By on May 11, 2015

Bark's Fiesta at autocross

Ever since I wrote this post about autocross back in November, there’s been something that has really bothered me about the way a lot of people responded to it. People seemed to have read the headline, reacted immediately, and then actively and somewhat irresponsibly made my post into something it wasn’t – I never said autocross was easy, or that it wasn’t a heck of a lot of fun, or that I was any good at it. I never said autocross was a bad idea, or a waste of time, or even that wheel-to-wheel racing was better. I just said it wasn’t racing – a statement, by the way, that the SCCA agrees with (they prefer to call it a “driving skill contest”).

Despite this, the responders on various forums (the post was shared over two thousand times) mostly fell into one of the two following categories:

  1. “That guy sucks at autocross and here’s my screenshot of one time that I beat him.” Duh. I specifically said I wasn’t that good at it. I’d like to congratulate you on your excellent reading comprehension. Of course, they cherry-picked results that supported their statements. They never took screenshots of the times I won trophies at both National Tours and ProSolos in highly subscribed classes. There was one guy in particular who was super excited to point out that he beat me by over a second at a local autocross. He also, of course, neglected to point out that I was co-driving a friend’s totally stock car (in a Street Touring class) that was nearly completely undriveable due to a combination of worn tires and stock suspension (my friend, who was a multiple national champion, actually finished behind me that day with all dirty runs). He also neglected to mention that, despite this, I beat his girlfriend by a large margin, but that’s probably because he didn’t want me to point out that I had a significant weight advantage over his girlfriend. That’s fine – if I can make somebody feel better about themselves, I’m happy to do it.
  2. “He’s right, and road racing is way better and manlier.” Come on, man. I didn’t say that. Both autocross and wheel-to-wheel racing have their own merits. I actually really like local autocross. I just feel like the people on the national scene take it a little too seriously at times. I mean, at the end of the day, we’re all still driving around a parking lot at speeds that wouldn’t impress your average teenaged Driver’s Ed student.

That all being said, there have been times in the last three years where I really missed autocrossing. Since I now have my Fiesta ST, which appears to be the car to beat now in SCCA “H Street” Solo, I thought I’d take it out to see how well it performed as a totally stock, out-of-the-box autocrosser. To find out, I headed over to my local region’s website and registered for the next autocross.

I have to admit, I was a tad curious to see how I’d be received by the locals. After all, I hadn’t autocrossed with them in about three years, and I wrote an article that appeared to many to diminish their favorite hobby. However, I needn’t have worried: they’re all much nicer and better people than anybody has to right to expect them to be. Think about it: the average autocross lifer is somebody who’s glad to give up his entire Sunday for the benefit of others. He’s up at 6 a.m., laying out a course with cones that he knows people are going to complain about because it doesn’t suit their car. Or he’s staying late to pack up the trailer, long after everybody has gotten their plastic trophies and gone home. He does this knowing he’ll receive exactly zero pay and likely zero thanks from his fellow competitors. That kind of person likely spends exactly zero time worrying what somebody like me thinks about him.

However, I was surprised to see how much of the club had turned over since my last event. Out of the fifty-seven participants, I probably only recognized a dozen or so. Of that dozen, at least ten of them made a point of saying how happy they were to see me out again. They shook my hand, came over and checked out the Fiesta, and wished me good luck. I replied I would definitely need it. Autocrossing isn’t like riding a bike, after all. It’s a skill that greatly diminishes with time. Besides, I’d never autocrossed a front-wheel drive car before. I was pretty certain I’d be giving a whole new crop of people a result they’d be able to screenshot for the forum of their choice. Oh, well – what the hell. Let’s go check out the course.

Hand-drawn track map

This is an approximate rendering of the course as drawn by the course designer, a local legend simply known as “Bucky” to all. As you can see, Bucky did a great job of including several different elements on a lot that is slightly larger than a Bolivian postage stamp. As I walked the course, I counted at least three corners that really made me think hard about how to enter and exit them, especially in a car about which I had very little knowledge of how it would behave.

My only other H Street competition for the day was a young man who had finished second overall in the previous event in his 2013 Honda Civic Si on BFGoodrich Rivals – in other words, he had real autocross tires. I had OEM Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tires on my whip that could best be described as “crap”, but which would actually be considered illegal at a national event because of their 140 treadwear rating. (This opens up another can of worms about the silliness of the SCCA rule book: how can a car be illegal for street class as it sits new on a lot?) I didn’t like my chances.

Okay, so I’m about a thousand or so words into this update and I haven’t mentioned anything about how the car performed. Oops. Let’s do that now.

054

For my first run, at approximately 10:30 a.m., there were still wet spots on the ground from the previous night’s rain and it was roughly 45 degrees. The Bridgestones did not care for that combination of conditions AT ALL. After I turned off AdvanceTrac completely for my first run, the tires spun on a 3,000 RPM launch all the way from the start to the first slalom cone, after which they clunked into place when I upshifted into second. The slightest nudge of throttle in the slalom threatened to send the back end around on me, so I settled in nicely at moderate throttle and headed out of the slalom into the first turnaround.

For autocrossing purposes, the Fiesta doesn’t need any more brakes than it has in stock trim. It quickly scrubbed off speed, and I was pleased by the low-end grunt of the EcoBoost in second gear as I came out of the left hander into the only straightaway on course. I came close to the limiter in second gear before getting on the brakes again for the sweeper in front of the trailer, tossing the car sideways and kicking the tail slightly out as I exited the turn. The torque vectoring is somewhat surprising if you’ve never experienced it; my initial reaction was to stop accelerating, but the Fiesta proved up to the task if I kept my foot in it. One can definitely feel the little Ford working to keep the right amount of power heading to the right wheel under slight shock compression, but it always feels sure-footed and steady, even as the Bridgestones gave way and started sliding a bit sideways.

I hit a cone nobody else hit all day; I crushed the entry cone as I came up to the final turn before the exit. Why did I do such a thing? Because the Fiesta goes where you point it. That section of the course was a bit off camber and I was expecting a bit of tail-happiness and slip sliding around the turn. Nope. The ST just stuck and turned. Oops. Plus one. I came in slightly faster than my competitor in the Civic for my first run, and he was also plus a couple of cones. Yay! I didn’t suck as bad as I feared I might.

With each run, I learned a bit more about what the Fiesta could and couldn’t do. I began to seriously curse the Bridgestones, as they simply weren’t up to what I was asking of them in the corners, especially with such little heat in them. Even so, the Fiesta showed it was the real deal. The suspension that can be a bit jarring on the open road is perfectly suited for a lower-grip autocross surface. It handled elevation and camber changes effortlessly. I think somebody could have a shot at a national trophy in one of these sleds with just a set of Bridgestone RE71Rs or BFG Rivals and some lightweight wheels. The car is so well-sorted out of the box it doesn’t need much else. In that sense, it reminded me of the Mazda RX-8 when it first showed up on the scene a little over a decade ago.

The young man in the Civic and I both found a little more time over our six runs for the day, but he found about eight tenths of a second more than I did and claimed the victory. After the first of two heats, he was second overall and I was fifth out of about twenty-seven cars. For a bone stock car with a rusty driver, I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Autocross results

The good news? If you’re just planning to go and have fun at a local autocross a few times a year, you can drive your stock Fiesta ST directly to the lot and have a blast. The car will easily handle the wear and tear of the event with minimal impact. The Bridgestones, while not super fun for autocross, could last through a couple of hundred runs and still have thousands of miles left for the street. You’ll be competitive with just about anybody, and you’ll be able to do it for nothing out of pocket other than your monthly Fiesta ST payment.

The bad news? I’m currently looking at wheel/tire combos online. I’m researching sway bars. I’m contemplating better shocks. I’m considering renewing my SCCA membership. I even put one of my old ProSolo trophy license plates on the front of the car.

You know why? Because the Fiesta ST reminded me of something I had forgotten somewhere on the way to one of those national events somewhere in the middle of nowhere: Autocrossing a good course with a bunch of good people is a pretty decent way to spend thirty-five bucks and a Sunday afternoon.

Curse you, autocross. I guess we haven’t broken up yet, after all.

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26 Comments on “Long-Term Tester Update: FiSTing Around at the Autocross...”


  • avatar
    jeanbaptiste

    Just out of curiosity, why the white out on the name on the results?

  • avatar
    tedward

    Great update, although it blows my mind that people would actually get that riled up about your previous article. I would live to try a set of rivals. I’m still running my z1 start specs but when they go… My one concern is wet performance with those based on reviews, but then I leave mine on all summer so my problem.

    What’s up with the torque vectoring here? Brake based? I think Ford and vw licensed the same tech for that generation car. It would be pretty cool to see a comparison between the three strategies on the market for this. Mechanical diff, abs tweaked open diff and haldex clutched open diff are all playing in the same sandbox for probably the first time ever.

  • avatar
    LeMansteve

    Looking at the car list: a 1979 Malibu? Also, the 2010 BMW 328is – On the E90/E92, I thought BMW NA only ever offered the 335 in “is” trim, and the 328is hasn’t existed in North America since the E36.

    • 0 avatar

      That Malibu is pretty bad ass. It’s actually a C Prepared car, but there aren’t any other CP cars for it to run against in that region.

      I hadn’t noticed the 328is model designation—I’m pretty sure you’re right about that.

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      GM’s G-Body has been the new ’69 Camaro for the past 2 decades for tinkerers looking to bash together a quick ride out of inexpensive domestic iron: the aftermarket support is matched only by Ford’s Fox-Body, and you can go from zero to hero with a quick crate engine swap if you’d rather not roll your own with a junkyard LSx or SBC. Front subframe kits can be had for either straight line stability or full road course flexibility, and the rear suspension can be tamed with readily available Watts link kits.

  • avatar
    SimRacingDan

    I only went back and skimmed the previous article, but it didn’t look like you explained how rally is racing and autocross isn’t. When they’re boiled down to their elements (one at a time, timed driving competition) they difference just boils down to the road (or lack thereof) driven on and the length of the stage.

    I’m sure the SCCA doesn’t call it racing for insurance reasons. :-)

    Anyway, you’re a real trooper to put up with a course like that one that loops back on itself and still only lasts 30 seconds. If you’re ever up in Massachusetts you’re welcome to co-drive with me at our airfield-based autocross where street tire times are usually 70-80 seconds.

  • avatar
    OzCop

    Good update Bark…thanks for giving kudos to those dedicated enough to the sport to get up early, drag a trailer to the event site, spend an hour or two tossing cones and tweaking a course they hope is fun, and acceptable to the masses. Plus, kudos to all the other dedicated folks setting up grid, paddock, unpacking/packing the trailer, setting up timing and communication equipment. That stuff doesn’t simply magically appear, and it is not an easy task.

    I read your previous piece regarding autocrossing/racing. Rational people understand the difference. Competition is competition, whether you are running wheel to wheel or against a clock, for 35 seconds per run to 2 minutes 35 seconds per lap…it’s all relative. Real gearheads could not care less the venue, and if your participation is limited or enhanced by the size of your bank account, everyone still has an opportunity to play. Admittedly, on the national level, the cost of participation is somewhat increased compared to the local autocross level, but still nothing compared to track days or racing participation…to each his/her own…

  • avatar
    NotFast

    I like the new era here: this story features the phrases “beat his girlfriend” and “wet spots”! :-)

  • avatar
    desob

    I still don’t know why people get riled up about Autocross not being racing. I use it to teach me car control under much tighter conditions whereas in track driving you can drink a soda and eat a sandwich between a lot of the transitions on a track. Auto-X is a great way to show yourself the limits of a car without hitting a tire wall at 100mph.

    That being said I also like Auto-X for the community feel as well. There are some really great people who foister that sense and are willing to lend advice and a hand when needed. At the local level it’s a lot like a family outing, people joking, talking and enjoying each other’s company while indulging their passion which is usually cars. Here where I live there are five Aurocross clubs so you can potentially run every single weekend and sometimes twice. I usually try to do one track day and two Aurocross every month. Great article, and don’t forget to let us know how you progress in the FiST.

    PS – TTAC ought to do a review of the SCCAs Track Night in America as well.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    So if the car is leased, can you upgrade the shocks and sway bars?

    • 0 avatar

      Absolutely. I’d just return it to stock before I turned it in.

      • 0 avatar
        ThirdPedal

        I can swap the fronts shocks in about 45 minutes per side, the rears in about 20 minutes.

        The e-diff isn’t a replacement for a real diff, but it’s great in sweepers. Just keep some throttle and the car will brake the inside wheel. Pretty useful, if hard on the brakes. Mine got hot enough that the center caps on my autocross wheels melted.

        Also, the FiST is stupid fun to autocross. Enjoy!

        • 0 avatar
          PrincipalDan

          Won’t the Ford Techs notice when they do routine service on the vehicle? Or don’t they give a s*&%?

          • 0 avatar
            danio3834

            Doesn’t really matter unless there’s a failure related to the modifications.

          • 0 avatar
            Nick 2012

            There are people swap sway bars in the parking lot between runs – it’s usually a few bolts. A tech would have to be ultra-observant to pick up the increased diameter, and the dealer would have to prove the aftermarket mod caused the fault that would have otherwise been covered by the warranty.

            I’m not mechanically gifted and wouldn’t try the shocks on my own without a lot of beer and a friend who knew what to do.

  • avatar
    Nick 2012

    The Potenzas also blow on my Accord. Thanks to the 2015 re-classing, there is little real chance at being anywhere close to remotely competitive in H-street now, with or without tires.

    My local chapter is full of good folks, but it can take upwards of 9-10 hours for 5-6 minutes of autocrossing time. Sinking an entire day and barely seeing my kids on the weekend is really tough to justify both abstractly and with the wife.

  • avatar
    Chan

    Another example of how track events can bring out the worst in car enthusiast culture. Sexism, armchair racing, disdain for certain types of cars, disdain for organisers and rules, generally judgmental behaviour and a testosterone-laden one-up mentality where every Bro has something to prove or an excuse to make.

    I’m afraid to just join an event to have an hour or three of fun. I want to explore the abilities of my car without people yelling “You’re slow and you suck and you’re wasting our time because blah 123 ABC blah” or even posting that on a discussion board the moment my presence at said event is known.

    Best to join as a club or group of friends with similar intentions.

  • avatar
    RonaldPottol

    It seems to me to correspond to kata (forms) vs sparing in the martial arts. You can legitimately say you are off to a karate competition for either, but essentially, kata is a subset of sparing, and autocross is a subset of the skills for racing.

    Looks like fun. And almost no chance of wadding your car.

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