Solo Autocross: Weekend Car Racing on a Budget
Fun in a parking lot
One weekend you’re tooling down the road past a large empty parking lot. But suddenly you realize there’s a Corvette out there swerving back and forth, squealing tires as it weaves through a maze of orange traffic cones randomly strewn across the entire lot. You slow and pull to the side of the road because this is worth watching for a few minutes.
Just as the ‘Vette pulls off the lot, some 12-yr-old dressed in a full race-car driver’s fire suit and motorcycle helmet blips the throttle from an unseen start line and proceeds to mimic big brother’s show. But wow! I didn’t know they made go-karts that could go as fast as a car!
Next up is an open-wheel car that looks like a left-over from the Indy 500 ten or twenty years ago. And that’s followed by some Grandfather figure wheeling his Civic hybrid on three wheels—that’s right—the inside rear wheel bobbing an inch or so off the pavement on every corner.
Welcome to autocross!
Autocrossing looks at first like racing, but it can best be described as precision driving. It is also called Solo because one car at a time races against the clock, following a prescribed route through a sea of traffic cones. Officials are strategically placed to keep other cars and onlookers out of harm's way, carrying red flags and fire extinguishers to ensure safety. Every driver wears a helmet. Driving skill and experience has far more to do with the end result than does sheer horsepower. The cars generally don't get beyond second gear or exceed highway speeds.
A typical autocross event is an all-day commitment. You will have approximately four opportunities to run the course, each time taking about 60 seconds to complete the circuit. Your car runs in a class with other cars of similar performance potential and prizes are awarded for the fastest times. For part of the time your car is parked, you will need to take your turn as a course worker, setting up downed cones or whatever your assigned task is.
What does it take to get involved?
First you will need to connect with a club that holds autocrosses. Several auto clubs regularly hold autocrosses in almost every major metropolitan area. They seek out large parking lots, unused airstrips, and just about any large level paved surface that does not have curbing, light poles and other nasty obstacles that could ruin your day. The largest sanctioning body is the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), which has national coverage. Various local auto clubs hold autocross events either routinely or once or twice a year. Marque clubs most likely to be autocrossing frequently include Miata, Porsche and BMW clubs. These will often accept "off-brand" cars since more registrants help them pay site fees and other overhead costs.
Solo, autocross & gymkhana
- Autocross and Gymkhanas: Motorsports 50 Years Ago
Today the term gymkhana is only rarely used in motorsports, and then for events that differ slightly from todays Solo autocrosses. My Dad first took me to a gymkhana about forty years ago...
- You will need an approved helmet. Most motorcycle helmets meet the requirements if they are not too old. If you don't have a helmet, there are typically loaners available at the event. You can borrow one for the first several events until you decide whether you are going to get serious about autocross as a hobby.
- Make sure your battery is securely tied down. It probably won't be if you have ever had the battery replaced.
- Top off the engine oil, brake fluid and all other fluids. You should overinflate your tires when you get to the event so they won't bend over and wear the shoulder as much. Just don't exceed what's printed on the sidewall. And remember to lower the pressure at the end of the day to what you normally use on the street.
After these steps, you're good to go. This is just the minimum to be legal and safe so that it will be a positive experience. If you really become serious about autocross, there are other measures you can take to be more competitive, which is true of any hobby!