There’s a distinct possibility that you’ve already heard of the brand of racing called Autocross. But there’s also a possibility that some of you are unfamiliar with how it works and what it entails. This article is geared more towards people new to it. For most purposes, I will be looking at this through the lens of SCCA events.
What is Autocross?
Autocross, at its core, is the most basic form of road racing out there. It is generally conducted in sectioned off parking lots and other open paved areas. The foremost authorities on the matter in the U.S. are the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and National Auto Sport Association (NASA). They both have local chapters across the country that host regular events, usually on a monthly basis.
Rather than having a full track with high speeds, walls, and an elevated level of danger, autocross courses are set up with cones. Courses tend to be smaller and run at lower speeds than hosted track days at full-fledged racing facilities. It’s common to see course layouts that will require only first and second gear be utilized. The additional benefit to having a course laid out with cones is that you can go to the same location to race every month, and the layout can be entirely different every time.
Cars are classed largely based on capabilities and level of modification. Drivers will go through the course one at a time to prevent collisions with other drivers (On larger layouts, you will often see two or three drivers on the course at the same time, albeit spaced out at least 20-30 seconds apart to eliminate danger). So, even though you are racing by yourself, your time is stacked up against other drivers in your class.
Do I need a dedicated race car?
No, you do not. In fact, most people drive their car to and from the event itself. It could be argued that it is even to your benefit to bring your daily driver to the event, so you can better learn the limits of your car and your driving skills in a safe environment.
There are some cars that have been outlawed from competing with the SCCA at autocross events. These tend to be cars and crossovers that are considered to be rollover risks in stock form. Included in this list is the Ford Fiesta (non-ST models), Fiat 500 (non-Abarth models), Nissan Juke, SCion xB, and Mini Countryman. The key figure that gets looked at is if the vehicle’s height is greater than the car’s track width.
What do I need to have to get started?
At the most basic level, you need a car and a helmet. Many local autocross chapters will have loaner helmets (no loaner cars though, sorry). If you have your own helmet, wonderful! However, it does need to meet some basic requirements. SCCA requires any helmet worn by drivers or passengers to have a proper Snell rating. The Snell Foundation tests manufacturer helmets for safety standards, and releases their reports every five years. The two most common types that are accepted are those with an “SA” sticker or those with an “M” sticker. SA refers to helmets designed for competitive automotive sports, and M refers to helmets designed for motorcyclists. There will also be an associated year with the safety designation. SCCA allows for the current, and two previous standards to be used. In other words, it is currently 2018, and your helmet will need to be of the 2015, 2010, or 2005 Snell certification. A new Snell M2015 helmet can be purchased for less than $100, and high end helmets can run well over $1,000. There are myriad options, but the most important thing to consider is that it is fits your head properly and is comfortable enough to wear.
What should I do to prepare my car?
Not a whole lot. You’ll want to clean out the vehicle prior to race day. There can be no loose items moving around inside your car. SCCA rules even stipulate that the driver’s side floor mat should be removed. Look at it this way, if there’s any chance that something could interfere with your ability to use your hands and feet to operate the vehicle, it shouldn’t be in the car.
Beyond that, you’re going to need to make sure you’re not leaking fluids. Not only is this a potential problem for your own car, introducing liquids to the driving surface can be hazardous for other drivers. All cars go through tech inspection prior to an event. If an official spots something in your car that is not in compliance, you will need to fix it immediately, or you will be told that you may not race. Tires that have obvious damage, or have cords showing will not be allowed on the course.
What else should I know for my first event?
Get there early! I can’t stress this enough. Get there before the event starts to give yourself plenty of time to sign in, pay the attendant (usually between $30-$70, depending on the region, if you’re a member of the organization, and so on), and walk the course. From a distance, the course can not be adequately determined. Getting out there and actually walking it is the single best way to differentiate the proper driving line from a bunch of random cones in a parking lot.
As a competitor, you will also be expected to be a course worker. Most course work involves replacing cones that get hit by other drivers. It should go without saying, but you’ll want to be entirely certain that you are not going to be running anywhere near where a car is currently on the course. Course workers are usually given flags to wave in case of the need to fix the cones or stop an ongoing run. Take your work assignment as seriously as you can. Even though people are driving at relatively tame speeds, there is always an element of danger. Don’t make that danger worse by goofing around. If an official feels that you are a hazard to the safe running of the event, you will be replaced at your work station and told that you will not be driving anymore that day.
Speaking of cones, don’t hit them. Time penalties are given to drivers that strike cones hard enough to knock them over or move them from their set positions. If you’re looking at the course and see cones that are already on their side, those are indicators saying you need to drive on the side of the direction they are pointing (this is most commonly done in chicane sections).
Most regions have specific a specific novice class. If it’s your first time, let the officials know. Often times they will have a novice briefing before racing starts. In my experience, the novice briefing often includes an official walking the course with all the newbies and pointing out things that are worth knowing. Even if you think you’re a great driver, listen anyway.
You won’t need a full tool set, but it’s always a good idea to have some basic stuff to wrench in the pit area if needed. And even if you don’t need it, you may find that a fellow driver has broken something that you have just the right tool to fix. Offer to lend it to them, or help out if you can, and you’ll have genuinely helped out someone. These events are more about fun that hardcore competition. It goes a long way to your fellow drivers to know that you’re willing to help out.
How are cars classed?
There are two factors that weigh most heavily into determining your run class, car type and level of modifications. First is the make and model. Cars tend to be grouped together based on layout, weight, and power. Next, your mods come in to play. The current SCCA rules are classed in Street, Street Touring, Street Prepared, Street Modified, and then additional classes for specific types of race vehicles (such as karts). The SCCA rule book can be found for free (link at the bottom), and goes into the nitty gritty of classifications. It’s worth reading over, because there are things that you might not consider to be a big advantage that put you into the next class up.
I’m not an adult yet, can I still run?
In most regions, yes. Your parent or guardian will need to sign a specific waiver (everyone signs a basic safety waiver). But generally yes, you can still drive. There are also junior classes where you will compete with other youngsters.
I already have a race car, can I bring it to drive?
Within reason, absolutely. I don’t think you’ll easily pass tech inspection with a top fuel funny car. But a prepared track day car is certainly welcome. Be prepared to be classed accordingly though. And if it is clear to the organizers that the car greatly exceeds your skills and you appear to be a danger to the safety of yourself and those around you, they can and will stop you from participating.
My boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/best friend/dog sitter wants to race with me, but doesn’t have a car. What do I do?
You can actually share your car with them. Each competitor is given a class and number that they must display on their car. The easiest way to do this is with blue painter’s tape. If multiple people are driving one car, let the officials know and they will usually give you similar numbers, so going from one driver to another is simple. As an example, 440 becomes 448 with just one small piece of tape. Just remember that if a car fails tech inspection, that’s the end of the day for everyone using said car.
Anything else I should know?
Save your high octane antics for the track. Driving like a crazy person in the pit area or on any of the surrounding roads not only makes you look bad, but can jeapordize the safety of the event. Don’t be the guy or girl that spins out and crashes on the public road out in front of the lot.
Like any other car event, respect the location you’re at. Clean up after yourself. It’s also a great way to get involved by helping pick up cones and other equipment at the end of the day.
If you’re at an event and you’re confused about something, just ask. It can be an official, or even just another driver. It’s better to ask what you might think is a stupid question than to just presume the answer.
If you do decide to race your street vehicle, good for you. But be prepared for ancillary costs. You’re going to notice that you are burning through tires and brake pads MUCH quicker than you normally would. But to me, that just means you’r having a good time.
Above all else, remember to drive within your means. This is the place to test yourself. But if you know you’re in way over your head, ease off a bit. Like Jeremy Clarkson is famous for telling people, a lap that looks slow is often anything but. You’ll generally always be faster running smooth, clean laps than you will be by thrashing at full throttle the whole time.
Now get out there and have some fun!