Autocross Primer
An in-depth guide to your virgin autocross

Joey Proulx

Perhaps the greatest way to foster a relationship with your car is to participate in an autocross. Also known as Solo 2, autocrossing is a safe, legal way to learn the limits of your car, fine-tune your driving abilities, and have fun at the same time. No matter where you live, there's probably an autocross going on somewhere nearby. Below is a comprehensive listing of everything you need to know going into your first autocross. Print it out, laminate it, and tape it to the ceiling above your bed. Let this be your mantra.

Finding a race

There are many sites that have listings of races. A good place to start is http://www.autocross.com. The largest sanctioning body in the US is the Sports Car Club of America, or the SCCA, and they can be found at http://www.scca.org. The SCCA has a bazillion regional divisions, and you can search for them on their website.

One month before the race

Make sure you're aware of the date, time, and location of the race. If your organization doesn't offer directions on their webpage, ask people who have raced there before, or visit mapquest.

Now is a good time to make sure the car is in good running order. Large projects, such as engine swaps, FI installs, and suspension overhauls should be done now to avoid last-minute problems.

Start recruiting your other friends to go with you, because it's always more fun to look stupid when your friends look stupid, too.

Two weeks before the race

Again, all major work should be done. Annoying squeaks, rattles, and clunks should be diagnosed now. The body in your trunk should be removed to allow for ample "stink-removal" time. Basic jobs like brake pad replacement, header installs, and other routine maintenance should be done now to allow time for stuff to not work. Learn from my mistakes - replacing brake pads the morning of an autocross and bedding them in on the way is not much fun - not to mention stupid. Give yourself plenty of time.

Continue to harass your friends to go racing with you and, if necessary, start calling them names. Anything to goad them on so that they will want to prove they are a better driver then you.

Day before the race

Inspect your car - again. I'm talking fine-tooth comb. Tires have good tread? Engine running good? Fluids topped off? Make sure everything is working fine. It would really suck to drive two hours to an autocross and realize you have a coolant leak.

Also, if you haven't gotten directions yet, do it now. Re-check the date and time, as the event may have been cancelled, the time may have been changed, or the location switched.

Another thing you'll need to do is figure out what class your CRX is in. Below is a list of stock CRX models and classes:

1g (84-87) Base model - E Stock
1g (84-87) Si - E Stock
2g (88-91) HF - E Stock
2g (88-91) DX - E Stock
2g (88-91) Si - D Stock

If you have some modifications, you may be in Street Prepared. Suspension mods, intake, and headers will bump you up to SP. Engine swaps and the like will toss you in Modified, so enjoy. There are some mods that are acceptable in stock class. When in doubt, ask a seasoned veteran, or ask on the Performance Forum.

Also, now is a good time to load your car (and a backpack) with tomorrow's essentials. There is a very comprehensive checklist located here. I usually pack my car the night before, as you'll usually have to be up very early in the morning, depending on how far away the autocross site is. It's not a bad idea to make a lunch, either, as work and race schedules may prevent you from leaving the site. It's also not a good idea to drive to McDonalds on race tires, assuming you have some.

Begin calling your friends a couple hours before bed to ensure they will be there. This works best if they have their own line. Call at 15 minute intervals for a couple hours, even if they aren't going. Now is a good time to start harassing them about their lack of dedication to the friendship.

Morning of the race

The big day is here!!

Assuming you packed your car the night before, you should be ready to go. A good breakfast is a good idea, since you may not have a break until mid-afternoon. I usually bring a cooler with sandwiches, snacks, drinks, and fruit to munch on before and during the race. Try to avoid glass bottles, too.

Try to be there at the start of registration, usually between 7 and 9am. Ideally, you want to arrive with enough time to register, empty your car, put it through tech inspection, and walk the course. Rushing at the start of your first autocross sucks, and if you can't walk the track you're in deep trouble, even if this isn't your first event.

The first thing you'll want to do is register. To register for most events, you'll need a driver's license, some cash (usually between $15 and $30), and you'll need to fill out some paperwork. The folks at registration will tell you what class you're in (if you didn't know beforehand), they'll assign you a car number, and assign you a work station.

After you register, it's a good idea to prep your car. Remove ALL loose items, including (but not limited to) pens, pencils, speeding tickets, sunglasses, mirror dice, empty soda cans, boy band CD's, and anything that could end up embedded in your shifting hand on that hard hairpin over there. If you have a 2g CRX, ditch a chunk of the weight in the rear by taking out the spare, the jack, and the folding top part, if you have it. Another thing you must do is put your number on your car. The ghetto-popular way to do it is by using shoe polish, but I know the chain auto parts stores carry a window crayon that works great and accomplishes the same thing. Some places supply printed numbers that you put on your windows, or you can always use magnetic numbers if you have them. This is also the time to put on your race tires, if you have them.

The next step is tech inspection. This is generally easy, as long as your car is safe. In most instances, they'll have you pull up, stop, and leave your car running while they check it over. They might want to get in to test the pedals, so I usually step out. Also, be sure to bring your helmet with you to tech (if you have your own), or let them know you'll be using a loaner helmet.

After tech, you will have time to walk the course. Personally, I feel this is the most important thing you will do all day, barring the race itself. There is no real 'right' way to walk the course, but a generally accepted method is to walk the course where you would be sitting in your car; not in the middle, but a little to the left. While walking the course, keep focused - try to have the entire course memorized before your first turn. This goes back to the time you arrive - if you arrive late, you have less time to walk the course.

The final thing to do before the runs begin is attend the driver's meeting. This is usually right before the event starts. At the meeting, the event chair will tell you the run schedule, the amount of runs, the course conditions, work assignments, etc. Most of the events I've attended have also given an example of the 'cone rule' that you'll need to know if you're shagging cones. If they don't, ask about it. This is extremely important, so be sure not to miss it.

Now it's time to race.

Depending on the sanctioning body, location, driver turnout, and weather, you may have as little as three runs, or as many as 10 or more. It is a good idea to look around at who else is in your class to find out when you're to line up in the grid. It's usually a good idea to stay on location during the entire event so that you don't miss your runs or your work assignment. Once you are in grid, you will wait for the cars in front of you to launch, and you will move up until you are on the start line. A starter will wave a green flag when it is OK for you to start. The green flag means go as soon as you are ready, the timer will not start until you pass through the lights. If you do get "lost" on course, take the time to orient yourself and continue. Don't head back to the start line, because you may be pointed toward another car. Just take the time to get back on course, and continue the run as a practice. Also make sure (if your club is so equipped) to break the finish beam so as to stop your time. If you don't, you'll mess up the time of the person behind you.

I have searched far and wide, high and low, blonde and redhead for the best driving tips. As opposed to putting them in paragraph form, I'm just going to list them below. These are perhaps the most important things you will read in this article, so pay attention. They are in no particular order.

  • Although difficult as a beginner (a lot of veterans have problems doing it) look 2 turns ahead. This will require time and knowledge of how the course is laid out, but mostly it just takes practice. You won't get it right today, but it's always best to start out with good habits.

  • Be smooth. You have the tremendous advantage to be able to play with your throttle, it's not an on-off switch. The less you upset your cars balance, the faster you will go. While it may not be apparent at first, watch the more experienced drivers among your group and see where they apply throttle. You'll hear this often: smooth does not mean slow. Rather, it's a happy medium between mashing on the pedals and taking your time.

  • On the opposite of your throttle, the faster you can decelerate your car BEFORE entering a curve, the better it is. Again, the key is to be smooth and not upset your car. Once you enter a curve, keep your line and correct as less as possible to have the best exit speed. If you realize mid-turn that you're farther away from a cone than you wanted to be, make a mental note to fix your line next run. As much as we like our little hondas, they are not exactly power-houses, so every little MPH you can keep entering and exiting a curve will count. Ride with an experienced driver, or have them ride with you. If it's your first time out, ask around to see who'd be willing to go for a ride. They will be able to tell you where to improve your times and get rid of bad habits.

  • Use all of the course. This doesn't mean the grassy knoll in the center or the telephone poles dotted between turns, but don't hesitate to let the car drift to the outside of the exit. As stated earlier, exit speed is extremely important, and you won't have good speed if you're hugging the inside cones.

  • Squealing tires = loss of traction. Loss of traction = loss of time. Seems simple, right? It's not, really, and it goes back to being smooth. The reason I put it in again is because it is so important. Now depending on your stock tires, you may squeal them moving from the first window to the second window in the McD's drive through. But take a good listen to the fast drivers on course. What's that you hear? Silence? Probably. The whole key to autocrossing is learning the limits of your car, your tires, and your suspension, so that you can go as close to the limit of adhesion as possible without going over. This will take time, but it's never too early to get in a good habit.

  • Keep 'er steady through the slaloms. For me, slaloms are the most challenging aspect of most courses I run on. You need to gauge entry speed, entry location, where to turn, etc. It's not easy, but with the right mindset (and that magical word, smoothness), they can be a great way to make up some seconds. One thing to avoid is to fast an entry speed which will most likely lead to you braking in the middle of a slalom. This hurts the balance of the car, and kills your exit speed. Try to guess the best entry speed, then keep a steady throttle throughout the slalom. Don't jerk the wheel back and forth, either. Try to stay parallel with the line of cones, and slide back and forth between them. Not as easy as I make it to be, but the faster drivers will be able to do just that. But like Shaft, you always gotta be smooth.

  • After the beginning of the course, drive your car like an automatic Escort. I'm not saying break down in the middle of turn 6, but rather, forget that you have a clutch and shifter. Get to 2nd gear as soon as you can, then plant that foot on the dead pedal and get both hands on the wheel. Rarely will you dip down into first or get high enough to grab third, so forget about the fact that they even exist. Hand position on the wheel. Everyone is different on this issue. Personally, after I hit 2nd gear, my hands are usually at 12 and 5 or 7 and 12, depending on the turn. Yeah, it seems odd, but it works for me. Basically, wherever your hands end up it what is right for you. Trust me, once you're out there, hand position will be the least of your worries.

  • Try to think when you're on course. In your first couple events, maybe even years, this will be very hard. It's tough to fathom if you're reading this before your first event, but your nerves will be going nuts at the starting line. Your legs will shake, your palms will sweat, your heart will beat. And that's just looking at the cute girl working corner 5. If you can think and remember the tips presented in this primer, you'll be way ahead of the other rookies.

And you'll be able to make fun of your friends, too.

At every autocross you are required to work somewhere on the course or scoring area. While this isn't as fun as racing, it is vital for you to show up on time to your assignment. This sport thrives on contributions from volunteers, and working the course is your way of giving back to the organizers. If you tell the people at registration that you are new, they'll usually give you an easy job with a more experienced worker, if there are enough people. If you get a work assignment in the morning, take the time to watch the faster drivers. It's for your own benefit to work first to see the lines, speeds, and braking points they're using. Whatever you do, be sure to never turn your back on a car on course, and when in doubt, ask questions.

If time permits, fun runs are held at the completion of the event while trophies are being readied. This is your opportunity to ride with other drivers and have them ride with you. Fun runs usually cost one to two dollars if you're driving with the SCCA, but I run with a group that lets you go for free.

Once all the timed runs and fun runs, if any, are complete, everyone helps clean up the course. This involves bringing in the fire extinguishers and flags, cones and timing equipment, and storing them in the trailer. Scoreboards need to be cleaned off and the pit area needs to be checked for trash. When everyone helps, this can be completed in fifteen to twenty minutes. Again, this isn't the most enjoyable thing you'll ever do, but it's a great way to say "thanks" to the organizers, and you'll be looked at with more respect by the regulars than the people who take off after their last run.

So there you have it. If you were quick, there's a chance you might have won an award. But if you weren't, don't get down on yourself. Very, very few of us have ever been good our first time out. Many of the people who raced with you have been doing it for 10, 20, 30 years, even more. The main goal of your first event is that you had fun, you got to know your car a little better, you met some new people, and can tell junior high chicks that you race cars on the weekends. OK, so only Mike Leung does that.

Now welcome to the club.

Very special thanks to Pierre-Luc St-Louis, Michelle Skibitzki, Mike Leung, Matt (the Beave), Bill Brasky, and everyone who wrote the shit I stole info from.