Racer Boy: Autocrossing 101, or How to Kill Cones

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Please welcome a new writer to the Speed:Sport:Life, Rob Krider.  Rob was the staff writer for NASA NorCal last year, and has been published in AutoWeek and MotoRacing Magazine.  Rob currently is a columnist for the Santa Maria Sun but wants to share his adventures and knowledge with a great group of car guys such as the readers of Speed:Sport:Life.  His column, Racer Boy, will be running bi-weekly and will cover every type of racing that us normal guys can possibly get involved in…from Pinewood Derby to the Demolition Derby.  This week Rob covers Solo 2 Autocross.  Please welcome Rob to the S:S:L team! — Zerin

One of the easiest/cheapest/safest ways to get into some type of motorsports is Autocrossing, otherwise known as Solo 2. Autocrossing is a timed event where an individual car maneuvers around a coned off twisty racecourse which is usually located in a large parking lot or abandoned air field. Each entrant gets three to five shots at going around the course as fast as possible and the fastest time wins. Motorsports glory is yours to be had.

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THE COST

What makes Autocrossing so cool is that it’s dirt cheap, usually around $25-$40 per day depending on the club. The only requirement for Autocrossing is that you bring your own car (anything will do, your commuter Honda, mom’s Volvo or, of course, dad’s Corvette), have a state issued driver’s license and a helmet (M2000 is sufficient). Some clubs even have loaner helmets (enjoy the lice).

SANCTIONING BODY

There are tons of clubs who put on these events, most notably the SCCA, Sports Car Club of America (www.scca.com) and NASA, National Auto Sport Association (www.nasaproracing.com). SCCA requires a club membership in order to participate which runs around $85 per year (yup, that’s where they get ya).

THE HIGH

You really can’t beat the bang for your buck here. Whether you’re in a tire squealing Camaro blistering with torque or piloting a leaned over three wheeling Volkswagen Rabbit, when you get out of the car after running your hot lap your hands will be shaking from all of the adrenaline. In Autocross the speed is relative. You might go faster at the drag strip. Big deal, what is so exciting about going a hundred miles an hour in straight line? In an autocross you can go forty miles an hour sideways, which will get your blood pumping and oftentimes stain your shorts.

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CAR WEAR

Cars hold up very well at Autocrosses. The only real hardship is on the tires themselves. After a few events most competitors choose to buy a dedicated set of wheels and race tires so their street tires don’t need to be replaced every 1,000 miles. Since there are no other cars on the track at the same time as you, even if you put your head straight up your butt and drive off course, the only thing you’re going to hit is an orange pylon -it buffs right out. I’ve probably run a hundred events and never had any damage to the exterior of any of my cars (Mom will never know). And if you do hit any of those cones, that will add a one second penalty (sometimes two seconds) to your overall time. Lots of downed cones equals no trophy.
One of the best ways to Autocross is to use the buddy system. Since the event is run one car at a time, two people can share the same car and the costs (we can use my car, you buy the tires, a tank of gas and a Big Mac).

YOUR DAY

Get up early and road trip to the event site. Before the race starts you can walk the course and see where you need to turn left and where you need to turn right (very important). Sometimes these courses can look like a sea of orange cones once the red mist hits and you have your right foot planted deep into the fun pedal. You need to get an idea of the track and a feel for the flow of the course since the track layout is different at every event. Besides racing you will also be working. No, they don’t have disability or unemployment at the Autocross. You race, you work. It keeps the cost down. Your job will be to stand in the parking lot and pick up cones after the Corvette drivers have knocked them all over (and they will).
Finally, it will be your turn to run. Your run group, filled with similar cars to yours, will be up and you will get in line. Once you are at the front of the line, wait for the green flag and then haul ass! After your run, get back in line until all of your runs are complete. Then head to the timing trailer to see the results. Are you a bad ass who whipped all the guys in your class? Or did you realize that you still have a few things to learn about car control? Either way, I guarantee you had car sliding, testosterone filled, power over-steer fun. Time wise you are looking at about 7 hours, half a day to compete in and work at an Autocross.

THE PEOPLE

Of all the motorsports I have competed in I would say that Autocrossing has some of the most open armed participants. There will always be someone there to help you if you are a first timer, guys will ride along with you or let you ride with them to see different driving techniques (or to just scare the pants off you). I would say as far as car guys go Autocrossers are on the nerdy side of things. They are very meticulous about their cars and they live by their rule book. This isn’t circle track racing, don’t cheat up the car here. Autocrossers are some of the absolute fastest drivers you’ll ever run across (amazing car control) and they know a lot about car set up (tire pressures, alignment, strut rebound setting etc.). Like I said, they’re the smart/nerdy racers.

GLORY

You won’t cross the finish line three wide and inch out your competitors here for instant gratification. You won’t find a drag racing win light either. Most times you find out if you won or lost about a half an hour after the event is over. It is a strange way to compete but the adrenaline from the racing comes from running the cars hard as opposed to the heads up racing like at a drag strip. Nope, no trophy girls here either. And most clubs only issue trophies at the end of the year for championship points. The real glory in Autocrossing is moving up from Regional races to competing in Divisional and National Championships. Being a National Champion autocrosser probably won’t get you laid, but it might get you a free beer in the right bar.

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OH, YOU WANT TO WIN, DO YA?

Even though Autocrossing is very inexpensive in comparison to other forms of motorsports, in order to be a big shot you’re going to have to write a few big checks. The car you run for starters will play a big part in your success. To win in SCCA’s stock division you probably need to figure out what car won the prior year. In B-Stock you’re going to need a Mazda RX-8, in F-Stock you need a Ford Mustang Shelby GT (nope, not the GT 500, just the GT). Besides the car, you’ll need a dedicated set of lightweight wheels and race rubber (Kumho and Hoosier continue to have an ongoing tire war in the National Autocross ranks). Some adjustable shocks can make your car handle better but can get very expensive where a large front anti-rollbar is a pretty inexpensive way to get your car to corner better (ST Suspensions, www.stsuspensions.com, makes these for almost every car). If you want to just look like a winner, instead of painters tape or shoe polish for those numbers on your door go to Figstone Graphics (www.figstone.com) for super cool vinyl numbers or reusable magnetic ones (obviously no magnets for you fiberglass clad Vette guys). I/O Port Racing supplies (www.ioportracing.com) can get you a good helmet on the cheap.

RACER BOY GAUGE

Let’s review the Racer Boy gauge cluster here:

 

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Fuel gauge is over three quarters full because you still have money left, this is cheap, cheap racing.

The tachometer is at 5,700 RPMs because when you drift a car around a corner and shave the orange peel off of a cone but somehow don’t knock it over, that gets you hollerin’ like a Duke Boy.

The Speedometer is around 48 mph because this is very safe racing. Wearing a racing helmet while driving around in an empty parking lot is almost ridiculous. You are in more danger driving to the event itself while your surrounded on the freeway by diabetics going into commas while piloting big rigs.

The volts gauge is low because this doesn’t take much personal time or effort to participate in. You don’t have to weld in a roll cage or trailer the car anywhere. Just check your oil, tire pressure and drive your car to the event.

The mileage is at around 2,000 miles because these events aren’t hard on your car. How much you over rev the engine is up to you. How many events you run on your tires that have to get you back to work or school on Monday is up to you as well. Generally, it’s easy on automobiles.

So, put the video game controller down and get your butt out to the track.

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Rob Krider

28 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Wow, this is a great intro to solo 2 article. I wish I would have seen it before my first autocross. I like how you use the gauges to compare cost and safety to other forms of motorsports. That is a clever way to show new people how safe and cheap autocross is relative to some other types of racing. The only critique I can offer is I am not sure the "Oh you want to win" section belongs in this article. It seems to go beyond what a person who has never autocrossed before needs to know.

  • Wow, this is a great intro to solo 2 article. I wish I would have seen it before my first autocross. I like how you use the gauges to compare cost and safety to other forms of motorsports. That is a clever way to show new people how safe and cheap autocross is relative to some other types of racing. The only critique I can offer is I am not sure the "Oh you want to win" section belongs in this article. It seems to go beyond what a person who has never autocrossed before needs to know.

    • I dunno about that last bit. If you show up expecting to compete right out of the box, you might be blindsided by the level of prep that actually goes into such a "basic" motorsport. With that warning out there, at least you can save your ego by reminding yourself that the dude who dusted you by a whopping 6 seconds spent $40k just to get there. That'll take some of the sting out of it =P.

      • I compete in a region with a number of current and former SCCA national champs. These are people who don't blink at buying $1500 headers to eke that last 1.5hp out of their $2500 Street Touring car, or shell out for a $3000 set of coilovers that's worth maybe a tenth of a second over my $900 setup. The folks who run in classes that allow R-comps throw several thousand dollars at tires every season. Autocrossing for fun can be as cheap as the entry fee and a helmet. Autocrossing to win all the marbles can be more expensive than club racing, depending on the class, and it's a good thing to know when you're looking at the score sheets.

        • Brent you have somewhat of a valid point about the money spent,. but on the other hand. All the money in the world is no substitute for seat time and good driving skills. I myself have bested guys with 75K corvettes with a home grown cp class camaro with less than 10K and a lot of wrench time in my garage invested. Not to say that money doesn't help. Best advice if you want to win is learn to drive! A few seasons of Auto-X will surely make almost anyone a better driver. on and off the road.

      • Ah, fair enough. I guess when I went out for the first time I had an understanding of the amount of skill and practice required, if not the cost (in dollars), so I had no expectations of winning anything.

        Good point

  • Nice article! I can't wait for more of these, just to compare the merits of the different types of racing. I'm sure bracket racing will be about the same as autocross in most of the ratings(unless you drive a manual, definite clutch wear), but i can't see anything else beating these two in the cost category.

  • Nice article. Love the gauges.

    I'm envisioning a future that doesn't allow for a race-only 4th car in the fleet (I'm spoiled by a big driveway right now), but I could definitely swing something that'd do dual duty as autocross and commute.

  • "Sometimes these courses can look like a sea of orange cones once the red mist hits and you have your right foot planted deep into the fun pedal."

    This, combined with my astonishingly low memory retention, is why I don't autocross. The significant other knows I'm not lying when I say, "I forgot…" because even with something I genuinely love to do (motorsports) I can't demonstrate any semblance of memory retention. I do like to mess with her and joke, "we had relations last night? are you sure? It seems like its been so long…"

  • There are certainly Nationally prepared cars out there that have a lot of money in them. That being said, most of the drivers in those cars could let you drive THEIR car and they would drive yours and still beat you by a TON. There is no substitute for seat time. People who show up thinking they can drive will be in for a rude awakening. Some guy in a 1990 Miata will post a time that is 4 seconds faster than you did in your Porsche Cayman and make it look easy doing it.
    It is a precision driving event and the people who do it regularly learn how to drive.
    With all that in mind.. you won't have any more fun behind the wheel of a car than at an autocross event, and it is the cheapest racing in town! (OH.. and for the guy who says he has no memory retention so doesn't autocross.. just LOOK AHEAD.

    • Exactly true. I drive a lotus elise, but I'm new. I get beat by folks in stock civics and mazda 3's and a 1972 datsun…. but it's a lot of fun, and starting this month, I've now gotten within 2 sec of all of the civics and mazda 3's and finally beat the datsun (raw times not pax!) :). Of course I'm still no where near the other Lotus, but one step at a time!

  • Id like to mention that despite the fact that working does suck- If you're in the group that works before you run, it definitely gives you an advantage on knowing the course.

    • Sometimes it can be bad for you. I worked a corner during Super Stock's heat this year at Blytheville, and assumed that I couldn't flat foot my A Stock Honda S2000 CR through that corner base on the trouble the Z06s were having. I was wrong, and didn't ever really get that corner figured out during my runs.

  • Nice article. The only point I would contest is that Autocrossing isn't hard on your car. Driving at a relatively slow pace on your mom's street tired Camry isn't too tough on the car. I have seen several, several cars incur some relatively serious damage autocrossing, including broken sway bars, broken wheels, broken motor mounts, blown engines, and even a couple of flips. I saw a first time autocrosser put his MR2 Spyder into a light post earlier this year.

  • GREAT ARTICLE!!! It fits in with all of the other advice and hints on how to have fun without breaking the bank. The average guy shows up to SOLO events to have fun because his friends are having fun doing it! No better reason to get out of the house and away from the ole lady. Winning is a bonus. I started with bone stock '79 RX-7 with 76bhp in CSP. I now compete with a race ready '83 RX-7 with 177bhp in FP. EP for you club racers. My brothers and occational friend or odd nephew co-drive the car. If you don't like to work corners, attend your divisional convention and become a Solo Safety Stuard. You could also learn the timing and scoring process. Options are available. It's good clean family fun!!!

  • I started autocrossing in 1972 and hung up the helmet in 1990. All of the observations Rob has made are spot on. The one thing I would like to add to it is that the ratio of wenies you will encounter is inversely proportional to the level at which you compete. That is, you will be much more likely to be protested in the classes the permit little or no modifications, mainly because thats where much of the cheating is likely to occur. After 2 seasons of that kind of nonsense, I took my Ford Pinto (later a Fiesta) to the unlimited class in our local club. More fun, no BS, and had years of good fun and friends in that class. Did I win? Yes, a few times with both cars. The real fun of it was seeing how creative I could get when anything I wanted to do was legal, and I had to do it on the seriously cheap. My competitor/friends and I would share suggestions for mods and pointers for various courses. BTW, a 78 Fiesta can be stripped down to 1395 lbs.
    So, strap in, and go have fun!!

  • While SCCA does require a membership to compete in Solo, you don't have to pop for the $85 annual membership. Most regions will allow you to buy a $15 weekend membership. If you get hooked you can apply two of those weekend membership fees to your full membership. Also, Snell 95 helmets will still be legal at least until the 2010s go on sale in October, and probably for all of 2010. I started autocrossing in 1970 in a '62 Mini Cooper and I'm still having fun!

  • Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems
    as though you relied on the video to make your point.
    You definitely know what youre talking about, why waste your intelligence on just posting videos to your site when you could be
    giving us something enlightening to read?

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