The Art of AutoCrossing in the Rain
Let me just say this and get it out of the way: I do not particularly LIKE to AutoCross in the rain. It’s frustrating, far less fun, and isn’t my idea of a great way to spend a whole day. The driving dynamics are TOTALLY crazy as you would expect, being 10x more difficult to drive the course 20% slower than when dry. It is also quite terrible to be a corner worker for hour long heats when it’s cold and wet. At the beginning or tail end of the season the lower temperatures combined with all-day rain can be downright miserable.
Many people - even those that are registered and paid-in-full for an event - will wake up on the day, see a rainy day in the forecast and just cancel the alarm and go back to sleep. I totally get it. I’ve been there plenty of times and usually end up having a great relaxing day indoors as a result.
Having said that, I absolutely condone OCCASIONALLY ignoring that path and just heading out there and giving it a go. There is a lot of merit in performance driving in less than ideal conditions. When the limits are lowered drastically proper technique, braking, steering and throttle application are far more important. Being smooth in dry conditions is the key to being fast but when flying through damp pavement it’s essential.
Recently, I had signed up for the last local AutoX event in my area. More often than not, outdoor weekend plans in October near Chicago are cold and rainy. This day was no exception. With a 90% chance of showers with a high of 55 degree(f) weather in the forecast as of the night before, I wanted nothing more than to stay in my warm bed until at least 9:30am. However, with friends in tow, I was coerced into ‘manning up’ and was on the dark road to the event at 6:30am instead.
While the forecast originally suggested that it was going to rain the entire day, we were lucky enough to get 2 of our morning runs through before the rain fell. Not enough to get a properly great time - usually the first is a throwaway sighting lap and the next is only slightly faster approaching the edge. Our third was sprinkling and starting to give traction issues at a few places on the course but by-and-large I would call it pretty much a dry morning on course.
The moment we parked, the clouds did their thing and dumped rain the rest of the day. Which meant both our morning and later work assignment on the course was spent standing in the 50 degree windy rainy weather. It wasn’t pleasant to say the least.
In the afternoon heats, we once again fired up our cars and got into grid formation to run the .75-ish mile course a few more times in the pouring rain. Some entire corners were under water, there were splash puddles everywhere and a few braking zones were hydroplane sessions.
In terms of outright times, they were slow. My personal best wet time was twelve seconds slower than my best dry time so obviously no records were being set that afternoon and the best effort from our first few attempts would be the ones that would stay on the leaderboard all day long. In terms of success, these wet runs were worthless. However I probably gained more skill in that soggy afternoon than I had in the last 3 full events that were sunny and dry.
Trying to keep a car stable in these conditions is a constant struggle. It isn’t as slick as driving in the snow or ice but it is far less predictable than those winter conditions. In snow or ice, you KNOW you will slide and prepare accordingly. It’s not surprising to lose traction in the snow, so you just drive like you’re always going to slide and it’s actually kind of fun.
Autocross in the rain is different; the car will transition from having (nearly) maximum grip to completely ‘losing it’ at the blink of an eye. It happens quickly without warning and it happens maybe 25 or more times each run of the course. Sometimes in different spots around the course from run-to-run. You have to be SO in-tune with the car and what you’re doing so you can react quickly enough to keep the car stable and pointed in the right direction.
The first few times you do it, you’ll slide. You will spin. You will feel like it is an enormous waste of time. You came here to experience G-Forces and squealing tires, not spend the day sopping wet doing pirouettes with your car.
But it’s not a waste of time. It’s a terrific opportunity to find bad habits you never realized were there. If you have a habit of being jerky with steering input, you’ll see it blatantly upset the car. Perhaps you’ve experimented with trail braking but you didn’t realize that your newfound technique held onto the brakes a bit too long. Prepare to spin. There are countless revelations you’ll find out while trying to dodge cones in the rain that may have gone unnoticed for years.
Wet weather also does a great job of separating the modders from the drivers. A lot of people tend to throw money at their cars in order to “buy” performance. I have an entire article about this coming down the road, but the short version is that you can shave time down by throwing your wallet at your car. Raising the limits of everything with tires, suspension and engine power modifications WILL make you faster around the course but it won’t make YOU any better of a driver. A wet day exploits this ten-fold. The people who got fast from SKILL will likely destroy lesser drivers in the wet who bought mods to hide their lack thereof.
Now, I already admitted that I am not a fan of a rainy AutoX day. My friends who wouldn’t let me skip this recent one knew I’d be complaining a lot (I feel I kept it to a minimum if I’m honest). But I am glad they did. I had fun, and I have not done a wet AutoX in a few years. It was nice to dust off that skillset, and also great to see I (mostly) haven’t lost my touch. I ended up one of the faster wet times of the group on my last and wettest run!
I may drive a modified car, but I am 100% in favor of building driving skill more than spending money on parts. While it is easy to avoid wet motorsport activities, that really limits your growth as a driver. It doesn’t mean you have to go drive in the rain every single time on purpose or pretend you are going to absolutely enjoy it - but it’s just something you should not completely avoid. Wet clothes dry and cold hands will warm up again but the high-level skillset you will learn dodging cones in bad weather helps you grow and will stay with you a long time. It’s for your own good!
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.