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Autocross provides competitive racing thrills for drivers of all skill levels

Any car can compete, even your daily driver.

By Evan Williams Wheels.ca

Aug 23, 2022 10 min. read

Article was updated a month ago

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If you've ever wanted to win an FIA-sanctioned national racing championship, and you didn't start driving go-karts before you could walk, this might be your best shot at it. That doesn't mean it's going to be easy. It just means that the Canadian Autoslalom Championship is the only one that will let you show up in your street car and find out how you stack up against some of the best amateur drivers in the country.

Every year, around 100 drivers from across Canada show up to GDS/SDG ASN Canada FIA Canadian Autoslalom Championships. The SCCA Solo National Championships, the American equivalent, is capped at 1,300 entries. Drivers south of the border have less distance to travel, and plenty from Canada will head south for an event that size.

Because Canada is so damn big, our national championship moves around every year. Fort McLeod, Alberta, hosted in 2019, Picton, Ontario, in 2018, and Vancouver and Montreal the years before that. Prince Edward Island was to play host in 2020. After two years of delays, that event is finally happening.

This is why I'm standing on the 60,000 square meters of bare concrete of the apron at Summerside Airport. The former CFB Summerside was once home to coastal patrol and anti-submarine aircraft. Today it's home to 81 people looking to avoid sunburn and drive as quickly as they can.

What is Autocross?


Autoslalom, or autocross, is a timed motorsport. It started on fields in Britain in the 1950s, but soon moved to pavement because it's faster. One car at a time races the stopwatch on a course made up of pylons. It's a test of handling over pure power, but it's also a serious mental exercise. You get an hour or so to walk the course - enough time for maybe two laps - and its hundreds of cones followed by just four timed runs.

Hit a cone and get a time penalty. Go off course, you don't get a time. You need to walk the line between aggressive and careful while trying to learn a brand-new track at the same time.

Imagine F1 drivers without hours of sim time and getting just four laps to qualify for the GP on a new track that's less forgiving than Monaco.

From Micras to Corvettes to purpose-built racers, anything goes.

The beauty is that any car can enter. This really does mean any, as there was a Nissan Micra at this year's event, parked alongside highly modified Chevrolet Corvettes and purpose-built single-seat race cars. And thanks to an incredibly arcane mathematical equalization formula, all three of those vehicle types can compete for the win.

Auto Cross

Wide-open lots make it nearly impossible to hit anything bigger than a pylon. Courses designed to keep most cars in second gear and under 100 km/h make the sport easy on your engine and brakes, so it's very daily-driver friendly. Most of the cars here were driven to the event and will be driven home.

I started autocrossing 10 years ago in a bone-stock Honda Civic Hybrid. Yes, a hybrid-electric car with 110 horses on a good day and a CVT. With sticky tires, that car finished in the top five in local events. I've since moved on to faster rides.

For this event, I'm behind the wheel of a 2022 Subaru BRZ. The last generation of the rear-drive sports coupe continues to be a serious autocross competitor and I wanted to see if the newer and slightly more powerful second-generation car was up to the challenge.

Walking the course is crucial


The morning starts early. The course opens for walking at 8 a.m., and if you want a chance at knowing where to go you had better be there bright and early.

If you want the full experience, though, you needed to have arrived the night before. People aren't trailering in cars from Quebec and Ontario just for a shot at a trophy, or at least most of them aren't, it's for the event.

For many entrants, this is part of a family vacation. An excuse to visit a new part of the country and enjoy the red beaches of PEI over a long weekend. So, the night before, there is a party. Not a wild one, since most of us need to be up for that 8 a.m. start, but a few hours to get to hang out with dozens of new people who are into the same hobby as you.

Auto Cross

It's a chance to size up your competition, to commiserate with the people who couldn't get "the right tire" for this year's event, and to get your excuses ready for why you might be slow tomorrow.

Saturday starts hot, with drivers walking the long course and trying to memorize hundreds of cones. Looking for the places to save time, where to go wide, to clip an apex tightly, and when what looks like a straight line is actually a series of small turns. And the opposite.

With autocross, every entrant has to work. If your group runs in the morning, you work the afternoon. Working means running after cones. With drivers pushing the limits of talent and car, cones get brushed, rubbed and sometimes punted into another postal code.

Workers put the cones back before the next car comes by and call in the penalty to timing and scoring officials.

Car Classes


Our event has two run groups, each holding about half of the cars. Autocross rules have a dizzying array of car classes to try and keep like competing with like. It starts with six categories ranging from the nearly-stock Street category to the purpose-built race cars of the Modified category. In each of those categories, cars are grouped with other cars of similar performance.

Street, where I'm running, lets you change simple parts like shocks, mufflers, and tires. Inside the category are nine car classes from A Street through H Street. Mostly in order of fast to slow, except for F Street (for reasons that nobody understands) and SS, which was added later to be faster than A.

SS class cars include performance hardware like the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, Nissan GT-R, and Porsche 911 GT3. HS cars include almost anything that doesn't belong higher up but includes contenders like most Honda Civics that aren't Si models and Mini Coopers. I'm in DS along with a BMW 128i, Mini Cooper S, and other BRZ, FRS and GT86 models.

Auto Cross

Classes make sure cars compete with similarly quick cars, run groups make sure that you run in the same conditions as the rest of your class. Morning rain? You're all in it together.

With just four runs to get your low time, autocross is big on commitment and memorization. You can spare one run to make sure you know where you're going, but the rest need to focus on bringing down that time.

A look at the timesheet shows you the entrants with the most experience. All of their runs will be within a few seconds. Beginners will take massive swaths of time off of each run, showing that they're learning the course and their car.

The 2022 Subaru BRZ


I'm one of those people learning their car, but the 2022 Subaru BRZ is a dream for events like this. The first-gen car absolutely dominated in my part of the country, and the results show that the platform is still a serious contender.

Why? Rear-drive and an affordable price help, by getting more cars in the event, but it's the drive that cements it. The BRZ doesn't have the incredible steering and throttle feedback of a Mazda MX-5 (another dominant car in the sport), but it's about as close as you can get in an accessible platform.

Subaru BRZ auto cross

This is a car that makes it easy to find the limit of grip in braking, cornering, and acceleration. More importantly, it makes it easy to stay on those limits. To dial in exactly how much rear-end rotation you need in the fractions of a second you need it without having to stomp on pedals like a raging bull to do it.

Watch in-car video from an event like this and the left-right transitions can seem brutal. Watch the really quick cars and drivers, though, and it becomes super-smooth. The BRZ helps you accomplish that smoothness.

subaru brz tach

A few of its features, like the Track-mode tach that shows you just the top of the rev range, are almost like cheat codes. Along with the programmable chime to tell you when to shift, the car lets you look many gates down the circuit instead of staring at the dash. Exactly what you want.

As I'm learning the car, I'm taking blocks out of my times on day one. Enough to leave me sitting 11th in my category at the end of the day.

I have an excuse, though.

My bone-stock BRZ is wearing 215-wide Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires. They're a massive improvement in grip over the Michelin Primacy econobox tires standard on the first-generation car (and the base model in 2022), though the Primacy tires are better for highway drive noise and for making it easy to toss the car around at lower speeds.

Points to Subaru for the on-road feel of the Primacy rubber, and the grip of the Pilots, but when my competitors are wearing track day tires like the Bridgestone RE-71R, in sizes 255 mm wide, I'm simply outgunned.

See, I told you excuses would come in handy.

Day two flips the course and the run order. I'm running in the 31-degree afternoon heat, and the course is the same one run in the opposite direction.

This time I know the car. As do my closest competitors. The driver of the BMW 128i I clipped by two-tenths of a second on Saturday has stepped up his game to get into the top 10.

He, his car, and his tires are all handling the heat better than I am. The event's winners are decided by adding your fastest runs from each day, and I finish up down two and a half seconds. He moves up to tenth, I drop to 12th in Category 26 and seven of 12 in class.

Fastest times don’t always equal a win


The fastest car for raw times was an impressive 2004 Subaru WRX driven by Simon Gagnon of Quebec City's Club Autosport Delta. This is an extremely modified car wearing slick tires more than 30 cm wide and that has a heat exchanger mounted where a track car would put a rear wing.

But while Simon gets to know he was the fastest driver on both days, that doesn't translate to a trophy. Because the top spot is decided using that adjustment on times. The adjustment takes into account the results of thousands of top-level US cars and drivers and their finishes at some of the biggest events to even out the classes and categories.

 

Auto Cross

No, not everybody likes that method, but it works. And it's how it's done. It's also why both adjusted and un-adjusted results get posted.

The trophy went to Peter L (not everyone wants their full name in the results) in a highly prepared 2014 Scion FR-S with Sylvain B second in a 2019 Chevrolet Corvette and Steve Phillips in a 1995 BMW 318is (that has an M3 motor under the hood).

Simon's Subaru finished fourth. I was 50th out of 81, but to show just how close it was, half a second would have moved me up five spots. Or down almost the same number.

Would wider and stickier tires have helped my result? Maybe. But it's tightening up the nut behind the wheel that makes the biggest difference, and nowhere is that more obvious than in an event like this. I put myself up against some of the quickest in the country. I didn't take home a trophy, but I don't really care.

We're all hot and tired, but it was a great weekend. Competitors helping each other get faster, helping to fix broken cars, and just having a good time. I've already registered for my next local event.

 

Find your local club to check out an event


Local Clubs

Western Ontario Sports Car Association

Peterborough Motor Sports Club

Motorsport Club of Ottawa

Winnipeg Sports Car Club

VCMC Motorsport Club BC

Calgary Sports Car Club

GTA-ish

Push It To The Limit Toronto

Oshawa Motor Sport Club

Twin Lakes Motor Club Barrie

Canadian Automobile Sport Clubs - Ontario Region

Photos: Darlene Tower

Subaru tachometer photo: Evan Williams

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