Friendly Fury: An Introduction to Autocross

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Your typical Sport Compact dodging some cones on an autocross course.Fast Five, the latest bro-fueled, high drama, destruction packed installment of the increasingly successful Fast and the Furious franchise, debuted two weeks ago to resounding success.  But whether you’re a fan of the series or gave up after the first episode in 2001, you can’t argue that it portrays racing and car culture as equally fast and furious (and illegal). 

There’s a healthy dose of contention and negative energy in all of the films, which is appropriate, because every film needs a plot.  Yet the other bits of racing media we Americans can actually access, from “reality” shows on the Speed network, to professional racing promotion, try to portray drivers as bitter enemies who would be just as glad to engage in knife fights if they weren’t better at racing.  It all sells very nicely.

But off the screen, that’s not usually the case.  Our car communities are close-knit groups whose abuse of our peers is limited to a little good-natured ribbing.  So if you want to get into recreational racing but don’t want to kicked in the teeth, robbed, and/or arrested, there are outlets.  Autocross is chief among them.

What is autocross?  It’s a club driving sport that focuses on precision, safety, and low costs.  Traffic cones are used to turn a large parking lot in your local area into a time attack race circuit.  Cars race one at a time, weaving back and forth between the cones as to follow the circuit.  At the end of the day, times are tallied and a winner is crowned.  If that sounds like something your grandparents might enjoy while riding their Rascal mobility scooters, you haven’t been to a race. 

But if you’re not convinced, here’s a few reasons to get into autocross:

It’s safe.  At an autocross event, you won’t have to worry about Dom Toretto caving your chest like an empty beer can.  And beyond that, both you and your car are pretty safe.  Since cars are run one at a time, you won’t see any wheel to wheel collisions, and tracks are set up for low speeds.  Usually you’ll spend so much time weaving back and forth, hitting your apexes, and working on your heel-toe, that you won’t even be able to get over 60. 

It’s accessible.  Most professional racing drivers enter karting at age 5.  If you’re like me, you missed that opportunity.  For us, getting into professional racing would require a moderate fortune.  Autocross clubs generally have a yearly membership fee of under $50, and $30 for each race.  And since cars are divided into classes, most competitors use their daily drivers.  That means you won’t have to get sponsorships to pay for a professionally tuned race car.

You’ll learn precision driving.  Since speeds are kept low, and courses are designed for handling challenges, autocross is one of the best ways to learn the techniques you might one day need for higher level racing.  Trail braking, heel-toe shifting, and controlling under/oversteer are just a few of the techniques you’ll learn as you’re fighting for every tenth.

You’ll find community.  In this age of lower speed limits, pedestrian protection laws, and boring cars, we gearheads have to stick together.  Autocross is the perfect place to meet other car geeks, trade stories, and do some general networking.  Need to borrow an engine hoist or spring compressor?  You’ll probably make a friend at an autocross event who has both. 

You’ll see cool cars.  Every autocross event is like a car show, but faster.  And the heavy use of daily drivers doesn’t mean you won’t see anything interesting.  Many bring classics, supercars, imports, and even trucks.  But it’s the fact that most cars are common that makes checking them out so interesting.  Seeing what a guy can do to his Honda CRX to make it faster than a stock 911, that’s what makes it so cool.

Racing is always a very competitive sport, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have to make your kids distract the cops while you show your opponent a fat roll of cash or a pink slip just to get a chance to drive.  If you want to get into autocross, hit up the internet for your local SCCA or NASA chapter.  There are also several non-affiliated clubs that meet throughout the year.  Go observe a few races, show up to a few club meetings, and get started.

Autocross is one of the cheapest ways to get into racing, but what other ideas do you have for the cash-strapped speed freak?

Author: Andy Sheehan

Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car. Find me on G+

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