By on June 2, 2010

Are those people wasting their time, or do they provide the necessary base for the racing pyramid? This question was asked by a reader in my recent piece about racing an ARCA Tempo, and I think it’s worth discussing for a moment despite the fact that autocross-related articles have consumed enough electrons on the ‘Net to cause jealousy among the folks who operate the Large Hadron Collider.

I will start off by freely admitting that autocross is an area where I do not particularly excel as a driver. In the right car, on the right track, I’m nearly as fast as anyone in the business and I have the track records and wins to prove it. In my single season of National-level SCCA autocross, however, I finished slightly above midpack in three Tour events and almost exactly midpack in the Solo Nationals PAX Index. My modest gift as a driver is a willingness to accept a little bit of danger, which means I frequently find a little more velocity in high-speed corners around racetracks. In autocross, that’s a useless skill. My weakness as a driver is temper, which makes me a solid passer but absolutely abysmal third-run autocrosser.

Since I’m the closest thing TTAC (or nearly anybody else in the autoblogging world) has to a National-level cone-chaser, however, I’ll talk a bit about what autocross is and what it is not.

You can autocross anything.

No, really. You can autocross anything.

See, I’m serious. In reality, the only vehicles the SCCA will keep off a course are raised-suspension trucks. A 2WD Chevy S-10 is just fine; a Toyota Land Cruiser isn’t. Most people have access to something they could autocross. If not, you can rent a car. A weekend of autocross will not break a new Cobalt or Elantra.

This is what autocross will do for you: You will get a sense of what happens when you exceed the limits of your tires at street-legal speeds. Don’t expect to go above 70mph at an SCCA-sanctioned autocross. 60mph is more likely, 50mph is probably the max for most sub-250hp cars. You will learn to correct your car when it goes “out of control”. You will understand, finally, just how hard you can press the brakes. It’s harder than you think, and proper braking is what separates autochamps from autochumps, so get used to it.

You will come to know the basics of a race weekend: pre-race preparation, packing the car, showing up, registering, standing out in the heat and the rain. You will learn more than you ever wanted to know about tire compounds, ABS activation, the thresholds and secret activation conditions of factory ESP programs, and gear ratios. You will acquire the ability to absolutely monster most 25mph offramps.

You will make friends who are serious about cars. You will enjoy yourself, unless you are a psychotic sociopath like me, and then you will kick fenders off your car, throw your helmet, make enemies, throw up from angst, and spend long, depressed weeks regretting a struck cone. You will learn what kind of car you’d really like to own and drive.

If you go to the National level, you will learn how to load a car on a trailer and drive a tow vehicle. You will learn what alignment really does for cars. You will learn about shock valving, suspension geometry, and weight transfer. You will learn how to memorize a course and how to perform under massive pressure. You will make a few enemies, if you’re any good. You will learn the SCCA’s mincing, infuriating interpretation of its rulebook, and you will learn how to effectively protest your competitors.

You can learn a lot autocrossing. Here’s what you won’t learn. You won’t learn how to be truly fast on a road course, no matter what anybody says. You won’t learn how to race, how to hit other cars, how to recover from being hit. You won’t experience the thrill of putting your foot on another man’s neck on the entry to a 110mph turn. You won’t be a racer. You’ll be an autocrosser, and for many people that’s enough.

Most of us can afford to start with either autocross or a course of HPDE instruction. Spending time and attention on one won’t help you with the other. Which should you choose? Budget and time are important here. Racing wheel-to-wheel will cost you a minimum of $5,000-10,000 a year and several weekends, plus prep time. If your budget doesn’t go that far, consider autocross. Understand, however, that National-level autocross costs thousands of dollars per year, even in Stock.

If you have the budget and time for either, just ask yourself: Would I rather be a BASE jumper or a chess player? The answer to that will tell you in which direction you should look.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

23 Comments on “Autocross: Is It Really Entry-Level Motorsport?...”


  • avatar
    Facebook User

    I always thought shifter-kart was the introduction to track racing…no? I thought that is how all the F1 guys got trained when they were younger.

  • avatar

    I auto-cross my vintage collector car. I get to throttle steer it around >180° corners and mash the pedals like a madman… all without ever leaving 1st gear and most of all, ever putting my precious family heirloom at any real risk- the 65E was my father’s car, and will pass on to my sons! I have a blast. My kids can ride with me. I compete at a Continental level (US, CDN, & MX) Did I mention I have a blast? 45 seconds of pure adrenaline rush.

    I have no illusions that this is racing. But it sure is a ton of fun.

  • avatar

    I certainly don’t care if it’s not racing. I had a blast with it at Skip Barber. I love going beyond the limits of the tires. This article was a lot of fun. And it would have been worth opening even if it wasn’t, just for the shot of the guy autocrossing in the Yugo.

  • avatar

    Jeez Chuck, aren’t you afraid of hurting that thing?

  • avatar
    NotFast

    Fun? Maybe. Time consuming? Yes.

    http://www.nsxfiles.com/Pyramid_of_speed.htm

  • avatar
    hurls

    OK Baruth… you win.

    I never wanted to like you after the high speed Phaeton troll..errr. article :)

    And the fact that you are a bit of a self-described a-hole.

    But you win. I read everything you write here without fail, and look forward to much more.

  • avatar
    jrlombard

    How does that old adage go? “If autocross was any easier, it would be called road-racing.” I kid, I kid….I would definitely qualify it as a motorsport, but certainly a different beast than door to door racing as Mr. Baruth describes.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    Speaking from experience with both, the biggest difference is that, despite the lower speeds, things happen much more quickly on an autocross course than on a race track. Straightaways are measured in feet rather than hundreds of yards. You are barely finished with the previous corner before you are into the next one.

  • avatar

    I have to disagree with you Jack.

    I’ve been autocrossing for 3 years. I just attended my first High Performance DE at Watkins Glen with the Niagara Region Porsche Club of America.

    Near the end of the second day, I let it slip that I was an autocrosser to my instructor (I didn’t want any pretensions or expectations).

    He said “Ahhh, that makes a lot of sense now. You have really good car control”.

    And that’s what an autocross will teach you – the skills don’t directly translate – you’re not going to perfect your apex skills or grow the brass balls needed to take the Glen’s Esses flat out. But you will learn car control – you will learn how to commune with your vehicle, how to use the throttle to steer, how to trailing lift oversteer, how to trail brake, how to control as grip is going away and regain grip, and just how much braking power you do have (until they fade, which was never a problem autocrossing).

    I’ve been told the following by quite a few people –

    “You can turn an autocrosser into a good road racer, you cannot turn a road racer into a good autocrosser”.

    • 0 avatar
      Atomicblue

      +1

      My thought exactly! I’ve been driving autocross events on and off since 1985 and car control is probably to most important thing I’ve learned. I’ve driven track day events to and while the speed is fun, it’s not the same feeling. Autocross can be very “manic” – constantly steering, breaking, accelerating in a blur of looking ahead and maintaining your line. I usually finish the run with my heart pounding.

  • avatar
    Boff

    I started autocross last year at age 40–my first crack at competitive motorsport after a lifetime of watching from the sidelines. It was the only form of motorsport my budget and schedule would allow. Autocross is very challenging and a hell of a lot of fun. It is a great way to discover just how difficult high-performance driving can be, but without any risk of killing yourself or wadding up your daily driver. So for me it was a big and useful reality check. It may not be a good training ground for the techniques of racing, but it is probably a great introduction to the discipline of racing. In that sense, it is fair to say it is a good place to start. If you have a competitive itch that needs to be scratched, as I do, HPDE won’t cut it. I’d like to move my way up to something like Spec Miata eventually…Solo Sprint (Solo I) and HPDE are the natural next steps.

    One thing is for sure, though…I no longer begrudge top-notch drivers their big egos.

    • 0 avatar

      Another good point – HPDEs don’t have any competitive aspect – they’re more a masturbatory exercise than anything – while autocross isn’t wheel to wheel, there is a competitive element.

  • avatar
    lilpoindexter

    If I could stay on the course, between the damn pylons, I’d be a great Auto crosser…

  • avatar

    So, Jack, the answer seems no, in the sense that people do not graduate from autocross to track. But on the other hand, something made you try it, didn’t it? Still, thanks for the article.

  • avatar
    Steve C.

    Autocrossing is motorsport, just like drag racing, road racing, time trials, oval racing, dirt track, rally, baja, monster truck racing, kart, snowmobile racing, motorcycle racing, motocross, supercross…

    Motorsport is not a single-peaked entity. In fact, you recognize that there is hierarchy even within autocrossing. The skills needed to be the NHRA drag racer are not nearly the same as the skills needed to be a WRC rally driver. Those two sets of skills are still different than those needed for F1. I could go on.

    There are base skills that many variants of motorsport require. Autocrossing uses and improves many of those skills. There are also many skills not necessary for autocross.

    I think it all boils down to your goals in motorsport. If your goal is to go wheel-to-wheel road racing, then HPDEs or karts are much better starting point.

    However, if you don’t have a specific desire to go wheel-to-wheel, then autocrossing is an excellent first step. I’d say it’s better for teaching those with little to no experience with the fundamentals of physics involved with performance driving, and, thus, better for truly “Average Joes” who’ve never driven in anger in their life.

    If nothing else, the low cost of entry in autocrossing cannot be beat. If you have a car and a license and $50, you can participate in your first autocross and have change to spare. Unless something truly unusual happens, you can be confident that you will be able to drive that car home with scuff marks and wounded pride at worst. A “real” track experience is a far more expensive and risky proposition.

    Track days start in the range of 3x the entry fee of an autocross. Add to that the cost of consumables. You can expect a set of tires to wear out in the course of half a dozen track days or less, whereas autocrossing can last a season or more, and drive on those same tires daily. Furthermore, brake pads for the track don’t work well on the street and vice versa. A good autocross pad will still be streetable, because autocross brake requirements are much closer to track brake requirements.

    So, road racing and autocross are different. That’s okay. From the financial commitments alone, you can be a casual autocrosser, but you cannot be a casual road racer. Therein lies autocrossing’s beauty and its Achilles’ heel.

  • avatar
    bolhuijo

    Wow, an article by Baruth where I agree with him and understand what he’s going on about. Nice going. I drove through 15 winters, loving every minute of sliding around and drifting through corners at the edge of traction before I ever saw an autocross course. Then I realized that autocross was like winter driving except with 10x the traction and 10x the fun. As a more even tempered, less psychopathic person, I find great pleasure in autocrossing, the social aspect of it, and watching regular joes like me run the piss out of whatever they brung. Developing extra low-speed car control skills is just icing on the cake.

  • avatar
    qfrog

    I’ve done both and I’m big on the HPDE but not so big on the AX. I’m at NHIS right now with ACNA-NAAC as proof of that. OK I’m not at NHIS as the track isn’t open at this hour but I’m at the hotel on the wifi. I’ll be back at the track in an hour.

    IMO the rush or excitement is different between the two. You’ve got your quick fix AX which is a moment of fun followed by a long dwelling of suck shagging cones for other hack drivers. Then you’ve got HPDE which gives the longer lasting rush about 20-30 times the duration and the speeds are MUCH greater. For me the HPDE is just right. You also get that 20-30min rush four or five times in a day for one to as many days as you can link together. In an AX event you may run for 20mins cumulative while at HPDE you will be on track for hours whittling away at details of your line lap after lap.

    What I’m not liking quite so much is the semi-manic flow of NHIS. My instructor characterizes this place as a super-autocross with elevation changes. I’m becoming inclined to agree. There are some road courses with more rapid fire technical turns which necessitate a higher rate of info processing and driver control inputs for the vehicle. There are other road courses with fewer driver control inputs required per lap and or more time between those inputs. NHIS brings some of that AX flavor to HPDE, a bit like a hint of wasabi on my last sashimi, you know the one adjacent to the bright green wad of nasty. I saw it coming but ate it anyways.

  • avatar
    BigDuke6

    An E-type a vintage car? I’m afraid not.

    Undoubtedly classic though.
    PLEASE tell us the difference between vintage and classic. oh Wise One……both are pretty vague terms.

    • 0 avatar

      Certain UK old-car wankers have carefully-spelled-out definitions for both of those terms (as well as “veteran” and probably a dozen others). Nobody else in the English-speaking world (or anywhere else) need care.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India