This started out to be a much shorter article, but the more time I put into it, the bigger it got. This month we talk about a lot of organizational things; next month the focus will shift to the competition part -- car and driver prep.
Autocross (Solo II In SCCA terminology) is a great all around sport. You get to compete in a safe venue, learn about driving your car near its limits, and meet lots of interesting people; a local event can cost about the same as an evening of bracket racing at the local drag strip and takes a similar amount of time. This article will help you get oriented, and give you some pointers on how to approach your first event, and your first season.
Make sure that you have proper directions to the event site, as many are in very obscure and/or remote locations. Make sure that you know what equipment you may need to bring; you will probably need to increase your tire pressure -- so bring air or bring one of those little lighter plug compressors. Most autocross clubs provide loaner helmets but some do not -- so find out before you show up and are told you can't run [note: for the next issue I will update my "guide to purchasing a helmet" for those of you who would like some guidelines.] You will need to empty out your car of all loose objects -- so bring along a tarp or a box or something to keep it all together.
Make sure that your car is in sound shape. Most autocross clubs do a tech inspection; they don't like to let cars out on course with loose batteries, loose wheel bearings, or bad ball joints (to name a couple of things that might be checked.) I have had to reject cars in tech that had incredibly wobbly rear wheel bearings, and once I inspected the car of someone who wanted to drive an autocross on tires that were showing cord.
Get to the event reasonably early. Registration often opens up quite some time before the main event starts (at events with a first car off scheduled for noon, the organizers may be there before 8, and registration may open at 9.) Early arrival will give you time to get oriented, walk the course, visit the little autocrossers room, and possibly help out the event organizers (this latter is always appreciated.) In particular, by helping out early on, you may get to listen in on course design in progress, and thereby learn something.
A stint in tech inspection is good for a novice autocrosser; you can learn something about cars in the process, and learn about things that you need to keep an eye on.
The course is laid out on a large chunk of asphalt or concrete (or sometimes a mixture of both.) The course is lined with cones. A box is drawn around the base of the cone; this box is to allow the cone to be replaced correctly if it is disturbed, and to allow cornerworkers to determine if a driver has disturbed it enough to aquire a 2 second penalty. The rule of thumb is that a cone on its side is worth 2 seconds, and a cone that has hopped completely out of the box is worth 2 seconds, but a cone that still touches the box is ok (but the worker does need to put it back into place.) In the San Francisco Region of the SCCA, they do things slightly differently; cone penalties are only worth 1 second, but they use a LOT of cones.
There are two layout philosophies which are common. One is from the SFR, where they use lots of cones to wall off the course; these are relatively easy to learn to drive. It is much more common to see "gated" courses, where pairs of cones are scattered over the course and you need to trace the path from one gate to the next. If the course designer is good, these are not too bad to follow, but if he makes the mistake of setting the cone spacing so you can't tell a gate from another gap between two cones, these courses can be tough to learn. It helps if the boundaries of the course are marked with lime, which is becoming more and more common.
Nearly every club that puts on autocross events requires that drivers also work stints in various jobs. If you want to be a well rounded autocrosser, you should try and learn all of them. Tasks include timing & scoring, starting, and corner working (aka cone shagging.) The heaviest requirements are in cone shagging, so expect to become expert in this first. We'll discuss some general issues, and then outline some of the worker jobs at an autocross.
Different clubs do things differently; some use a shift system where you might take 2 or 3 runs, then go work while other drivers take 2 or 3 runs. Many clubs just alternate; you drive, then you work, then you get a little time off, then you drive, then you work, and so forth. There are two important issues here: don't blow off your assignment, because they really do need everybody, and report promptly. After your run, it's ok to take a minute to check your tires and drink some water, but don't get caught up socializing -- because somebody is out there shagging cones who probably needs to prepare for his next run, and he can't do it because you haven't reported yet. Some clubs and SCCA regions go so far as to take your times away if you miss work assignments; I know it seems extreme, but if they're doing that, then probably they had an abuse problem sometime in the past.
If you start autocrossing, you will inevitably spend some time standing out there watching the cones; everybody does. It's not wasted time; take advantage of it. You can watch the different drivers and start to see what some are doing that makes them consistent winners; look at the lines they take through corners, look at how they brake and when they get on the gas. But don't forget your job: when somebody takes out a cone, you need to restore it before the next car comes along.
This is not so important that you should risk your life; the basic rule is always that you should never turn your back on a moving car. Wait for a safe interval, go out and check the cone, put it back in the box if necessary, and if there's a penalty, signal timing and scoring. Signals may vary, so I won't go into them here.
These guys are usually very busy. They have to make sure that the timer is operating properly and in sync; they have to get the cone counts from the cone shaggers; and they have to let the starter know when things are ok and the next car can go. The job is complicated enough that oftimes the event chair will be pretty picky about who they have in the timing vehicle.
The starter has some coordination to do; usually, they have to watch the cone shaggers to make sure that the course is clear and ready; they have to line up the next car at the start line; they may have to tell timing and scoring what the next car numer is; and they have to make sure that timing and scoring is ready before they let the next car go.
Not everyone has these; the SCCA always has these. The Safety Steward has to approve the course design, make sure that many insurance requirements are met, and pay attention to any potential problems with onlookers and people who may randomly walk through a site (and it does happen; at some sites, it happens quite a lot.) In the SCCA, to become a Safety Steward, you must be a member, take a course from a certified instructor, and work as an assistant to a licensed Safety Steward at two SCCA events.
Autocross sites are tough to find and tough to keep. Because of this, it's very important that autocrossers be on their best behavior at all times. It only takes one person acting like a jerk to ruin things for everybody. When you're not on course, drive safely and sedately. If you need to drive on a public road to get to/from the course, make sure that you obey all traffic laws. Don't be an ugly autocrosser; help the sport, don't hurt it.
As I promised above, next month we'll talk a little about car and driver prep, and a couple of other issues.