AutoMatters: Autocrossing 101 – An Introduction
By Jan R. Wagner
For many of us, myself included, driving is much more than just a chore that we need to do to get from Point A to Point B. For us, pushing our cars to their (and our) limits is great fun and an end in itself, but other than on a racetrack, where can we legally do that?
Consider autocrossing. If you’ve ever seen people driving their cars aggressively around traffic cones in a large parking lot, one car at a time, then you have seen autocrossing.
In San Diego, we hold our Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) autocrosses in the parking lots of Qualcomm Stadium. Every few weeks we gather to compete against each other – not for money, but for the fun of driving our cars around temporary road courses. In addition to the fun factor, autocrossing can help us to avoid accidents on the street by fine-tuning our skills and teaching us the limits of our car control.
Occasionally autocrossers move up to professional forms of motorsports but that is rare. A more likely progression is to compete in the SCCA’s national autocross championship, where the competition is intense.
So, how does one learn to autocross? I faced that question this past weekend, as I tried to help someone who had come out to watch our autocrosses a few times. He wanted to try it himself.
Autocrossers put themselves and their autocrossing skills out there for all to see. That can be intimidating, especially for novices.
Autocrossing is a learned skill that requires practice. Whereas public roads make it quite clear where we are supposed to drive and how quickly, autocross courses are temporary road circuits marked by traffic cones (pylons) in parking lots or other large, paved areas. The basic objective is to drive through these courses as quickly as possible without knocking any pylons over or out of their marked boxes. To do that, competitors need to be able to remember each new course, and figure out where and how much to use the steering, throttle and brakes. To make things even more challenging, SCCA autocrossers do not get to drive on the courses until their official, timed runs begin. That means there are no familiarization laps.
In a sport where competitors’ times might be separated by only thousandths of a second, driving at the optimal maximum speed everywhere is critical, all the while being vigilant and ready to respond to flag signals that might come unexpectedly from the volunteer course workers.
In San Diego we provide instruction for novices. Their driving skills alone will not be enough to make them successful autocrossers. They will need to listen, observe and learn.
Here are some basic recommendations. Autocrossers should try to arrive two hours before runs begin. That should give them plenty of time to register, make final preparations to their cars, present them for technical inspection and walk the course several times. Cars are put in classes, which run in one of five run groups over the course of an event.
Pylons are used to delineate the courses. The rules require driving between the gates and alternating from one side to the other between the solitary pylons of slaloms. Sometimes a directional pylon (lying down beside the first upright pylon of a slalom) will dictate the side to pass by the first slalom pylon. Other times, the side to pass by that first slalom pylon will be up to each driver. Failure to follow any part of the prescribed course will result in a DNF (Did Not Finish), disqualifying that run. Struck pylons incur a time penalty per pylon.
There will typically be two course walking periods: one before the first run group begins and the second during the lunch break. Novice course walks are conducted, where an experienced autocrosser will answer questions and explain what to do, where and why.
Driving courses at speed is more difficult than walking them. When taking runs, always try to look at least one turn ahead so that you can properly position your car to take that turn, and also to reduce your chances of getting lost on course. A sea of cones can confuse even the most experienced autocrossers if they do not look ahead. Use your peripheral vision to get you around the pylons where your car is.
That’s it for now. As always, please write to me at AutoMatters@gmail.com with your comments and suggestions.
Copyright © 2013 by Jan Wagner – #294 AutoMatters
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