. Try walking the course several times, if you have gotten there early enough, stopping to imagine what your entry, exit, and “line” will be through each section. If you’ve done this well and thoroughly, you should be able to close your eyes and visualize an entire run through the course. Remember, too, that when you run the course for real you’ll be seated in your car and not standing up, so your vantagepoint will be several feet lower and quite different. As you walk the course, try crouching in the critical sections to imagine what it’ll look like from the driver’s seat. Not doing all this is what usually results in the “sea of cones effect”, “getting lost” or going “off course”.

The next thing that usually happens is the Driver’s Meeting (usually required and certainly recommended). In this meeting, the organizers will talk about various rules, any special conditions, how the event will be operated, worker assignments, how many runs you will get, and how you’re to line up (grid) for the start. The meeting is usually followed by a group walk-through of the course, a good thing for a beginner to participate in. With one of the organizers leading the walk, you’ll probably pick up some hints and could discover that you’ve made an error in interpreting the course directions BEFORE you run it. The first group of cars to compete will usually line up shortly after the walk-through has been completed, so make sure you’re ready to go if your heat is called.

When you line-up to run, you usually try to get into numerical order, with your car number falling between the cars in front and behind you. Before you line up, look around the paddock and find the cars with numbers falling immediately ahead of yours, so you’ll know to queue up when you see those cars go to the grid. You’ll probably be running in heats, which means you will do one run, then line up again in numerical order to do another run before parking in the paddock. Your remaining run(s) will be done in the next heat later in the day. When you get to the start line, you will be started either by a starter, waving a green flag, or a green “start” light. In either case, when the flag is waved or the light turns “on”, you are cleared to go, but do not need to immediately drop the clutch and do a dragstrip-style burnout. Your time starts only when you cross the start line and “break” the light beam of the starting lights, which may be five to ten or more feet beyond where you are “staged” for the start. Before you go, think one more time about the course, visualizing in your mind where to go, when to turn, where to brake, and where to finish.

Once you get the go signal, you accelerate quickly but without excessive wheel spin, shifting to higher gears as appropriate for the speed. Just be aware that downshifts, while sometimes necessary for tight course sections, take time. Thus you may want to stay in a lower gear longer rather than shifting up in some instances. You’ll depend on your “imprinted” map of the course to get through in what seems like a blink of an eye, and you’ll finish by breaking the beam of the finish lights. Beyond this point, speed has no impact on your time, and thus you should start slowing down controllably. The time for your run will usually be announced over the PA, or shown on a digital readout panel.

For your first runs, you should concentrate on driving the course “clean”, that is, not going off-course or hitting any cones. Later, you can try speeding up or using more aggressive driving and braking to improve your times. Don’t get discouraged if you hit a few cones, just forget about them and concentrate on finishing your run. If you do get lost, just slow down, try to get back on course and finish-out your run. You don’t want to waste the valuable practice you’ll get from running the remainder of the course. Later, you can go back and try visualizing the course and determine where you went off and why. Try to avoid the mistake on your next run. At the next event, walk the course more carefully and several times to get a better “imprint”.

Either before or after you run your heat, you will be obligated to “work” the course, based on the schedule posted, discussed at the Driver’s Meeting, or announced over the PA. Report to the timing trailer, and get your assignment, which may be anything from starter, announcer, timer, or course worker. Most likely as a beginner, you will be assigned with someone else to work a section of the course. You will watch the cars run, report and replace any cones hit or displaced (via radio or hand signals) and wave a red flag as directed by the timer or safety steward in emergencies. Wear warm (or cool) clothes, bring an umbrella, a hat and wear sunscreen, as appropriate for the weather on your worker shift, since you may be out there for a while. Use your worker assignment to watch how other drivers attack the course, where they make mistakes, and observe the lines that the “good” drivers take.

During the event, times will often be posted at the timing trailer or some other location, so that you can review and compare your times with the times being run by other competitors. Don’t get discouraged if you are several seconds off the times of others in your class – you’re learning, and this really isn’t an easy thing to do well! Your time may also be posted as a PAX time, which is essentially a handicapping system that adjusts your time for the comparative performance potential of your class. Comparing your PAX time to other competitors regardless of class, is a good indication of how you are doing as a driver.

Once you have completed all your timed runs, and have done your worker shift, you are free to go. But, you’ll probably get almost as much out of watching other competitors run as by running yourself. Sometimes, there will be “fun runs” which are unofficial runs either timed or untimed, in which you can take passengers, drive someone else’s car, or just simply run without the pressure of not hitting cones or going off course. And, you’ll want to stay until the awards ceremony after the event to see who the winners are and what times they ran. You might even stay and help pickup the course, to get to know some of the competitors and organizers. Make sure you find out when and where the next event is going to be!

How Do I Get Better?
There really is no substitute for “seat time”, or actually driving in autocrosses, if you’re going to get better. You can get more seat time by running more autocrosses, by riding with others when they do their timed runs (if allowed), or by doing as many fun runs as possible. You can also participate in various local or regional autocross schools (Evolution/McKamey, for instance) to learn from others, including National-level drivers.

Car preparation does have an influence on your performance, once you have conquered at least the initial upslope of the learning curve. Racing compound, DOT-legal tires allowed in stock and street prepared classes will often improve your time by as much as two seconds over the same 60-second course run on “street” tires. Adjusting, replacing or upgrading shocks, sway bars, air filters, exhaust systems, and other systems as approved for your class, will certainly improve your times by incremental, or in some cases, quantum leaps. There are many sources of modification and tuning information out there. Check the list of references at the end of this article for some.

What Other Types of Competition Are There for a Miata?
It all depends on how much money and time you want to spend, really. Most other forms of competition involve a lot more investment of both than SOLO II, and you often cannot use your race vehicle on the street any more. You can do SCCA SOLO I events, which are time-trials or “hillclimbs” where your car runs by itself on a closed-course. The object is to have the quickest time for completing the course, just like SOLO II, but the speeds are often quite a bit higher and additional safety equipment is required. You can do various forms of SCCA road racing, including Showroom Stock, Spec Miata, and Improved Touring, and E-Production racing. Then there are the professional series, which involve massive amounts of money and time that most of us don’t have available. Check with the SCCA and other organizations if you are interested in learning more about racing.

Another alternative is not really competition or racing, but gives you many of the thrills of driving fast. It is the rapidly growing industry of Driver’s Schools or Driver’s Education. Using your own vehicle in many cases, and with a minimal amount of safety equipment (roll bar for convertibles, helmet, speed-rated tires, etc.), you will be allowed to drive on a real racecourse at increasing speeds. You’ll go out with an instructor at first to learn car control and the proper racing “line”. You’ll learn techniques like threshold braking and skid control. You’ll eventually be signed-off to drive “solo” at any speed you can safely negotiate the course. No cops, no speeding tickets! The risk of accidents is minimal as cars drive in single file, and are only allowed to pass or be passed in certain sections of the course. Any increased wear and tear on your car and tires is really worth it in terms of the thrills and education you will receive. Check with any of the local raceways to see what programs are offered. Most cost in the range of $160-$200 per day, using your own vehicle.

What Else Do I Need to Know?
That’s about it for now. There’s a lot more to learn about driving autocross well, but that’s the challenge. There will always be something else to learn, a few hundredths of a second to shave from your last run, or another faster driver or car to beat. Autocrossing should never become boring, if you’re really trying to improve. So, go out there and give it a try, it can’t really hurt you or your car. And you’ll learn some valuable driving skills that will serve you well when driving on the street or possibly avoiding that accident situation. SEE YOU ON COURSE!

 

References/Bibliography:
• Jim Carr’s Website, “Suggestions for a First Time Autocrosser”: http://www.scri.fsu.edu/~jac/Dixie/first.html

• Kate Hughe’s, “Solo II Handbook for Novices”, on Tire Rack’s Website http://www.tirerack.com/features/solo2/handbook.htm

• “Getting Started in Autocrossing . . . “, San Francisco Region SCCA, http://www.sfrscca.com/solo2/beginner.html

• “The Auto-X-Files” Website, http://www.conecrazy.com/autoxfiles.html

• Autocross.com Website, http://www.autocross.com/

• Car Setup and Trouble-Shooting Guide, West Texas Region SCCA, http://members.amaonline.com/wtrscca/tech.htm

• Autocross-Related Book Reviews, Craig Blome, http://www.neokla-scca.org/tech.htm

• Randy Stocker’s C Street Prepared Miata Website, http://members.aol.com/solomiata/MiataCSP.html

• Extreme GEEZ (autocross data acquisition hardware/software) Website, http://www.extremegeez.com/Extreme_GEEZx.html

• San Francisco Region SCCA, Autocross FAQ, http://www.sfrscca.org/solo2/faq/

• North American Pylon Magazine site, http://www.napylon.com/

• SOLO II Car Classifications and Partial Rules site, http://www.best.com/~mouton/sccasolo/