By on July 14, 2013

Image courtesy the author.

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.”
Her: “REALLY??”
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.

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17 Comments on “Identity Politics and the Transgressive Nature of Autocross...”

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Yep, autocross is definitely fun when you’re in the car. Standing around on an asphalt lot when it’s sunny and 95F, not so much. Still, I enjoyed it the 2 or 3 times a year I went. (I would have gone more often, but the 4+ hour round trip blows up a whole day.)

  • avatar
    Peter Reynolds

    Autocross is a great way to learn car control and fine tune your car’s low speed handling.

    SCCA SOLOII course designers here in Northern California lay out great courses, but the disused airports that are often used for AutoX allow looooong flat featureless courses that can be difficult to follow. Walking the course to remember the turns is a big part of AutoXing that rewards drivers that can “read” the corners (good), but punishes drivers with poor memories (bad).

    I’d like to see long course designs that are reused (which I admit would be an advantage to regular competitors) or shorter courses that are easier to remember.

    • 0 avatar

      You can see people getting in the opposite direction at Castle from time to time. In such case it’s essential to broadcast the stop message to marshals immediately, who then wave flags and hopefuly stop the following cars.

      • 0 avatar
        bumpy ii

        Yep, seen a few folks get hopelessly lost in my time, but more commonly we had to throw the flags to buy extra time after someone wiped out half a dozen cones. One time I found a suspension bolt that fell off an RX7. We had to stop for 20 minutes to find the nut that went with it.

  • avatar

    Good post Ur-turn. Autox is a great way to have fun in a car. I unfortunately didn’t start until I was in my 60’s and ran a Miata, RX-8, Z4 and Cayman S over a period of 7-8 years until it became clear that regardless of the car, my reaction times couldn’t compete with the kids. But it was great fun while it lasted. And I love the line, “anyone can drive a fast car. Not everyone can drive a car fast.”

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      I figured out very early that I wasn’t going to beat anybody for time. (I believe I have a perfect record of driving the slowest S2000 at every autocross I went to.) So, I decided to have fun tossing the car around, and try to improve on my time each run. I usually did, unless I pushed too far and started smashing cones.

  • avatar

    I love cone-farming. A perfectly fun way to blow off steam that (hopefully) won’t ruin your car to the point where it is undriveable.

  • avatar


    I’d like an old 911 story please.

  • avatar

    The local autocross club around these parts had to crack down on any and all forms of drifting through corners, intended or not. The local JDM tofu delivery club decided they’d hone their drifting skills at the local autocross club, rather in the mountains of Japan, which are an ocean away apparently.

    Many cones and rear fascias were destroyed, so drifting was banned. Sad it had to come to that.

    • 0 avatar

      Sounds alot like snowboarding circa 85′ (I’ve never been snowboarding), but at first the mountains just banned them, then scheduled days, then finally the realization that the mountain could be shared by all (along the special one day a year mt. wachusett opened the slopes for sleding), now with drifting, cones and more than one car on the course???

      • 0 avatar

        The problem with the drifters is that they have virtually no driving experience and they’re trying to emulate something they watch on a cartoon or on F&F. Drifting isn’t easy and insurance costs are already high enough for a local autocross club that hasn’t had to file any claims.

        While I appreciate the drifting types willingness to learn somewhere off the street, a regularly sanctioned autocross event is not it. Maybe a special event can be held for drifting practice or something.

  • avatar

    I learned more about car control in the one season I drove my DD Integra GSR. I’d love to get back into it. Get myself a busted Fit or Mazda2, boneyard it into acceptability, ditch the interior, slap on some sporty 15″ Dunlops, and go to town.

  • avatar

    I’m in my 2nd season of autocross, and I love the look on the faces of the guys with R33’s, STi’s, vette’s and the like when they are 3-4 seconds behind a Civic Hybrid (with RA-1s on the oem wheel). Plus according to my GF it’s made me a better street driver too.

    Also, as a slow car owner, I really love the PAX factor (24th place to 6th or better in some cases)

    Now for some more camber and some Konis.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    Dr Ur Turn, welcome!

    Where are you located? I’d love to come by and witness an auto-x event, meet up, hang out. As it stands now, I’m at a crossroads with my old 911. Now that all the essential heavy lifting regarding maintenance and repair is done, time to decide: for the same amount of money, I can set it up for track driving events, restore it to a very nice daily driver. Or lastly, sell it and get a newish Boxster which my wife will drive in convertible mode and I as top-up only. Need to spend some more time at track events to see just how obsessively addicted I might become, budget time and money accordingly.

  • avatar

    I always describe autocross as “time attack on a temporary course.” Of course, I deal with a lot of teenagers and twenty-somethings in my job, so they are familiar with “time attack” (aka, time trials), and once I explain it’s fairly similar, just not on a permanent road course, they understand it a lot better.

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