I used to autocross pretty much every weekend. I campaigned various cars with varying levels of success. I won Street Touring X one season in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Sports Car Clubs in a 2003 Mustang GT. It was that season that the car club I was racing with started to ask me to teach a basics course for the new folks. So if you think a “corner worker” is something illicit, here is your Autocross primer.
I consolidated a bunch of pages of material I found over the years and edited into what you see below. Ideally it will help anyone looking to get into autocrossing and provide some of the basics. Apologies to any or the original authors, I cobbled this together over time and haven’t the slightest idea where it all came from.
Not all of this is 100% necessary for your first autocross, but it’s nice to get the basics down and know what to expect. If you are new, it’s important to know that this will likely be a fairly buttoned down event, safety is the primary concern, there probably won’t be drifting or hoonery going on. So remember to listen to the course workers about where to go, what to do, etc.
When you arrive
Prepare your car:
Remove all loose items from your car including floor mats, driver’s carpet, coffee cups, etc. Basically anything loose that could roll around or distract you. Remember this is usually an open event, theft happens, so keep an eye on your stuff and leave home whatever you don’t need and find some out-of-the-way asphalt to stack up the rest.
Tires: Check tire pressure and chalk your tires. This is not mandatory, butan extra 10 to 15 psi in your tires can really help the sidewall from rolling over in a tight corner. Tire Rack provides a great summary of how and why to chalk your tires:
“The reason for this is to keep your tires from rolling under during hard cornering. Put chalk on the edges of your tire, in three places around the diameter, and you can see how far over the tire was going during your runs. Bleed out a little if the chalk is still showing on the tread, or add a little more if the chalk has been worn off down the sidewall. The line of worn chalk to remaining chalk should be right at the corner of the tread and sidewall. Keep notes on how many psi you ran, and where the chalk line was, for your next event”.
- Register at the tent or trailer, it is usually well marked. Most clubs or organizers do initial registration online so this is more of a “check-in”. If you have not pre-registered, some allow walk-ups (you’ll likely have to pay cash) but call ahead of time to see how full the event is.
- Select a run group and get a car number. Again, most of this is done online and assigned before the event but this is a good to verify your assigned group and number. You can borrow some white shoe polish to put your numbers on your window (both sides so the corner workers can tell on you when you hit a cone).
- Complete waiver and any other forms.
- Remember to sign up for a work station once your heat is over. Most every club requires racers to work another heat, don’t hesitate to ask how this works, it can be very confusing for new people.
- Drive car to Tech Inspection, this usually happens before the heats began in the morning, everyone will queue up in a line so pay attention for when this starts so you don’t have to sit there inching forward.
- Car will be inspected for safety, they will want all loose items out of the car and will check to make sure your battery is secure, your tires are nice and tight and there may even be a quick brake test.
Course Walk Through
- This is important, this is usually your one, and only, chance to check out the course before the event begins.
- Check course map at the trailer or tent, see if they have a printed copy you can take. Memorize as much as possible. Some courses will double back over themselves and it can be pretty complex. I imagine it sort of like a bobsled or luge driver, the more you can remember ahead of the being behind the wheel, the better you will be able to set up for each corner.
- Walk the course with an experienced driver if possible but ask before you get out there, some folks prefer to concentrate and like the silence. I liked to talk through it with someone, but that’s just me.
- Check surface for rough spots, sand, bumps, oil, etc. This can affect your turn in, braking and acceleration.
- Study the course, look for: Turn in and apex points, braking points, entry point of slalom, etc. More on that below.
At the Drivers Meeting you will learn about :
- Danger Zones (I found out this is not “Highway to the…”)
- Tight Corners
- Wet or Oil Spots
- Uneven or Rough Pavement
- Flagging and Corner Worker Instructions
- Availability of Instructors. Don’t be ashamed to ask for an instructor, most clubs will ask if there are any newbies, raise your hand proudly. Having someone ride with you helps a lot. I had experienced racers ride with me and got a lot out of it. Once you get good, volunteer to ride along if you are comfortable giving direction.
Once the Event starts
Watch other drivers:
- What line are they driving? Where are the braking points?
- Where are the shifting points? — (Up and Down). Most events you won’t get out of 2nd gear, but trust me, going highway speed in a parking lot is a good time and you’ll feel like a hoon.
Now it’s your turn:
(1) Once your heat is called, bring your car to staging area, follow directions of the course workers. There is a lot of “hurry up and wait” segments, be patient.
(2) Proceed to start line when it is your turn.
- Check your seat belt one more time. Give it a nice snap to make sure it’s tight around you, this will help you stay put in the seat if you don’t have highly bolstered seats.
- Make sure once again that loose objects are out of the car. Hand off anything you can’t stash in a console.
- Turn the rear view mirror away from view, you don’t need to see all those cones you knocked over behind you.
- Focus your thoughts on how you want to drive & the course. It’s important to have a plan of attack, is this a short tight course or a longer faster course?
(3) Starter gives the OK!
- Start sharp, but don’t spin tires all that much. Once you go break the beam at the start gate, you are on the clock.
- Look ahead at upcoming gates & know where you want to go before you get there.
- Remember when to brake and shift.
(4) If you should spin
- BOTH FEET IN
- Hands at 3 & 9 on steering wheel.
- Look for corner workers to re-start you.
- Finish the course.
(5) If you see a Red Flag or hear a loud horn:
- Quickly come to a Complete Stop.
- Look for corner workers to re-start you.
(6) Drive the First Run at Reduced Throttle
- Learn to stay on course, remembering where to go is paramount.
- Drive a good line that flows from gate to gate.
- Drive SMOOTHLY, inputs on brake and throttle should be deliberate but not too violent.
Any other Words of Wisdom?
High performance driving skills are not the same as normal street driving skills, but exposure to the former will undoubtedly improve the latter. This is your chance to find your car’s limit and perhaps exceed it. Depending on your car this could come early, but with most modern cars you will exceed your limit before it finds its limit. Some other things to consider:
Seating – Adjust driver’s seat and seat back so you sit relatively high and upright. Adjust the fore and aft position to retain some bend in your elbows while gripping the steering wheel. You should be able to turn a full lock in either direction and back again without much trouble. More on steering below. Have some bend in your knees with the accelerator, brake or clutch pedal fully depressed to the floorboard. Position your left foot on the “dead pedal” to help stabilize your body position while maneuvering the car. Your right leg can be braced against the dash if needed to keep you steady in tight turns.
Steering – Grip the outside of the steering wheel at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions. Keep your hands there as you drive the course. Don ‘t remove a hand unless you are doing something with it, i.e., shifting. If you must turn the wheel more than 90 degrees or so, shift the bottom hand to the top of the wheel for added leverage, then shift it back as you unwind the turn. Practice this in the pits before you try it on the course.
Steer positively and smoothly. Avoid “yanking” the wheel to one side or the other, particularly at moderate or high speed. Steer with your eyes by looking ahead to where you want the car to be, and letting you brain coordinate the details of moving your hands and the steering wheel.
Out on the Track
Acceleration – Apply full throttle only when the car is traveling in a straight line. Apply it smoothly and firmly just after straigtening the wheel.
Braking – Apply full braking only when the car is traveling in a straight line. Smoothly apply firm pressure, then increase it steadily as you get to the next gate. Braking as late as possible saves you seconds off of the clock, but takes time to master.
Transitions – Transition from braking to acceleration, and vice-versa, smoothly. Snapping one “off’ and the other immediately “on” will upset your suspension balance as well as your tire grip as weight shifts dramatically fore and aft. Refer again to the advice above, and below for what to do when you spin.
Spins – If the car spins, put in the clutch and apply the brakes . The probability of a car tipping over on level pavement while spinning is virtually zero. Most autocross course venues are chosen because they are flat and smooth.
- A car is most stable under acceleration, the rear will squat and you will get traction, especially in a RWD car.
- Never brake while steering through a corner!
- Enter the gate slow, exit fast.
- Use a consistent, comfortable braking point and if you can brake later eventually, give it a try but always be mindful of what’s on the other side of your brake zone (people, cones, light poles, etc.)
- Maximize exit speed by getting on the power sooner, before increasing entry speed into the corner.
- The line is the route around a course and through its corners which will enable the car to go fastest.
- The “line” and the geometry of the edges of the pavement can be different. Course designers will try to fool you into taking the wrong line sometimes. Don’t fall for their trickery!
- There is generally only one “line” that best helps you through the corner but everyone is different.
- Different cars require different approaches to stay on the “line”. Consider whether you have front or rear wheel drive and understand concepts of oversteer and understeer, ahead of time.
- The most important corners are those leading to the longest straights.
You are trying to maintain the highest average speed on the course, so turns followed by straights require you to accelerate through them to attain the highest possible speed on the following straight. You do this by slowing along the extreme outside edge of the pavement as you approach the tum (the left side in the image above), complete your downshifting and braking, transition to accelerator to set the suspension, then tum in on a line that will allow your inside front tire to pass within inches of the inside edge of the pavement, or apex of the tum. After you pass the apex, continue to accelerate on an arc that carries you to the outside edge of the track on the following straight. Because the closest point of your approach to the inside edge of the tum is beyond the measured halfway point of the turn’s radius, it’s called a late apex.
A long straight that is not connected to a following straight would require you to keep your speed up as long as possible prior to braking to maintain the highest average speed. About the only time you will see this on an autocross course is when a turn is required around a pivot cone (cone on its side pointing left or right usually). Approaching an early apex you would brake on a line much nearer to the inside edge of the tum, and your tire ‘s closest approach, or apex, would occur earlier, or prior to completing much of the tum.
You will encounter many other types of turns on an autocross course, i.e., offset gates, decreasing radius, slaloms, sweepers and hairpins, and all must be individually considered in the context of what turns come before and after them on the track, and what’s the best method to get through them based on its tendencies and capabilities. Plan your line through all turns during your course walk through and do your best to remember. You should get 3 runs, maybe more depending on the size of the event, so you can improve as you go.
- Keep your eyes up, don’t drive off the nose of the car.
- Where you’re looking is where you’re going to go!
- Look through a corner and beyond, expand your field of vision.
- When exiting a corner look ahead for: Flag Station and Corner, Workers, Traffic – all around (other cars are unlikely but possible, I have seen a couple collisions but they are one in a million).
- Do not fixate on the cones. They want you to knock them over, don’t let them win. I hate cones.
Look where you want to go, not where the car is going. As you begin to turn in, look at the apex; as you exit, look ahead to where you want the car to be. In general, lift your vision and look ahead of the car to where you want it to be, rather than concentrating on the pavement directly in front of it. This is one of the most important concepts and what separates the fastest from the rest of the pack.
Whether you do well or completely suck, the point is to get out there and do it. Autocross any car they will allow you to enter even if it’s completely stock and slow as hell. The key is to learn your car’s limits and I can’t think of a better (legal) way to do it that is less expensive and doesn’t risk the destruction of your car.
If you are a fellow DC local, the chaps at Capital Driving Club put on a great event. Their schedule is here.
Will is an automotive writer and Editor-in-Chief for Right Foot Down. Based in Maryland, he has had a long history of founding failed automotive sites and spending way too much time on car forums. He has owned “too many Mustangs” according to Josh and has a fetish for RWD V8s. He spent most of his 20s on tracks in the mid-atlantic and killing cones in parking lots and has even taught at a teen performance driving school.