Performance driving options have always been limited. Amateur racing and open track days are well established across the States, but they aren't necessarily budget-friendly. Driving in the mountains or on twisty back roads provides plenty of hair-raising excitement, but it's neither the safest nor the most appropriate venue to really push your limits, or those of your car.
The solution is Autocross. Sometimes referred to as Auto X or Solo II, Autocross might be the answer for those seeking an affordable, safe and legal venue for performance driving. Autocross drivers race one at a time against the clock through a cone course in a controlled environment, usually a large parking lot.
Cone courses are arranged in a variety of patterns to test the driver's ability and the vehicle's handling, with typical course speeds between 15 and 60 miles per hour. Most courses consist of basic elements including increasing/decreasing radius turns, assigned/option slaloms and offset gates, all designed to push the limits of traction, stability and bravery.
While you might think that your car is entirely unsuitable for this endeavor, that's not necessarily the case. Autocross is all about precision driving and car control. It's not just a contest of horsepower, car modifications or even the type of car. In an effort to promote equal opportunity competition, organizations have gone to great lengths to classify vehicles into competitive classes. You and your friends can finally settle the debate of Nissan vs. Mazda in an exhilarating and legal race. Whatever you drive, your car is always welcome to compete on an autocross course.
Traditional forms of performance driving can be very expensive, but Autocross provides driving thrills without breaking the bank. Entry fees are usually between $30-$40 depending on the event site, the region and the event organizer. The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) is the largest organizer of autocross events. However, there are several other organizations, such as the Porsche Club of America or BMW Car Club of America, that put together events. Since enthusiasts run these programs, all makes and models are generally welcome.
We recently drove our long-term, 2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI at a local Porsche Club autocross event held at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Jetta was put through its paces and finished a respectable 35th overall, besting nearly 20 more powerful cars. The twisty, slower sections of the course were handled with ease thanks to the TDI's abundance of low-end torque. The Jetta's sporty suspension handled the multiple slaloms, offset gates and steady-state corners with ease, proving that you don't need a traditional sports car to have fun.
As the event wrapped up, we concluded that although the Jetta is not technically a sports car, it certainly is a lot of fun to drive to its limits. It would be hard to find another car that gets better than 40 miles per gallon that is also this rewarding to drive.
The Jetta TDI serves as a perfect example of why Autocross is an everyman's sport: It's cheap, safe and fun. Autocross affords virtually any driver, in any car, the opportunity to push the limits, hone his driving skills in the process and, most importantly, have fun.