If you’re looking to get into motorsports, you might find it pretty daunting. There are a lot of different organizations, tracks are usually far from major metropolitan areas and there are often many requirements for vehicle type and equipment needed.
Autocross racing, meanwhile, can be done with just about any passenger car — and most metropolitan areas have clubs that host events in a nearby parking lot. While driving fast in a parking lot sounds a little dull, it’s actually pretty fantastic and a great way to get into motorsports. I used to autocross pretty much every weekend, and I campaigned various cars with varying levels of success — and I even won the Street Touring X class in a 2003 Mustang GT one season, during a series put on by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Sports Car Clubs. It was that season when the club I was racing with asked me to teach an autocross basics course for the new folks. So if you think a "corner worker" is just something illicit, here is your primer.
You do not need a performance car with a ton of modifications to get started, as just about any street car is allowed at an event. And you don’t need any certifications or special licenses to participate. I have attended many events driving a bone stock vehicle.
Before you depart, remove all loose items from your car. This includes floor mats, coffee cups, and basically anything loose that could roll around or distract you — or worse, get wedged under a brake pedal. Also remember that this is usually an open event and theft can happen, so leave things home that you don’t need and find some out-of-the-way asphalt to stack up the rest after you arrive. You’ll see what everyone else is doing, so follow their lead.
Before you head to the event, check your tire your pressure. This is not mandatory, but an extra 10 to 15 psi in your tires can really help the sidewall from rolling over in a tight corner. If you live close to the event, you can do this before you head over, but if you are going to spend a bunch of time on the highway en route, wait until you’ve reached the event (or very close by) to add tire pressure.
When You Arrive
If you are new, it’s critically important to know that this will likely be a fairly buttoned down event. Safety is the primary concern, and there won’t be drifting or hoonery going on. So, first and foremost, remember to listen to the organizers and course workers about where to go and what to do, whether you are behind the wheel or on foot.
As you enter, keep an eye out for the registration area. It is usually some sort of tent or trailer, and it’s typically well-marked. Most clubs or organizers do initial registration online, so this is more of a "check-in." If you have not pre-registered, some allow walk-ups (you may have to pay cash, so be prepared), but call ahead of time to see if the event is full before heading out. These events are not expensive, as the events I attended usually cost around $40 — far cheaper than the average open track day, which costs several times as much.
If you have not done so yet, select a run group and get a car number. Again, most of this is done online and assigned before the event, but this is a good way to verify your assigned group and number. You can borrow some white shoe polish from a regular, or the organizers, to put your numbers on your window (apply to both sides so the corner workers can tell on you when you hit a cone). You’ll likely be asked to complete a waiver of some sort. Also, remember to sign up for a work station once your heat is over. Almost every club requires racers to work another heat, where you will stand out on the course and monitor other drivers’ progress, radioing in downed cones or running to set them up. Don’t hesitate to ask how this works: it can be very confusing for new people, but they will explain things prior to the event.
All autocross events likely require a technical inspection, which usually happens before the heats began in the morning. Everyone will queue up in a line so pay attention and follow the crowd. Cars will be inspected for safety, organizers will require that all loose items already be out of the car. Go ahead and pop your hood and trunk, they will check to make sure your battery is secure, and that your tires are mounted nice and tight — and there may even be a quick brake test. This consists of a quick 0 to 5 mile per hour sprint followed by hard braking, sometimes with both hands up in the air to make sure your car is properly aligned. This is all done to make sure that your car will be safe for you and the other participants.
Aside from the focus on being safe, this is the most important part of your autocross preparation. The course walk-through is your one, and usually only, chance to check out the course before the event begins. Organizers may post a course map at the trailer or tent, so take a picture of it with your phone — or see if they have a printed copy you can take. Autocross layouts can be confusing, sometimes intentionally. Try to memorize as much of the course as possible. Some courses will double back over themselves and can be pretty complex.
I imagine it sort of like a bobsled or luge driver: the more you can remember ahead of being behind the wheel, the better you will be able to set up for each corner. Sometimes you can walk the course with an experienced driver, and don’t hesitate to ask before you get out there. Just remember that some folks prefer to concentrate and like doing the walk-through in silence. I liked to talk it through with another driver to compare notes, but that’s just me. Make sure you check the surface for rough spots, sand, bumps, oil and similar debris. This can affect your turn-in, braking and acceleration. Study the course, look for turn-in and apex points, braking points, entry point for a slalom and other important items for when you’re actually driving. More on that coming up in another article!
Eventually, someone will get on a megaphone, either before or after the walk-through, and call everyone over to a drivers’ meeting where you will learn about:
- Danger zones (I found out the hard way that this is not related to Kenny Loggins in any way)
- Tight corners
- Wet or oil spots
- Uneven or rough pavement
- Flagging and corner worker instructions
- Availability of instructors. In this case, don’t be ashamed to ask for an instructor. Most clubs will ask if there are any newbies, and raise your hand proudly. Having someone ride with you helps a lot. I had experienced racers ride with me early on and got a lot out of it. Once you get good, volunteer to ride along with someone who is new if you are comfortable giving direction.
Once the Event Starts
Unless you’re up first (and don’t sign up for a low number/heat unless you want to go first) you should have time to watch other drivers. Everyone is on the same course, so pay attention. What line are they driving? Where are the braking points? Where are the shifting points (both up and down)? During most events you won’t get out of second gear, but trust me, going highway speed in a parking lot is a good time and you’ll feel like a proper hoon.
Now it’s your turn! Once your heat is called, bring your car to the staging area and line up in number order, following the directions of the course workers. There are a lot of "hurry up and wait" segments, so be patient. Follow the car in front of you and proceed to start line when it’s your turn. This is the big moment, so check your seat belt one more time. Give it a nice snap to make sure it’s tight around you, which will help you stay put in the seat if you don’t have highly bolstered seats.
Make sure one more time that loose objects are out of the car and hand off anything you can’t stash in a console. Turn the rear view mirror away from your view, as you don’t need to see all those cones you knocked over behind you. Focus your thoughts on how you want to drive the course, since it’s important to have a plan of attack: is this a short, tight course or a longer, faster course?
Starter gives the OK! They will stand right next to you, so keep your windows down so you can hear them as well as any directions you may get while on course. Start sharp, but don’t spin tires all that much. It looks cool, but you’re wasting time. Once you go break the timing beam at the start gate, you’re on the clock. Look ahead at upcoming gates and know where you want to go before you get there. Remember to brake and shift as planned.
Drive the first run at reduced throttle, since it’s more important to learn to stay on course — and remembering where to go is paramount. Most courses last around one minute, some are more, some are less. Drive a good line that flows from gate to gate and drive smoothly — inputs on brake and throttle should be deliberate, but not too violent. If you should spin, put both feet in (on a manual obviously), keep hands at 3 and 9 o’clock on the steering wheel. Then look for corner workers to re-start you and finish the course. If you see a red flag or hear a loud horn, quickly come to a complete stop and again look for corner workers to re-start you.
When your heat is done, head out to work the course. You will be given a section to work, and ideally there will be two people per corner. You will either man the radio or be tasked with righting downed cones. If you are on the radio, report the car number and the number of cones he or she knocked down. If you’re a runner, keep your head on a swivel, do not take unnecessary risks to get to a cone if another car is coming. Many events will have more than one car on track at a time, sent off on 30-second intervals depending on how long the course is. This will all be explained during the driver’s meeting, so pay attention.
Depending on the event layout, you may do this all over again during another heat or session. Practice makes perfect, so keep getting out there. You will start to recognize the same folks from event to event, and it’s a great way to meet other petrolheads and a great way to get into motorsports. This was just the 101 version, it’s nice to get the basics down and know what to expect. There is a whole "201" level to this lesson coming up, where I’ll get into more details on acceleration, braking, transitions and things like finding the apex that will make you significantly more competitive.