If you’re looking to improve your driving skill and get more comfortable behind the wheel, why not try an autocross event? Autocross is one of the best ways to get some seat time and learn all about your car.
What is Autocross?
Autocross is a timed competition where you drive your car solo through a series of traffic cones as fast as possible. Most autocross events are held in closed parking lots, but some take place on race tracks.
Traffic cones are placed strategically to keep maximum speeds between 40 and 60 miles per hour. Most cars stay in 2nd gear. This allows drivers to focus on the handling and placement of their vehicle, rather than shifting and heavy braking zones.
Since speeds are low, so is the wear and tear on your vehicle. You might go through tires a little more quickly, but autocross is otherwise pretty easy on the car.
Cars are released one at a time, so there is no wheel-to-wheel racing. It’s just you against the clock; you should never encounter another vehicle on an autocross course.
Reasons Autocross Makes You a Better Driver
Autocross offers drivers a number of benefits, and can teach you things that are hard to learn safely on the street. Here’s a short list of ways you’ll become a better driver after autocrossing.
1) Drive as Fast as You Want
Autocross is a safe space to drive as fast as you want with very few consequences. Most autocross courses are set up so there is nothing to hit but cones. Cones are soft and almost never damage the vehicle, even if you run them over.
Since autocross provides a safe environment, you can experiment with different driving techniques to see how the car responds. How long does it take to stop from 60 miles per hour? What does it feel like when your anti-lock brake system (ABS) engages? How does the car behave as it starts to slide?
Do you feel the need for speed? Save it for the autocross course. Autocross entry fees range between $20 and $50, which is far cheaper than a speeding ticket.
2) Boost Your Confidence
The drive home from your first autocross is an enlightening experience. Most drivers feel a deeper understanding of how their car handles at the limit, and gain a lot of confidence in everyday driving.
Once you know how your car behaves when it starts to slide, a little rain may not bother you quite as much as it used to.
3) Improve Your Vision
Autocross trains you to look far ahead. If you’re still looking at a gate while you’re passing through it, you’re not going to give yourself enough time to get set up for the next obstacle.
As your vision improves and you learn to keep your eyes up, you will notice your autocross times drop significantly. This is because you can set up for the ideal line well in advance of when you actually get there.
The farther ahead you look while driving on the street, the more time you give yourself to react. This could help you avoid an accident if there is a real obstacle in the road.
4) Understand the Conditions
How does rain affect your tire grip? How do you maintain control over the car when it is sliding? Autocrossing helps you get a feel for how your tires perform in different weather conditions.
If it’s cold, your tires may not be as grippy as they are on a hot day when they have some heat in them. Rain affects grip too, but a wet course may not feel quite as slick as you’d imagine.
This of course depends highly on the vehicle you bring to your event. Some vehicles handle the rain a little better than others.
5) Understand Weight Transfer
Weight transfer has a significant effect on tire grip. When you hit the brakes, the car pitches forward, leaving less weight over the rear wheels. If you try to turn while braking, there’s a pretty good chance your rear tires will start to lose grip. In many cases, you can make a car spin by doing this (even if it’s front wheel drive).
You can use weight transfer to your advantage to maximize the amount of grip you have available. This skill directly translates to your ability to handle a car in inclement weather.
A solid understanding of weight transfer is one of the fundamentals of good car control.
How To Get Started
Autocross has the lowest barrier to entry of virtually any motorsport. All you need is a roadworthy car that’s properly maintained, and a recent Snell M or SA helmet. Many car clubs have helmets available to borrow if you do not own one.
Your vehicle will undergo a basic technical inspection to make sure the wheels don’t fall off, and that’s about it.
Most car clubs only require that you have a current driver’s license or learner’s permit to drive a car on course. Minors may need a parent or guardian present to sign the waiver.
Did you know that many autocross events allow go-karts? If you know somebody under the age of 15 who would like to autocross, they may still be able to kart at an autocross event. Check with your local car clubs to learn more.
Most clubs only let cars run that are wider than they are tall. This is to reduce rollover risk. While autocrossing is very safe, it does require high speed turns that put certain types of vehicles at risk. Many clubs won’t let you autocross a truck, crossover, SUV, or minivan unless the vehicle has been lowered.
There are often exceptions to this rule, especially for sportier SUVs. Most clubs abide by the SCCA rulebook for which vehicles are allowed to run.
There are a few things to keep in mind before your car’s technical inspection, or “tech”. Although these are things you should always check on your vehicle to make it safe on the street, it’s a good idea to check them over before your autocross event.
Battery Tie Down
Make sure you have a metal battery tie down and a cover over the positive terminal. Most vehicles come with these items from the factory, but it’s good to double check that it’s present on your vehicle and the battery is secure.
Top Off Vehicle Fluids
Make sure all your vehicle fluids are topped off, particularly the engine oil and brake fluid. If your brake fluid looks brown or black, this is a great time to replace your brake fluid.
Old brake fluid boils at a much lower temperature. Boiled brake fluid introduces air into the brake lines, which creates a dangerous situation. Since air is compressible, you may feel spongy brakes that are hard to modulate, or your brakes may not even work at all!
Empty Your Vehicle
When you autocross, it’s a good idea to empty any loose items from the vehicle. This is to prevent objects from flying around when you take corners. Consider bringing a plastic tote or bin to store your belongings while you race.
Some clubs may ask you to remove the driver’s side floor mat as well. This is to prevent the floor mat from interfering with the gas or brake pedal were it to come loose.
Check Your Lug Nuts
All lug nuts should be present and torqued to factory specifications. Make sure your lug nuts are tight and that there is no play in your wheels. You can grab a wheel from the top and vigorously shake it back and forth while the car is on the ground to see if there is any play.
Check Your Noise Levels
If you have an aftermarket exhaust, check the noise restrictions at the event you’ll be attending. Some events have no noise restrictions, but others take place near residential areas. In order for these events to continue, many impose 90 dB noise limits. If your car exceeds the threshold, you may be asked to mechanically modify the exhaust to suppress the noise, or leave the event.
Typically you will only have an issue with exceeding the noise limit if you have an aftermarket exhaust or a straight pipe. Most factory exhausts will be just fine.
Find an Event
The best way to find local autocross events is MotorsportReg. MotorsportReg allows you to search local events by event type within a specified radius.
Some clubs do not advertise their events through MotorsportReg. You may be able to find these events by searching Google for something like “bay area autocross events”. Substitute your local area in the search query.
If you come up with any questions, your local club should have an event coordinator who should be able to get you squared away. Congratulations on taking a significant step toward improving your driving skills, and have fun out there!