It's been a minute since my last autocross. As in 2009. That was the year, not how many minutes have past since my last event. With all the things going on in life I did manage to get out recently and attend an autocross hosted by the Capital Driving Club at Regency Stadium in beautiful Waldorf, Maryland. The sun was shining, temperature was in the high 70′s and a light breeze made it perfect for a day outside.
The Capital Driving Club isn't nationally known like the SCCA, but they are one of the most laid back organizations in the area. I would recommend them to anyone in the Washington DC area looking to give autocross a try. They host events as far west as Winchester, north in Fredrick, east in Bowie and south in Woodbridge, VA and Waldorf, MD. They offer driving instructors and the members are happy to help.
I learned a long time ago that it's best to drive your car in factory form a few times and learn to get the most of it in stock form before modding up. But it was too late for me. All modifications to my car were, for the most part, aesthetic decisions. I never had the intention of autocrossing or tracking my car. If I had track in mind, I certainly would have gone a different route with the springs and damper combo.
Right, on to my setup. It's a 2004 M3, SMG, with fresh bushings all around, RTAB limiters, Eibach Pro-Kit springs on Koni Yellows with swapped factory strut hats. Wheel setup is square using factory 18×9 rears with 245/40/18 Continental ExtremeContact DW tires. Camber is negative 3.5 degrees up front and negative 2.6 out back. I forget the toe settings. Yes, it's probably overkill. And no, my tires do not have uneven wear. In fact, tread wear was even across the entire width of my Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires after 35,000 miles. Suck it.
Back to autocrossing. This was the Capital Driving Club's first event at Regency Stadium so we can't blame them for the course design just yet. The lot is nicely paved, does have slight elevation change and great potential. The placement of some cones were undoubtedly to introduce understeer by creating tight, off-camber corners. The course starts and ends on the high ground. From the start it's a slight left to a sharp off-camber right that takes you down hill to a sweeping left-hander, immediately to a U-turn and back toward the center of the course. The line snakes back up the hill and then back down again like a boarder on a half-pipe. Upon decent you head the to the far side of the parking lot to a series of slalom cones that end in a 90 degree turn and a climb back up the other side of the parking lot. Get all that? Good.
The CDC breaks up the three heats in to groups A and B. When your heat is called you drive your car up to the staging area and into one of several rows which indicate group A or B. Each group gets three runs in the morning and another three in the afternoon. If group A is on course, group B is supposed to "work". Working means you an several other people are stationed around the course to run out and pick up cones that get knocked over and wave any emergency flags if needed.
I was in Heat 3 so there was plenty of time to watch other cars. By noon I was finally in the staging lanes. The anxiety was creeping back. I couldn't wait for my 45 seconds of glory.
Glorious, it was not. Tons of understeer right out of the gate. That's expected in off camber turns but not through the entire course. Unfortunately the understeer didn't go away and ABS seemed to do a lot of work under heavy braking. Blame the marbles and loose stones. Blame the tire temps. Blame the my suspension setup. Point the blame at anything but the driver. Am I right?
The great thing about the E36 and E46 chassis is that understeer can quickly be converted to oversteer when you put your right foot down. The bad thing is that there wasn't much room to do so on this tight autocross course. But that didn't stop me from trying. It was the first session out which is never the fastest anyway so "What the Hell", I figured.
Cross the end gate timer and I hear the time of 44.3 over the PA. The time wasn't nearly as terrible as I thought it would be. And actually that time placed me right in the middle of the field.
My second run was sloppy as I tried a different line and I only cut a tenth off my time. Run three was much better and I dropped half a second, down to 43.8. Over lunch we examined the tires and discovered that the car may benefit from a slight drop in tires pressure.
The first run of the afternoon session confirmed my tire pressure suspicion as my knocked off another best time of 43.6 seconds. By this time I had grown bored of autocross and resorted to my old ways of sliding around course a bit for smiles.
The 3.2 liter S54 engine has plenty of torque. Don't get me wrong, it's no V8 and this is no Mustang, but it is so fun and predictable when the rear end is hanging out a little that I nearly forgot I was at a timed event. Somehow, sideways and tire smoke, I crossed the finish just one tenth shy of my best outing. Explain that? I sure couldn't.
It didn't take but half the day to remember why I had stopped autocrossing. Unless the parking lot is local, it is an all day event for a total of four minutes or less of timed driving. I woke up at 6:30AM to leave the house at 7 in order to get to the stadium by 8. It wasn't until nearly noon that I got to drive on course and then another three hours spent waiting for the remaining two minutes of fun.
My last run of the day was nothing but hooning. I didn't really care about the time. As a new father with a new family, it was enough to get out and simply enjoy driving my car and even better to do it in a safe environment. Come 4PM I was exhausted from the sun and was facing an hour or more drive back home in weekend traffic.
Autocross After Thoughts
- Completely forgot about having easily adjustable rebound in the front struts
- Excessive rear camber may be the primary contributor of understeer.
- The 15mm rear spacers probably didn't help.
- The Continental ExtremeContact DW tires do not offer crisp steering response.
- I can't imagine the dedication it takes to show up bright and early every weekend for just minutes of seat time. The die hard autocrossers must be wired differently… or they've never experienced seat time on a circuit track.