Sight Reading: The most overlooked skill in Autocross.
Autocross has a unique trait that drag racing or track driving do not share. There’s a huge skill of learning that comes into play here that cannot be overlooked which is Sight Reading. I grew up playing music and Sight Reading is simply anytime you play a song for the first time along with sheet music. Being a good sight reader requires you to know your instrument SO well that you can NEARLY play the notes as they’re meant to be played as you read them that first time. Some people are better at it than others, and just as in music, Sight Reading is a very important skill in autocross success.
Unlike returning to a familiar race track to do more laps, in autocross the course will be different each time. There may be similar corners or maneuvers that you’ve done before but it won’t ever be identical to anything you’ve done prior to that day. So, aside from the main goal of fast technical driving, a huge component to your success is how quickly you can learn the course well enough to execute it as efficiently as possible. Like nearly anything worth learning, this is something that takes time and practice to become proficient at.
In a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) sanctioned autocross event, you will only get 6 attempts to post your fastest time. That is not a lot. But this challenge is also the point; they recognize that a great portion of skill is shown by adaptation. It’s something I USED to hate about autocross when I always felt I could’ve done better with a few more tries. As I’ve grown as a driver I have come to not only accept, but appreciate this hurdle.
When I first got started, I used to take a while to “get” the layout. Sure, I’d memorize it enough to know where the next gates were and not DNF too often, but so often it wouldn’t be until the last run or two of the day where i was truly linking the corners together and doing what I call “attacking” the course instead of just surviving it. Honestly, it was a couple of seasons into the hobby until I ever found my attack mode. It really isn’t until that “Attack Mode” happens that you can do very well at all competitively, so getting there as quickly as humanly possible is important. The good autocrossers start there after one or two runs, giving them MOST of the day’s runs to shave off time. It is an earned advantage that puts them into a place of success.
So how do you do it? Well, part of being a good “Sight Reader” as I call it is partially due to talent. But there are a few things anyone can do to help.
First, don’t sleep on course walks. This is a HUGE place to start your day off right. Too often I see people treating track walks like a social party and just follow a crowd through the cones. Chatting about what happened last night won’t help you focus and concentrate, and by the end of the day these are usually the same people who DON’T go home with a trophy or a ribbon.
My advice for course walking is to do it at least twice. As soon as you can, take one walk through. Don’t worry too much about detail; just make sure you remember the layout, order and direction. After this first walk, if asked you should be able to draw the basic course layout on a cocktail napkin without looking. That drawing doesn’t have to be technically accurate, but you should know the order of corners and overall shape so you aren’t guessing if the next is a right or left if you were to drive it right then and there.
During my first course walk, I don’t mind going with one or more friends and chat a BIT. You’re only ‘studying for a passing grade’ on your first walk, so enjoy yourself. But do pay attention. After that, go get your car ready. Check your tire pressure, clear out your trunk and interior for loose items. Make sure you take a moment to relax.
Sometime before the driver’s meeting (which usually leads directly into the course going hot), take another walk through the course. But this time walk it ALONE. Because this time through, you need to concentrate.
Now that you know your way around, this time try to think about visualizing yourself going through the course. Where will you brake for the tight corners? Where/when will you make that crucial 1-2 shift? Which direction will you go first in the slalom? Is there any tricky section that you should think about how to ‘find’ the next gate? These are all things to have ready for your first run or two when it comes time to drive.
Stop at each gate and look backwards. Picture coming into this gate from the prior one and ask yourself a few questions that will help you. Approximately how much speed will you be carrying here? Where would be a good position to set yourself up for the next section?
I absolutely do not think you can know all the right answers to these details without driving the course. Much of it will be a guess & test experiment. BUT, at least THINKING about it before you start and trying to get as close as possible on your first run or two can help dramatically. You’re preparing as much as possible to get a DECENT run right away, so you can spend the rest of your attempts fine tuning instead of making huge corrections all day long.
As in Music, the other half of sight reading in autocross is knowing your instrument. This comes with time. You won’t be able to anticipate how your car will behave until you have some time behind the wheel. Every time you autocross with the same car, you will use less of your brainpower trying to figure out what the car is going to do and more of it on the task at hand.
This goes with modifications too. Simply changing a setting on coilovers can change how a car behaves enough to change your line, let alone a set of different (more sticky) tires will. The more often you run the car in a similar or the very same setup, the better you will be able to Sight Read. If you constantly tweak your car then at every event you’re not only chasing a new course but a car that behaves differently than the last time you drove it. You’re burning the candle at both ends. And if you get a new car, you can forget about any muscle memory - you’ll be largely starting from scratch for a while.
So who is usually the fastest person at any given autocross event? Somebody who not only is a skilled driver, but one who learned the course quickly in a car they know VERY WELL. The people who can Sight Read well by knowing their car and planning ahead have a HUGE advantage when it comes to maximizing 6 runs in one day.
There’s a lot that goes into a great autocross run, but the real tip here is that Sight Reading can be a huge advantage and I highly suggest paying more attention to this crucial step the next time you’re dodging cones.
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.