Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Autocross
By: Bill Gilbert
Porscheforus, the newsletter of the Northern New Jersey Region
Have you ever wished you could drive your Porsche better? Faster? If so, the following is for you. Autocross events challenge and improve our driving skills in a safe, controlled environment. This is a great way to safely learn car control, handling techniques, braking – and to have a lot of fun. As a “rookie,” you will even get to compete in your own class. Plus, no car modifications are needed, and the cost is very low. The hardest part is getting up early in the morning!
If you are new to Autocross, or just thinking about trying it, this information is for you. If you follow these basics, you will enjoy autocrossing as much as the experienced drivers. Don’t be intimidated by any of the following “advice.” It’s long because we’ve tried to provide a complete checklist for those who have never tried an Autocross. You can even ignore most of the steps and have fun. Just make sure you read Step 6!
In order to be successful at Autocross, you only need to remember three things. To start, safety comes first. This is a serious event, with cars moving fast in the proximity of people. Second, never hesitate to ask questions! Many people will be glad to help. And third, have fun! You can experiment with any driving technique you like, and still be safe! There are many experienced autocrossers and event workers who will be glad to answer your questions (if you want, we will even pair you with an experienced driver for the day).
Following are the steps for a typical Autocross (you will also encounter more complex advice; you are best advised to ignore it until you master these basics!)
The night before the event pack your Porsche with the necessities for the event: Sunscreen, warm clothes, (autocrosses take place on big pieces of pavement and can be very warm in the summer and very windy at other times!), garbage bags or tarp (to cover your valuables in the case of rain), tools (if desired), maybe a lawn chair, etc. You should also unload and leave in your garage all loose items not needed for the Autocross. Don’t forget to bring plenty of drinks, (nonalcoholic only) and lunch. It’s also a good idea to check tire pressures; at least factory settings, probably 4-6 pounds over.
Arrive early! It’s not possible to have too much time before an event, especially if you are new.
Park your car with the other Porsches, then register at the table. Sign the release form (standard at all events) and get your car number. The number goes on both sides of your car, in large, visible numbers – use white shoe polish (available at registration), masking tape, or your creativity!
Empty your car of everything loose: toolbox, air pump, sunglasses, radar detector, drivers side floor mat, etc., etc. Your spare tire, jack and everything else securely mounted to the car does not have to be removed (nor should you bother as weight is insignificant).
Get the car “tech’d” (technical inspection). If the Inspector does not find you, ask at registration. If one is not immediately available after your car is unloaded, proceed to walk the course (Step 6), then find a Tech Inspector. Do remember it is your responsibility to have your car tech’d; you can’t run without it.
Walk the course! (This is the secret to an Autocross; if you follow this step you will do great!). The most common mistake, and the most frustrating part of an Autocross for new drivers, is getting lost driving the course. Courses are designed to be easy to follow; we try hard not to confuse! However, the course layout does have to be learned for each event. The solution is easy, walk the course, study where it goes, ask questions if you’re not sure; then walk it again. There will be other, more experienced drivers walking the course. They will be happy to have you join them (but ignore the finer points, you just want to make sure you can follow the course). Note that experienced drivers always walk the course many times. You will want to walk it at least three times, and more are strongly recommended.
Make sure all the previous steps are complete before the drivers meeting. The meeting will review the safety aspects of the site, running sequences, etc. And it will give you another chance to ask questions. The event will start immediately after the drivers meeting. Therefore, it’s a good idea to have a drink, find the bathrooms, etc. before the drivers meeting.
The event starts! The routine; half the drivers work (flagging, staging, etc.) while the other group drives. Stock Porsche cars form one group; Improved, Modified, and X class cars form the other group. There will be 3 or 4 timed runs for the first group, then the groups switch. In the afternoon, we repeat the process. There is no planned break between groups, so lunch, bathroom breaks, etc. need to be taken between timed runs. (If you have a relatively high car number, you will have time at the changeover before you drive; if you have a relatively low number, you will have time after your last timed run before you head to your work location).
When your group is called to drive, observe where staging is set up. Since cars are staged in numeric order, you can judge approximately where you will be. If you have a number above 30, wait a few minutes until the lower numbered cars have staged. If you have a number under 30, it is imperative that you go to staging promptly. Once the group starts running, cars move quickly onto the course (approximately one car every 20-30 seconds!). Therefore, if you are not in staging promptly, there is a good chance you will miss your first run. Please make every attempt to be in sequence; otherwise it’s very confusing for timing and scoring! (If you are sharing a car with another driver, stage in the special “dual driver” lane. The driver with the lowest number should stage as early as possible. The driver with the higher number should stage promptly after the first driver finishes. Both cars should note the car that precedes them so that subsequent runs are in the same order!)
At the end of staging, you will see the starter. He or she will wave you up to the start line after the previous car has entered the course. Wait until the starter signals you to start. Finally, you are on the course! As a new driver, the most important thing is to stay on course! This requires that your first run be made at a moderate pace (i.e. slow!). A couple of hints: after the start, shift to second gear and run the entire course in second. Then look ahead! Ideally, two or more “gates” (pairs of pylons). And remember, the course looks different from behind the wheel than when walking. You will be far ahead of most new drivers (and many experienced ones!) if you finish your first run “on course” (remember, an “off course” results in no recorded time). If your first run is off course, you need to find out where. However, this is quite difficult unless you have someone watching for you. Timing and scoring will not actually have the location. If you do need help, however, ask! (It is possible to take an instructor. This is not as helpful as it may seem, because the turns come up too fast for adequate verbal explanation and your time will not count, but if you will be more comfortable, by all means, take an instructor).
After finishing a run, slowly proceed back to staging and follow the instructions of the worker(s). We attempt to get you parked so that you can leave the car for a few minutes between runs – but only a few!
Once you complete a timed run “on course” at a moderate pace, your next run should be slightly faster. You will find that the best drivers steadily improve their times over the course of the day. It is virtually certain that you will be “off course” if you go too fast too soon. On the other hand you are here to have fun, and if you are sure you are “on course,” put the hammer down! (At some point, you will hit one or more cones. Each cone knocked down or moved completely out of its chalk box adds two seconds to your time, but you are still “on course,” and cones won’t hurt your car.)
When it’s your turn to work, walk promptly to your work location (assigned at registration). Always check in with the scoring vehicle on the way out. (We attempt to have work assignments only in the morning or afternoon; however, it frequently happens that we need you to work both times). You will most likely work by flagging – a very responsible job (see the safety instructions) but absolutely the best place to observe other drivers on the course. The basics of flagging: Each flagger looks in a different direction; one with the radio (make sure you are listening and push to talk), the others run to set up cones which are hit, but only after making sure it is safe to do so. We assign a minimum of two workers per flag station, usually more.
After all the timed runs are complete, it is very helpful if everyone stacks a few cones, removes safety ropes, etc. By the time this cleanup is complete and you have reloaded your Porsche, it will be time for the trophies! We have a rookie class for all cars, so if you follow these steps, it’s almost certain you will win a trophy!
If you wish, we will assign an experienced driver to help you with any or all aspects of the event – ask at registration!
We want your feedback! At any time during the event or after, please offer your suggestions and criticisms to the Chairperson or whoever is running the event.
Be safe, ask questions, and Have Fun!
Unless you are on the course, drive very slowly. The parking and staging areas are very busy!
When you are flagging, do not run to set up cones until you look for the next car. If it is not safe, leave the cone down. (If you are driving and come to a missing or down cone, slow down and honk briefly to make sure the flaggers see the cone, then proceed at three-quarters pace through the rest of the course. You will get a rerun.)
If you see anyone approaching the course who does not belong, stop them! Spectators, children and others will sometimes wander in! You are responsible for your kids, pets, etc.