In this article, we’ll cover some of the basics of a typical autocross and what you’ll need to know prior to getting into a ridiculously fun hobby. We’ll go over where to find events and how to get involved with a club, a typical event schedule, getting your car ready, your run/work heats and how to get involved with a couple of the national level clubs like the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) or the National Auto Sport Association (NASA).
What is autocross? Autocross is widely considered an entry level motorsport focused on driver ability over car performance. It’s extremely affordable to do, and all you need is a car in working order, a Snell rated helmet (although many clubs have loaners available) and a free day on the weekend. In autocross, drivers negotiate their vehicle one at a time through a course laid out with traffic cones to compete for the fastest time. There are many levels of preparation that you will see at a typical event ranging from the incognito street car to the full-fledged track toy. Local events usually only run about $25 per event depending on the club; aside from going to the local drag-strip, it’s the cheapest form of motorsport. While not wheel to wheel, it is some of the most exciting driving action you can do legally for only a few bucks. It's also highly competitive as you gain skill and understanding of the sport.
In Texas, just about every major city has a club that hosts at least one monthly event. The Texas Region SCCA club is based out of Dallas; go to www.dfwautocross.com for more information on their events as well clubs like the Dallas chapter Porsche Club of America, Equipe Rapide, among others. Austin has its own club, The Texas Spokes Car Club (http://www.spokes.org), which runs events at Circuit of the Americas, Harris Hill Raceway, and San Antonio Raceway. The San Antonio Sports Car Club, SASCA (http://sasca.org) hosts events on a monthly basis in Selma, TX, just a few minutes north of downtown San Antonio. The Texas A&M Sports Car Club (http://tamscc.org) takes advantage of a large unused airstrip to host three autocross events per semester as well the SCCA’s Texas National Tour site. Information about the Houston Region SCCA can be found at www.houscca.com. If you live in Texas, you’re never more than two hours away from grassroots motorsport action.
Okay, now you’ve found a club to participate with, what’s next? Go to an event and have fun! What’s the point of owning a performance car unless you drive it! Your typical event starts early in the morning with members of the club setting up the site for the day. Plan to arrive a little earlier than the scheduled registration opening so you have plenty of time to properly prepare for the day. Things to bring should include a tire gauge, tire iron or a small tool-bag, plenty of water (it gets “warm” in the Texas summer), sunscreen, and a little humility. Be ready for the fact that you won’t be the fastest driver out there if this is your first autocross. While having the fastest time of day (FTOD) might be a concern for the seasoned members of the club, it shouldn’t concern you in the least. You should focus on learning the course and learning your car. You will get faster with more seat time. Talk to the drivers there and ask for ride alongs. Have them ride with you too. It’s a lot of fun (and a little scary) to get a ride with someone that knows how to get ten tenths out of their car. Once you’re registered, proceed to the tech lane for a short safety inspection on your vehicle. This only takes a few minutes. Make sure your lugnuts are torque down, you don’t have any loose items in your car, your battery is secure, and that your pedals return their resting position. After tech, the course should be open for walking. Pay attention to where the elements are and how to negotiate the course at this point. There is usually a novice walk-through that most clubs will have in order to orient new drivers to the course, the rules, and the best way to complete the course. Attend the novice walk-through! Your event will have anywhere between two and four heats. This information will be put out at the driver’s meeting as well as which heat your class will run and work. It’s time to compete. Be ready with your car in the grid for your run heat, and most importantly don’t forget to check in for your work assignment. More than likely, you will be posted on a corner of the course “shagging cones”. This means is that if a car knocks one down or out of the box, a corner worker will need to run out and reset it. The important thing here is safety. Look out for oncoming cars; the car will win every time.
Getting your car prepared for autocross is simple. Make sure your tires are inflated a pound or two above what’s listed in your door. You’ll keep an eye on it between your runs and bleed off air as the tires heat up. Make sure your battery is secure and the terminals aren’t corroded or loose. Check for any loose items in the engine bay. Check your lugnuts with a torque wrench prior to the tech inspection to ensure they’re torqued down to your manufacturer’s recommended specifications. Losing a wheel on the course doesn’t happen very often, but it usually spells disaster if it does happen. Remove ALL loose items from the interior. Most clubs won’t let you compete with things hanging from you mirror or floormats on the driver’s side, take these items out. It’s fine to remove the trunk items as well, but not necessary. Make sure your pedals return to their resting position smoothly and make sure your car is free of mechanical issues that could cause failure on course. It’s always ok to ask someone at the event if you have questions about what to do; they should point you in the right direction.
The course will change every event, so pay attention when you walk the course. It can be beneficial to walk with one of the seasoned guys as they’ll be able to point out certain elements that could be tricky or important sections to gain that extra tenth of a second. Most clubs have a novice walkthrough where a novice coordinator will be able to answr any questions or point out some tricky parts of the course to read to navigate. Don't be afraid to ask questions! The start will be marked with a double cone gate followed shortly by another double cone gate with a timing laser. It will consist of slaloms, offset gates, “walloms” (a slalom, but with multiple cones lined in a wall fashion), Chicago boxes (a box of cones with one or two sides open forming a “[“ shape), and sweeping turns. It is very important to note where the entrance and exit are to each element and which way your car should be pointing in order to make the next gate. You should be looking for braking zones, turn in points, and apexes. The finish will be marked in the same fashion as the start, by a double cone gate accompanied by a timing laser. There will be a number of cones making a lane to follow. Once you’ve walked the course a few times, you should link up with the novice walk-through to get a thorough run-down of the course and specific rules and penalties for downed cones (notice, this is mentioned TWICE!). A downed cone usually adds 2 seconds to your run time.
When your heat is up to run, you’ll get your car to the grid. The far left or far right lanes will be reserved for two driver cars. Signal to the grid worker the number of drivers in your vehicle, and they’ll direct you to your grid lane. This will be the lane you’ll come back to at the end of every run except for your last. This is the perfect time to check tire pressure again and verify that loose items are out of the car. Check your gauges to make sure the car is at operating temperature too. Once you start your runs, leave the car running in order to cycle coolant through the engine and help dissipate the heat brought on by hard driving. The grid workers will motion you forward when it’s your turn to drive the course. Proceed to the start where you will be motioned forward by the starter. The starter will stop you at the double cones and let you know when it’s your turn. You’re on your own time once they signal that you may proceed on course, but your time doesn’t start until you cross the timing laser. Pay attention to the mental notes you made walking the course and always look ahead. The biggest problem new members have is fixating on the current element instead of looking ahead to the next. Experienced autocrossers look two or three elements ahead and they are planning farther out! This simple trick will keep you out of trouble and on-course. Once you cross the next set of double cones, you have finished the course. Have the car under control and get on the brakes to slow the car down to parking lot speeds quickly. Pull back around to your grid lane and get ready for your next run. Check your tire pressures as you will most likely have to bleed off a pound or two of air. Pop the hood to ventilate hot engine bay air and leave your car running. You will have at least 5 minutes before your next run.
Check in with the worker chief at the beginning of your work heat. Most likely, you’ll be directed to a corner to help right downed cones that other drivers knock over or out of the box. Other work assignments are gate control, radio and timing inside the trailer, starter, grid chief, and tech. Be careful while working the course! Clubs have rules about sitting down on course and messing around with cellphones. It’s recommended to just leave the cell in the car unless you’re expecting an important call. When resetting a cone, make sure no cars are immediately coming. Make your way to the downed cone quickly, reset it, and return to your corner quickly. You will usually have about 20-25 seconds before the next car comes around, and this time goes by fast if you’re not showing some hustle. The corner chief will have a radio and a flag and will call in the downed cone for the car that knocked it out of the box. If necessary, they’ll flag the next car for a car stopped on course. The worker chief should be the most experienced person at that corner. Remember to keep your eyes open for oncoming or out of control cars!
That was fun, how do I get involved more? Once you’ve had a taste of how much fun it can be, you’ll want to come back again. If getting into the sport becomes serious, there are a number of resources aside from local clubs that can point you in the right direction. The SCCA publishes a rulebook for Solo II every year before the National Tour that provides rules for classing cars based on model, year, and allowed modifications. This can be found at www.scca.com/downloads/#solo and is available in PDF format for free. It will outline the difference between Street, Street Touring, Street Prepared, and a host of other classes that all have varying levels of preparation. An SCCA membership will get your foot in the door for the National Tour events as well as the Prosolo events. Registration for SCCA Tour events is done at www.motorsportreg.com and requires a current SCCA membership. If you’re looking to get involved, but not at that level yet, it’s perfectly fine to attend your club’s events while you get seat time in your car. Attend your club’s functions to get more info on upcoming events. Trade co-drives with club members to gain experience in another car than your own, and most importantly, have fun!