This past weekend, I attended my first non-employment-related driving school: Evolution Performance Driving School-Phase One. I will share a bit about what it is and my experience was like. But the TL:DR of it is, if you like to autocross and want to get better, no matter what level you are, take as many of these schools as you can.
First, a bit about myself and my experience. I only started autocrossing last year. In that year, I improved quite a bit from beginning to end. I ran 10 events last year and won our region’s Novice-Class and took home Rookie of The Year in my STX-Classed Mazda RX-8.
While last season had its up and downs trying to sort out issues with my car, one constant was trying to figure out how to be a better autocrosser. I would course walk with experienced drivers picking their brain along the way. I’d try to run with at least a couple different instructors at events and I’ve spent hours watching autocross videos of drivers trying to glean whatever little bit of info I could from them.
While all this was certainly helpful, I’m still not close to where I want to be. Besides just not having enough experience to navigate courses ‘properly’ I also knew I was still way too timid as a driver. One thing I heard quite often last season was “Go to EvoSchool!” if I wanted to be better. So I went to their website and started looking into what they offer. Obviously, being as new as I am to the sport, the Phase-One program was the obvious choice.
So after the end of the 2017 season, I knew I was going to sign up EvoSchool as soon as I could. I was thrilled to find out that I wouldn’t even have to travel too far as there was going to be an Evoschool at our multi-region-run site at the Seneca Army Depot in Romulus, NY! I signed up back in February and found myself $275 lighter, but excited for the opportunity to improve.
About a month before the event, I got an e-mail listing the instructors that would be teaching us: Brian Burdette, Billy Davis, Rich Wayne, Tom Sotiropoulos, and GJ Dixon. I liked that they did this as it gave me time to research the instructors to get a little feel about who they are and what they have driven. It also allowed me to be quite impressed and humbled by the amount of credentials and championships these drivers have attained.
So this past weekend, school-day finally arrived. I got up at 5am to be out of the house by 5:30 to make the two-hour drive out to the old airfield. It was a cold and damp morning and the weather forecast wasn’t the best, but oh well.
The early morning was very much like any other autocross. Bullshitting with friends, cleaning cars out, and checking fluids and tire pressures. While the course was set up already, I didn’t want to walk it without permission, so I just waited.
Soon enough, a driver’s meeting was called and all the instructors introduced themselves as well as all of the students. We had quite a varied crowd. There was a driver who had never autocrossed before all the way up to an E-Street trophy-winner at last years SOLO Nationals. While most of us were local competitors, we also had drivers from Ontario, Pennsylvania,New Jersey, and Maryland.
The cars were just as varied. Of course you had your typical autocross cars like Miatas, Toyobaru Twins, RX-8's, and Mini Coopers, there were also some more interesting cars like a 2008-ish Dodge Charger on Hoosiers, a ‘72 Chevelle with lots of suspension work, and a Factory-Five Roadster.
After all the introductions were out of the way, it was time to get to work! Instruction started with a guided course walkthough. It was a basic autocross course with 5 elements: a 5-cone slalom, into a carousel 360*, out into a 180* sweeper turnaround, into an offset slalom that led directly into a Chicago-Box, and out to the finish. Although it was a basic course, it was more than enough to teach me about how bad I really was at trying to figure out how to navigate it fast.
After the walkthroughs (They let you walk it yourself if you want), each group gets 3 runs through the course to set a baseline time. My 3 runs went so-so. After each run, my would-be morning instructor, GJ Dixon, gave little pointers, especially with the slalom. By my 3rd run, I actually carried so much more speed through the end of it that I totally blew the entry into the carousel 360*. Right then and there, I knew I was going to get a lot out of this school.
After the baseline runs, your morning instructor hops in the car with you. You do two runs, the your instructor drives your car for two runs, then you get back in the drivers seat for two more instructed runs, and then you get one last run by yourself.
My instructor, GJ Dixon didn’t throw out a lot of input while I was actually driving. But in-between runs, he threw a lot of information at me. Then when he got in my driver’s seat, it was really an eye-opener. He was familiar with the RX-8 as he told me he got to drive pre-production mules at Laguna Seca and he really was able to show me what my car was really capable of. So after his first run, he asked me what he did different than me. I went through, segment-by-segment explaining what I saw him doing different. I have to say that I was thrilled when he said something to the effect of “That’s good. You pretty much nailed every difference. Now you have to do it.”
I got back into the driver’s seat and immediately improved (It’s so much easier when someone shows you how to do it, haha). I never thought I could navigate a slalom as fast as I was now doing and my braking and turn-in timing through the offset and Chicago Box was completely different. By my 3rd run, I improved over 1.2 seconds from my first two instructed runs and over 2.1 seconds faster than my morning base-runs. My best run also got within .3sec of GJ’s best run! (I will note that the course was nearly dry when I did my morning runs as opposed to the damp morning runs)
After our morning runs were done, we had a working lunch where we piled into cars with an instructor driving to help us with the ‘Looking Ahead’ concept. This is something I’ve improved greatly upon as I spent all winter in electric go-karts at the mall focusing on nothing but looking ahead. Even still, I learned that while looking-ahead is great and necessary, you have to understand what you’re actually looking ahead to. The instructors advice to pick out a few ‘critical cones’ during your walkthrough to focus on really made a ton of sense and it really opened my eyes to how critical it is to find those points on a walkthrough.
The weather for the afternoon sessions turned for the worse and we were running in a near-constant saturating rain. My instructor for that session, Tom Sotiropoulos, was also an RX-8 owner and was also incredibly helpful. My first two runs were back to being a bit too tentative as I don’t think I have ever autocrossed in such rainy conditions. He really had me focus on smoothing out my inputs. Smooth/Fast was being drilled into me throughout my instruction. He also did a great job of explaining how I needed to correct my entry into the offset by drawing it on my worksheet. It might sound silly, but just seeing what I was doing on paper versus what he wanted me to do clicked instantly. Once again, I was able to cut about 1.3 seconds between my pre-instructed and post-instructed runs.
The last part of the day was a final 3 timed runs. With the weather getting worse and worse, a number of people started head out for the day, but I still got my last 3 runs in. Even in the much worse conditions, I was able to trim off .741 sec off my best morning baseline run.
All in all, I felt I had a great day and took home a ton of knowledge. And while the in-car knowledge was the most beneficial, there were a lot of just as important things that I picked up in regards to how to better ‘see’ and visualize the course on my walkthroughs. I’m really looking forward to next Sunday’s autocross to see what kind of a difference EvoSchool has really made for me.
While it’s not cheap, I’ve certainly come to know that I will be attending one of these schools at least one time a year from now on. These instructors were an absolute wealth of information and the way they conducted themselves throughout the day was great. If you are on the fence about attending an EvoSchool, trust me, you won’t regret it.
I’d also like to throw out some ‘Thank-You’s’ to the Finger Lakes Region SCCA for running the setup and timing things as well as coordinating lunch, Mike ‘Junior’ Johnson who is in charge of the EvoSchool Program, and a special thanks to my Instructors, GJ Dixon and Tom Sotiropoulos. I hope I will do you guys proud through the rest of the season.
The author, who goes by Joe in real life, is an avid automotive enthusiast with a particular passion for Mazda rotaries. You can find him at many Western New York SCCA and surrounding area events autocrossing his RX-8. He can be reached AkursedX @gmail.com