Auto-X-ing The MotorMassive Show

AutoClub Speedway hosted the sixth installment of the MotorMassive show to numerous categories and lots and lots of cars and people. The large car-culture gathering was once called 86Fest — a tribute to Toyota’s Corollas and the newer-styled, boxer engined FR–S and BRZ — but promoters decided to open it up to the larger culture. The event included Global Time Attack, a vendor midway, autocross, track drives and much much more as this particular happening has grown into a monster.

For this particular occasion, I was invited by promoter Antonio Alvendia to participate in the annual MotorMassive Autocross, presented by Motorsport Fluids. For those who are not aware, autocross is a timed competition in which drivers race one at a time through a course set up to place demands on car handling and driver skill rather than on engine power and outright speed — which emphasizes lower speeds and safer competition. This can take place on a race course or in a parking lot. As more of an entry-level type of competition, it gives exposure to drivers who might be interested in more competitive forms of racing. While a few competitors trailer the cars to the track for an autocross, it is far more common for the event to be a “run what you brung” kind of deal. Most of the competitors bring out their dailies and “weekend-fun, garage-queen” cars.

While lately I have been focusing heavily on track drives and road race weekends, I thought it might be fun to work on my chops in another form of racing competition. It had been a very long time since I had done an autocross. While I never really liked auto crossing, per se, preferring wheel to wheel competition, this offer seemed a good way to blow off some steam and test out some mods I had done to my daily driver. Needless to say, just like every time I get in a car and turn a wheel in anger, it proves an education.

Many years ago, in the mid-1990s, with my 1993 Pontiac Firebird, a much less nimble car, I participated in several Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) “Solo 2” events with the Chicago Region. I was never particularly happy with the way the Firebird ran, as it was a hulking, ill-handling, high powered brick. On the street, the fire-engine red muscle/sports car looked racy and went fast — but trying to throw the 4,000 pound monster around cones in a tight maneuverable circle was almost an act of futility — as the Mustangs were always quicker — and my lack of experience back then really showed through. It should be noted, I also left the Firebird completely stock, never adding any handling or go-fast parts to the car.

For the MotorMassive weekend, I was tossed up on which of my weapons to bring out. My Porsche 986 Boxster was sitting in the garage, as part of a build I have been doing (more on that in another story). Then there was my daily: a FIAT 500 POP. I felt the FIAT was the more “ready” car with the short notice of invitation and opted to enter the little momentum car to see how it would do on a tight autocross circuit. The FIAT has been tracked a couple times and has held its’ own fairly well at Buttonwillow, Willow Springs and Inde Motorsports Ranch.

My FIAT 500, which was bought new a few years ago in the interest of building it up from a base model never has gotten as far as I originally wanted to take it. Unfortunately, FIAT/Chrysler really never put much factory aftermarket support to the 500 — I should have just bought an Abarth and been done with it! However, a few years ago, I did meet 500 tuner Robert Tallini of RoadRace Motorsports in Santa Fe Springs, CA, who hooked me up with their own branded timing advance chip and cold-air induction — adding about 15 horsepower to the muscle-y 99 that it had stock. I also equipped the car with Eibach Sportline lowering springs.

Considering the minor horsepower gains, it actually was making just under the same power as the Spec Miata race car I drove in the Mazda Heritage Cup a few moths ago at Auto Club Speedway on the “roval.” However though, one needs to consider the handling characteristics are completely different. The center of gravity is very high and the weight distribution is about 63/37. The Eibach Springs, I installed, have reduced a great deal of the body roll — particularly in the rear where only 37-percent of the weight reacts. But also, the car is front-wheel drive, which also changes the physics quite a bit for being “racy.” I have always treated track days in the 500 similar to using weighted bats in the on-deck circle for baseball players. The physics are a bit exaggerated, so when you get into a well mannered race or street car, everything comes together, and reaction times are far better.

Sunday morning of the event arrives and I pack up the car and head for Fontana. Packing for this type of competition is relatively easy, as the car should be ready to go before it leaves the garage. Some however may change to DOT slicks once at the track, but I opted to run on my street tires. Generally, I bring my small tool box with an assortment of screwdrivers, sockets and wrenches that might be needed in the event of something coming loose; my smaller floor jack, which actually came in handy for a competitor who blew a tire; a cooler with sandwiches and water; a portable air tank, filled up from my compressor, an air gauge; my EZ-Up shelter, as it was over 100 degrees in Fontana, it was good to have shade; my RaceQuip helmet, my Stand 21 gloves and my Sparco racing boots — no fire suit needed this time as I got to run in shorts and a t-shirt. I like to do any type of motorsports using the gloves and boots, particularly because they feel familiar when I drive.

I got to the Speedway by the appointed time, signed in and set up camp. It gave me an opportunity to meet some of my neighbors in the paddock. Like any motorsports event, its good to get to know the people around you. 1) You never know when you might need help with something. 2) The natural camaraderie of racers is good for the soul. 3) You may need to offer help to a fellow — which I did in the form of tools and a jack to help a blown-tire situation. 4) You can compare notes on the strategy for driving the circuit. 5) You are not viewed as a self-centered douche-bag and alienate yourself from what otherwise is a low pressure good time and potential friends.

While I waited for the morning drivers meeting, I lowered the pressure in my tires, opting to run at about 27 pounds for increased handing. Then I checked my lug nuts, making sure they were all torqued. I also took a look at the dipstick for the oil level and decided to add about a half quart. A good idea for any type of track event is to have a checklist. MotorMassive was smart to include one on their website. Even the most seasoned pros can forget a detail — and sadly hindsight is 20-20 after a DNF. Meeting time came and we all gathered to be oriented to the area the track and the rules for the day. The Autocross was managed by a professional group called JayCom Services, who manage numerous competitions like this each year. The staff is excellent and provided live scoring on their website. This allowed competitors to check their runs in real time, to see if they improved and where they stacked up with everyone else.

After a track walk, to assess the attack on the course, it was time to suit up and start throwing the car through the cones. The course itself seemed to favor more horsepower — after all the bulk of cars that were expected for MotorMassive were 175 horsepower Toyota/Scion FR-S. The start and finish were set up with electronic timing beams. The first section was a long carousel-like triple apex left hander which flowed to a drifting right-hander, through a three cone left-right-left slalom. From there the course had another long multi-apex right-hander leading to three switchback chicanes to the finish line. Essentially a good forty-to-forty-five second lap. My first time through the course was relatively slow. There would be plenty of opportunities to lap the track, so just like anywhere, it is good to start slow and orient yourself and the car to the course.

Despite being a learning lap, I was pretty surprised to hit a 45.169 right off the bat. I was also surprised that, despite the course being pretty much a Second gear/torque type course, I never touched the brake pedal. Not even a quick-tap. The entire lap was feathering and flooring the throttle. Looking back, I think there were a couple places I should have tapped the brakes as the car was fiercely under-steering in the tighter corners and not getting great grip.

I would get back in line and continue to improve throughout the day, but then hit a plateau. My best time of the day was a 42.862, which was about good for mid-pack as the top eight all were under 40 seconds. The winner in our “Street 4” class was Aaron Villasenor in a 2015 Scion FRS with a best time of 37.270. Looking at the entry list and the layout of the track, which seemed to favor slightly more powerful cars, I think that is all I was going to do. However, as mentioned previously, there may have been a couple of corners that a quick tap of the brakes might have pivoted the car a little better versus the bad understeer, which shaved precious speed and momentum. Again, just like every time I drive any car in anger, I learn something.

The MotorMassive show was considered a success by the promoters. Indeed there was a pretty big crowd watching both the autocross and the Global Time Attack cars on track. To some extent it was really fun to be part of the show, which on a larger scale, had all the elements of what the modern car show needs moving into the future: awesome cars, pretty girls, technically minded builders, vested vendors and a digitally connected audience. As I broke down my site, filled the tires back up to highway pressures from the portable air tank, and headed down the road, I was smiling from ear to ear. It was good to be part of the future of the car-culture.

About the author

Tom Stahler

At eight months of age, Tom Stahler sat in a baby stroller in Thunder Valley and watched Chuck Parsons and Skip Scott win the 1968 Road America 500. He has had the car bug ever since. He has won several awards, including the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Award and the International Motor Press Association's Gold Medal for his writing and photography. When not chasing the next story, Tom drives in vintage road racing events and spends time with his wife and three daughters in Orange County, California.
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