Katie is a free lance Journalist and 3 time National Champion in SCCA Solo II competition who writes for North American Pylon and Sports Car Magazine. She started autocrossing "because her mom made her do it".
Because I am a DOA (Daughter of Autocrossing), the sport was shoved down my throat my whole life. Because of this I don't understand people who don't understand the art of Solo II. I look down my nose at people who say, "What do you do? Did you say motocross? Oh, it's like motocross, but in a car? Oh, neat. It's not in the dirt, you mean?"
I've been trying to get my boyfriend, Gumbo Lambrusco (not his real name), to autocross for the past year. He has successfully made himself unavailable on many occasions. "I have a scrabble tournament." "I have to work." Whatever.
But I know he really likes driving, so I don't really understand what the problem is. I don't know if it's because maybe he'd be uncomfortable with me being better than he is, or maybe I say too much which makes him feel like I am lecturing. Maybe my attitude that people who don't autocross are freaks makes him nervous.
The other day we were on this winding road, and as usual, he didn't brake before the turn. No big deal, we were just headed for a cliff that drops straight to the Pacific. I yelled, "BRAKE!" So he said, "What are you talking about," and I said, "We could have died," and he said, "Well, I guess until I beat you in an autocross, I'll have to live with this," so I said, "This has nothing to do with speed. It has to do with survival." There was silence in the car for a good long time because I think I did something to shatter his confidence. Either I'm not doing something right, or he'd rather plummet five hundred feet to our rocky death simply to prove a point.
After riding with Gumbo for many miles, and watching his performance in three autocrosses, and after our many discussions on technique, I believe his theory is the smoothest path is the brakeless path. To achieve that perfect brakeless speed, he finds a set mph and does not fluctuate. He is very stubborn that way.
At his third autocross which was last weekend, I was working the course as he was driving his CSP Mazda. I never saw the brake lights once. It was smooth all-right. I did something I promised myself I would never do. Please don't ask me to explain my actions. After his second run, I said, "Excuse me, fellow workers, I have to do something." It was as if some terrible tacky coach character from a cheesey made-for-television movie about a losing badminton team entered my body, and forced me to bolt over to Gumbo and recite the following meaningful clench-jawed dialog:
"Listen, Gumbo! I want you to use that gas pedal, see. I don't care where the car goes, use the steering wheel! And then, when you see a corner coming up, USE THE BRAKES! You got it, Gumbo! Now, I want you to get in there, and drive like there's no tomorra!" He just looked at me like, "Gosh, you're cute." Then, clearly following my advice, he strapped on his helmet, and proceeded to spin out. Twice. I was so proud of him.
I don't know why it's so important for me to have him autocross. Okay, well, here are some reasons:
1. Many autocrosses are a long way away, and it's nice to have someone share the driving, especially since I fall asleep all the time.
2. Autocrossing can be expensive, so it'd be nice to split the costs with someone.
3. He follows his "no braking" credo on the street, which produces involuntary screeches on my part, which puts a heavy strain on our relationship. It'd be swell if he could pick up some new habits.
4. I like having him around (you know, that "crazy love" thang).
5. I think it's absolutely crazy for people not to autocross, or to at least not find it interesting.
6. I think deep down he may grow to be quite good at it and even enjoy it.
Now that he seems partially interested, though, I think I really have to be careful not to blow the whole thing by giving too much advice. This is very tough, because compared to him, I feel like I know everything about autocrossing. I want him to learn everything I've learned over the past ten years in one day.
I have been conducting an experiment. My hypothesis: Autocross advice to loved ones can cause disastrous results. Consider this example: My father, a three time D Prepared National Champ in a Lotus 7A, gave me lots of advice as I was growing up in the parking lot. He used to say things like, "See this u-turn? Make sure you go through this full-throttle." My eyes got all big. I really idolized Dad.
"You go through it full-throttle, see, because when you turn the wheels," he said, holding his hands up in the air to symbolize wheels, "you scrub off speed. We can't afford to use the brakes."
I knew my Dad would never lie to me. Now my Dad says it's all my fault that the Lotus is so structurally weak because I'm the one who destroyed it for spinning out all those millions of times when I was just doing what he said.
Here's my favorite piece of advice of all time, one I heard just too many times. I'd spin out AGAIN, come off the course, and he'd say, "You know what you did?"
"I spun out."
"But you know why? Because you didn't ACCELERATE through the turn." But I had my foot the the floor. How could I accelerate any more?
After awhile, we're talking several years here, it finally occurred to me that maybe Dad didn't know what he was talking about. I seriously studied his form. And you know what I discovered? He slowed down before the turns. What an idea. What he said and what he did were two different things. Hello. It took me eight years to figure that out.
I do not ever want Gumbo to know I really don't know what I'm talking about.
As part of my research, I've been studying the social dynamics of autocross duos. At a Pro Solo in California last year, I paid special attention to two sets of couples. As I walked the course, I secretly listened in on a Corvette couple's conversation about the course. What I heard was the husband telling his wife to pay particular attention to something that didn't relate to going fast. I interpreted it as, "I'm better than you, so I'm just going to tell you what goes through my mind and somehow this will make you better." Here's what I heard.
Mr Corvette: Okay, darlin', if you look up ahead, you'll see the slalom. (By the way, Mrs. Corvette is an accomplished autocrosser) Now, what you wanna do is, well, first of all, lookee here. See what this is? This is gravel. Now, if ya' git stuck in this here gravel, you're gonna have some problems. What can happen is, you lose contact with the ground, and you might spin out or something. So, whatever you do, make sure you don't end up way out here off the course and hit the gravel."
Then I listened in to the conversation of couple B as they discussed passionately their driving styles. The husband yelled at his wife because he for some reason viewed her performance as sub par. She said something I couldn't understand because she was crying, and he said, "Well, I didn't expect YOU to come in LAST PLACE!" That was intense, and I didn't listen for very long.
My Dad never said anything like that. At the Solo II Nationals in 1996, at least he asked if I wanted advice.
"No, I don't want any advice," I said.
"But you haven't even heard it yet," he said.
"I haven't spun out, what else could it be?"
"You're driving very slowly."
Critical advice from people you love sounds like the nasal inaudible adult voices from the telephone in Charlie Brown cartoons (wah waaaaaah, wah wah wah wah), and it kind of feels like someone's pulling your hair.
To prove this theory, allow me to draw from my own experience. I co-drove with Shauna Marinus last year. At a practice event, I guess she couldn't take what I was doing to her car anymore because she just hopped in the passenger seat and said, "Look, you're doing this, and this, and this, now try this."
I thought, Shauna Marinus just gave me some cool advice. Right on. I think I can do anything now. Hey, feel my muscle. Watch me jump over that trailer.
My dad could say those exact same words, and the meaning would come out as, "You are worthless. You are failing. Blah blah blah." That's because he could be the best driver in the world. He's still my Dad.
I know this is true, because when I do this to Gumbo, I can see his eyes glaze over as he tries to think pleasant thoughts, maybe about that Scrabble game he could be attending.
All this makes me think of my mother. She's a four-time National Champ. She taught me how to heel-and-toe downshift once. "You just mash all the pedals down. I don't know, somehow it works." So, I tried it on my own, and after some practice, I figured it out. She never gave me much autocross advice, either. She just said, "Naw, just go on out and have fun. Don't worry, your Dad will fix it."
In all my years of autocrossing, the strongest memories are the slow motion ones. The announcer reads my time, and as I drive off the course my Mom jumps up-and-down, yelling "That's my girl!" That's what keeps me coming back: trying to find that run where I feel like I DID it, all the while surrounded by people I love and admire. That's what I hope I can give to Gumbo. That is my challenge.
And to remember that on windy roads with cliffs, rocks, trees, and cars and stuff.
This article copyright 1997 by Katie Kelly.