I was scheduled to autocross on Sunday, and at 4am on Saturday, I finally got the transmission back into place. My jack proved about an inch too short, and tired muscle had to do the rest. Sleep and money whirled clockwise into a vortex before disappearing into a lost weekend, but I knew at the first orange cone, a long right sweeper, that it had all been worth it. I’m sold. Autocross is always worth it.
Take one parking lot or other large paved area. Roll flat onto cookie sheet. Sprinkle with orange or formerly orange traffic cones until race track forms. Smoke for 6 hours until golden brown. This is the recipe. Autocross, sometimes known as solo, is a low-cost, low-speed, low-commitment form of time trials driven on in a mini racetrack, usually in runs of a minute or less. Car clubs run autocross events all over the place, though the Sports Car Club of America is the most notable, operating regional competitions and a national championship.
My pack of weird car friends and I had been threatening all summer to enter an event, so we finally picked a day and registered online. It’s $38 per event if you’re a member of the SCCA, with another $10 for a weekend membership if you’re not. Far cheaper than the average track day.
Then, about a week prior to the event, the clutch in my artistically keyed, $760 Civic started to slip. I thought perhaps that there was still air in the clutch lines after I replaced the master cylinder a few weeks ago, so I bled it again. I wonder if the people who decided to force hydraulic clutches into sub-2 liter compacts knew that they would one day have so many enemies. But there was little change after the bleed.
My trusty local Honda shop divined a bad rear main seal, which had begun to drizzle the flywheel and clutch disc with motor oil. And since I’d replaced one of these before and didn’t want to pay a labor fee greater than the cost of the car, I decided to do it myself.
The rear main seal surrounds the engine’s output shaft, so to replace it, you must first remove the: CV axles, transmission, clutch, and flywheel. So you might as well replace the clutch while you’re at it, and vise versa.
But I work slow. My fingers are basically less dextrous half-animated carrots. Undoubtedly contributing are the nerves I keep severing whenever I injure myself, leaving dead zones in my feeling and scars of trepidation that run deeper than the physical ones. I’ve also achieved the human rank of Old and Sore, No I Won’t Play Football With You, which does nothing to speed anything along.
So I’m glad I had a week. I ordered this Exedy clutch kit and the accompanying flywheel, and picked up a Honda genuine rear main. Meanwhile, at home, I jacked up the car and began to take it apart with the help of a rather excellent forum thread I found on the subject. The CV axles, thankfully, were still in fighting trim, so they stayed.
The Exedy clutch kit was well packaged and included a new throwout bearing, pilot bearing, clutch, pressure plate, and a little ketchup packet of input shaft grease, which came in handy when I realized that I couldn’t open the drawer containing my own grease, thanks to the tiny dimensions of my garage with the car in it. Exedy is a Japanese brand who has been around forever, and they’ve never let me down.
It’s hard to remember the full process of pulling the transmission and replacing the clutch, as if I was some character on LOST, and only brief flashbacks were revealed to the audience. But it was finally back together, with only a few minor details to finish, and it was only 4:30 AM, the day before the race. I scrubbed off and went to bed, then got up two hours later for Cars and Coffee.
Later that afternoon, I finished up those few details and began to prep the car for autocross. After a solid and spirited test drive, I conceded that I had somehow gotten the job right, so I went to overinflate the tires. Tire pressure is a huge deal when autocrossing. Because it depends so much on maneuvering, low pressure can cause more body roll and less traction in the corners. I also dumped my floor mats, spare tire, and anything else loose or weighty in the cabin. I wouldn’t want any extra weight or debris out on the course. Now the beast was ready.
I went to sleep.
And I got up at 5 AM on Sunday to go help setup at my church’s mobile campus. After an hour of this, I headed out to Independence, site of the Metropolitan Community College’s Precision Driving Academy, a grid of asphalt (with concrete at the intersections) used by area police departments to train new officers in the art of controlling a 2.5 ton patrol vehicle at speed. On Sundays, they let the Kansas City Region SCCA have the place, cones are arrayed on the pavement, and a track begins to take shape.
There are no curbs, no signs, nothing to hit but cones. And since the average autocrosser tops out at 50 or 60 before having to brake for the next corner, autocross is about the safest motorsport outside of Forza. This is why no one needs a roll cage or racing harness, just a 2010 Snell-rated helmet. If you don’t have a helmet, you can borrow one for free.
It’s this frank accessibility that permeated my day. From the moment I arrived at the facility, I only met kind, welcoming people, eager to introduce me to the sport and show me the ropes. First there was Kent, a gentlemen in his late ’50s. We stood under his tent in to keep the rain off and discussed his half-caged E30 coupe and the supercharged AW11 MR2 he had at home in the garage. Then there was Shawn, a championship level driver who patiently walked me and the other noobs around the course on the novice course walk, pointing out apexes and proper lines. I learned what “backsiding” a cone is. Everyone I met there asked what I was driving, eager to jaw about the sport, especially when they found out I was new. The guy loaning out the helmets, the folks at registration, the guys in tech who checked my battery tie down and my tire and wheel bearing integrity.
Heat one began, and my friends and I stood in the rain, spectating, until Reuben, the only experienced autocrosser among us, yelled at us to go find some rides. That’s another cool thing about autocross. As long as you have a helmet, or can borrow one, ridealongs are totally fine. I wound up riding in a Veloster Turbo with a nice guy named Brandt, whom I had just met. I’ll have a much harder time making fun of the Veloster’s looks after that. It was a ninja through the cones.
Brandt’s run took the edge off of my growing nervousness. Nerves hit me sideways whenever I do anything at speed, especially if I haven’t in a while. Trail riding my mountain bike. Roller coasters. The bunny hill. First dates. Jerry, an autocrosser since 1989, told me he feels the same way before every event.
I talked with Jerry for about two hours during our work heat. See, if you run a heat, you’re required to work a heat. And autocross requires many workers. Not only does every cone need to be monitored, it needs to be reset quickly if hit. Each cone the driver knocks out of its chalked-in box costs a 2 second penalty. If the driver goes the wrong way around a cone, it’s a DNF. If a driver wipes out several cones, the next driver, who is already on track, needs to be red-flagged to stop while the course is reset. (That driver will get a re-run at the end of the heat.) All of this takes eyes and hands, so a big part of autocross is standing still, watching awesome cars careen around the course and running to reset the occasional errant cone.
But it’s no problem when you’re hanging out with a fellow car enthusiast. Jerry and I talked about cars, racing, how quickly the track was drying, and a host of other subjects. When a car spun out at our corner, he told me why, and how to avoid the same mistake. When the vintage 911 ran into some snap oversteer, he let me know how common that was. We also talked politics. See, Jerry and I probably haven’t voted for many of the same people. But we found ourselves agreeing on many of the issues that common sense used to solve with the obvious. It was incredibly refreshing, like the cool and cloudy day we were having after a sweltering, nuclear summer, to sidestep all the media-fueled outrage and indignation for a moment to have a calm and reasoned conversation about the state of government in a country we both loved, despite our differences.
I found that throughout the whole day. Autocrossers are an intelligent, civil, calm lot. It makes for a relaxing Sunday.
But I wasn’t relaxed when our conversation ended, because now it was my turn. “Don’t let me miss the first turn,” I charged my friend and passenger Jay as I queued up for my first run. Building up to the event, my goal had been to finish with a faster run than my first one. Now it was just not to completely embarrass myself in front of all these cool, smart car people.
Then the official gave me the wave, the throttle opened, and my nervousness melted. I was back home. Ignoring Jerry’s advice to take my first run easy (we only got four of these, after all), I charged into the first corner, a medium right sweeper, and didn’t relent until I passed the finish. 63.9. That was my baseline.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had so much fun. There’s something about that freedom, that license, to just drive as fast and as hard as you want without fear of repercussions. No one cared how fast I lanced into corners or ripped my way out of them.
My second run was a 60.4. But I missed a cone, so that surely helped. DNF. On my third run, I took on Jeff Evans as a passenger. Jeff is another autocross veteran and a friend from church. His usual beast of choice is a tuned Fiat 500 Abarth, but it was in the shop, so he was codriving his friend’s 370 hp monster of an Evo IX. It’s completely caged and kitted specifically for autocross, with suspension, rigidity, and braking mods, and it shows. I had ridden with Jeff on an earlier run to see how the pros do it (and because it was stupid fun). That run had been 49 something.
Jeff showed me that my seat was too far back, and I needed to scoot up a bit so I could get a better crossover grip on the wheel without having to remove either hand in sharp turns. Confident and eager to impress, I fired through the course, trying to heed Jeff’s impromptu critiques. I ended up with a 62.9, zero cones hit, all obstacles conquered. I got faster!
For run four I was probably even faster. But the clock said “90.000” when I pulled through the timing lights. For a moment I thought that had actually been my time. But then I realized that the clock had malfunctioned, which ended up being my favorite thing about the day. Because I got a free fifth run out of it.
A few other cars had been blessed with the same curse, but I lined up after them, the very last car of the whole day. During the novice course walk, Shawn had talked about the “100% rule.” Your tires can only do 100% of one thing at a time. Braking or turning. Not both. Try to brake and turn at the same time, and you’ll lose traction. The wheels will turn, but they won’t be spinning, so the car will not. Get your braking done before you need to turn.
I forgot this rule in the middle of my run, almost slid into some cones, and didn’t get on the clutch fast enough, killing the engine. My final time was 70 something.
But I had a blast anyway, and on my clean runs I actually was improving. When I head back at the end of this month, I hope to do even better. Still, I think I’m about at the limits of the car, with its tired suspension, stock brakes, and bargain basement rubber. I had to coast through several corners because trying to accelerate out of them only led to understeer. “You can usually get used race tires on the forums for cheap at the end of the season,” Jeff told me.
And I guess that’s how it begins. Before I know it, I’ll be $100k into an Evo.
Still, autocross is very cheap. For under 50 bucks (under 40 if you’re an SCCA member), you can spend the day chilling at a racetrack with your friends, watching the coolest collection of cars tear around it, and you get to drive on it yourself for a few minutes. It’s cheaper than a track day, and less harmful to your car. When I told people later that I’d autocrossed my daily driver, their eyebrows shot up. “You weren’t worried about your suspension? Your tires?” Nope. It’s not that much stress over all.
I would, however, like to see more seat time, as I’m sure most racers would with most types of events. I wonder how the future could provide this. Incredible things are already developing with Google Glass and other augmented reality devices. Perhaps one day we’ll have virtual cones that you can only see if you’re looking through a special pair of glasses. This could cut down on workers and setup or teardown times, allowing more runs. It could be cheaper, too. Cones cost money, and they’re not immortal. I saw many a bright orange carcass, shredded beside the course.
All that is for later, however. For now, autocross is enjoyable in itself, mostly because of the people you meet and spend time with once you’re there. Everyone, to a person, was kind, happy to be there, happy to talk. I think it’s because there’s so little seat time. Autocrossers know that if they spend their day being jerks, it’s not worth the time or money. But if they spend the day among friends and friendly competitors, catching up about life, jawing about cars, cheering for and laughing at each other, catching roller coaster-like rides, it really is worth it. How better to spend a day?
I find myself wishing this attitude could permeate all of motorsports, all of car culture. Cars and racing are incredible even if you’re alone. The will to win, overcoming the fear of danger is important and profound. But I’ll always argue that the most essential aspect of cars and racing is that they bring us together. And when I see F1 teammates refusing to congratulate each other or when I hear people badmouthing others’ cars at shows (or when I slip up and do it myself), car culture becomes something less.
Don’t get me wrong. Car culture in general is a friendly, fraternal place. But we can still do better, and if only to learn that, we could all stand to run an autocross or two.
If you’d like to sign up to hit some cones, check out SCCA.com. You’ll be able to find your regional page, and they’ll get you started.
This post originally appeared on StreetsideAuto.com, where I split it into two parts so it would look like I’m working harder than I am.