There are two things that all men think they’re good at: sex and driving. While I won’t make any comment on the former, I can tell you, with absolute certainty, that most of you are really bad at driving. Sure, if you consider going back and forth to the grocery store and back without too much trouble, or putting the accelerator pedal to the floor and making very loud noises “driving,” then you’re probably okay. But any sort of combination of braking, turning, hitting apexes, tracking out, transferring weight, heel-toe shifting… yeah, you’re not good at that.
But before you get all mad at me and rush to the comments to make remarks about my mother — relax. Nobody is naturally great at performance driving. It’s a learned skill, just like anything in life. And while many of us might be hesitant to take a daily driver that’s currently on its 14th of 60 payments to the track, there is likely a place near you where you can learn some of the basics of enthusiastic piloting in a safe and friendly environment. Chances are that your local Sports Car Club of America region has an Autocross School with hotshoes who are ready to sit in your passenger seat to help you improve.
My local region, the Central Kentucky Region, hosted just such a school a few weeks ago, and I enthusiastically offered to be one of the coaches.
Talk about being careful what you wish for. I now have about 40 questions in my inbox for “Ask Jack,” with more steadily trickling in. I’m going to answer all of them, either here or via e-mail, and in a semi-timely manner to boot. So don’t be afraid to send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m ready, and waiting, to give you the kind of bad advice you can only get from somebody who’s crashed more marriages than he has crashed race cars!
Hi Jack. In keeping with the mantra, “Want to be a better driver? Get a worse tire,” I do indeed want to be a better driver. Specifically, a better autocross driver. I’ve run the original equipment, 600-treadwear tires on my ’14 Honda Civic Si for my first four events. I suck, but I’m steadily improving with every event. I can get one, maybe two more events out of these tires before they’re down past the tread-wear markers. All the instructors I’ve driven with say the same thing: get Potenza RE71s because the tires I have are costing me 2 to 5 seconds. That gap would have gotten me on the podium at the last two events. But I know I’m still leaving seconds out there due to my inexperience. Should I go Potenza when I replace the tires?
This is the sort of question I love to get — thoughtful, easy to understand, and right in the proverbial wheel house. Even better, the answer to the question will be useful to many of you, even if you have no idea what an “autocross” might be.
In case you haven’t heard, the Southeast is pretty much being destroyed by a Category 4 hurricane as we speak. My own father, who art in Hilton Head, was forced to evacuate from his home near the coast and retreat inland — all the way to Atlanta, which was the closest city with any hotel rooms available. But the whole city is now sold out, and the closest hotels available are now in Tennessee.
These displaced people have no idea what’s awaiting them at home. They might have nothing left to go home to. But one autocrosser gives zero fucks. He’s ready to chase cones, and those displaced people better not be affecting his “race.”
“Hey!” Across the parking lot, my brother was yelling at somebody. “HEY! DO YOU HAVE A FLAG AT THAT CORNER? YES? YOU DO? YOU REALLY HAVE A FLAG? ARE YOU SURE? ABOUT HAVING THE FLAG? YES? THEN WAVE THE FUCKING THING NEXT TIME, YOU IDIOT, SO NOBODY GETS KILLED!”
It was ninety-four degrees at noon, with no shade available anywhere, and tempers were flaring. My son was sitting a hundred feet away in Bark’s Fiesta, making a waving motion at me that I interpreted as If you don’t leave your corner station and get me water, I’ll die in this hot car like a dog. But then he gave me a thumbs-up, which my paranoid mind interpreted as I just want to let you know you’re a great dad… before I die from the heat.
This was shaping up to be the worst autocross ever. For some of us, anyway. For my brother, who had already said that he wanted to go home at lunch. For my son, who was dying of heatstroke. For me, too; my leg hurt like hell wouldn’t have it and I felt sick to my stomach. Most of all, for the thirteen extremely annoyed men in their M3s and STIs and whatnot who were being taken to school by Danger Girl. For her, it was the best autocross ever. But it would get worse.
It’s a plotline straight out of a Nicholas Sparks novel, albeit one with some help from Garth “The Art Of Racing In The Rain” Stein: A single mother in her early 30s meets a dashing, selfish, adrenaline-junkie on a blind date. A few months later, they’re in a terrible car crash that NEARLY KILLS HER, but she tirelessly rehabilitates for two long years so they can GET MARRIED IN THE DESERT right before running off to her debut in SCCA Solo II Autocross. Her husband agrees to return to autocross with her even though he was BANNED FROM ANNOUNCING IN A TRAGIC FEELINGS INJURY and hasn’t competed in FIVE YEARS. So he TAKES THE CAR COVER OFF HIS OLD PORSCHE JUST LIKE SWAYZE IN ROADHOUSE and follows her to the event.
But then there is RAIN. But she WINS HER CLASS anyway! And her husband SNEAKS INTO THE ANNOUNCER’S CHAIR! And then he WINS A THIRTY-CAR CLASS DESPITE HAVING NOT AUTOCROSSED IN A LONG, LONG TIME. And then they go home so they can OPEN THE GARAGE DOOR, HAND IN HAND, and GAZE TOGETHER at his SON’S NEW 50CC RACING KART and you JUST KNOW that EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE.
That was the plan, anyway. And it was going very well, up to the moment when my OLD PORSCHE decided to EJECT ITS HEADLIGHT FOR NO REASON.
TTAC Commentator NotAPreppie writes:
Hey Sajeev … or Sanjeev … I’m not feeling picky,
Am I insane for considering buying the same Mazda RX-8 twice? Alternate title: A car so nice I want to buy it twice. (Thanks for that – SM)
Backstory: Three years ago, I sold my daily driver and autocross car (2005 Mazda RX-8 Sport) to a car club buddy when living and going to school near downtown Chicago meant that it sat in a parking garage for months on end (physical chemistry was intense). I graduated and got a job a year ago and bought a new autocross toy: a 1995 Miata, now with 70k miles.
The Miata has turned out to be something of a mongrel. Anywhere fluids can leak, they have. Not having a garage to wrench on the car myself, it’s nickel-and-diming me to death. Also, I’ve discovered that while it’s a Great Car™ during the 60 seconds of an average autocross run, it’s pretty awful to live with day to day. Maybe if I didn’t live in a major metropolitan area, I’d see the appeal of a soft top. To add insult to injury, I think it aggravates my sciatica.
The year was 2008. I was working the course at the SCCA Toledo Pro Solo during the Ladies’ class runs. For those of you who don’t know what a Pro Solo is like, I’ll try to explain quickly. It’s a mirrored autocross course with two competitors, one on each side. Instead of being waved onto the course by a flagger, like in a regular autocross, there’s a drag tree that starts the drivers. It’s the closest thing to “racing” that you’ll find at an autocross.
As I watched one particular pairing of cars leave the line, I noticed that one of the cars, a Mini Cooper S, was getting up on two wheels in the first 3-cone slalom. As the car rocked back and forth from the left two wheels to the right and then back to the left, the front left wheel bent and caught the cement, tripping the car and causing it to flip forward. It bounced off of its roof, and ended up landing on its wheels, facing back toward the starting line.
Smooth is Fast.
Slow Hands on Corner Entry.
Slow In, Fast Out.
The Holy Trinity of proper racing technique is completely wrong — at least if you want to be a champion driver. Onboard videos from F1, WRC and the various touring car series show there is so much more to it. The racecar is thrown into corners with supreme confidence and caught with the deft but quick hand movements that seemingly defy all laws of physics, running completely counter to the smooth is fast dogma.
So why do modern ultra-competitive racing techniques look nothing like what you were taught in driving school or read in a book?
The answer lies mostly in reducing the transition times between maximum acceleration and maximum cornering.
I currently drive a 2007 G35S that works great and has been dead nuts reliable since I bought it lightly used a couple of years ago. It also works just fine for my duties of pickup/drop off of my toddler at daycare. Despite being plenty quick, it’s kind of dull. I really miss having a daily driver that doubles as an autocross/occasional track-day car.
A few weeks back I attended a ford ecoboost event and got to hustle a Fiesta ST around an autocross course. I was pretty impressed and now I’m strongly considering switching over. I also like that it gets ~50% better fuel economy and the 17″ wheels mean cheaper replacement tires than the staggered 18″ setup on the G35 (plus, I think I may be harder on tires than most). Lower running costs wouldn’t hurt my feelings one bit.
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!”
There was some mild consternation among the Best&Brightest when I admitted to left-foot braking the Focus SE in traffic. To a man (or woman), our readers were not pleased at the thought that I might be bumbling along a freeway at ten miles per hour or so, alternately pressing the brake and accelerator with one foot per pedal. One wonders what they might have made of LJK Setright’s famous assertion that he occasionally drove cross-footed, pressing the accelerator with his left foot and the brake with his right, “to ensure that driving is a conscious, not unconscious, activity.”
In any event, I would suggest that there is one scenario where you may left-foot brake, one scenario where you should, and one where you absolutely must not, and I’ve detailed them below.
Your humble author has usually struggled as a National Solo driver, but I’m not ashamed of losing to these guys; some of them are the finest technical drivers in the world and even the worst National Solo driver is usually pretty decent. If you’ve ever wondered how you would stack up, now’s the time to find out.