Autocross and Gymkhanas: Motorsports 50 Years Ago

Autocrosses were called gymkhanas

Gymkhanas they were called back then. Today that term is only rarely used, and then for events that differ slightly from today’s Solo autocrosses. My Dad first took me about forty years ago. The Mustang club sponsored one; I don’t know who sponsored the other one.

The cars were different—everything from XKE’s to VW bugs. In between, there were the MGB’s, Triumphs, Healeys, French cars and a host of vintage iron we rarely see autocrossing (or doing anything else) today.

A mid-60's Ford Mustang autocrossing
A mid-60's Ford Mustang autocrossing | Source

The early Mustangs didn’t have much to control axle torque, and events then often used a drag strip start. The driver would pop the clutch and be surprised by the chattering axle hop, “What did I break now!” Few Mustang owners had been quite that aggressive on the street.

Yes, it’s good to have the rolling start these days.

The courses were different

The courses were different back then. Most courses had a constant radius, wide skid pad of nearly 360 degrees. Everything else was squeezed in around the edges of that. Every course had a straight stretch, perhaps 75–100 feet ending in a hairpin. Today’s SCCA rules discourage that.

Once I saw a straight of at least 250 feet end in a reversing exercise. At the end of the straight, the car had to come to a dead stop with its front wheels over a line but rear wheels behind it. If you went too far, you were allowed to back up, but had to come to a complete stop in the correct position. From that point, the driver was to execute an immediate 90 degree reversing maneuver before negotiating the remainder of the course.

Autocrossing Is the Modern Equivalent

The biggest difference? These events were held in the parking lots of shopping centers and malls. There were hundreds (OK, maybe scores) of spectators! Today we have to look for racetracks, abandoned airfields and other really out-of-the-way places in order to avoid parking curbs, light poles, and fear of litigation. I remember a Healey that went into a chain-link fence not 25 feet from the timing and scoring table, and another car that went up over a curb. I’m glad I didn’t own either of those cars! Here again, the SCCA rules keep us safer today.

I don’t suppose it does much good to dwell in the past—there have been some terrific advances. But nostalgia is fun, and getting more spectators out to watch—that would be fun, too. Just wish it were easier! Possibly what has done the most to draw crowd appeal in recent years is Ken Block's gymkhana performances. But what he demonstrates has a lot more showmanship and speed to it than the weekend autocrosser will ever approach.


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