A number of people have asked me about getting started in autocross over the past several months. So, I thought I would pass on this "executive summary" to the list. Maybe it could be included somewhere on the homepage too.
What is an autocross?
An autocross, also called a Solo II event or a gymkana, is a moderate-to-high speed solo event typically held in a large parking lot or airport runway. Generally, autocross events do not exceed 70 mph. They are called solo events since cars are engaged in a race against the clock, rather than a wheel-to-wheel race. The person with the lowest elapsed time in their class wins. Courses are typically outlined by a series of traffic cones, and may be marked by a chalk outline. Each course is approved by a trained safety steward; they are very safe and have plenty of run-off room. Generally, there is nothing harder than a rubber traffic cone to hit. However, while autocross is undoubtedly the safest form of motorsports, during the past year I have seen two cars hit large curbing, causing some pretty serious suspension damage. No one was hurt in these incidents, but I am sure their egos were badly bruised.
All courses are like mini road courses featuring both left and right hand turns, long fast sweepers, hairpins, and yes, straight aways. Autocrosses are car friendly in that they are easy on the drivetrain and other expensive components. I have had no autocross related problems with my BSP car after 14 events, 4 practices, and 1 school. Of course, autocross is a little rough on tires. More on that later.
Autocross is great for learning car control techniques in a safe and controlled environment. You can safely drive your car at its limits since there is (generally) nothing to hit except those pesky cones. The cones are soft and will not dent your car. You can protect your paint with a front end mask and a little racers tape (cheap, racing equivalent of duct tape - but it CAN be removed!).
You will improve your driving skills in a variety of ways. At your first two events, you are allowed to have a novice instructor ride with you to provide free coaching. This is the best bargain in motorsports. While most driving instruction costs thousands of dollars, you can receive instruction from a national autocross champion for free. Once you pass the novice stage, you will continue to improve your driving skills through more track time. The more events you run, the more your skills will improve. You can also take advantage of expert instructors after the event during fun runs. There is generally sufficient time available to make 2-3 fun runs at the end of an event.
Autocross is also a fantastic way to get your feet wet in motorsports. In time, many people transition from autocross to other forms of motorsports such has high speed solo events (called Time Trials or Solo I) and wheel-to-wheel racing. Others continue on with autocross. For the serious autocrosser, there are national and regional championships that offer superior competition and great commeraderie.
Finding an autocross club and preparing for the first event
Before deciding on a car class, I would first check around to see what clubs sanction autocrosses in your area. In Southern California, where I live, there are at least four clubs that sponsor autocrosses. Most clubs have similar rules. Nevertheless, you want to chose a club (or more than one club) and carefully review their rules before preparing your car. Moreover, even the SCCA's own regions have their own regional classes. To be honest, unless you have considerable experience, you will not be competitive right away no matter how well your car is prepared. I recommend delaying any car preparation (other than routine maintenance and proper tire inflation) for at least six events. I made the mistake of attempting major modifications early on in the process; I had to reverse many of the changes either because they were not legal in my class or because they did not perform well in an autocross environment. Besides, an experienced autocrosser in a Hyundai Excel can beat an inexperienced driver in a Viper. Beleive me, I've seen it happen hundreds of times over the past year.
Once you have identified the club you want to run with, make sure to air up your tires to 40-45 psi before you leave for the event. At the event, ask your novice instructor for the correct tire pressures for your car and tires. You can always let out any extra pressure. But, unless you come with an air pump or air tank, you will not be able to add air to your tires after the fact.
Showing up for the first event
Make sure to show up very early for your first event. There are a number of things that you will have to do once you arrive. First, you will need to register and sign up for a work assignment. Most autocross clubs use participants to work the course - i.e., to set up cones, to call in downed cones, and to ensure the safety of other participants.
Next, you will have to have your car and your helmet inspected. If you do not have a helmet, you can generally use a loaner helmet provided by the club. Be aware that loaner helmets are not always the most sanitary... If you have a friend at the event, borrow theirs.
Preparing to drive
After your car is inspected, you will want to participate in the ritual called "walking the course." Most autocross clubs do not allow the participants to have practice runs. The only way to get a feel for the course is to walk it. When walking the course, try to visualize what it will be like when you are actually driving on the course. At first, this will be very difficult. Most likely, you will not know where to place the car on the track. You will not be familiar with many of the more advanced driving techniques. Still, it is critical that you walk the course at least 2-3 times. In time, you will be able to visualize the course. It took me about a year to figure out how to visualize the course. One day, it just all clicked.
Once you have walked the course, it will be about time for the event to start. It may sound crazy, but one way to get a good idea of how to drive the course is to work more than your fair share. By that, I mean volunteer to work during several "run groups" and change your location to different corners each time. That way, you get to see other drivers negotiating the sections that you are worried about. Don't be bashful either. Once the worker truck (that transports workers to stations) reaches an area you want to watch, say "I'll get out here!" Now, BE CAREFUL. In addition, learning the track is not your first priority when working. Your first priorities are safety (don't turn your back on approaching car and look out for other workers), watching for and replacing downed cones, and calling in downed cones to the timing and scoring trailer.
When it comes time to drive the coures, make sure to request a novice instructor for the first two events. Getting instruction is vital. Even if you think that you are a great driver, you are still not a great autocrosser. If you do not ask for this instruction, you will start out much slower than, and continue to drive slower than, the other novices for quite some time.
While on course, the most important thing to do is to look ahead to where you want the car to go. It will be difficult at first; the view in front of you will probably look like a maze of randomly placed cones. Still, if you are busy looking out to the side of the car, you will not have sufficient time to react to upcoming corners. The second most important thing is to drive smoothly. Do not jerk the wheel, don't trounce on the throttle, and don't stomp on the brakes. Do everything slowly and smoothly. And, don't commit to two abrupt actions at once. That is, don't brake hard and turn hard. Don't accelerate hard and turn hard. The tiny little contact patches provided by your tires cannot handle two hard or pronounced actions at once.
Some unsolicited advice
Don't worry about setting the top time in your class. It won't happen unless your class is populated by other novices. There are too many experienced drivers out there and it could take years of practice to be in top of your class (if it ever happens). Concentrate on having fun and learning. And, most importantly, do not get discouraged, do not compare yourself to others (at first), and do not give up. If you stick with it, you will get quicker and then you can start to compare yourself as a means for setting benchmarks for improvement. At first, however, always set your benchmarks at an appropriate level. A good starting point is "acheiving at least one clean run (i.e., no downed cones) per event, or "improving your times on each successive run."
All cars are placed in classes in an attempt to equalize competition. Of course, competition can never be equalized - primarily because driving skills vary dramatically across individuals. But, car preparation also makes a big difference.
The best advice I can give you regarding selecting a class and preparing your car is as follows. First, keep it simple. Don't pick a class that requires extreme modifications unless you just love to tinker. The competition is just as good in the stock classes as it is in the modified classes. In many cases it is better since many of the better drivers prefer to spend their money on driver training rather than car modifications. Second, if you decide to run in a class that requires modifications of any sort, consult with a knowledgeable shop first (such as Ground Control, Carrera, Rebello, etc.). You will save yourself a ton of money if you do it right the first time! Also, I can tell you from first hand experience that it is VERY unpleasant to drive a car that is not properly set up. I tried that for 6-8 months and I will NEVER go through that again.
Some common SCCA classes are briefly explained below. Before attempting to modify your car for any of these classes (even the stock class), BUY a copy of the rules book for your club, study it carefully, and ask lots of questions.
In general, the stock class rules allow only for aftermarket struts/shocks and cat back exhaust systems. Of course, you may also run any DOT approved autocross or DOT road racing tires.
The street prepared class allows allows a number of suspension modifications (such as camber plates, coil over springs, aftermarket sway bars) and minor engine modifications (like a free flowing exhaust and header, aftermarket induction and fuel injection systems, and very mild cylinder head modifications). SP cars are also allowed to run any wheel size, although they must run DOT approved tires.
If you decide to run in an SP class, realize that it will be expensive and your car will not be very streetable. If you drive your car to work every day, do not expect to be able to build a competive SP car. Most nationally competitive SP cars are not smog legal and provide a comfort level surpassed by a covered wagon (mainly due to the extremely harsh suspenions required for this level of preparation).
Prepared and Modified classes:
Don't even think about running these classes when you are just getting started - unless you happen to own a Z with a V-8 conversion. In that case, you will have little choice but to run in the E-Modified class. Also, be aware that adding a cam to your Z will throw you into the prepared class, to fend for yourself against purpose-built, tube frame race cars running 15-1 compression.
If you are interested in autocross, post a message to the Z-car list under
'78 280Z ITS Car (a work-in-process)
'90 300 ZXTT Daily Driver