1. I want
to autocross, but I am a little intimidated. Where are they and is there
any way for a novice to feel at ease?
There's no reason to be scared of autocrossing;
it's generally a bunch of friendly people doing what they love to do, and
for the most part they'll be very friendly and helpful. If you want an
introduction, the best thing to do is just go and observe an autocross.
See the current MWCSCC Autocross Schedule
for dates and locations. One way to become more comfortable with autocrossing
is to ride along with an experienced autocrosser. In the past, such runs
were treated as "fun runs" and could not be counted towards championship
points, which tended to discourage people who were running for points from
giving rides. That rule has changed however (at least for MWCSCC events)
and most folks should be willing to give you a ride.
Here's the basic flow of an autocross event:
The day is divided into 4 or 5 "heats",
each heat is a group of 30 or so cars. Each heat has an advertised starting
time. Be aware that you'll need some time to get ready (say 1/2 hour to
change tires etc.; less if you're on street tires) and more time to learn
and walk the course. The course is usually open for walk throughs for ~15-30
minutes before each heat begins. Walk the course as many times as you can!!
You should not need to think about where to go next when you're driving.
This is harder than it sounds. The more times you walk it, the better off
you'll be. Follow some people the first few times to make sure you're going
the right way. (If you learn it wrong, you'll be in trouble later :-) Memorizing
the course can be the hardest part for some people, especially novices.
You can walk the course during any walk-through; if you're driving in the
3rd heat but you arrive during the middle of the 1st heat, plan to walk
both after the 1st AND after the 2nd heat.
The MWCSCC uses a split-heat approach to
ensure that we have enough people to work the course throughout the day.
This means that if you are running in the first half of your heat, you
will be asked to work the second half of that same heat. If you are running
the second half, you will be working the first half. Take this into account
when you preregister (usually numbers 1-18 or so run the first half, the
rest run the second half). Working the first half of a heat has the advantage
of letting you watch other people run up close before you have to take
the course, while driving the first half gives you the opportunity to run
while the memories of your course walk-throughs are freshest in your mind.
If you haven't worked before, just be sure to mention it when they are
handing out assignements (at the drivers' meeting just before your heat)
and they should assign you with someone more experienced to show you the
There are five "areas" to be aware of:
Paddock: parking area; place to change tires,
empty out your car, etc.
Tech: tech inspection; usually near paddock;
where cars are inspected
Registration: tent or tables where you pay
and get your tech sheet.
Grid: the cars entered in the current heat
sit on grid and wait for their turns to run.
Course: the track itself, usually well-marked
with flags, cones, tape, etc.
Note that you must have signed the
waiver in registration (and be wearing a wrist band, if used) to be on
grid or on the course, even as a worker. These are considered "hot" areas.
Ahead of time:
- Pre-registration: sign up to reserve
your spot. You can do this through the MWCSCC Autocross web page at http://mwcscc-ax.org.
Pre-registration usually opens three weeks before the event at 8 pm. You
provide your name and the heat you want to run in. Pre-registration fills
up quickly, so you may want to set your alarm! If the event is filled up
when you do go to pre-register, sign up for the waiting list for the heat
you want to run in. If you are lucky, someone will drop out before the
event and you will get their spot. If you end up on the waiting list, but
don't get notified that a spot has opened up for you, don't give up. If
you show up the day of the event and sign up for the waiting list there
(at registration), there is an excellent chance you will get in. If you're
a beginner, you may want to avoid signing up for the first heat (though
it is usually the easiest one to get in), as you won't have time to take
everything in before you're put to the test.
The day of the autocross:
(This is not gospel; your preferred order
Pack: sunscreen, sunglasses, money for entry
fee, water/drinks(no alcohol!), snacks, tools, air tank (if you have one),
helmet (if you have one), racing tires (if you have them), tire pressure
gauge! You may also want to pack a pencil and paper for writing down times,
tire pressures, course notes, etc. A lawn chair can come in handy too,
as can work gloves.
Arrive early. The more novice you are, the
more time you'll want to acclimate and learn the course. Park in the paddock
area. You'll see cars up on jacks, stacks of tires, toolboxes, etc. Find
an empty spot not already marked out with tires and tools.
Go to registration (look for a tent or tables),
pay the entry fee, sign the waiver, get your tech sheet and wrist band
if they're using them.
Find the posted course map and go over it.
Try to break it down into sections and shapes. If you're early enough,
watch some cars drive the course. The idea is just to get your brain familiar
with it at this point; don't panic about memorizing it yet.
Change tires (if you have racing tires) OR
pump up your street tires. Street tires typically work best for autocrossing
with 45-50 psi of air. Remove any wheel trim pieces that might pop off
(i.e. center caps). Check all lugnuts for tightness.
Empty your car of EVERYTHING loose. (Helps
if you do most of this before you arrive.) You want nothing getting under
your feet or pedals. Remove your driver's side floor mat. Optional: remove
the spare tire and jack. (If you're a novice, you won't know the difference,
so don't bother.) Empty your trunk. If you have a removable top, you may
want to take it off, but there are usually trade-offs involved with this
(less weight vs. more chassis flex, more fresh air vs. too much sun or
rain, etc.). It's safe to leave this stuff on the ground in the paddock
Double-check under the hood: nothing leaking,
oil level is full, coolant okay, PS fluid okay, brake fluid okay, battery
is tightly secured. (Good to check these before leaving home too).
Put in the car: tire pressure gauge, helmet,
air tank, water/drinks/snacks.
Drive slowly to Tech. It's usually in the
paddock area marked with cones and/or a sign. You may see some cars lined
up. Give them the tech sheet that registration gave you. Pop the hood for
them, they'll have you blip the throttle. Pop the trunk, they'll check
for loose items. After inspecting your car and helmet, they'll put your
car number on with white shoe polish, and then have you do a hands-off
brake test (drive off up to 10-15 mph, put both hands in the air, then
stop briskly). If all goes okay, they'll wave you off. Now go park in your
Go watch other cars for a while. Try to watch
the smooth but fast cars; see where they're hitting the brakes and shifting.
Try to watch their lines through the gates. Watch what areas are giving
other people problems.
When the heat before yours is over, bring
your car to the grid area and park in your designated grid spot. (They're
numbered.) Remove air tank, gauge, etc. from the car and put them where
nobody will run over them.
Walk the course again...several times if possible.
You should now know it well enough that you can close your eyes and see
yourself going through the entire course. You should be able to picture
each gate. Some people try to draw the course from memory to be sure they
have it. While you're out walking the course, LOOK AHEAD. At the entrance
to a corner, you should already be looking at the exit or beyond. Walk
the course in the line you want to drive; think about your positioning
in each gate while you're walking, because you won't have time to think
about anything while you're driving.
The announcer will clear the course. Go back,
check your tire pressures one more time, have a seat in your car, close
your eyes, relax, breathe, and drive through the course in your head a
few times. A grid worker will tell you when to go line up at the starting
line. You should be strapped in and essentially ready when they get to
you. (Some people wait and put their helmet on while in the staging line;
just don't forget!)
Stay in order as you approach the starting
line, and leave room for cars exiting the course to return to their grid
When it's your turn to pull up to the starting
line, the starter will bring you up to the line. You now have a few seconds
to collect yourself and take a deep breath. Tighten your seatbelt as tight
as you can. Tighten your helmet. Turn off the radio, A/C, fan, and whatever
else might be on.
Driving the course:
This is not a drag strip; your reaction time
is not counted. When the starter says go, take your time and get a controlled
launch. The timer is about 10-15 feet from the start line, so don't worry
if you bog down a little or get some wheel spin. A good launch will help
your time, but it's not worth losing sleep over.
LOOK AHEAD. This can't be emphasized enough.
Look where you want to go, and your body will direct the car to get you
there. If you are not looking far enough ahead you will get lost and/or
over-drive corners. You have to be looking beyond the next gate.
Be aware that if you see a red flag waving
in your peripheral vision, you are being instructed to stop IMMEDIATELY,
right where you are. You will generally get a rerun if this happens, unless
it was due to something that was your fault.
If you get lost and you don't know where you
are, slow down and get your bearings and try to get back on course. If
you can't, then drive slowly to the finish line. You must cross the finish
line to stop the timer. Be aware that another car may be on course already!
Watch out for course workers; once you're off course they won't know where
you're going next.
If you get lost or go off course but know
where you are, get back on course and keep going! You paid for your runs,
so use them -- don't throw away the rest of your run; learn what you can
from it so you can do better on the next one.
When you cross the finish line you MUST stop
INSIDE of the stop garage (rectangular area at the end of the course, lined
with cones on three sides). Killing any cones here will give you a DNF.
A courseworker will move a cone aside after you've come to a complete stop,
at which point you should proceed promptly but slowly back to your grid
position. Listen for the announcer to announce your time, or look at the
timing display if there is one, and note it so you can compare it to the
next run. (Note: some courses do not require you to come to a complete
stop at the finish; you can just slow down and head back to your grid spot.)
If you are running in the first half of your
heat, park your car in your grid spot after your last run and leave it
there until after the whole heat is over (i.e., until you are finished
working). Then pick up anything you left at your grid spot (air tank, water,
etc.) and move your car back to the paddock to get out of the way of the
next heat. If you are running in the second half of the heat, you should
pick up your stuff and drive back to the paddock as soon as you complete
your last run.
Most of the time you get three runs (sometimes
you get four, but this is rare.) On your first run, focus on staying on
course and don't worry about your speed too much (experienced autocrossers
will try to maximize all three runs, but the ability to do that comes only
with time). Note places where you are braking too early or not going fast
enough (or too fast!), so you can correct them. Your second run should
be full speed, hopefully with no cones. If your second run is clean (i.e.,
you didn't hit any cones), you can take more risks on your third run to
try to get a little more speed; otherwise, just try to get a fast but clean
run. (Hitting a cone is a 2 second penalty.)
As you can see, autocrossers have a
lot of little rituals that they go through. It helps them keep from making
mistakes. But beginners WILL make mistakes and should not expect to be
instantly competetive. However, starting your own little rituals early
will probably speed that up. (That can take anywhere from months to years
depending on the person.)
Words for the novice to live by:
"Beginners tend to drive too fast in the slow
parts and too slow in the fast parts."
"Slow down to go faster."
"In like a lamb and out like a lion."