So you’ve heard a little about this “autocross thing” and you’re interested in giving it a try. Not long ago I was in the same spot. In many ways, I still am. I first autocrossed two years ago, then took a long hiatus while I finished building my 66 Mustang. I picked up the sport again earlier this summer after bolting on a bunch of suspension goodies from MMI. This article will attempt to outline everything I wish I had known before my first event. There’s no welcoming committee at these things, and people tend to be busy with whatever they have going on. Hopefully this will serve as a guide to help make your first autocross an enjoyable experience!
For whatever reason there isn’t a whole lot of information online about how an autocross works, especially for people completely new to racing. Everything I found was along the lines of “show up and have fun!” which is great advice for people who have done it before. Like my intro to piano class in college, it’s only helpful if you already know an instrument. Reddit forums, SCCA posts, etc. are all geared toward going faster, but what about the people who just want to go and try racing for the first time?
When Mike asked if I wanted to write an article on my experience as an autocross first-timer, I thought it was a good idea. So let’s start with the basics.
What is Autocross?
Autocross, or “parking lot racing” as my brother likes to call it, is a low-cost, low-struggle, low-risk way to get out and drive your car fast. Typically set up in a parking lot, airport, track, or any place with a wide open piece of tarmac, the “race track” is an improvised course marked with small traffic cones. Cars run one at a time in an effort to score the best time through the course. Hitting cones results in penalty time added to your run, usually a second or two. Most runs are anywhere from 40-100 seconds long.
Those are important details for those of us with either:
- Expensive cars that we don’t want to break or
- Only one car that we need to get to work in the morning (and also don’t want to break)
These details are what make autocrossing so approachable for racing newbies. The track is a giant piece of tarmac. Generally speaking, if you lose control or get a little too enthusiastic through a corner there’s nothing to hit. This is by design. Sure, you may wipe out a few cones, but rarely do they leave lasting damage on a car’s finish. With a little blue masking tape, even that damage is preventable.
The other important element is course design. It changes with every event and course designers try to keep the max speeds under 80 mph. This helps limit the size of wipeout someone might have and minimizes the stress put on the car. Thanks to a shorter track, lower overall speed, and fewer laps, your car needs fewer consumables than a comparable track day car. That translates to fewer brake pads, rotors, tires, gas, etc., which means you don’t need a fortune to take your Mustang out for a weekend of fun.
What Do You Need to Autocross?
To start autocrossing you need a car… and that’s about it. What type of car you ask? Nearly anything. Mustang, Lamborghini, your mom’s Corolla, basically anything that doesn’t have a high center of gravity like a truck or SUV.
There’s a common misconception that you need a “fast” car to go autocrossing. While you will see your fair share of fast cars, you’ll also see stock Hyundais, Saab wagons, Civics, Go-karts, and yes, even the occasional 90s Corolla. Many racers will tell you it’s better to start with a slower car, as it gives you the chance to develop good habits at slower speeds.
I know what you’re thinking: I’ll never win anything in my Mom’s Corolla. Wrong again! Thanks to the classing system the SCCA uses to organize the cars, you’ll only have to race against other similarly equipped, 90s beige cars with 6-CD changers. The fast guys will race the fast guys and the slow guys race the slow guys, which means you get to be competitive no matter what you’re driving. As a novice, you’ll also be added to a special “novice only” class to see how you stack up against the other newbies.
Besides the car, there are a couple other things you’ll want to bring with you to ensure a good time:
- An approved helmet – Check with your region on the specific rating your helmet should have. Usually they have a couple to borrow if needed, but you’ll probably want your own. The cheap ones work just as well as the expensive ones and they’re like $75. You don’t need a full-face one, in fact you may want an open-face one for improved visibility. Don’t show up with a bike helmet, they’ll laugh at you.
- A roll of painter’s tape – This is your first event, so you won’t have numbers to slap on the side of your car. When you register, you will pick a number to represent your car on race day. Any old one- or two-digit number will work: 5, 9, 12, 69 (really?). You’ll also pick the class your car goes in. Here’s a good article that outlines where your car will probably end up.
Your roll of tape is what you’ll use to spell out your number and class on both sides of your car. Make ‘em big and make sure you use a tape that people can see (don’t use dark blue tape on a black car). Remember, a 1 or a 7 is a lot easier to make out of tape than 55.
Worried about rocks and cones damaging your paint? Slap some painters tape in the areas behind the wheels and on the front bumper if you want. Tape is cheap, paint is expensive. People may chuckle a little, but that’s only because they don’t care what their car looks like.
- A hat and sunscreen – You’re going to be outside, in the sun, on tarmac, usually with no shade. Bring a big hat and sunscreen. Bring lots of water and comfy shoes (closed toed). Bring snacks. All of this will go a long way to making the day more enjoyable.
- Advanced stuff – At some point you’ll want to think about bring a pyrometer (temperature gun), a tire pressure gauge, a garden sprayer, a jack, and a bunch of other stuff. Cool, but you don’t need it for your first event. Eventually we will write an article that covers what all this stuff is for, but for now stick to the basics.
How does Autocross Work?
The actual event is split up into different heats, sometimes two, often three or four. As part of your entry to the event, you’ll need to “work” one heat, and “run/race” another. Yup, unlike other forms of racing, autocross is affordable because people volunteer to help run the event. The good news is the work is pretty darn easy. First, let’s walk through the typical schedule and where you should be.
Registering for the Event
To register for your local autocross, Google SCCA SOLO plus your local area. You’ll find your region’s website with a calendar of events and links to register. Fill out the form, pay the registration fee (usually about $50) and sign up to be a member of the SCCA (if you’re not already, usually another $90 for the year). The SCCA events aren’t the only game in town, but they tend to be well supported.
You’ll need to punch in details about your car including the class you’ll be competing in and your desired racing number.
Once finished and submitted, you’ll get a confirmation email and a link to the waiver you need to digitally sign to get into the track. Your region may have you sign something on your way into the event instead. Review the schedule for the day and make note of when things get started.
Have a friend who wants to come along? Does your Mom want to watch and make sure you don’t crash her Corolla? Spectators get in free! They’ll even be able to ride with you so long as they have a helmet. The only thing they can’t do is drive.
At the Event
ARRIVE EARLY. Get to the event early in the morning. You’ll want time to get your bearings and see how things work. This will give you the time to tape up your car and hopefully meet a few people. Walk around and see the other cars. Look to see where the grid is. Watch what the other racers do. Absorb it all.
Once you’ve taken in the sights and sounds, head over to the registration table. This may or may not be marked, but you’ll see where people are checking in. As part of your registration, they’ll give you your work assignment and which heats you’ll be working/running.
Next, keep an eye open for when they post the detail sheet. I don’t know if this has a better name, but when you see everyone drop what they’re doing and head over to look at a freshly posted sheet of paper, that’s what you’re looking for. This sheet will outline important details for each of the racers including your grid number. Make a note of your grid number which IS DIFFERENT than your car number. I like to take a picture of the sheet with my phone so I have it with me all day.
At some point, the course will open for walking. WALK IT A COUPLE TIMES. You need to get a feel for where it goes and how you want to approach each of the turns. The more familiar you are with the course, the faster you will be. My region even offers a novice walk. Anyone who wants to join can walk with a group led by someone with a lot of experience. The guide will talk through each of the corners and how to approach them. I go on this walk every event. Just talking through the track with an experienced racer makes the time commitment worthwhile.
Once you’ve walked the course a couple times the event will begin with a driver’s meeting and safety brief. They’ll tell you what’s going on today, how many heats there are, some important safety information, and anything else you need to know. Once finished, they ask the workers for the first heat to report to their work assignments and the event gets underway.
When you checked in they gave you a work assignment, right? If you’ve never done this before you’ll probably be on cone duty. This assignment is self-explanatory, pick up and reset the cones that get knocked over by racers. Simple, but with a few more details:
- Each cone will have a little chalk box around the base. This indicates where the cone is supposed to be.
- If a cone is knocked completely out of the box, grab it, wave it over your head so the corner captain (person in charge of the corner) can see it, and set it back in the box. The corner captain will radio the cone into the timing people so they can add the penalty to the driver’s time.
- If any part of the cone is still in the box, then it’s safe, no penalty. Signal a baseball style “safe” move to the captain and put the cone back into position.
- Do all of this while making sure you don’t get hit by the next car coming around the corner. They space the cars out enough so there’s time to do this safely.
- Congratulations, you know how to shag cones!
Maybe you’re like me and don’t have the best ankles to be running around on. Luckily, there are other roles that need filled. Timing, course setup and teardown, starter, grid… all these positions require helpers to keep the event running smoothly. As you get more familiar with autocross, you’ll have the opportunity to work in other areas.
This is the fun part. When it’s your turn to race you’ll pull your car into “grid”. This is home base for the racers and the racers only. If it’s not your racing heat, your car probably should not be in grid.
Typically, the grid is a diagonal parking arrangement, each parking spot marked off with cones and a number on them. Your grid number (NOT your race number) will determine where you should park. Once you’ve found your spot, pull your car in and get settled. This is your chance to pull out everything loose in your car. Floor mats, garage door openers, iPhone mounts, etc. Basically anything that could fly around and whack you in the face while racing should be removed and set next to your spot (but not in a place where it can be run over.)
While you’re doing this, the tech inspector will likely come by. Have the hood open for him or her. He/she will have a look at a couple different things on your car:
- Is the battery mounted appropriately?
- Are the wheels mounted on the car properly?
- Has all the loose stuff been removed from the car?
- Do you have an appropriate helmet?
- Are there any fluid leaks?
- Is there anything else that would make racing this car a really bad idea?
But that’s about it. No need for a roll bar (except for some convertibles, check your local regulations), racing suit, or HANS setup. Not that these would hurt to have, but they aren’t required. When your car passes tech they’ll probably put a small sticker on your windshield and you’ll be OK’d to race.
You may have noticed a rather official person walking up and down the grid, usually with a headset and a clipboard. Their job is to run the grid, telling the individual drivers when to pull out and head to the start line for the course. Hang out in your car, helmet on, ready to go, until they stop in front of your car. When they point at you it’s your turn to pull out and follow the guy in front of you to the start.
Wait at the starting line until the starter gives you the go ahead. That’s when you can start your run. Assuming everything goes to plan, you’ll finish your run then need to IMMEDIATELY slow down. Some courses may even have a designated stop area after the finish line that you’ll need to physically stop in. Take a glance at the timing board to see how you did but note that this time doesn’t include any penalties you may have received. Then, at a slow speed, you can proceed back to your spot in the grid.
You’ll have some time between your runs, usually at least ten minutes. But this isn’t the time to go grab a sandwich. You’ll see competitors get out of their cars, check tire pressures and temperatures, maybe tinker with a setting on their suspensions, etc. Some will use garden sprayers to wet their tires. Some will just chat with the other racers for a minute. If this is your first time, you’ll be sitting in your car waiting for the adrenaline to taper off. You did it! You made your first run.
Think about how it felt and what you think you did right. Your first event isn’t about laying down the fastest speed, it’s about learning how this works and feeling it out. Eventually the grid worker will come back to you, and you’ll head off on your second run. How many runs you get each event depends on the number of vehicles entered. Fewer competitors, more runs. At your first event just try to improve your personal time with each run.
When you’ve had all your runs, pull your car out of the grid to make way for the next group of racers. Grab some water, take a breather, and if you’re working, get ready for the next heat.
Wrapping Up the Day
As the day comes to an end, there may or may not be an award ceremony for the winners in each class. If you won, congratulations! If you didn’t win, congratulations on making it out to your first event. There’s no doubt that autocross can feel intimidating, especially for first timers, but it gets easier. Even after only the three or four events I’ve done I find myself getting into the groove and wanting to go faster.
Autocross is a great way to experience the capabilities of your car. It gives you the chance to safely understand how it handles, accelerates, and stops. Better still, it offers the chance to meet other people who are as into cars as you are. In my experience, these folks have been friendly, welcoming, and more than willing to help if something goes wrong. They might even let you go for a ride with them if you ask nicely.
Get out and give it a shot. So long as your Mustang is in decent working order you’ll have no problems passing tech and learning a whole lot about your car as you go around the track. You’ll find it an addicting way to spend a Saturday. Good luck out there!