A Field Guide to Your first AutoX
So you’ve decided to get your feet wet into the insane rabbit hole that is Autocross. First let me say congratulations! You’re embarking on a journey that will test your mind, your skills and your ego in the comfort of an asphalt wonderland that is likely adjacent to a sports arena or a local Sears that has gone out of business.
This guide will help you ease into your newfound hobby and prepare you for what is to come.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT YOUR CAR
Autocross is far more hardcore than you can imagine, but at the same time it’s not very rough on your vehicle. If it’s in reasonably good shape it’ll do fine. Don’t worry if the tires are normal all-season models or if your car is bone stock. It will be fine! The main wear items for autocross are tires and brakes - they WILL wear down more rapidly than street driving but a few days of beginner autocross won’t really hurt anything. If you car’s suspension/wheel bearings/steering rack operates without hiccup going in, the car will survive the day just fine. PLEASE DO NOT FEEL THE NEED TO MODIFY YOUR CAR PRIOR TO AUTOCROSSING. There’s a lifetime of that later, but for now just show up and have fun.
IT’S FAR MORE FUN THAN YOU’LL EXPECT
I know what you’re thinking... How fast could you drive in a parking lot? A whole day of “performance driving” without clearing 60mph? Pfffft, you’ll likely go faster than that on your way TO the event. Don’t think of it as top speed. Top speed is for fast CARS, autocross is for fast DRIVERS. Trust me it’s absolutely hardcore. If you don’t believe me, imagine yourself on a normal day trying to drive through a full parking lot to find a parking spot… Now imagine doing it at 45mph instead of a walking pace. Seems insane, right?
PREPARE TO BE HUMBLED
As Paul and Todd have mentioned numerous times on the podcast, “WE” car people all THINK we are excellent drivers. Some of us are, and some are not. It’s just the truth. Regardless of your skill, you will NOT be great at autocross your first time out. It’s a totally different level of driving that you’ve never done before and takes some time to get good at it. So check your ego at the door and just have fun and be open-minded to the notion you AREN’T naturally gifted.
PREPARE TO LEARN
There is no better way to learn dynamics and car control than dodging cones at an Autocross event. You will be at the limit of the car almost immediately and constantly - at a speed that things happen JUST slowly enough that you can feel, observe, react and learn to catch it. You’ll feel things that you’ve never felt before while driving, and it’s only natural to NOT do it brilliantly. This is why you’re here.
DON’T BE TOO PROUD TO ASK FOR HELP
No matter who you are, there will be many people who are faster than you around the course. The quick reaction is to point to their cars and make the car the excuse that keeps you trailing behind them on the leader board. The reality is, it’s YOU that is holding you back. Talk to the fast people. Ask them to ride with you and help you show places that you could do better. Ride along with THEM and see what they’re doing that you aren’t. Eventually you’ll learn how to self-diagnose your faults and trouble areas, but when you’re new a veteran will be able to help immensely.
DON’T BE SHY
When self-described car people gather (often in a Taco Bell parking lot) they usually get into what we call “bench racing” - i.e. bragging about what their car (or they themselves) could do or can do. This braggioso behavior is absurd and pointless. But the macho ego trip makes for a somewhat hostile environment to newcomers. You’d naturally assume going to a competitive driving event would have a similar vibe. You would be wrong. I guarantee that at least 90% of the people attending your first autocross will be inviting, friendly, humble and eager to help you. It’s the opposite of Taco Bell. It’s an instant open door to REAL car people and they all will be your friend and support your new habit. Everybody wants everybody to go faster.
DO NOT UPGRADE ANYTHING ON YOUR CAR BEFORE YOU GO
I’ve seen this countless times and this will be covered in a later installment here, but the easy lesson is just don’t do this. The best way to modify your car is in reaction to what it needs. You won’t know what the shortcomings of your car are before you take it to an Autocross event and wring its neck out - so why do anything before? You’ll just be guessing and you MIGHT make it worse. Do yourself a favor - just show up and drive. Leave the modding for later. Ideally MUCH later. Trust me. If you want to have slightly faster times tomorrow and then hit a wall where you won’t go faster and won’t learn, by all means go buy tons of stuff. If you want to be a better driver and TRULY be fast, leave the car alone and just drive your first few times out.
Each organizer will have their own form of tech inspection. The basics are make sure the wheel bearings are in good shape, tires are ok and have good pressure, no loose items inside the car (trust me you don't want anything not tightly fastened bumping around in the car or trunk) and the battery is securely tightened down in the engine bay. Grab a nearby regular to help you go over this stuff the first time, they'll be happy to help.
Pack a bit like you’re tailgating. Bring lots of water, sunscreen, a big dorky hat, wet hand wipes, and some food if there isn’t places for lunch nearby. For your first time I’d recommend packing a lunch so you can spend more time at the event. Take that time you saved driving to subway and get a ride-along with the faster guys instead of ditching out to rush to go eat and get back. I’d recommend trying to ride with somebody with a similar (or same) car as you - at least the same basic layout. You won’t learn as much about how to get your FWD hatchback around the course riding shotgun in a Camaro as you would in something closer to what you’re in.
PREPARE TO LOSE TO A MIATA
I understand if this sounds blasphemous. Perhaps you’ve never understood the appeal of the MX-5. Whether it’s the image, the size or the modest power - it just CAN’T be that good, can it? No matter WHERE you are, there is at least one fast MX-5 at every autoX event. They aren’t ALL fast but most of them will shock you with how easily they can navigate the course and are giant killers when it comes to this sport. SO just be prepared, a Miata will probably destroy you regardless of what you brought your first time.
WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES
Be prepared to stand. Like, a lot. When you're not driving, part of your day will be working. Most likely, as a newcomer you’ll be working a corner on the course and resetting cones when they are hit. Don’t look it as a downer - in fact, this is a great time to learn. Watch what other people are doing. See where they go wrong. You’ll have the opportunity to watch 30-ish people do the corner(s) you had trouble with and sneak a peek at how you can do it better next time. But make no mistake - your feet will hurt by the end of the day. Wear good shoes. And sunscreen. And a hat - bigger and nerdier the better. Trust me.
You are basically getting a free pass to drive your car harder than you’ve ever dreamed of, and nice people will give you official times, free ribbons and advice. It’s awesome. You’ll be astounded how quickly you learn. You’ll be equally surprised how much less you knew that morning before the event. You’ll likely learn more about performance driving in one day than you have in the past 5 years. It is intoxicating, empowering and a real thrill. Enjoy.
Later on we can start talking about modification, classes, goals, etc. But for now, just go sign up and have fun.
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. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.