Welcome to the world of Autocross
So You want to Autocross
By Richard Welty
Autocross (Solo II In SCCA terminology) is a great all around sport. You get to compete in a safe venue, learn about driving your car near its limits, and meet lots of interesting people; a local event can cost about the same as an evening of bracket racing at the local drag strip and takes a similar amount of time. This article will help you get oriented, and give you some pointers on how to approach your first event, and your first season.
Before you get there
Make sure that you have proper directions to the event site, as many are in very obscure and/or remote locations. Make sure that you know what equipment you may need to bring; you will probably need to increase your tire pressure -- so bring air or bring one of those little lighter plug compressors. Most autocross clubs provide loaner helmets but some do not -- so find out before you show up and are told you can't run [note: for the next issue I will update my "guide to purchasing a helmet" for those of you who would like some guidelines.] You will need to empty out your car of all loose objects -- so bring along a tarp or a box or something to keep it all together.
Make sure that your car is in sound shape. Most autocross clubs do a tech inspection; they don't like to let cars out on course with loose batteries, loose wheel bearings, or bad ball joints (to name a couple of things that might be checked.) I have had to reject cars in tech that had incredibly wobbly rear wheel bearings, and once I inspected the car of someone who wanted to drive an autocross on tires that were showing cord.
Get to the event reasonably early. Registration often opens up quite some time before the main event starts (at events with a first car off scheduled for noon, the organizers may be there before 8, and registration may open at 9.) Early arrival will give you time to get oriented, walk the course, visit the little autocrossers room, and possibly help out the event organizers (this latter is always appreciated.) In particular, by helping out early on, you may get to listen in on course design in progress, and thereby learn something.
A stint in tech inspection is good for a novice autocrosser; you can learn something about cars in the process, and learn about things that you need to keep an eye on.
The course is laid out on a large chunk of asphalt or concrete (or sometimes a mixture of both.) The course is lined with cones. A box is drawn around the base of the cone; this box is to allow the cone to be replaced correctly if it is disturbed, and to allow cornerworkers to determine if a driver has disturbed it enough to aquire a 2 second penalty. The rule of thumb is that a cone on its side is worth 2 seconds, and a cone that has hopped completely out of the box is worth 2 seconds, but a cone that still touches the box is ok (but the worker does need to put it back into place.) In the San Francisco Region of the SCCA, they do things slightly differently; cone penalties are only worth 1 second, but they use a LOT of cones.
There are two layout philosophies which are common. One is from the SFR, where they use lots of cones to wall off the course; these are relatively easy to learn to drive. It is much more common to see "gated" courses, where pairs of cones are scattered over the course and you need to trace the path from one gate to the next. If the course designer is good, these are not too bad to follow, but if he makes the mistake of setting the cone spacing so you can't tell a gate from another gap between two cones, these courses can be tough to learn. It helps if the boundaries of the course are marked with lime, which is becoming more and more common.
The Work Ethic
Nearly every club that puts on autocross events requires that drivers also work stints in various jobs. If you want to be a well rounded autocrosser, you should try and learn all of them. Tasks include timing & scoring, starting, and corner working (aka cone shagging.) The heaviest requirements are in cone shagging, so expect to become expert in this first. We'll discuss some general issues, and then outline some of the worker jobs at an autocross.
Different clubs do things differently; some use a shift system where you might take 2 or 3 runs, then go work while other drivers take 2 or 3 runs. Many clubs just alternate; you drive, then you work, then you get a little time off, then you drive, then you work, and so forth. There are two important issues here: don't blow off your assignment, because they really do need everybody, and report promptly. After your run, it's ok to take a minute to check your tires and drink some water, but don't get caught up socializing -- because somebody is out there shagging cones who probably needs to prepare for his next run, and he can't do it because you haven't reported yet. Some clubs and SCCA regions go so far as to take your times away if you miss work assignments; I know it seems extreme, but if they're doing that, then probably they had an abuse problem sometime in the past.
How to Shag Cones
If you start autocrossing, you will inevitably spend some time standing out there watching the cones; everybody does. It's not wasted time; take advantage of it. You can watch the different drivers and start to see what some are doing that makes them consistent winners; look at the lines they take through corners, look at how they brake and when they get on the gas. But don't forget your job: when somebody takes out a cone, you need to restore it before the next car comes along.
This is not so important that you should risk your life; the basic rule is always that you should never turn your back on a moving car. Wait for a safe interval, go out and check the cone, put it back in the box if necessary, and if there's a penalty, signal timing and scoring. Signals may vary, so I won't go into them here.
Timing and Scoring
These guys are usually very busy. They have to make sure that the timer is operating properly and in sync; they have to get the cone counts from the cone shaggers; and they have to let the starter know when things are ok and the next car can go. The job is complicated enough that oftimes the event chair will be pretty picky about who they have in the timing vehicle.
The starter has some coordination to do; usually, they have to watch the cone shaggers to make sure that the course is clear and ready; they have to line up the next car at the start line; they may have to tell timing and scoring what the next car numer is; and they have to make sure that timing and scoring is ready before they let the next car go.
Not everyone has these; the SCCA always has these. The Safety Steward has to approve the course design, make sure that many insurance requirements are met, and pay attention to any potential problems with onlookers and people who may randomly walk through a site (and it does happen; at some sites, it happens quite a lot.) In the SCCA, to become a Safety Steward, you must be a member, take a course from a certified instructor, and work as an assistant to a licensed Safety Steward at two SCCA events.
Autocross sites are tough to find and tough to keep. Because of this, it's very important that autocrossers be on their best behavior at all times. It only takes one person acting like a jerk to ruin things for everybody. When you're not on course, drive safely and sedately. If you need to drive on a public road to get to/from the course, make sure that you obey all traffic laws. Don't be an ugly autocrosser; help the sport, don't hurt it.
Prepping the Car
All the remarks in this section presume that you're running with SCCA rules. Not everyone does, but many independent clubs have chosen to run these rules, and if you want to compete on a wider basis, these rules are the ones that you'll have to deal with. The SCCA rule book is available from the SCCA National Office and is often available from your local SCCA region. The new book is generally published around January, so if it's November or December, you may want to wait a month or two before buying a rule book.
When you're just starting out, it rarely pays to put a lot of money into your car. If you jump the wrong way, you can end up having spent a lot while actually hurting your competitiveness. For example, when I started autocrossing a lot, I put a set of wheels and tires on the car that weren't outrageously expensive, but they moved me to Street Prepared. I didn't have the time, money or inclination to do any of the other things that were legal in SP (springs, sway bars, etc.) The result was that I was not particularly competitive and very frustrated. After a year of frustration, I went back to stock wheels and street tires and immediately won the local G Stock class at two events in a row (albeit, not against national or even divisional level competition, but I did actually manage to win some trophies, which made me feel a lot better about my driving.)
So if you have a stock vehicle, you'll probably be best off leaving it stock, and putting your money into the "Steering Wheel Spacer" (the part that goes between the steering wheel and the driver's seat). This means driving at a lot of events, and attending a school or three. We'll talk more about this in the section on Prepping the Driver. I know that it's fun to buy stuff to make your car faster, but it may not be the best move if you are a competitive soul and want to run up front. When you've been running a while and start to understand the issues involved, you probably build a much better car than you would have if you just launch right in without a lot of experience.
So let's suppose you own a Honda Civic or a Dodge Neon and want to run stock. What things are worth spending money on? Well, mostly, wheels and tires. Find a set of wheels, and get some sticky tires for them. You will want to mount your rubber for stock class on either stock wheels, or on wheels that are dimensionally similar to stock wheels (same width and diameter, offset within 0.25" of stock offset.) This may be your excuse to buy fancy alloys and use them with your street tires, saving the factory wheels for the autocross events. You don't even need new wheels; junkyard wheels are just fine if they're straight and true (and uncracked, if alloys.)
The hot tire varies over time; in recent years, the top companies have been B.F. Goodrich, Yokohama, and Hoosier, with some decent tires from time to time from Goodyear and Toyo. Cost, longevity, and suitability for the car owner's driving style vary, so it pays to see what tire is working on what cars for what drivers before dropping $400 or $500 on tires.
Shocks are another item to look at. For 1997, some of the new Neons are coming stock with adjustable Konis; these are excellent shocks that are worth adding to any autocrosser. Keep in mind, though, that just stiffening the shocks is not a complete solution to handling issues; if you put an extremely stiff shock in a soft car, you are trying to make the shocks do the spring's job, and that doesn't quite work. Those trick racing Konis may need to run on full soft to work in a Stock Class autocross car (a racing shock on full soft is still plenty stiff.
What if your car has already been modified?
This can be a tough situation. Generally, when street cars are modified, it's before the owner realizes that they want to compete with the car, and so things have been done that put the car in an unreasonable class. Cams and/or pistons can do this under SCCA rules; so can aftermarket turbo charger or supercharger kits. You need to face reality here; the SCCA rules have been around a long time, are pretty stable, and the SCCA Solo Events Board isn't going to make dramatic changes because a few people have unusual cars. You may find that you need a different car for autocross, or you need to suck it in and take some of those expensive bits back out, or that you need to give up on being competitive until you're willing to make some major changes.
Care and Feeding of Tires
Tire pressures are something that are a major issue. If you haven't bought sticky tires yet, then be prepared to put a lot of air into your street tires at your first event; possibly approaching 40psi. Don't worry too much about the "max pressure" markings on the sidewall; your street tires can take a lot more than that before they explode. Just remember to let the air back out at the end of the event.
The correct amount to add won't be clear at first. Take a long some white liquid shoe polish (beware of the sneaker whitener stuff; it doesn't work.) Use it to mark the shoulders where the tread meets the sidewall. Talk to some of the experienced drivers about what kind of rollover you should be seeing; you can then start adjusting your pressures after each run in order to zero in on the right amount. Keep in mind that this advice applies to street tires; some of the modern sticky autocross tires have their own unique tire pressure requirements and won't react to pressure changes the way you would expect from street tire behavior. In such cases, pay careful attention to the manufacturer's advice.
Sticky tires should probably not be run on the street. These soft tires won't last all that long in daily usage, although they will be fun to drive on. Also, because of their competition orientation, you'll find that they are generally not the right tire to have on your car when it rains.
Sticky tires may also work best when "shaved" before the first use. Shaving involves taking a small amount (maybe 3/32") of tread off the tire before the first time you put it on the car and drive around. Shaving cannot be done after a tire has been used; rocks, stones and grit will trash the cutting blade in a tire shaving machine. Shaving is done in order do a couple of things; it can reduce the heat buildup inside the tire during competition runs, and it can reduce tread block "squirm" by shortening the tread. Many drivers feel that shaved sticky tires last longer than full tread tires, as they tend to run cooler.
Finally, if you do buy sticky tires, store them out of direct sunlight, away from ozone sources. Expect them to have a limited shelf life; 6 year old race tires simply can't be expected to stick very well. If you're running a lot of events, they won't last 6 years anyway.
Prepping the Driver
The first thing you need to do is accept that you may not be as good a driver as you think you are. Unless you have previous high performance training/experience (and I'm not talking about street racing or going fast on the Interstate here) you will almost certainly find that your hindquarters are being handed to you on a platter at your first couple of events. The simple fact is that very few of us are "natural" drivers; I know that I wasn't. Experience pays dividends, and expect some of it to be painful to your ego.
You should go to all of your autocross events, even after you're an experienced veteran, with the expectation of learning something. There will always be someone who might be better than you there; perhaps some hotshoe from the next SCCA region over will drop in. Treat it as an opportunity; if you don't run against people who can beat you, then you may never get better yourself.
Educate yourself. Go to some Autocross schools, and read some books. I'll be continuing to review driving books in the Journal for some time to come. In this issue I review Alan Johnson's Driving in Competition; while it's a road racing book and not an autocross book, the Theory of Type 1/2/3 corners is completely applicable to autocross, and it can take a long time to figure it out on your own (if you ever do.)
Patience is a virtue. Much of what goes into driving fast is waiting until the right moment to do things. This includes waiting until the right moment to brake; waiting until the right moment to turn; waiting until the right moment to stand on the throttle. You will also need to be smooth and decisive; The best drivers have all of these things nailed down. The best runs are not always the spectacular ones; often Fastest Time of Day (FTD) will go to someone whose run didn't seem all that spectacular -- because they were smooth, patient, and decisive, and didn't waste any energy or rubber.
As I said in part one, don't waste your trips out to work the course. This is your opportunity to observe other drivers, and see what is working and what isn't working.
Don't abuse your car. In particular, speed shifting never did any gearbox any good. When changing gears, just hold the gear shift lever lightly at the gate to the next gear, and let the syncros do their work. When the box is ready to for the shift, the lever will go in.
Use care when braking. You want to use the brakes effectively, and the best bet is to learn threshold braking properly. Without going into a lot of detail, the gist of it is that you want to get to where you can repeatably hold the pedal just short of lockup, which is the spot where you'll get the best performance from your brakes. This technique is taught in most all of the professional and Marque club driving schools, and is very important. Note that stabbing or pumping the brakes is right out; pumping the brakes ("cadence braking") can actually hurt your braking performance rather badly in cars with anti-lock braking systems.
There are a couple of different types of Solo School kicking around. Most SCCA regions that have strong autocross programs, and many independent clubs, will run schools in the spring; these will usually involve the better local drivers trying to orient newcomers and give them some basic lessons about fast driving. The local schools usually don't cost much more than a local Autocross event, and may take one or two days. There are also a couple of traveling professional schools, such as Dick Turner and the McKinney School. These are more expensive, but if you're serious and can make the time, they can do a lot for you.