Autocross N00b

I recently attended my first ever autocross with my twin brother, Ian. He blogged about his experience, and it’s a fairly accurate read from my perspective as well. We are endurance racers first, track people second, and probably would have never done an autocross, but we started discussing doing One Lap of America, and that event has a few autocrosses mixed in. So we figured we’d better learn how to dodge cones.

Miata Classing

My first stop was to investigate which class my Miata would go in, so I went to the rules and dove headfirst into the (OMG) 380-page rulebook.

First I looked at the “Street” classes, and while those allow me to change anti-roll bars, tires, and shocks, I can’t upgrade springs. Huh. Who upgrades shocks and not springs, is that even a thing? I’ve definitely seen people put lowering or stiffer springs on stock shocks, but not the other way around. Anyway, I’d also need 6″ wide wheels for this class, and I don’t have anything near that.

So next is “Street Touring” and that looks good except I replaced the 6” ring gear with a 7” ring gear and a Torsen. The 6″ ring gear can break, even under stock power, and so most people upgrade to a 7″ ring gear. And when you do that, may as well do a Torsen at the same time. That’s what sensible people do, but not STS people, so I’m out of that class.

But there’s another “Street Touring Roadster” class for Z3, Z4, S2000, ND, Boxster S, and other convertibles. This class also allows 1994+ Miatas if you feel like being outclassed. Mine is a 1993, and so not technically legal, but maybe they won’t notice. However, I have shackle-style motor mounts which are slightly lighter than stock, and that kicks me out of the class. Fuck, that’s a pretty specific rule!

M’kay, next is the “Street Prepared” class, where my car would go into CSP. I can have a splitter (yay), any wheel, any DOT tire, and even a spoiler. But not a wing, and no cams, and no decking the head over .01″. Well sheesh, my head is decked .035″ and I have a mild cam. So CSP won’t have me either.

Next is the “Street Modified” class, which allows a rear wing (yay), any tire, canards, and a splitter…. But the splitter can’t have any end plates or fences. FML. NA Miatas have cute little bumpers and the tires stick out, and so I have little fences in front of them to divert air around my tires. Bodywork that covers the front tires is standard on virtually every fucking car made in the past 20 years, but those little tire fences put me out of SSM.

OK, so next is the “Prepared” class, and I guess DP is where I go? Splitter end plates OK! Spoiler or wing OK! Cams and decking the head OK! Fastback? Doesn’t say…. That word doesn’t appear once in 380 pages of rulebook. I have a lot of different tops and I could certainly use an OEM hardtop (or remove the top), but it worth noting that I can’t go in this class with my fastback or shooting brake tops. Best to be prepared and see what’s left.

Finally I get to the “Modified” class, and SSM looks like the only class where you can significantly change the roofline shape. The rules say I can change the bodywork as long as “the shape of the body must be recognizable.” So that would put me in a class with basically unlimited cars. Great. For any car with an aftermarket fastback, or this track-bred 1993 Miata that’s on equal terms with a stock NB2, I’m racing against the fastest cars in the paddock.

Finally, I say fuck it, I’ll leave my Miata at home and race my wife’s daily driver, a bone stock 2018 Honda Civic.

2018 Honda Civic

This is a great daily driver, I get 48 mpg on the highway, and 40 mpg in mixed driving. It’s a 6-speed manual with a turbo that’s tuned for torque, and it weighs around 2800 lbs. What’s not to love?

The stability control, for one. I’ve tracked the Civic at Pineview and Lime Rock, and it overheats the brakes like crazy. I think this is the stability control, which Honda calls VSA. It must apply the brakes constantly trying to keep the car balanced. My front and rear rotors are at 800 degrees with mild tracking.

Turning off the VSA requires the following ridiculous procedure.

  1. Start the car.
  2. Make sure the electric parking brake is off.
  3. Push traction control button off and then on again.
  4. Press and hold the brake pedal. 
  5. Turn traction control off and then on again. 
  6. Release brake pedal.
  7. Turn electric parking brake back on. 
  8. Turn traction control off and then on again. 
  9. Press and hold the brake pedal.
  10. Turn traction control off and then on again.

If you get it all right, the traction control light flashes on the dash. If you get any part of that process wrong, nothing happens, and you have to start that whole thing over again. If you turn the car off in between runs, of course the VSA goes back on again.

Until recently, Jenna’s Civic had 200 treadwear N Fera Sur4G tires on all four corners. But I took two tires to PittRace as backup tires for a minivan I was racing, and we decided to use them at one point during the weekend. And they delaminated. So now the Civic has Sur4Gs only on the front and 7oo treadwear all-season tires on the rear. This should make the handling… interesting.

The Event

The autocross was held at nearby Seneca Army Depot. In the 1980s, the Depot was in the news a lot because they stored nuclear weapons there, and as a result there were a lot of protests and demonstrations. Quite possibly related, this area has an abundance of albino deer, and until recently, you could even book a tour to go see them. Apparently they even glow in the dark! (OK, I made that part up.)

As an event location, it’s pretty awesome. It’s a flat airfield, with a mix of blacktop and concrete, with a few bumps to give it more character. It’s not a parking lot rectangle, but shaped like a lowercase “q” (although the locals call it a “p” for some reason).

We got our cars teched and classed, and both Ian and I were in H Street (HS). I found out Clayton’s Miata was put into a class called “Extreme Street B”. This wasn’t in the rulebook, but apparently different regions have their own classes, and if I knew that I guess I might have brought my Miata after all. FWIW, the XSB class is for track-spec cars with things like aero and whatnot, on 200 TW tires. There are two classes for different weights, but engines are basically open, so my 1.6 Miata would go up against turboed and V8 swapped Miatas. So while not a class that has a lot of parity, the rules are simple, and my car would fit in just fine.

I forgot to take a single picture. Clayton’s NB.

After tech we lined up for a track walk, which was marginally useful, but because I’m used to seeing the road from inside a windshield, I can’t say the track walk helped that much. I had a lot of questions like, “why are there three sets of cones there” and “why is that cone tipped over” and such, and the track walk was good for learning the lexicon.

One curiosity is that they don’t allow novices to drive the course ahead of time. Not even at 5 mph. For a HPDE track day, the first session, or at least the first laps, are under a full-course yellow. This helps people who have never been to the track know which way the corners go. Autocross is so focused on the competition aspect that they don’t want anyone to get a glimpse of the course ahead of time. Not even a novice that’s never been to an event before. As if novices are going to threaten the competition? (Nevermind the fact that someone had to set up the cones and test drive it at least once.) Ergo, the track walk was as much as any of us novices would experience before racing. This is so fucking dumb I’m not going to put any more words to it.

But they don’t leave the novices out to dry, there’s coaching and ride alongs all day. I had a coach in my car in just about every session, and it was very helpful. All of them were super nice, very knowledgable, and passionate about the sport. I didn’t do any ride alongs because I was feeling a bit queasy, and I sometimes get seasick as a passenger.

The Racing

Autocross is fun! It requires fast learning, and it’s always enjoyable to learn a new skill. Dodging cones requires reading. Literally. Instead of words, it’s a lexicon of cones and shapes, and when you’re literate, it’s probably even more fun than when you’re learning to read.

I wasn’t very literate, it took me a long time to read the course. It’s a vision-based skill, and I just wasn’t processing the information very quickly. In my six runs, I didn’t hit any cones, but I also failed to read the course correctly and flat out missed some turns entirely. I only fully completed one run, and that’s because my coach was telling me where to turn.

On the plus side, when I finally got the VSA turned off, the Civic was a hoot to drive. I got oversteer on some sweepers and was able to drive the car more or less how I wanted. After three runs lasting a bit over a minute each, we began the first of two long working shifts.

My twin brother driving his C30 (nobody can tell the difference between us anyway)

The Working

In between the sessions, you have to work. And this means standing out in the heat, trying to avoid getting hit by a car, and then running out to go put a cone back in place before the next car comes through and tries not to hit you.

I have $100k into my knees, with metal plates and screws holding the bones together. My doctor says I’ll need two total knee replacements in the near future, and when that happens depends entirely on how much I abuse my knees. So I quit skateboarding, and for the same reason I sure as shit am not running anywhere. I’ll walk briskly to go set up a cone, but if you fucking yell at me for not running to put a cone up, I’m still not running. I have bigger problems than keeping your event on time.

Speaking of which, there were a few timing errors and re-runs, and that made the day drag on a bit longer. But kudos to the organizers, they did their best, and mistakes like this always happen. The entire event was really well run.

The Lyme

While sitting next to my cones I was chatting with another fellow, and he just got a phone call saying that he was positive for Lyme. I told him that happened to me last year, and TBH, I was feeling a bit Lyme-y myself that day. Lyme disease feels a bit like being drunk, but not in the good way, more like you had one too many. You’re confused, don’t put things together quickly, and your balance and vision are off. These are not great symptoms to have when trying to drive anywhere, much less autocross.

Welp… I got my test results back and I have Lyme again. I knew something was up. I’m usually a fast study, but I was driving like shit. And I needed some kind of excuse anyway.

As I write this I’ve just used the last dose of a 21-day prescription of doxy, and I’m feeling no better. I can’t drive, I can’t always think straight. I’m going for more tests and to see two different Lyme specialists. Apparently I can still write, and so I’m doing that instead of driving. But goddamnit I had so many plans this summer and now I’m not racing bikes or cars. Fuuuuuuuuck!

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Autocross is the most popular form of motorsports competition for a reason. You don’t need any special car prep. You’re not going to hurt your car, or yourself. Every other form of motorsports competition is way more expensive. When I do a track event at PittRace I always see more people in the parking lot doing autocross than I do on track. It makes a lot of sense to a lot of people.

Looking back in time, I can definitely see a point in my life where autocross would have been relevant. In my dirtbag 20s, with more time than money, I would have loved autocross. It’s cheap if you’re a student, and if you also consider it an all-day sporting event. And sitting around with your friends talking about cars is fun.

But as someone who is in their mid-50s, with more money than time, no. Paying $60 for an eight-hour day with 7 minutes of track time is not worth it. Honestly, if it was free I wouldn’t do it again. Would I do it without the work requirement? Maybe. It’s still sacrificing a whole day for a very limited amount of track time, but autocross is a lot of fun, and a skill that I would like to acquire.

In the end, I get why people are passionate about autocross, and while I highly doubt it, maybe I’ll be one of those people one day. I love motorsports, and I love competition. It’s a great group of people, with a perfect venue, and it’s nearby. Wait, did I just talk myself into another event, or is that the Lyme-brain again? Hm.

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