Autocrossing, also known as Solo (or if you say “eh” a lot, and live in Canada, you call it “Slalom”), is the least expensive way to compete in motorsports. It is considered the entry-level for learning car control skills, vehicle setup, and racing strategy. Even though it is an entry-level sport, it has regional and national championships, and some of the best drivers in racing got their start in autocross.
Using almost any street car, a helmet, and $40 — you have all you need to go autocrossing. With those three things, you will be racing. You probably won’t win your first event, but there are a few tools and tricks to help make you faster and more competitive at Solo. Let’s go over a few of them here to get you dialed in for speed.
The first thing is first; you need a helmet to compete in autocross. For the most part, this is really only an insurance thing. I have been autocrossing for more than 20 years, and I have never seen a situation where somebody needed a helmet at an autocross (which is a good thing). Autocrosses are extremely safe events: a single car drives around cones in a parking lot to record a time. The worst-case scenario is a traffic cone is killed. Regardless of the safe racing environment, because of the rules, you still need to have a helmet. Long story short, get a helmet.
Some clubs offer loaner helmets, but there is this thing called head lice, and I’m not a fan. You can score a reasonably priced helmet online. Most autocross sanctioning bodies, like the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), only require a Snell-rated motorcycle helmet (Snell M), which is less expensive than a full-blown, Snell SA-rated auto racing helmet. For more information on Snell helmet ratings, check out the article: Brain Buckets –What You Need To Know.
For autocrossing this season in a Ford Fiesta ST project car, I switched from my full-faced road racing helmet to an open-faced model from I/O Port Racing Supplies, which cost less than $200. The advantage in autocross to an open-faced-helmet design versus my full-faced road racing helmet is the open-faced helmet is 0.6-pounds lighter, provides a better view, and doesn’t fog up. Win, win, and win.
There are a few tools I recommend having at an autocross event to help you get through your day. I keep all of my dedicated autocross tools in a large plastic box. This makes it easy to get everything out of my car quickly at the event, and it also helps me keep things organized at home. When I’m heading to an autocross, as long as I grab my box, I know I have everything I need.
My box has my helmet in a protective helmet bag, a jack, jackstands (always use jackstands!), some Mechanix gloves, small tool kit (for random repairs), GoPro cameras, torque wrench, lugnut socket, rags, a California car duster (you can’t race a dirty car, duh!), and a tire gauge. The helmet, torque wrench, and tire gauge are the three most essential items. You can’t race without the helmet, the torque wrench keeps your wheels on, and the tire gauge helps ensure tire pressures are just right during runs.
When you get a little more serious about Solo competition, you quickly realize the people going fast are on autocross-specific racing tires. Tires make all of the difference in Solo. A lot of competitors will drive to the event on street tires and then swap out their tires for some sticky racing tires. The type of tire you can use depends on the class in which you are competing. For example, in the SCCA Street classes, the tires have to have a treadwear rating of 200 or above, like the Yokohama Advan A052.
On our Ford Fiesta ST project car, we are using the Yokohama Advan A052 and swap our tires at the event to save the soft rubber Yokos for race duty only. This keeps them away from daily driving abuse and being driven hundreds of miles to an autocross event so they will last longer.
To transport my race tires, or store my street tires, I use Tire Totes (big bags with handles that hold wheels and tires). These make it easy to put tires inside my interior without getting rubber scuff marks on the inside of my car. A set of four costs less than $50.
We have already established that tires are the essential thing to make you faster at an autocross (or any type of racing). To optimize your tires, running the correct tire pressure will ensure you get the most performance out of those sticky donuts. A good tire gauge is a must-have item for an autocrosser.
As tires get warm during spirited driving, your tire pressure will increase. Autocrossers will often lower their pressures between runs to ensure they have the optimal pressure in the tires for their next timed lap. To determine the correct pressure, you will need to examine the sidewall after a run (if the tire is rolling over too much, increase the pressure).
You can also use a tire pyrometer, which measures the heat in a tire at different locations to help determine correct tire pressures. For more detailed information on how a pyrometer can help you dial-in your tire pressures, check out the article: Just The Tip –How To Use A Tire Pyrometer To Go Faster.
Your tire pressure for racing will be different for street driving, so you may need to add or subtract air pressure when you get there. If you lower your pressure too much and need to add some at the event, it is handy to have an air tank available. These tanks can usually hold more than 100 pounds of pressure. The tank isn’t large enough to completely fill four tires, but it has enough capacity to make small five-pound adjustments on all four tires. Those tire pressures and tire temperatures will help you decide what sort of alignment settings you may want to change to go faster.
Universal Tool Kit
Thrashing around an autocross course is generally pretty easy on cars. Tires take a beating, but cars usually survive without too much damage or maintenance needed, especially compared to wheel-to-wheel, bump-and-grind road racing. Because cars aren’t too hammered in Solo, you don’t need a lot of tools with you at an event.
I keep an inexpensive, easy to store, general tool kit in my box for any random repairs that might come up during a race. In reality, other competitors usually use my tools more than I do. I’m happy to help them out — it is an easy way to make friends and meet like-minded car folks at events.
These autocross events are usually held in the middle of nowhere. You aren’t going to find flush toilets, food, gasoline, or even a place to sit down at an autocross. Don’t expect to see any amenities at an event, which means bring what you need to survive. I pack a simple folding chair to get off my feet, bottled water, sunscreen, hat, and a jacket.
Besides driving, you will also be working the course and shagging cones, which is where the sunscreen or jacket comes in handy. Since you probably won’t see a taco truck at the autocross, pack a small cooler with some food too.
Numbers and Class Designation
Timing and scoring need to keep things straight in the timing trailer (as in, which car is on course?), so good numbers and class designations on the side of each vehicle help everyone. Some people use painter’s tape to make numbers and class designations. I prefer using stickers or magnets, so the car looks more professional.
I use magnets with my number and class on them for regional events. For national events, I use stickers applied directly to the paint. With a little wax on your paint job, I have never seen any damage from either magnetic numbers or decals stuck on the paint. Magnets are a popular way to add or take away numbers quickly, so you aren’t driving on the street looking like a race car. Nobody needs that kind of attention.
You don’t have to possess a vinyl cutter or any fancy equipment to make good looking numbers. I have printed numbers using Microsoft Word on a piece of paper and then used those fonts as a template to trim number stickers from contact paper or sticker material. All I needed was a printer, some scotch tape, and a razor blade.
When creating stickers, ensure the color of your decals has a nice contrast to the color of your car. Design them so the sizing is correct for your sanctioning body. For SCCA Solo events, the numbers must be a minimum of 8-inches tall with a 1.25-inch-wide stroke. The class designation must be a minimum of 4-inches tall with a 0.75-inch-wide stroke.
Video equipment is not required in Solo, but it does help you become a better driver. If you are going to have a camera, it must be securely mounted within or on the car. A passenger is allowed to ride along at regional events, but a passenger riding along holding a camera is illegal — it is an instant disqualification for the run.
I use a small GoPro Session camera on a mount that attaches to my headrest. It provides an excellent view out of the windshield to see the course and of my driver inputs on the steering wheel and shifter.
One of the things I like about the headrest camera mount is I can reach back and turn the GoPro camera on and off, while still snugged down in my Schroth harness in the driver seat.
To really improve your driving, data acquisition is a great tool to help you become faster. I just upgraded the Fiesta to an AEM Electronics CD-5 digital dash with GPS and OBDII data logging. This little device packs a lot of power, including shift lights, segment timing, predictive lap timing, and track map creation. It will also overlay data onto video from the GoPro. We will be covering more on this neat little gadget later at TURNology.
Getting It All To The Track
Solo is an easy-to-do sport, and I can pack everything right into the back of the little Ford Fiesta ST. I show up to an event, pull out my big box of goodies, swap out my street tires for the sticky Yokohama A052s, mount my GoPro camera, slap on my magnet numbers, and I’m ready to set fast times and crush souls at any event I can drive to. The only thing holding me back from world domination are large bodies of water.
In the past, when I was driving a Bullitt Mustang in the SCCA FS class, I used a small utility trailer to get all of my gear from my house to a local event. I purchased an inexpensive trailer from Harbor Freight and bolted a truck bed box onto it. A few straps held down my race tires, and I was off to go racing.
Simplicity and low cost are just a couple of the reasons why autocross racing is so popular. It is also an excellent sport where you can push the limits of yourself and your car safely and legally. So, start assembling your autocross go-box, and I’ll see you at the next event!