- Saturday, April 21, 2018
What is autocross?
Autocross is a timed event in which a single driver navigates through gates made of traffic cones to post their fastest time. It's usually competitive, but it doesn't have to be; many drivers solely compete against themselves, counting any improvement in time as a victory. Autocross is typically held in parking lots, but can also be held on race tracks. Speeds achieved are generally less than 50 mph (80 kph). Think of it as an agility course or barrel racing, but for cars instead of dogs or horses.
The thought of driving your car as hard as you can sounds intimidating at first, but trust me, your car can probably handle it. This type of driving is actually fairly easy on the car. The only parts it really stresses are wear items anyway - tires and brakes. The way I see it: if I break my car autocrossing, it was already broken and I just didn't know it yet.
No two autocross days are the same because no two courses are the same. Events vary greatly as they are highly dependent on the organization running them and the resources they have available (namely the course locations, which are sadly hard to find). To help paint a picture of what an autocross day might look like, I'll walk you through a general outline based on my admittedly limited experience. Don't worry, we're in this together!
Finding an event
The first hurdle to overcome is finding the event itself, and figuring out how to register for it. I typically find events by googling a larger city near me, followed by the word "autocross" (e.g. "eugene autocross", "salem autocross", etc.). This will likely bring you to the page of a local sports car club, which will have an event schedule and more information about how their events are run. It is important to note whether you need to register online or if you can simply show up the day of the event. Every event I've encountered lets you register the morning of the event, but online registration means you won't have to stand in line as long.
Events cost $20-50 per day, though typically near the lower end of that range.
Courses vary in length but often take around one minute to complete. Drivers run the course 4-6 times, sometimes many more in practice events.
Safety is taken seriously. Before you're allowed on a course, your car must undergo a tech inspection ("tech" for short) to make sure it's not a hazard to you or other participants. It sounds a lot scarier than it is; if your car is roadworthy, it should pass with flying colors. Typical checklists include:
- Firm brake pedal feel
- Battery tie-down
- Cover or electrical tape over positive battery terminal
- No loose items in the car
- Wheels are on tight
- Engine oil doesn't look like cold molasses
Additionally, make sure to check your tire pressures. Generally you'll want to run a few pounds more than what the factory recommends. High cornering forces could cause your tires to roll over onto the sidewall mid corner, which isn't ideal. Do a quick search online to see if you can find any suggestions from others who have autocrossed the same car, regardless of how sporty it is. I've seen a Prius out there. Chances are you'll find someone who can help.
There's some preparation that you the human should undergo as well:
- Dress appropriately for the conditions, as you'll be outside for most of the day
- Bring a plastic bin or tote to store all the stuff you take out of your car
- Pack a lunch and bring plenty of water
- If you have a helmet that meets their standards (currently Snell 2005 or later), go ahead and bring it. If you don't have a helmet, don't worry about it. There will be loaner helmets available.
Arriving at the event
Be sure to arrive as early as possible so you don't feel rushed. There's often a window of time dedicated to registration, but it's a good idea to show up right when it opens because lines can be long. Even if you registered online there will be a waiver that needs to be read and signed by everyone participating. After you find a parking spot, locate the members of the club who are running the event. If you tell them you're new, they will make sure you find your way. Some clubs even have a novice program, like Emerald Empire Sports Car Club.
EESCC has an excellent novice program. They have a dedicated novice coordinator who helps you along as the event progresses. The novice coordinator takes most of the guesswork and uncertainty out of the experience by acting as a guide. If there is no novice coordinator at your event, just run around saying "Hi, I'm new" to everyone you meet. It worked for me.
People at these events are very friendly and willing to help. In fact, most people are more than happy to ride along with you to give advice or point out the next gate to keep you from getting lost.
Walking the course
Walking the course means walking the path you'll be driving when it's your turn to run. Grab a course map, start at the beginning, and walk through to the end. Try to visualize what the course will look like from the driver's seat, which is likely lower than your standing height. Straighten out the course as much as you can and try to imagine taking each turn with the racing line.
You'll want to repeat this process at least three times to make sure you have the course memorized. If you autocross long enough you are almost guaranteed to get lost on course and experience the "sea of cones" effect, so don't sweat it if this happens.
After everyone's had a chance to walk the course, the driver's meeting will take place. This meeting doubles as a safety briefing and work assignment, and they'll tell you just about everything you need to know for the day.
Oh noes! There's work involved?
One reason events are inexpensive is because they are run by volunteers. This means everyone who drives also has to work. Novices typically end up as cone runners. This is a fun and easy job that lets you get up close and personal to the action. Some groups don't make newbies work, so you might get lucky.
Lining up in grid
Drivers are split into two heats. One works the course, the other runs. When it's your turn to run, you will park your car in what's called a grid. Grids are a simple way of keeping cars organized so they can file through to complete their runs in an orderly fashion. Once you've lined up, take note of the car and driver in front of you. They'll run immediately before you and you'll likely stay lined up behind them the whole time.
Running the course
And now, the moment you've been waiting for: you line up to the start and wait for the green flag. When the flagger gives you the green light, don't be shy! Blast off the line as fast as you can and don't be afraid to make mistakes. After all, this is the perfect place to make them. Hitting cones is to be expected and shouldn't hurt the car. If you spin, slide, or stall, you're in good company; I witnessed all three on my first day. It might be a good idea to take the first one a bit slower to make sure you know the course, but after that, don't hold back.
After you finish your run, circle back around to the grid and line up for the next one. Congratulations, you are now an autocrosser!