By: Anthony Scott - originally published at ChiltonDIYManuals.com
Today, let's talk about getting started in one of the easiest, cheapest types of competition you can drive your car to the limit in: Autocross. Autocross is a point-to-point time trial event. The basic idea is to navigate a tight, twisting, technical course laid out with orange cones over a large empty parking lot, in the shortest time possible.
Because of the relatively simple format, autocross is hugely attractive as a novice competition event. The Sports Car Club of America runs events every month, all over the country. Many other car clubs and more and more hot rod organizations are having them occasionally, too.
It is low risk too! Entering into any competitive event with your daily driver is intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Cars are widely spaced apart, running one at a time, on tight courses that keep speeds relatively low. The lack of traditional walls, barriers, and gravel pits means that an overshot corner is not a day-ender – usually, the worst outcome is you hit a traffic cone. Additionally, most autocross events are inexpensive to enter – the Houston SCCA chapter events run $50 for a day, and most are less than $100.
Can My Car Race?
All of these individual factors are great, but by far the best part of autocross is that it is 100% run-what-you-brung. Whatever car you want to drive, there will be a class for it. The safety checklist for car preparation is short and simple, also, to help minimize cost. Your car needs a securely mounted battery (stock tie-downs are usually sufficient), all lugnuts present and tight, tires that aren’t showing cords, no significant leaks, and properly working seatbelts and brakes.
You, as the driver, only need to wear an approved helmet, and often a motorcycle helmet will do (check with the organizers on specific requirements). If it is your first time, some organizations will even offer loaner helmets, but those tend to go quickly. It’s a good idea to bring your own or borrow one from someone before you get there.
Who Am I Racing?
Technically, you are just racing the clock, but officially you will be classed with similar cars. Classification varies by organization, but SCCA has major categories based on degree of modification, with sub-classes based on power/weight. Don’t worry, there will be an expert to help you choose the correct class at registration. Many organizations also have a novice class as a way to help new drivers get familiar with the sport, no matter their car.
Here is a quick breakdown of SCCA classes, to give an idea of the cars and modifications you can expect to see at an autocross event:
- Street, sub-classes A-H: Cars are close to stock. Aftermarket stock type shocks/struts, front or rear aftermarket sway bar (not both), wheels +/- 1 in diameter, and any DOT tires with minimum 200 treadwear rating are acceptable modifications. No intakes, wider wheels, coilovers, or exhausts beyond a cat back are allowed. This is commonly a class for people who try to get the best time with their daily driver.
- Street Touring, 5 sub-classes: Cars are modified but still often driven on the street. At this stage, suspension modifications, bolt-on performance parts, wider wheels (up to certain limits), and big brake kits are all fair game.
- Street Prepared, sub-classes A-F: This is a significant step up from Street Touring. Cars in this class can have aero parts, race compound tires, and unlimited width tires and wheels, among other modifications.
- Street Modified, 3 sub-classes: This is where cars begin to become purpose-built weekend machines. Any engine swaps from the same brand is allowed, as are turbo kits, race slicks, fully stripped interiors, etc. Cars in this class are generally street-legal but rarely driven on the street.
- Prepared, 5 sub-classes: Most cars entered into Prepared would be considered race cars. Windows removed, full carbon fiber panel swaps, custom-built motors, or any engine swap from any production car into any production chassis are all legal here.
- Modified, sub-classes A-F: The rules are, essentially, “it has a car engine of some form”. Purpose-built race motors and tube-frame open-wheel chassis are allowed with nearly unlimited aero.
There can also be regional classes, or classes organized by a marque specific club. One of the most popular recent additions at some SCCA events is Classic American Muscle. Rules mirror Street Prepared, though exclusively for classic or modern, front-engine, rear-wheel drive American cars. In some SCCA regions, there is even a class exclusively for mini trucks, where Tacomas, Rangers, Frontiers, and Colorados battle it out.
How Do I Prepare?
The night before the event, do some basic preparation. You should plan to take bottled water, snacks, a hat, an umbrella, and sunscreen for yourself. Don’t forget a roll of blue painter’s tape to make your numbers and mark what class you are in!
Remove any loose items from your car while you’re packing it. This will likely be the highest G-forces it’s seen in quite a while, and it will fling around anything not bolted down. Clean the windows, and check tire pressures to make sure they’re within spec.
Be sure to check the oil and top it up to the dipstick’s recommended full level. Because autocross has so many tight, fast corners, having the oil level low while running an event is more likely to cause oil starvation than regular street driving.
What Happens When I Get There?
The typical autocross begins early. Make sure you have plenty of time to arrive, unpack your car, register (if you didn’t already online) and get to tech inspection. At tech, they will verify your vehicle is in good enough working condition, and not likely to leave parts or fluid on the course. After tech, a brief driver’s meeting is held with important safety and logistics information, including what order the cars/classes are running, and what shift you are working the track.
Additionally, most events have a course walk before the first cars go out so that you can get an idea of the layout of the track for the day. One of the most challenging parts for novice drivers is correctly reading the cones – in the middle of a vast parking lot it can be easy to get lost. It is well worth a walk to familiarize yourself with the track design.
Wait, I Have To Work?
That’s right. You will be expected to help out resetting cones and spotting penalties, by standing out on the track while other classes run. This can be very educational and helpful when your chance to drive comes. But admittedly, it is the least fun part of autocross.
Autocross events are almost always volunteer-based to keep costs down, which is why drivers have to pitch in to help with course work. Follow a corner leader out to your designated area, and if someone hits a cone, you put it back. You also report if the cone was touching the box drawn around it, or if it was completely knocked out. This will be radioed to timing and added to the drivers’ penalty.
Working the course is good exercise and can be educational as you watch other drivers tackle tricky sections up close. But make sure to wear sunscreen if it’s anytime at all near summer, as the pavement reflects the sun and heat.
What Is The Racing Like?
Actually “racing” your car is the easiest part of the day. You’ll line up in staging, creep your way to the front, and wait for the green, just like in drag racing. Then, hammer down, and have fun!
Don’t be surprised to find yourself sweating and tired after three attempts to run a fast time. The total focus, situational awareness, and quick reactions demanded of an autocross course make driving a car at 30 mph into a workout.
Every course is different, but expect to mostly be in second gear. The course is so tight, and straight sections so short, you need to maximize cornering speed while getting within a hair of the proper cones at the apex. No matter how expensive and powerful your car is, be prepared to be embarrassed by a veteran in a beat-up Mazda Miata.
How Do I Get Good?
As a novice, often experienced drivers will offer to ride along to give extra pointers, and it’s well worth it. If an experts offers to drive, with you riding shotgun, by all means take the offer. Having an expert drive your car gives you target time to shoot for. Typically taking a ride or giving a ride to an instructor give you an extra chance to lap the course as well.
Autocross has one of the most positive and helpful communities of any automotive niche I’ve ever come across. If you get confused about something, odds are you can find someone there to help. Most clubs are happy to have new participants and will go out of their way to make sure you have a good time your first few times.
Hopefully, this guide takes away any anxiety you have about one of the most fun, inexpensive, and safe ways to practice driving your car at the limit. Autocross is an experience any car enthusiast should try out sometime, to discover the actual limits of their vehicle without the risk of injury or ticket.