Not everyone has a dedicated track car, or, for that matter, the cash that it would cost to get said dedicated car out on a track. But for much, much cheaper you can take your every day road car and thrash it around an autocross course. What’s an autocross course? It’s a performance driving course laid out in a big flat area like a parking lot or airfield with the use of (usually orange) traffic cones. It’s the cheapest, safest, and easiest way to get started driving your car on the limit. If that sounds like a good time to you — and it should, because it is — here are a few tips to help you get going.
You don’t need to modify your car. In fact, don’t! You’re better off, in my opinion, without any modifications whatsoever for at least your first season. Don’t get me wrong, modifying cars is a lot of fun. There are only two down sides. First, you’ll never see that money again, and second, you often get bumped up a class at autocross for adding go-fast parts.
Regardless of what mods your car has, there will be a class for you to run in, just like there is a weight class for every boxer. But if you’re just starting out in your boxing career you might not want to jump directly in the ring with the heavyweights. Driving your car on the limit will always be fun, but there’s also a competitive element here, and that element can be diminished slightly if you get clobbered every week. So stay in stock class, learn how to control your car, and then try out some light modification once you know exactly what you want and why.
The SCCA is not the only group that holds autocross events. While the idea of autocross — also known as “autox,” or “solo,” although “solo” appears to me to be a term in the process of being deprecated — is most often thought of as an SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) event, lots of other clubs do it too, such as NASA (National Auto Sports Association), PBOC (Porsche BMW Ownership Club), and PCA (Porsche Club of America). Also, it’s worth noting that neither PBOC or PCA are likely to turn you away if you’re not actually running a Porsche or BMW, so breathe easy Miata pilots.
You don’t need expensive super sticky tires. Okay, granted, some nice rubber will help your times, but as any motorsports coach will tell you, the most important thing to work on is the loose nut behind the wheel. That’s you, muchacho or muchacha. Just find out when your next local event is, bring your regular old every day car out, and then tell someone you’re a novice and see what they say. The whole idea of autocross is having some fun for low cost, and hanging around some cool, like-minded car people while you’re at it.
Pay special attention to memorizing the course. Before you actually drive, you’ll get a chance to walk the course. Do everything you can to memorize it as you are walking. Visualize yourself taking each one of the turns. Later, you can use this time to plan your line, figure out which way you will attack certain optional parts of the course, but at first you just want to make absolutely sure you know where to turn and when. There’s nothing worse, or more embarrassing, than blowing one of your runs because you got lost and zigged when you should have zagged.
You can take notes, draw a miniature version of the course in a notebook, or just make up a little song about the course. Left, right, left, left, right, doo dah, doo dah! Right, left, left, left, finish, Oh de doo dah day!
Bring some water, a snack, and a hat. You will almost certainly be spending a significant portion of the day in worker mode, which means you’ll be standing on some hot, open tarmac with no shade to speak of. A hat really helps keep the sun from baking your noodle to a crisp, and a couple of bottles of water help keep you hydrated.
Pay attention to your tire pressure. One thing you will always want to be on top of is tire pressure. You can pick up a gauge near the cash register of almost any parts store for a few bucks, and 12 volt pumps that run on your car’s accessory port (known to old timers as the “cigarette lighter”) can be had on Amazon for around $20.
Tire pressure is critical because it helps you manage your tires’ contact patch. More air means lower rolling resistance, so your car can drive faster, but less traction, so turning, acceleration, and braking suffer. There is a sweet spot somewhere for each tire, each course, each day. But no one knows what that sweet spot is, because it changes all the time. The only way to combat those changes is with experience.
Bring a notebook with you and make notes of your tire pressure before and after each run with your times. At first, this information might seem like gibberish, and if your handwriting is anything like mine it might be, but over time you’ll gain insight on how to prep your car for optimum times.
You must purchase a Miata. Just kidding. Like I said, you can use any car. I autocrossed a 2004 Chevrolet Colorado light truck once because my car was in pieces that week and I didn’t want to miss the event. Myself, I want to try autocrossing a front wheel drive car next, because there are some super fast people in my area in those, and I’ve raced one at 24 Hours of LeMons and loved it.
You will see a lot of Miatas, though. You might someday decide to buy one yourself. But you don’t have to. …OR DO YOU? No. You don’t. I’m just kidding again… OR AM I? Seriously, no, you don’t have to buy a Miata. Just get out there and have some fun. Send us a photo too. We love that.