Please welcome Ryan Patrick Murphy to TTAC. A college professor and automotive enthusiast, he’s owned two E28 BMWs, a couple of M3s, and an old 911. Lately, he has been nursing a Land Rover Discovery back to health with the aid of a local junkyard. His first contribution is a tribute to those low-eyed, Tilley-hat-wearing, steering-wheel-jerking parking-lot rats known as autocrossers — JB (SCCA autocrosser since 2002!)
I’ve been participating in a form of motorsport called autocross for about three and a half years now. It is in some ways an odd and unfamiliar sport to the general public. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of describing it, and I’ve noticed that avid enthusiasts are very particular about the language they use when explaining it to others. Let’s imagine a hypothetical conversation:
Her: “So what do you do for fun?”
Me: “I race old BMWs.”
Me: (casually) “Yep”
Her: “Tell me about it!”
1. We go to a parking lot, set up cones, and then drive through them one at a time.
This makes it sound like we are reliving our high school driver’s ed experience . The disappointment is often visible – as though I’d suggested I like to lift weights, but then it was discovered that by ‘weights’ I meant those little purple hand weights old ladies flaunt on their morning walks.
Let’s go now to description number two, a more carefully nuanced explanation:
2. We compete in a timed event on a course which changes for each race. The courses are designed to be exceptionally technical driving challenges, which require an enormous amount of precision in terms of car control. Accelerating, braking, and steering all have to be done with great finesse, while trying to carry as much speed as possible. Times are measured to the third decimal point.
While both descriptions are accurate, the latter yields better responses, and, I think better captures the essence of the sport in terms of its technical rigor. You see, because there are no straights, the turns occur in immediate succession; one has to think about one’s line through them, so as to be in the right position for the next (much like thinking several moves ahead in a game of chess).
Naturally, speed is important—or it wouldn’t be much fun—but the trick is knowing just when and where to put it down. Moment by moment, one has to have an excellent feel for how the car is sitting on its suspension, what forces are already acting on the vehicle, and how much traction the tires currently have. For example: will mashing the accelerator right now cause the car to settle into the turn on its haunches and rocket out into the next turn on my desired line? Or, is the car already at the limits of adhesion, such that more gas will result in a lurid drift? While this might at least amuse the corner workers, it will cost dearly in time. Worse, though, and more likely, applying throttle may simply induce under-steer and cause me to plow dead-ahead into the next set of cones. It’s easy to drive a car fast on the freeway. But to be able to hustle a car through a course designed to keep it unsettled is a skill most drivers will never develop.
One of the things I find most fascinating about the sport though, is its unpredictability, and it is here that we encounter something of the sociological dimension of autocross. Cars are not mere appliances – they carry weight regarding our identities. We assess each other socially, culturally, economically, and aesthetically by the vehicles we drive. This dynamic—present during your morning commute—is only heightened at a driving event. The great thing about autocross is that there is not necessarily a correlation between whatever prestige your car possesses in your driveway or on the freeway, and how well you’ll do in the event.
On a race track, a fast car is typically a fast car – meaning, it will likely turn in faster lap times than what the general public would consider to be a slower car. On an autocross course, you’d be a fool to bet on the outcome without knowing the drivers – and because each course is different, you’d want to have driven that particular course before you speculated about outcomes. This is one of the most exciting aspects of attending an event: all the normal signifiers of a car’s performance must be suspended; that ratty old BMW 2002 might just turn in a better time than that supercharged E46 M3—then again, it might just blow blue smoke.
Several years ago, I attended an autocross school put on by my local BMW chapter. There was the usual delightful variety of machinery present: an E34 M5, an old Scirocco, a civic with giant slicks in the front, a host of E30s, a caged C6 Corvette – you get the point: enough diversity to satisfy any state university humanities department. As the day progressed, I watched a clearly well-loved pre-’85 944 whip up on a new V10 equipped M6. The latter was piloted by a fellow with leather gloves and new driving shoes, who was visibly displeased. He left at lunch. As the sticker says: “Anyone can drive a fast car. Not everyone can drive a car fast”.
Autocross is about having fun with your car in the company of great people. It’s also about learning that your limits as a driver are usually much lower than the performance limits of whatever you happen to have in the driveway.