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Autocross Basics

Part 1: What You Need to Know Before You Dodge Cones

Photography by Philip Royle

Autocrossing isn’t for everyone—but everyone is invited. In case you’re unfamiliar, autocrossing is a test of vehicle control in which a driver’s skill is pitted against the clock on a closed course consisting of cones. The course is usually set up in a parking lot or on an unused portion of an airfield, in such a way as to keep vehicle speeds low (If you exceed 70 mph you’re on a fast course.—MAX). Each driver is then given three to four runs on the course to better his or her time. Each lap generally takes 45 seconds to one minute to complete, but it’s the most taxing minute you’ll ever spend in a car—and the best part is that anyone can participate in virtually any car.

If you’re looking to jump straight into autocrossing, there are some basics you’ll need to know first. The most important thing to remember is that everyone is encouraged to autocross, no matter what your driving background or vehicle type. It doesn’t matter if you’re the slowest car of the day or if you spin several times during a run. All that you need is a desire to take your car to the limit—but that’s not to say you’re going to break your car. In fact, the most damage cars receive from an intense day of cone racing is mildly scuffed tires and possibly a bumper bruise or two from hitting cones (Which, incidentally, can be easily buffed out.—MAX). The second most important thing to remember is that if you have a question, ask it. Everyone is there to have fun, and autocrossers are very willing to hand out advice.

When You Arrive
There is very little you’ll need to bring to the course in order to go racing. The first and most important item is a car. When you arrive at the autocross location, you’ll probably be asked to sign a waiver, and then you’ll be handed a wristband displaying that you agreed to the group’s legal liability terms. After that, you should find a parking space and unload all unnecessary items from your vehicle—such as spare tires, sunglasses, trash, and anything else that isn’t bolted down. If your car has hubcaps, those should also be removed. Set the items in your parking space, and then head to the tech area., where your car will be inspected for safety.

The tech inspector will inspect your car, making sure the battery is tied down securely, the brake pedal doesn’t travel completely to the floor or bind, the seatbelts or harnesses operate correctly, and the steering components aren’t overly worn. Your helmet will also be checked for SNELL compliance. A SNELL SA 95 rating or better is sometimes required, but it varies from club to club. If you don’t have a helmet, most clubs have helmets you can rent for the day. While at tech, you’ll need to fill out a registration form.

The registration form is nothing to fret over. The form includes such hard-hitting questions as “name” and “address.” Other questions are “car make” and “model,” as well as the class you’re in. If it’s your first time autocrossing, you probably won’t know your class. Your class is decided by which car you drive and what modifications your car has.

Simply ask the tech person what class you’ll be in. After your car has passed tech, park your car and head to the registration desk with the sheet of paper you filled out at tech. The person at the registration desk will take your registration form, fill in your class if iwasn’t already, and take your entrance fee (Usually around $20 to $25.—MAX). At this point you’ll find out which heat you’ll run in and which heat you’ll have to work.

That’s right, it’s not all fun and games—you’ll have to spend one heat on the track picking up cones when cars hit them. That’s not the end of the world, though, because this is an excellent time to see where the trouble areas on the track are. When you’re working the course, you can watch where people are making errors and figure out why. If your work group is before your run group, this is an excellent opportunity to make a mental note of the track’s trouble spots. Before the racing begins, there will be a drivers’ meeting. The subjects that are usually covered at the drivers’ meetings are track problems (Like loose gravel or other dangers.—MAX), abnormal sound restrictions, the run group order, and other issues which may arise. At this time there will also probably be a mention of a course walk for beginners. Pay attention: They’re talking to you.

The Course Walk
Only the foolish blindly get onto an autocross course and expect to do well, and thus the course walk was invented. Before racing begins in the morning, and once again at lunchtime, the course is opened. Everyone is invited to walk the course to familiarize themselves with the track. This is the time you memorize the layout of the course and pick the line you’ll be running. As you become a more experienced racer, you’ll be able to spot trouble areas and choose braking points simply from the walk.

Most clubs will have a course walk for beginners hosted by an experienced club member. Take advantage of the course walk. The person hosting the course walk will point out most everything you’ll need to know and will also reassure you that everyone is there to have fun, so don’t sweat any mistakes you make on the course. Walk the course as many times as possible, and make a mental map of every turn. Initially, you won’t remember which line you should run through the turns, but if you remember the order of the turns, and the severity of each turn, you won’t hang a right when the cones go left.

On The Track
When it’s time to race, you’ll need to get in your car, wind the front windows down, put your helmet on, and enter pre-grid. Pre-grid is an area where cars wait to be called to the start line. Once you’re at the start line, and the car before you has completed enough of a lap so you won’t catch him, the flag man will wave you onto the course. At this point your job is to finish the course hitting a minimum number of cones, but while you’re doing that, you also have to watch for flags.

If for any reason you see a course worker waving a red flag in your direction, bring your vehicle to a safe stop, and wait for a course worker to instruct you. A red flag may indicate that a car in front of you has broken, or has hit so many cones that the course workers can’t set them back up in time. Red flags aren’t a bad thing, and if you do get red flagged, you usually get to run the course again to make up for your red-flag run. Cones mark the course, and each cone sits in a chalk box, but if you hit a cone, don’t worry about it. If you peg a cone, and it moves completely out of the box, you will be assessed a two-second penalty. If, however, the cone remains standing, and a portion of the cone is still in the box, you will not receive a penalty. As cones are constantly being hit, you may notice a cone out of its box before you get to it. In this situation, bring your car to a complete stop and point to the cone. Wait for a course worker to come to your car, and tell them the cone was out of the box. The course worker will put the cone back in its box, and you will get to re-run the course. If you decide not to point out the rogue cone, a course worker may spot the cone and assume you hit it, assessing you the two-second penalty unjustly.

In order to not hit a cone, as well as not get lost in the sea of cones which comprise the course (Which is all too easy to do.—MAX), you need to concentrate and always look ahead. Your eyes should never be looking at the end of the hood—you should be concentrating on the next turn, so that’s where your eyes should be. If you stare at specific cones, then you’ll experience what is called Target Fixation, and you’ll probably take out a few cones. If you think you’re going to hit a cone, then you’re probably already too close to the cone to swerve without losing control, so just take the hit and concentrate on the next turn.

Finding A Club
So now you’re ready to attack the turns at your local parking lot. Looking for a club to run with is easy, as there are only two major autocross sanctioning bodies: SCCA and NASA. The Sports Car Club of America is the original, and its Web site is easy to find at www.scca.org. From there you can select the Region Locator and find a club in your area. The National Auto Sport Association was created as an alternative to SCCA. Its Web site is www.nasaproracing.com, and has a Regions link to aid in finding local chapters. NASA autocross events are structurally similar to an SCCA autocross, but traditionally the speeds attained are marginally faster. There are other clubs which autocross with similar rules and classes, but the smaller the club, the more difficult it is to learn of its existence. Your local tuning shop may offer some help, as they talk to many people who are racing enthusiasts on a daily basis.

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