How to Prepare for Your First Autocross

autocross lead2Autocross racing is one of the easiest, most cost effective ways for a car enthusiast to take their interest off of the streets. If you’ve got a driver’s license, a working vehicle, and some time to fill on a given weekend, you’re in. However, there’s a difference between the guys who show up ten minutes before the start of the event, and the seasoned veterans who approach this motorsport with the precise discipline of a standardized test.

Yes, many can participate, but it’s no coincidence that the ones who go fast aren’t just skilled behind the wheel, they also prepare for the task in a calculated fashion to maximize their chances of success. This guide, broken into two sections, will walk through some of the key steps in that process, helping you focus on being quick when you finally get your car to the starting line.

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Walking the course, one of the keys to success at an autocross

 1. Before Race Day

Prepare the car– You can’t go autocross racing without a trusty set of wheels, and don’t want to be the one stranded on the side of the course after leaking oil for half a lap. Regardless if it’s a Toyota Camry, or fully caged Corvette, all vehicles need to be in ship shape to play.

Take it to your local mechanic at the beginning of the season (typically just before spring) for a full tune up and inspection. All fluids need to be topped off or replaced, seat belts functional, and the brake lines need to have good pressure (a few pumps before starting the car should make the pedal firm). Oh, and as the folklore goes, half a tank means half a second saved – fuel up only as much as you’ll need for the day of the race.

Part of your preparation should also include figuring out what class your car competes in. The SCCA breaks Solo competition into a few basic categories to keep things fair. Got a daily driver with decent summer tires? Street, or Street Touring class. Full coilover suspension, or bolt-on turbo kit? Street Prepared, or Street Modified. Fully prepped race car, passenger seat optional? Modified, or Prepared. Within each of those lie single letter categories (A-Street, B-Street, etc.) to further delineate similar vehicles/vintages.

There will be amateurs and pros alike no matter what class you are in, so start with the natural area for the car you already have, and tailer future mods accordingly to move up or down the ladder. If you need more info about classes, or want to know which modifications are allowed for a class, check the official SCCA rulebook for detail. It’s available online at www.scca.com.

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Tools, helmet, water, and a lunch. Some of the basic essentials for race day

Pack some bags – Think of this like an international flight, and get packed early to save yourself from the morning rush. It will make leaving the house easier, and there is less chance of forgetting something.

Start with the essentials for a full day outside: a cooler with lots of water (at least 1 gallon), a packed lunch, sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat, rain coat (just in case), comfortable shoes, and maybe even a folding chair.

Then the racing gear: your helmet (2000 or newer rating, check SCCA rulebook for detail), driving gloves, a separate pair of driving shoes, and a GoPro or other action cam. Finally, anything to help with car setup, such as: a tire pressure gauge, basic tool set, torque wrench, detailing spray/towels, a jack and jack stands if you plan to change wheels/tires or get underneath the car. What about an air tank/pump? While potentially handy, this is often more cumbersome than it is worth. Set the tires about two psi higher than recommended, and use the tire gauge to let a little out if needed late in the day. The less you think about your tires, and the more you concentrate on driving, the faster you’ll be. Set them, and forget them.

Research/pre-register – Each SCCA autocross event is a little different, and run by a different local chapter. Most clubs will post a wealth of useful information online, or have social media sites to take Q&A directly. Look for info like: How much will the event cost? Do they take cash, credit, or allow for online pre-registration? Will helmets be available to borrow if you don’t own one? Are other spectators/family allowed? What time does the event start, and where? Is a draft of the course map available to view? Find the answer for all of these questions, and then seek out other ways to study, like viewing a satellite image of the site, checking the weather forecast, and printing the route from your home to the autocross.

Get some rest – Race day should be a fun, adrenaline-filled event. It will also be a long day, so make the best effort to be well rested by going to bed early the night before. Lay out clothes that you plan to wear, and set a couple of alarms to avoid over sleeping. Hitting the Gran Turismo, or watching a few Nurburgring record runs can be a good way to get excited, just don’t let it keep you up into the wee hours.

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Subaru BRZ holding the line through a right hander

2. Race Day

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A clean trunk of a Nissan 240SX – no spare tire means less weight on course

The normal routine – How do you prepare for a day at school, or the office to ace your next oral presentation? A track day is no different: wake up on time (with time to spare), shower, shave, eat breakfast like a normal human being. A relaxed, alert driver is much more likely to turn a quick lap than one who fell out of bed, splashed water on their face, and ran out the door. Weekends are often the time when we fall pray to laziness, but don’t get sucked into that trap if you’re going racing.

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The calm before the storm: waiting at the start line for an adrenaline filled run

Arrive early – Checking the distance, and travel time to the event should be paying off right about now. For most SCCA events, early is around 7am, so do the math. There is a lot that has to happen from the time of arrival, until the time that cars roll off for times through the cones. Some of these activities can be compressed, but none should be unduly rushed, so getting to the venue with a buffer will pay off.

SCCA racing is one of the easiest ways to go fast, for not much money

Final car prep – For safety, vehicles will be given a quick but thorough inspection by an event official to ensure they are race worthy. Your car should already be 95% of the way there, but a few last minute actions will finish the job.

First, empty out everything that isn’t bolted down: the floor mats, spare tire, jack and tool set, cargo mats, garage door openers, CD cases (does anybody still have those?), etc. It’s all dead weight that will slow things down, or could get unexpectedly thrown from the car during a run. Some of this stuff can be left at home to save time (or a water damage from an unexpected shower), so evaluate your options/garage space as part of step one above.

Next, attach the race numbers and car class that you’ll be competing with. Paper ones with painter’s tape are crude, and can be ripped off by the wind later. After you have your number assignment, investing in a set of magnetic or vinyl decals will make the whole process much smoother, and should last at least a full season. Finally, give the windshield a quick clean, torque down those lug nuts, and head over to the official for the car to pass inspection with flying colors.

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DSP Miata on a charge as the shadows get longer late in the day

Complete registration – Find the officials, and pay the entry fee for the event. Register the car number and class that you’ll use for the day, and be sure to sign the safety waiver. Most require that you wear a wristband, or other identifier to show that you’ve consented to the possible danger of a motorsports venue. With that out of the way, it’s time to focus on the true opponent of the day.

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High horsepower sometimes means a little sliding, as this Camaro lets the tail hang out

TRSCCA-AutoX-MCR-2014Sep21_078Walk the course – This activity is the single most vital part of driving at an autocross. Entire volumes could be written on the pros, cons, dos, and don’ts of course walks. For now, stick with the simple stuff: walk the line that you intend to drive, and memorize it.

After the first time through, you should have a pretty good picture of what it will look like in your head, i.e. “Line up to the right at the start line, three cone slalom, sweeping right hander, hard accel straight…”

With that in mind, walk it again, and do so alongside someone else. Talk through the key areas together, and make sure not to miss a feature. The worst thing would be getting lost on the first lap with a DNF – there are only a handful of tries at an autocross, so make all of them count.

After walking it at least two times, consider a third, especially if the officials are doing a novice tour. That is a special instance where a veteran racer will talk about each aspect of the course to help newcomers learn the basics, but even you’ll often pick up a tip by following their lead.

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How not to attach car numbers – invest in magnetic or reusable vinyl decals instead

Go kick some ass! – There will be a mandatory driver’s meeting to call out class groupings, but the ground work for you has been laid. Get a bathroom break in, lather up the sunscreen, strap on your action camera, and take no prisoners! As a bonus, here are a few quick tips for the morning laps: look ahead to anticipate each turn (remembering your walkthrough), and know that your tires will be cold at first, so don’t worry if the car is sliding more than you expected.

Make your inputs precise by leaning into the gas or brake, not using the pedal as an on/off switch. Pace your steering so each turn flows into the next, rather than sawing back and forth at the wheel.

If you’re a beginner, leave stability/traction control active for an initial pass or two, then disable it to see what the car is really like without Big Brother’s intervention (read: smoother, but with the risk of a spin). As the day goes on, hit your marks, get closer to each cone, and overcome your rational street-driving fears. The adrenaline rush will last long after you cross the finish line.

By doing a lot in the day or days leading up to an autocross event, you will have freed yourself from the stress of checking the oil, buy water bottles, or a dozen other things on race day. A free mind is one that can focus, and be fast.

Take this game plan as the first step towards building your own habits – they will vary slightly for everyone’s unique car and situation. Stick to it, and you’ll enjoy racing like it was a part of your DNA.

 

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