Rise up the Rankings
So you gave autocross a try and you enjoyed it, just like me! What a great driving event to have fun and challenge yourself, all with a relatively low entry cost. Now that we are hooked, let’s find some ways to complete every course faster and start improving our results. At first glance autocross is simple. Complete the course through the cones as fast as possible without hitting anything. So how do we go faster? This is part two in our autocross series where I focus on how to improve at autocross. If you haven’t read the first blog, which is an introduction to running your first autocross, you can find it here: How to Prepare for your First Autocross. This blog will give you guidance on how to develop your skills and move up the rankings.
Preparation is the key to success. Come to the track well rested and fully prepared. I like to prepare and pack the day before the event. I arrive at the track with my tire pressure adjusted (we will discuss tire pressures in the final segment on how to win at autocross), loose items removed and supplies fully packed including helmet, numbers, tools, layered clothing for the conditions, and sun and rain protection. You want as few distractions as possible so you can remain calm and focused in order to study and absorb the track layout. The goal here is to be as prepared as possible so you are ready to blast out of the gate on your first run and focus on getting around the course fast.
Learn the Course
Take as much time as possible to learn, walk and memorize the course. Getting lost and missing a gate means a “Did Not Finish” result (DNF) and your time will not count for the run. We don’t want that! Walk the path you would take in the driver’s seat to simulate the placement of your car. Crouch down to see how it’s going to look from the car. In order to judge how far it is between corners, count your paces between the slalom cones. You may find that your eyes are deceiving and that the course has slalom cones becoming closer or further apart. Listen to experienced racers while walking the course and ask questions if you aren’t sure which line to take. If riding passenger is permitted at your event, you can ask others if you can ride as passenger and offer to give them a ride in return. This is a strategy to get more time on track in order to quickly learn the fastest way to complete it.
Attack and be Precise
This is no time to be timid. Get your game face on for your very first run. Autocross requires you to take off from the start line and get up to speed as quickly as possible. The best drivers will get on the limit quickly and stay there. You want to remain in control and yet push your vehicle right to the limit, but not past it. From the outside, the run will appear pedestrian but in fact it is faster compared to over driving and under or over steering. You want to keep your rear tire within a few inches of the cones. If you are too far from the cones you will lengthen your route and take more time to complete the course.
Corner in smooth arcs while being careful not to over drive. Driving in a smooth arc will minimize the sharpness of turns you need to make, which allows you to maintain a higher speed. This will get you around the course the fastest. To achieve this, you really want to be looking ahead as much as possible. If you’re staring right at the next cone, you won’t have the car pointing in the right direction to smoothly transition to the next one. Instead, you usually want to be looking 2-3 cones ahead. Use your eyes to look ahead and your hands will follow your eyes and the car will follow your hands. You can think of it like a game of pool where you want to position yourself for your next shot.
Completing a Corner
Start by finding the right car position on the course then add speed. Make sure you lift off the throttle and/or brake as needed before corners so you can get through the corner smoothly, rather than coming in hot and then scrubbing speed by sliding the front tires in the corner. This keeps your minimum speed up, helps keep the vehicle stable, and is also easier to do consistently. Plus if you don’t get it perfect, it’s easier to add speed than to remove it while cornering.
To complete the course fast you generally want to turn early and turn less in order to travel on a wider arc. Mid corner, rather than using the wheel to adjust your turn, you can use the throttle to adjust the turning radius: ease up on the throttle to tighten the turning radius and get closer to the cones on the inside, or add throttle to widen the turn if the car is turning in too quickly. Again this is more consistent, and will help you keep right at the maximum sustainable speed.
By implementing these strategies at your next autocross event you should see some improvements. If you continue to apply these principles, you will gradually move up the pack. You will start to drive faster and find that you can increase your pace while keeping your car close to the limit of its capabilities. Like many things in life, practice makes perfect. Keep an eye out for the third and final part of our guide to autocross series coming soon: How to Win at Autocross.