- Nate Kuhn
A beginner’s guide to Autocross
Autocross is a very strange hobby. I’ve tried to explain it to people and more often than not I find them glazed over shortly after I begin describing it. They just don’t get it. I’ve even used the analogy of “a competitive dog agility course... but with cars” to help people understand. Closer… but it rarely sinks in. Everything about it sounds silly and lame. And trust me, I totally get it. I think it’s because the average person truly believes they are a skilled driver and have pushed a car “hard” before, and this is almost never true.
To the uninitiated, it’s hard to understand the appeal of driving around cones in an empty parking lot. It’s genuinely hard to visualize and even in person it looks kind of slow from the sidelines. Rarely peaking 55mph? Pfffft. Admittedly from the sidelines it doesn’t sound very exciting. EVERYBODY has gone faster than that in their own car, how could it be a competitive motorsport?
But, have a skeptic ride shotgun on a single run, and they will change their mind very quickly. Autocross is SO fast from inside the car. It’s so ‘eventful’ in that there is not a moment of downtime where you aren’t changing direction, hammering the brakes or flooring the accelerator harder than you’d ever do on the road. It is far more hardcore than the basic description would have you believe. It’s genuinely manic, thrilling, and giggle inducing. I think that EVERY car enthusiast needs to try it.
There are plenty of things about Autocross that make it really wonderful, but there are a few that make it a no-brainer to try out: Ease of entry, return on investment and worry-free performance driving.
It’s easy to get into because it’s roughly 30-40 bucks to sign up for a local event. There are many different types of hosts that range from pretty low-key to pretty serious. They’ll all welcome newcomers and are all viable options to have a great time. And unlike what you may think, the regulars are almost always ELATED to see new people coming in to try out their sport.
55mph feels properly fast in a parking lot doing U-turns
The first time I went to an Autocross event, I had anxiety about not knowing what I was doing and that I’d be in the way. I was also worried that I would embarrass myself. I couldn't have been more wrong. There is almost zero bragging and zero egomaniacs at any given Autocross event. I now think it is because everybody was new once - they all remember the way it felt and want to help everybody else get better and faster. I got high fives from strangers as I shed a few seconds off my early (poor) runs. Plenty of these new friends were more than helpful to answer any questions I had (or didn’t know enough to ask).
You also don’t need to do much of anything to participate. You don’t need a fancy car. To somebody who is just trying it out for the first time, you’ll have AMAZING fun in that hand-me-down automatic Toyota Corolla you drive to school or work every day. Who has ever said that with a straight face before now? Don’t feel that you need to have some flashy sports car to show up and not be embarrassed. Honestly, the regulars will be more excited and interested to see how a garden variety Acura TLX will handle the day’s course than the 14th BMW of the day.
You also don’t need to buy anything for your car in advance. Don’t start modding your car with what you THINK you need just to show up and try out Autocross the first time. I’ll touch more on this later, but TRUST ME. Just drive there, make sure your tires are inflated, your brakes work and it isn’t leaking any fluids. Also, empty out the car and trunk and cabin of anything that isn’t bolted down. Also remove any ego about you being the greatest driver on the planet and just listen, follow instructions and be open to learn. You will see nerdy middle aged men in a clapped out Miata that will ASTOUND you with how much better they are behind the wheel than you are, so just stay humble for the day.
My biggest advice to a newcomer is to not care about your results. There are obviously people who are naturally better drivers than others but trust me when I say that NOBODY is great at Autocross the first time(s) they do it. Which is fine, because in my opinion, there is no greater place to learn car control on your own than dodging cones at these events. You spend the entire time right on the limits of the car and get to play around with what happens when you go too far. Instead of worrying about an accident, you get to do this in a nearly consequence-free environment. No traffic, no police, no guard rails. Just a few orange cones to plow through if you mess it up, but what you’ll learn while participating is light years beyond anything you can find out on the street.
Shown: Huge smile from having TONS of fun in a car without worry. Not shown: Mandatory Helmet which was put on before driving again.
Your first Autocross will be a wake-up call. You will INSTANTLY be doing things in your car that you’ve never even thought of trying before. You will blow a few corners and DNF the course. You will understeer on dry pavement in ways you thought weren’t possible without black ice on the road. You will be amazed how much braking, turning and accelerating you can do in 56 or so seconds per run. You will also feel a crazy rush of excitement and be humbled as you instantly realize how little you knew about car control until now. It’s genuinely eye-opening and I’m pretty sure you’ll love it.
In future installments, I’ll discuss tips, modding strategies, tire pressure, great Autocross cars, tires and more. But for now I urge you - go find a local event to sign up for and have a blast.
I write and I know things. I am also the resident motorcycle expert at Everyday Driver - check out the Cycle Report on our YouTube channel ( www.thecyclereport.com ). The views and opinions expressed here are my own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.