Longing to take your car to the track, but worried it (or you) can’t handle the abuse. Or you’re not ready to start sinking big cash for safety gear, tires, and fees. Maybe you’re just looking to go fast without doubling the speed limit. Then we might have just the answer.
Autocross, also known as autoslalom, gymkhana, or in the U.S. as Solo II, is a high-performance driving event that can be done by just about anyone driving just about any car. Even some pickups, if they’re low enough. You probably haven’t heard of it, but the biggest event in the sport brought in just under 1,400 drivers this year. If that sounds interesting, then this is how you get started.
The goal is to set the fastest time you can around a marked course. Only here, the course is set up in a big parking lot or on an airport runway. It’s marked out in pylons that you have to go around or between, depending on the layout. You get about four tries, depending on the group, to make it around the course as quickly as possible. So the pressure is on to learn, react, and go fast.
A lapping day will get you higher speeds, but those speeds will cost you. Brakes, tires, oil, and the looming chance of getting intimately acquainted with that big wall in turn three, all add to the budget. And that’s for a car that’s track ready. Try bringing your entry-luxury compact sports sedan or grocery getter to the track and things get expensive real quick. And not much fun.
An autocross will wear your brakes about as much as driving home from work. Same for your tires, though hamfisted driving can damage them a bit. We’ll get to that.
Find your local club
If you want to give the game of cones a try, the first step is to reach out to your local club. In the U.S., the SCCA is the 800 lb gorilla of grassroots racing and they run most events. In Canada, it’s a bit more patchwork. Best bet is to search your province or city and the word autocross. If you’re in the middle of nowhere, you might only find one club, but in more populated areas, you can probably find a few. Check them out and see which one works best for you, because they’re all a bit different.
If you don’t think your car will be fast, it doesn’t matter. You have to start somewhere. And just about any car ever made is allowed. I’ve seen gas-electric hybrid Hondas beat Porsches and GT-Rs. On these tight courses, driver skill is as important as horsepower. The exceptions are some narrow and tall cars, like a Smart Car. They can get a little unstable. Even some trucks are allowed, though mostly lowered pickups like those factory-lowered ones from the 1990s.
What’s required to start?
Once you’ve found an event, it’s time to get ready. Most autocross prep can be done at home. If you’re just getting started, you’ll need a few tools. A garbage bag, a piece of chalk, a tire gauge, and a torque wrench. Once you start to get more serious, you’ll probably want more stuff, but that’s really all you need.
The garbage bag is for your car. Clean it out. Thoroughly. Cups, wrappers, kleenex boxes, that charm dangling from your mirror. All of it comes out. You want the inside of your car (that includes the trunk) as clean as the day it was new when you head out on-course. Once you get there, you’ll even need to remove your driver floor mat, and yes you really need to do it. I’ve seen a few near-collisions because somebody left the mat down.
Check your tire pressures. For autocross, the manufacturer’s recommendation is probably too low. Unless you’re already running low-profile sports car rubber already, bump up those pressures. I’d recommend starting at 40 psi for sporting tires, max marked pressure on anything with more than about 50-series sidewalls. Yes, your drive over might be a little bumpy, so maybe do this at the gas station nearest the event.
The torque wrench is just to make sure your wheels won’t fall off. Check them before you leave and you should be fine. The chalk comes later.
Tire Pressure (from left to right): Too much air; too little air; just right.
If it’s your first event, get there early
Registration takes time, especially since you probably don’t know your car class. So try and know your car class ahead of time. Most clubs follow SCCA rules, where nearly every stock car is assigned to a class. Then in each class you’re allowed certain modifications.
If you can’t figure out where your car ends up, at least have a full mods list for the organizers to see. And we mean *all* of the modifications. There’s little more frustrating for the people running the event than “it has a cold air intake” while ignoring the bigger wheels, stripped interior, and tuned engine.
You’ll need to mark your class and car number on the side. At this level, especially for your first few events, using painter’s tape or a window marker is fine. Just make everything really big and really clear so it’s easy to read when you’re flying by at 90 km/h.
Walk that Course
Now that you’re registered, it’s time to walk the course. Find some people who look like they know what they’re doing. Introduce yourself and ask if they could help you out. They’ll probably be happy to. A good rule is to look for the person with the widest brim hat.
Because you only get a handful of tries on the course, walking it is essential. You’re probably going to want to walk it a few times. Especially when you’re new. Once you can do the course in your head, you’re ready.
Throwing your car into a corner going way too fast will hurt your times and wreck your tires. To help set tire pressures, drivers make a chalk mark on the edge of the tread. We’ve attached a photo to show what you’re looking for to dial in. That’s for the fronts. Once you’ve got those set, experiment with higher and lower pressures in the back to set the balance you want.
The only safety gear you need is your seat belt and a helmet. Most clubs allow a proper motorcycle helmet (SNELL M rating) if you don’t have a car helmet. If you’re not ready to make that investment, check with the club. Loaner helmets are usually available.
Get to Work
At the driver briefing, pay attention. If you have a question, ask it. There are no stupid questions when it comes to the safety of you and your car. At the end of the meeting, they’ll give you the run order and your worker station.
That’s right, because there are lots of pylons, and they’re often getting punted by cars, everybody has to work. Which is mostly standing on-course and waiting for somebody to hit one. Then you call it into the timing station. That standing is why the most experienced people wear the big hats. Sun reflected off of hot asphalt makes for a new world of sunburn. At least you’re working with a group, which gives you lots of chances to practice the most important thing for amateur racers. Excuses. If you’re not able to work for physical reasons, let the organizers know and they’ll do their best to accommodate.
Behind the wheel
There are a few things to remember. The biggest one is that your car can brake harder than you think it can. Really. Brake late, brake hard, and brake a little less than you think you need to. If you’re driving a stock car, especially something that’s not the sport model, quick turns get the suspension set up faster. Yanking on the wheel will put you in the wall on a track, but can cut your times on an autocross track.
Once you’ve got the hang of it and tightened the nut behind the wheel, there are plenty of places to spend your money. If you want to. Tires, brakes, sway bars, and suspension setups costing thousands. But if you want to just run your Camry, then you’re more than welcome. And thanks to the final results adjusted for class, a car like a Civic Si or Toyota 86 gives you a decent chance at first place not just in your class, but overall.
Will you hit speeds over 200 km/h on the fast bits? No. Will you see your Z06 Corvette get beaten handily by an old Mazda MX-5? Probably. Will you push your car to the limits of tire grip and your talent? Absolutely.
For surprisingly little cash, it’s the second most fun you can have in a parking lot.
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