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So You want to Autocross, Part II

By Richard Welty

In the previous article, we talked about how events are organized. In this one, we're going to focus on the preparation of the car and the driver.

Prepping the Car

All the remarks in this section presume that you're running with SCCA rules. Not everyone does, but many independent clubs have chosen to run these rules, and if you want to compete on a wider basis, these rules are the ones that you'll have to deal with. The SCCA rule book is available from the SCCA National Office and is often available from your local SCCA region. The new book is generally published around January, so if it's November or December, you may want to wait a month or two before buying a rule book.

When you're just starting out, it rarely pays to put a lot of money into your car. If you jump the wrong way, you can end up having spent a lot while actually hurting your competitiveness. For example, when I started autocrossing a lot, I put a set of wheels and tires on the car that weren't outrageously expensive, but they moved me to Street Prepared. I didn't have the time, money or inclination to do any of the other things that were legal in SP (springs, sway bars, etc.) The result was that I was not particularly competitive and very frustrated. After a year of frustration, I went back to stock wheels and street tires and immediately won the local G Stock class at two events in a row (albeit, not against national or even divisional level competition, but I did actually manage to win some trophies, which made me feel a lot better about my driving.)

So if you have a stock vehicle, you'll probably be best off leaving it stock, and putting your money into the "Steering Wheel Spacer" (the part that goes between the steering wheel and the driver's seat). This means driving at a lot of events, and attending a school or three. We'll talk more about this in the section on Prepping the Driver. I know that it's fun to buy stuff to make your car faster, but it may not be the best move if you are a competitive soul and want to run up front. When you've been running a while and start to understand the issues involved, you probably build a much better car than you would have if you just launch right in without a lot of experience.

So let's suppose you own a Honda Civic or a Dodge Neon and want to run stock. What things are worth spending money on? Well, mostly, wheels and tires. Find a set of wheels, and get some sticky tires for them. You will want to mount your rubber for stock class on either stock wheels, or on wheels that are dimensionally similar to stock wheels (same width and diameter, offset within 0.25" of stock offset.) This may be your excuse to buy fancy alloys and use them with your street tires, saving the factory wheels for the autocross events. You don't even need new wheels; junkyard wheels are just fine if they're straight and true (and uncracked, if alloys.)

The hot tire varies over time; in recent years, the top companies have been B.F. Goodrich, Yokohama, and Hoosier, with some decent tires from time to time from Goodyear and Toyo. Cost, longevity, and suitability for the car owner's driving style vary, so it pays to see what tire is working on what cars for what drivers before dropping $400 or $500 on tires.

Shocks are another item to look at. For 1997, some of the new Neons are coming stock with adjustable Konis; these are excellent shocks that are worth adding to any autocrosser. Keep in mind, though, that just stiffening the shocks is not a complete solution to handling issues; if you put an extremely stiff shock in a soft car, you are trying to make the shocks do the spring's job, and that doesn't quite work. Those trick racing Konis may need to run on full soft to work in a Stock Class autocross car (a racing shock on full soft is still plenty stiff.)

What if your car has already been modified?

This can be a tough situation. Generally, when street cars are modified, it's before the owner realizes that they want to compete with the car, and so things have been done that put the car in an unreasonable class. Cams and/or pistons can do this under SCCA rules; so can aftermarket turbo charger or supercharger kits. You need to face reality here; the SCCA rules have been around a long time, are pretty stable, and the SCCA Solo Events Board isn't going to make dramatic changes because a few people have unusual cars. You may find that you need a different car for autocross, or you need to suck it in and take some of those expensive bits back out, or that you need to give up on being competitive until you're willing to make some major changes.

Care and Feeding of Tires

Tire pressures are something that are a major issue. If you haven't bought sticky tires yet, then be prepared to put a lot of air into your street tires at your first event; possibly approaching 40psi. Don't worry too much about the "max pressure" markings on the sidewall; your street tires can take a lot more than that before they explode. Just remember to let the air back out at the end of the event.

The correct amount to add won't be clear at first. Take a long some white liquid shoe polish (beware of the sneaker whitener stuff; it doesn't work.) Use it to mark the shoulders where the tread meets the sidewall. Talk to some of the experienced drivers about what kind of rollover you should be seeing; you can then start adjusting your pressures after each run in order to zero in on the right amount. Keep in mind that this advice applies to street tires; some of the modern sticky autocross tires have their own unique tire pressure requirements and won't react to pressure changes the way you would expect from street tire behavior. In such cases, pay careful attention to the manufacturer's advice.

Sticky tires should probably not be run on the street. These soft tires won't last all that long in daily usage, although they will be fun to drive on. Also, because of their competition orientation, you'll find that they are generally not the right tire to have on your car when it rains.

Sticky tires may also work best when "shaved" before the first use. Shaving involves taking a small amount (maybe 3/32") of tread off the tire before the first time you put it on the car and drive around. Shaving cannot be done after a tire has been used; rocks, stones and grit will trash the cutting blade in a tire shaving machine. Shaving is done in order do a couple of things; it can reduce the heat buildup inside the tire during competition runs, and it can reduce tread block "squirm" by shortening the tread. Many drivers feel that shaved sticky tires last longer than full tread tires, as they tend to run cooler.

Finally, if you do buy sticky tires, store them out of direct sunlight, away from ozone sources. Expect them to have a limited shelf life; 6 year old race tires simply can't be expected to stick very well. If you're running a lot of events, they won't last 6 years anyway.

Prepping the Driver

The first thing you need to do is accept that you may not be as good a driver as you think you are. Unless you have previous high performance training/experience (and I'm not talking about street racing or going fast on the Interstate here) you will almost certainly find that your hindquarters are being handed to you on a platter at your first couple of events. The simple fact is that very few of us are "natural" drivers; I know that I wasn't. Experience pays dividends, and expect some of it to be painful to your ego.

You should go to all of your autocross events, even after you're an experienced veteran, with the expectation of learning something. There will always be someone who might be better than you there; perhaps some hotshoe from the next SCCA region over will drop in. Treat it as an opportunity; if you don't run against people who can beat you, then you may never get better yourself.

Educate yourself. Go to some Autocross schools, and read some books. I'll be continuing to review driving books in the Journal for some time to come. In this issue I review Alan Johnson's Driving in Competition; while it's a road racing book and not an autocross book, the Theory of Type 1/2/3 corners is completely applicable to autocross, and it can take a long time to figure it out on your own (if you ever do.)

Patience is a virtue. Much of what goes into driving fast is waiting until the right moment to do things. This includes waiting until the right moment to brake; waiting until the right moment to turn; waiting until the right moment to stand on the throttle. You will also need to be smooth and decisive; The best drivers have all of these things nailed down. The best runs are not always the spectacular ones; often Fastest Time of Day (FTD) will go to someone whose run didn't seem all that spectacular -- because they were smooth, patient, and decisive, and didn't waste any energy or rubber.

As I said in part one, don't waste your trips out to work the course. This is your opportunity to observe other drivers, and see what is working and what isn't working.

Don't abuse your car. In particular, speed shifting never did any gearbox any good. When changing gears, just hold the gear shift lever lightly at the gate to the next gear, and let the syncros do their work. When the box is ready to for the shift, the lever will go in.

Use care when braking. You want to use the brakes effectively, and the best bet is to learn threshold braking properly. Without going into a lot of detail, the gist of it is that you want to get to where you can repeatably hold the pedal just short of lockup, which is the spot where you'll get the best performance from your brakes. This technique is taught in most all of the professional and Marque club driving schools, and is very important. Note that stabbing or pumping the brakes is right out; pumping the brakes ("cadence braking") can actually hurt your braking performance rather badly in cars with anti-lock braking systems.

Solo/Autocross Schools

There are a couple of different types of Solo School kicking around. Most SCCA regions that have strong autocross programs, and many independent clubs, will run schools in the spring; these will usually involve the better local drivers trying to orient newcomers and give them some basic lessons about fast driving. The local schools usually don't cost much more than a local Autocross event, and may take one or two days. There are also a couple of traveling professional schools, such as Dick Turner and the McKinney School. These are more expensive, but if you're serious and can make the time, they can do a lot for you.

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