Back in 2006, when I started autocrossing my Mazda RX-8 on stock shocks and Dunlop all-seasons, I took great pride in telling all of my friends that I was “going racing” each weekend. They would look at me in awe, and say, “You race cars?”
“I sure do,” I would reply, and I then I would show them pictures of my car, resplendent with number and class magnets. I usually neglected to mention that I never got out of second gear during these “races,” or that I typically drove faster on the way to the event than I actually did at the event. Nor did I mention that these “races” tended to occur in parking lots, and that most of my competitors were dorky, middle-aged men with social anxiety disorder who wore funny hats and jorts.
No, I let them have their image in their mind of me as a modern-day James Hunt, a fast-living, hard-drinking rebel who carelessly risked his life every weekend in the name of glory and passion. What’s worse, however, is that I started to believe some of my own fiction. I really thought I was racing.
Frankly, I was never all that great at autocross—I trophied at several national tour events and pro solos, but I was never a contender to win a national title. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it immensely…or at least, I thought I did. No, actually, that’s not true at all. I hated it.
Here’s why: National-level Autocross can best be summed up this way—you spend incredible sums of money and drive thousands of miles to spend six minutes driving your car at relatively low speeds around a parking lot. The rest of your day is spent standing out in the middle of the parking lot and picking up cones that other drivers knock over. If you win, you probably had a good day. If you didn’t, you’ve got to drive those same thousands of miles home replaying your runs over and over in your head, wondering where you lost that two tenths of a second. However, you’ve got a pretty good shot at winning because there are 236 different classes.
Of course, this is a simplified and not entirely honest description. The speeds, while low, do seem very fast when you’re inside the car. The driving does require very precise inputs and footwork, and I have great respect for those who do it well.
The SCCA National Solo circuit is full of really good people. They compete in earnest, and they are mostly supportive of their competitors. They hardly ever cheat, and even when they give lifetime bans to competitors for cheating, they don’t really mean it. One gets the feeling that they are largely the kind of people who were slightly socially awkward in high school, but they have now found a group of a couple of thousand kindred souls who find solace and joy in tinkering around with cars and shaving thousandths of seconds off their course times.
I don’t mean to rob any of them of their joy in what they do, but every time I see a Facebook status update from an autocrosser saying, “I’m going racing in the morning!” I have to seriously restrain myself from saying, “No, you aren’t!”
Autocrossers love to talk about how much skill and car control is involved in their hobby, and how they see more turns than an F1 driver does, and how the course is different every time. I can’t dispute any of those points.
However, it isn’t racing.
Wheel-to-wheel racing requires every skill that autocross does, and sometimes exponentially so. In addition to those skills, a racer must learn how to drive in traffic, how to execute a pass, how to drive the course when his preferred line isn’t available, how to avoid a spinning car in the middle of the track, and how to drive at speeds that are more than double the fastest speed any autocrosser will ever experience. But that’s the least of his worries.
He must conquer fear.
Autocrossers don’t have walls to deal with. They don’t have multiple car crashes. They don’t have to worry about totaling a perfectly good car. They don’t have to worry about injury or death. They simply put on their open face helmets and drive. And that’s why it’s not racing.
Every time I frantically strap myself into a car during a driver change of an enduro race, I wonder: Is this the last time I will do this? Even if I drive perfectly, will another driver take my life in his hands today? Even though we’ve checked the brakes and tires compulsively, what if one of them fails and sends me hurtling toward a steel barrier? What if, God forbid, I endanger another man’s life with my mistake?
I keep waiting for that fear to subside. It never does. And I don’t think it ever will.
I could see myself autocrossing again for fun someday. The SCCA has re-classed the Boss 302 into the class where it should have been all along, F Street. But, if somebody asks me what I’m doing that weekend, I will say, “I’m going autocrossing.”
This article originally appeared at www.barkm.com