Want to know the single greatest way to become a better driver? Want to find the cheapest way to go racing? The answer to both of those questions is the same. Go to an autocross event!
Stripped down, autocross is a race against the clock on a closed course. Rather than competing with other drivers at the same time (NASCAR, F1, etc), autocross sends you through one at a time, letting the completion time set the ranking. The courses are set up in a closed airfield or large parking lot, and orange traffic cones mark the corners. Even if you are totally inexperienced and broke, you can go auto crossing with essentially zero chance of damaging your vehicle, for as little as $20.
To get started, you will need a few items, and to know just a couple of things. First, you will obviously need a car. This can be your current daily driver. Everything from new supercars to old economy hatchbacks can show up at an event and be competitive. Cars are separated by classes, based on
Prepare your car by making sure all the fluids are topped up, and check the air pressure in the tires. Go over the engine bay, and look underneath, checking for anything loose or out of the ordinary. Just like the pros have their mechanics and crew go over the racecar, go over your daily beater, and make sure it’s good to go, safe for street use. This includes cleaning out all the loose junk, including the floor mats.
Next, do some reading. Autocross competition is broken up into classes to keep it fair. The classes are based on vehicle segment, weight, and power, and only vehicles in the same category and class compete against each other. Meaning, you will never be in a class where you can’t be the fastest car. As awesome as that sounds, it is your job to know what class your vehicle is in. If you have a regular production car, you’ll be in the Street category. Depending on mods, you can move up to the Modified, or Prepared categories. Then you have to know what class you are in, and this can vary even by the trim level of the car. For example, a 2004 Mustang Cobra is in FS, a 2010 Shelby GT500 is BS, and an old Fox body with an inline four is down in HS with the Escort and Aspire. Ouch.
At the event
On the day of the event, show up early, and be there when registration opens. This is usually around 7:00 am. You will have to complete a couple of forms and pay to participate. The forms are mainly for insurance purposes, and the fees keep this thing going, so sign and pay. It’s cheaper for members, but you can get a non-member all-day pass for about $35.
If you have a helmet, bring it. It should meet the current Snell rating. If you don’t have one, you can get one from a local motorcycle shop, or the online selection is vast. Plus you won’t look like a pretend biker. If you don’t want to buy a helmet, you will have to use the loaners available at the check in tent/booth/trailer. They are free for the day, but there is a limited supply, and they are sometimes heavily used.
Last item for prep is to put some numbers on your ride. There are plenty of cheap magnetic numbers just for this purpose on eBay, or you can go even cheaper and use blue painters tape to make your numbers visible. Well, unless your car is blue….
Then it’s time for tech inspection. An area will be clearly marked for you to pull in, where the officials will take a look at your car for a few minutes. They are making sure you did your prep work, and your vehicle is cleaned out and in good working order. Tires and brakes should be in good shape, and everything tight under the hood. Visually, they don’t care what it looks like, and peeling paint, Bondo, and rust have all hit the course just fine. One cheap item that can help pass inspection is a battery terminal cover, about $5.
Walk the course
Next is the course walk. This is required for newbies, and it’s just a good idea for everyone. Instructors will walk the entire course, pointing out specific things you should be watching for or doing at each section. This is invaluable to your runs, as every run counts and you don’t want to waste the first couple laps on practice runs. If you still aren’t sure, ask to ride along with a more experienced driver, or ask an instructor to ride with you and offer advice.
Once the course walk is complete, there is a driver’s meeting. This is mandatory for everyone. Here, you will find out when you run, and where you work. When not running laps, the course needs workers to reset knocked over cones. It’s a fairly straightforward job, but it must be done quickly and you have to pay attention.
Race your ride
If you are in the first heat, head to your car. You will see officials directing traffic. Follow their instructions and make your way to the only entrance/exit on the course. Depending on the size of the course you may have to wait until the other drivers have completely cleared the course. Longer courses allow multiple vehicles on the track simultaneously. When it is your turn, pull up to the starting official and stop. They will tell you when the timing equipment is reset and you can go.
Launch as quickly as you can. There may be curves immediately after the start, but attack them. Every second counts. Your first time out, your goal should just be to cross the finish line. Every time after that, attempt to beat your time. Push your car a little harder, brake a little later, or try following a different line.
One major point is to not hit the cones. Knocking one over might seem harmless, but it adds a two second penalty to your time. The challenge of autocross is in managing your enthusiasm and aggressive driving against the precision of not hitting any cones.
Once you have finished the course and come to a complete stop, you can usually see your lap time displayed near the timing trailer. Remember it and attempt to go faster next time! After you are back in the waiting area (paddock), take a quick look and make sure your vehicle survived all that fun and lunacy with minimal wear. Then, when your turn comes up, get ready for another round.
Now, some additional things to keep in mind. Everyone loves cameras and selfies these days, but any recording equipment in the car must be secured. Running a GoPro is great, but crank the thing down so it doesn’t go flying during a hard corner. Also, the weather does vary greatly during an all-day event. The pictures in this post were taken between 8:00 and 10:30 am, and the temperature rose 20 degrees during that time. Plan accordingly. Dress for the weather and bring lots of water.
Cone crushing is an enjoyable hobby, and it will make you a better driver. You will learn how your vehicle handles at the limit, how different weather conditions change the road surface, and how to respond in short-notice emergency situations. All that, for just a few bucks. While drag racing is slightly cheaper, odds are you get only three or four runs on your beater for the night. If you run 15-second quarter-mile times, that’s one minute of racing. For pretty much the same price, autocross can let you experience lap times over a minute each time, with multiple passes each day. It’s by far the cheapest and fastest way to build seat time in a racing environment.