by Nick Jenkins
Autocrossing has long been thought of as an entry-level step into wheel-to-wheel racing. Car-handling skills acquired on the solo circuit are often said to scale up well to the high-speed world of track competition. Thousands of autocrossers have successfully made the jump, which seems to bear this out. But what about racers moving to autocross? Is there a parallel? Can a track rat be a successful autocrosser the first time out?
In my experience, skills acquired on the track don't always scale down to autocrossing. If you think your track time gives you an edge over the experienced autocrosser, you may be surprised. Car-handling is similar, but there are a couple of significant differences:
- Autocross circuits are much narrower.
- Autocross circuits employ elements not found on a track.
- Racing is about settling the car, autocrossing is about transitions.
- The autocross circuit is different at every event.
To a racer, an autocross is a furious blaze of violent maneuvers, and then it's over. There's no time to think, plan, relax, check your gauges, or catch your breath. It's pure reaction and a lot of right-brain activity. There are drivers who are very, very good at it, and racers who aren't. That said, anyone with good car-handling skills can learn a lot of it, with enough practice.
All good autocrossers have one well-honed skill葉he ability to learn a circuit quickly. At an autocross, you're lucky if you get four laps熔n a course you've never driven before葉o turn a faster time than your competition. Even the best autocrossers can't do this blind, so the first thing to learn about autocrossing is how to read a course during the morning walkthrough. This isn't as difficult as learning a new racetrack, because autocross circuits tend to use a lot of the same elements, and all you need to learn is how to spot those elements and plan accordingly.
The square turn
The most common autocross turn is a right-angle with an apex marked by a single cone (or two cones side-by-side, to increase the penalty for apex clippers). There are only a couple of variations possible with this kind of turn. The most significant
variation is the difference between the width of the entry and exit straights.
On a track, the apex of a turn is a point somewhere along the inside berm, and there may be some debate among racers about where that point is. In an autocross, there's no debate葉he apex is the cone. But an autocross apex is not so much a point as it is an angle. What's the angle of your Miata at the apex? It's the angle that's critical. An early apex is defined as a shallow angle, and a late apex as a sharper angle.
Just like on the track, a slightly late apex lets you put down more power at the exit, so all things being equal, an apex of 50-55 degrees works pretty well. When the entrance and exit straights aren't the same width, however, the apex changes. In the diagrams to the left, the blue Miata is taking an early apex because it's turning from a narrow lane to a wide one. The red Miata is taking a
late apex because it's turning from a wide lane to a narrow one.
Lane width differences are one of the most important things you can pick up during the walkthrough. Just like on a race track, you want to have your gas pedal to the floor at the apex of the turn, but you can only do that if your apex angle is correct.
A slalom may be marked like the rest of the course用ylons on either side of a chalked path熔r it could be just a line of cones that you're expected to snake through. The two important things to remember about a slalom are how to get in, and how to get out. The middle is negotiated with as little car movement as possible. Don't think of it as a series of turns or esses, just a line that wiggles. Don't saw at the wheel any more than absolutely necessary.
If possible, charge into the slalom with as much speed as possible and brake as late as you can. You can't accelerate through it, so there's no point in setting up for it. Once you're off the brakes (or even before if you're left-foot braking), get on the gas to settle the car and maintain your speed. During the walkthrough, figure out the best way to set up for a fast exit, especially if you can carry that exit speed for even a short distance. Ideally, you want to have your foot on the floor as you're clearing the last pylon.
In a really nasty slalom, the cones aren't equidistant. If that's the case, your speed will vary considerably. Don't be afraid to brake or accelerate in the middle of the slalom.
Fun autocross courses try to have at least one good sweeping turn, something where speeds might approach 50 mph. This is one of the hardest elements of a course to figure out during the walk-through. The turn will have a true apex, but it won't always be obvious when you're on foot. It's often easier to read when you're charging into it at speed, using your own experience to judge the proper line.
That said, the same course-width comparison you used to evaluate right-angle turns will help you decide whether to apex early or late. On your early runs, take the turn a little faster than you think you can. It may surprise you. At an autocross, you don't have a lot of opportunties to work up to speed, so start out fast and slow down only if fast doesn't work.
These are the key things to look for in your walk-through. You probably won't be able to remember everything about the course, so try to focus on two or three key areas where you feel most of the time will be made or lost. And try to remember where the course goes容ven veteran autocrossers occasionally miss a gate or end up off course on their first lap of the day. At the starting line it's just a sea of random cones out there, so try to remember at least where the first half of the circuit goes.
For the most part, your race-track car-handling skills will serve you well on an autocross course, although you'll feel much more confined and restricted. You'll probably also feel like you're constantly sawing at the wheel, and your
suspension is always in transition. Because of this, turning your adjustable shocks all the way up may give you an advantage. Just like in racing, smoothness is key, but you need to do everything a lot faster. On a track, you make small adjustments to the wheel in a turn. In an autocross, before you get much chance to correct your line, the turn is done. Because of this, it's easy to over-control.
Don't worry so much about getting the line exactly right. Obviously a better line will mean lower lap times, but if you're set up for a turn and you find you're not on the perfect line, don't try to fix it. Just keep your foot on the floor and be smooth. Correcting at these speeds will lead to scrubbing, and that will cost you time. You don't want to punch out any pylons if you can help it, but correcting will slow you down, and in the early laps it's your time that's important, not your penalty. Similarly, it's not necessary to clip every apex. Shoot for getting within a foot of the cone. Instinct and experience will take over from there.
Once you're in second gear, you won't have to shift again, so forget your heel-and-toe technique. Brake hard in one short burst, then get on the gas. In an autocross, there's a definite advantage to left-foot braking, but only if you're experienced with it. Like a go-kart, left-foot braking lets you keep your engine in the power band at all times, improving acceleration out of turns. It takes a lot of practice before you can do it smoothly enough to actually improve your lap times, though.
Out on the course, you really won't have a lot of time to think, particularly with the methodical and logical left side of your brain. Your right brain and muscle memory will be directing your movements, based partly on what you remember from the walk-through, and partly on what you remember from past experience with the car. Some autocrossers talk to themselves as a way to keep the stream-of-consciousness and right-brain focus going. A repeated mantra, like "be smooth", works for others. Whatever you do to keep your concentration, rest assured you won't have to do it for very long.
Most importantly, have fun. You may feel autocrossing doesn't give you a lot of seat time for your money, and you'd be right about that. But it's still a very enjoyable activity in it's own right, one that exercises skills you don't often get to use on the race track.