Autocross for amateurs

August 31, 2017

After years of intensive research, I have concluded that human males are universally convinced of their talents behind the wheel and in the bedroom. Have you ever heard a man willfully admit lackluster performance in either arena? No, of course you haven't. It is simply a fact of life, an elemental law of nature. The sun comes up, the tide flows out, and men are idiots.

 

That is not to say that men are incapable of becoming skilled in either discipline. Like all other pursuits in life, one can improve their proficiency by spending more time performing said pursuit. And, coincidentally, lovemaking and driving have the same requisite supplies. Observe: in order to become a better lover, you need a willing partner, a private place, and a bit of protection. In order to become a better driver, you need a willing partner (a car), a private place (a track), and a bit of protection (a helmet). Most curious. 

 

In a world that is right and just, it shouldn't cost much to equip oneself for proper procreative performance. Conversely, driving is an expensive endeavor, and there's just no way around it. Gas costs money. Tires cost money. Gear costs money. Tracks have fees. Things will break, need to be repaired, and cost money. It is another elemental law of nature. “To make a small fortune in racing, start with a large one,” or so the saying goes. 

 

The risks of racing door to door on a track are many and varied (i.e. pricy). It’s not speed that’s dangerous, it’s rapidly coming to a halt that causes problems. You can accomplish this feat in several ways at a track, such as ramming a concrete barrier, colliding with other cars, or colliding with other cars and then ramming a concrete barrier. Whichever method you prefer, both your net worth and self worth are liable to wither with alarming speed, and unfortunately, I have yet to find a helmet for my ego or bank account (although Trump’s hairpiece seems to be doing the trick for him).

 

Full-sized, full-on, wheel to wheel racing is too costly for most mortals to manage, unless you’re willing to live in a dresser on a diet of cup noodles (which will almost certainly rid you of your lover). But fear not, ye petrol obsessed. You may still find salvation upon the Altar of Autocross. 

 

 Left: idiots and their brave handlers (women) gather for worship (drivers' meeting). Right: Cones and such. The starting line is just right of the truck; the course loops around before sending drivers to the open area in the back.

 

Autocross negates track risks by removing them altogether. Rather than utilize an actual circuit, autocross courses are usually set up in large parking lots with cones. Alone on the "track", drivers must navigate the cone course — which usually includes a mix of sweeping turns, tight hairpins, and slalom sections — in the fastest possible time (inadvisable in the bedroom). 

 

So it was that I signed up for Houston SCCA’s August autocross iteration. I drove my mostly stock Miata to (ironically) the Houston Police Academy, where a parking lot full of various sports cars greeted my arrival. Some had been brought in on trailers, like a first-gen Boxster wearing massive over-fenders to contain its slicks, and a vintage Formula Ford race car. Most cars remained street legal, although many were outfitted with sticky rubber and choice go-fast modifications.

 

I found a friend in the parking lot with a very familiar face (my car is number 18).

 

Autocrossing is a class-based affair, with dozens of different classes accommodating myriad machines. Cars thereby face off against comparably quick competitors. I fell under E Street, allowing early Miatas with no more upgrades than tires, exhaust, and a front sway bar. As soon as you tinker beyond those guidelines, you’re placed in a different class, but very rarely will a Miata bring the fight to, say, a Cayman or a Corvette. There's even a Novice designation for virgin competitors such as myself, but unlike lovemaking, proclaiming your inexperience to the public won't be met with derision. You'll get to meet the other folks in the beginner's boat and receive seasoned drivers’ helpful hints. Both groups proved to be highly agreeable company. 

 

 Left: Views from the grid. Right: Lining up for attack. Hoods up to cool down.

 

With a loaner helmet on my dome and my ego dialed down to economy (or rather, ego-nomy), I signaled for an instructor to join me in the passenger seat. His initial advice: “Get a feel for the course first, and focus on driving through the cones correctly. Once you’ve done that, we can worry about building up speed.” (This is advisable in the bedroom.) Right he was. My first time out, it was challenging enough just to plot out the proper marks; at one point, I blurted “where do I go?” mid-corner (HIGHLY inadvisable in the bedroom). You’re not going truly fast — only 60 MPH or so at the top end — but the course is tight, and the turns come at you rapidly. Worried as I was with accurate navigation, I got nowhere near the car’s limits or even my own. I posted a time of about 71 seconds — to put that in context, the quick cars were running around the 50 second mark. It was like telling a disappointed partner that you're "new to this." 

 

Pulling back into the staging area, my instructor offered his valuable consultation once again. “Okay,” he said. “We didn’t hit any cones and we drove the course correctly. That’s great. But your car, even on its soft suspension, is capable of so much more than you’re throwing at it. Your regular street tires will make a whole bunch of noise if you’re pushing hard. If you don’t hear your tires screech today, you’re doing something wrong.” (There's definitely a parallel here, but I'll leave that to you.)

 

"NES" stands for Novice E Street. Also, I strongly recommend against using duct tape for numbers. 

 

Well, telling a man to drive faster is like giving a dog a 22-ounce ribeye. On my next attempt, I promptly mowed down a cone in the first turn, broke the rear end loose at the following turn, oversteered through the hairpin, and fishtailed through the final slalom to the tune of a 62 second run. Much faster, yes, but much messier, and driving, like loving, demands smooth, relaxed rhythm. On my final run of the day, I cracked my targeted 60-second mark with a time of 59 seconds flat. Much to my delight, I'd performed under pressure (advisable in the bedroom) and I celebrated with Lewis Hamilton-esque fist pumps (inadvisable in the bedroom). 

 

 Guaranteed to excite a crowd or make you single.

 

There is something innately satisfying about not only discovering the limits of your car, but discovering your personal limits at the wheel and pushing beyond them. Autocross offers up what might be the cheapest, safest way to engage in such behavior, and it’s worth every penny. Admittedly, I was at first apprehensive about giving the Miata the beans. “Not my little daily driver!” I thought. “I’ll just take it nice and gentle.” Every thought of “nice and gentle” was immediately replaced with “GO AS FAST AS POSSIBLE” once I brought the car up to the starting line (much like, uh, something else). 

 

If convinced of your conceptive competence, I recommend procuring an honest partner. At an autocross event, your own car will duly fill that role. Just make sure you wear your helmet. 

 

 Some favorites from the day. Left: a pristine 993. Middle: a CRX with suitably retro numbers. There were several present, all turning in quick times. Right: a wildly upgraded 911 Turbo (very loud) with an EVO X (RIP). 

 

 

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