I have wanted to run AutoCross (AutoX) events for quite some time as they are much more affordable than full track-days and do not devour consumables (brakes, tires, clutches, etc) anywhere near as quickly. Now I finally have a vehicle worthy of the sport I quickly jumped at the opportunity to take some lessons before my first competition. All of the major AutoX clubs hold their events at the JIBC training pad at the Pitt Meadows Airport, a flat tarmac pad measuring 1000’x500′. Just after taking delivery if my shiny new Abarth I acquired memberships for VCMC and UBCSCC. Sadly I could not gain membership to PCA as I don’t actually own a Porsche, though their AutoX events are open to non-Porsche owners as well.
Browsing the various club forums I came across the UBCSCC’s AutoX 101. It had been billed as a full day of instruction a very high instructor to student ratio and limited to newbies only (3 or less AutoX events). Having already paid my annual membership fee the cost for the day was $80 including a ‘catered’ lunch. Not bad for what worked out to be about 4 hours of 1-on-1 instructor track time. I jumped at the chance and signed up as soon as registration opened as it was limited to just 20 students. I also convinced Ian to come out and learn the limits of his 2013 Volvo C30. The few weeks between registering and the day of were excruciatingly long. Finally the day arrived and the alarm went off at 6am Saturday morning.
After a quick stop at Tim Horton’s for a dash and go breakfast we made it up to the Pitt Meadows airport just before 8am. There was about half the students already there and even fewer instructors at that time. We found parking in the designated area and started chatting up the ‘competition’. Next to the Volvo was a 2005 BMW Z4 that happened to be driven by my boss’s Son-In-Law. The other vehicles there were what one would expect at an event like this, FR-S/BRZ twins, an EvoX, STi, a couple other BMWs, Civics of all generations, then a few you wouldn’t expect. Among them was a late 2000’s Pontiac Wave (G3), a Daihatsu, Sunbeam Tiger, and a old Suzuki Swift that was modified by removing the engine and dropping in a Hyuabusa engine where the rear seat would go.
After the usual chit-chat comparing car history and oogling the nicer vehicles it was time to get down to business. We were introduced to our instructors, mine was a middle aged fellow named Davis who competes in his almost stock 2005 Subaru Impreza 2.5i wagon. He had done this for a number of years and could be regarded as a ‘seasoned veteran’. The other student I was paired up with was Jeff who was driving a late 80’s MR2 that appeared to be in decent condition. After the introductions it was time to walk the course. The ‘school’ course only used half the pad (250′ wide) so it was rather short. It consisted of the Start Gate straight into a 7 cone slalom. Then up at the top end of the course was a ‘g-circle’, essential a giant circle of cones that was to be taken clockwise, followed by an extremely short transition into a set of 5 offset gates and finally the finish line. The instructors were doing 26 second laps in their tuned cars. My first run in the Abarth was 31 seconds and change. Ian ran a 35.something for his first run. We each had two more runs and then split into two groups to tackle the sections individually.
Up first for me were the offset gates. They are a group of cone boxes that are spaced an arbitrary distance apart and slightly offset from each other. They differ from a slalom where all the cones form a straight line you have to weave through. My first of many runs through the gates was, to put it mildly, slow. My instructor said that I should be able to take first three gates flat-out in second gear, lift going through the third gate to resettle the suspension, then back full throttle for the final two gates. After a handful of runs I got the hang of it and had the rear end of my Abarth feeling like it was on a set of skates. Reflecting back I should have shifted up into third gear going through the third gate as it would have dropped my RPM from 5000 to about 3500 putting me back into the torque peak. After at least a dozen, maybe two (I lost track of how many), runs through the offsets we swapped with Ian’s group over to the slalom section for some more fun
After an hour or more of running through the offsets it was time for the smaller brother, the slalom. Where the offsets were fast and flat out the slalom required much more precise throttle control. The starting gate was unusually close to the first cone in the slalom, just shifting into second gear as I started to turn for the second cone. I didn’t hit my top speed until the third cone. The key with the slalom, as I was told by my instructor, is to almost hit the cone with the inside rear tire. To do this successfully the car must start to rotate in the opposite direction before the vehicle reaches the cone. Assuming the vehicle is set up properly and the timing is spot on it should feel like the rear wheels are almost floating, it should appear from the outside and feel from the inside like a perfect pendulum. The key is to keep that feeling and not over rotate and spin out. After 5 or 6 runs I dialed in the top speed for the Abarth and had a ‘perfect’ run through the slalom. The next run I pushed a little harder and nailed the second to last cone with my rear wheel. The run after that I dialed it back a little and had another perfect run. Realizing I’m on the edge of my vehicle’s limits I try to extract to that little extra by trying to lift on the turn in to give my front wheels more weight and traction. This did not work as I hit the same second to last cone with my inside rear wheel. The following few runs alternated between a perfect run and trying something else. Without fail if I tried to give it that little extra I’d nail that same cone. My ability to place the car in the same position over and over was actually kind of scary. It was to the point my instructor told me the only way to get faster is to get better tires. Then lunch was served.
Lunch was simple sandwiches and a cold drink, nothing special but just right to not feel like a lump in the stomach. It also gave everyone a chance to get back together and compare notes from the morning and pick our instructors’ brains. Anything from what to upgrade the tires to and correct tire pressures to past experience to comparing the different autocross clubs. After lunch it was time for more exercises, the g-circle and the sweeper.
Up first for me was the sweeper, essentially half the g-circle with entry and exit gates. Nothing really to exciting excpet workin on timing of the apex and getting on the throttle as soon as possible. After the 4th or 5th run I was getting the exit down fairly well however my apex still needed some work. Each run I slowly crept towards the cones but never managed to clip any of them. During this exercise a vehicle in the other grop decided it had enough fun for the day. A very nice looking AE86 Corolla decided it no longer needed a head gasket. Once the massive plume of white smoke had cleared the exercises continued while the Corolla was pushed back to the parking area. After just over an hour the groups swapped and the g-circle was up next.
The g-circle looks rather unassuming but can wreak havoc on both man and machine. For the vehicle, if too many circles are done and it is an older car, there is a risk that all the oil can slosh to one side and the oil pump will run dry. For the driver it is quite a workout of the neck muscles trying to keep your head upright. It was also doing this I learend the importance of a properly tight seatbelt. Not ending up half leaned over the passenger seat clinging to the wheel is, apparently, key to remaining in control of the vehicle. The object of the exercise was to get as close to the cones as possible and even run over the cones to develop an awareness of where the edge of the vehicle is located. To start we each did two runs in either direction, a run consisted of 2-4 laps around the g-circle. First two were counterclockwise as the theory is the cones are on the drivers side and closer to the driver making it easier to get close to the cones. The next two runs were clockwise, the cones on the passenger side of the car. Oddly enough after doing 4 or 5 runs in either direction I found it much easier to run clockwise, I was able to consistently get closer to the cones, even clipping a few in the process while remaining in control. I was just set to take my final run when I was waved off and instructed to head back to the parking area. It was time to put everything together and do our final three runs of the full couse.
The final three runs were the same course that we started with in the morning with one difference. Rather than just driving we would also be working as if it were a real autocross event. So Ian and I were out chasing cones for the first half then driving later. While out chasing cones its a great oppertunity to see the lines everyone is taking. Once we got back to our cars our lap times were considerably better than when we started. By the end of the third run I believe I had shaved off about 2 seconds from my morning runs and Ian had shaved off about 3 seconds. Ian was also announced as the most improved through the offset exercise. All in all everything was wrapped up by 1630, both of us exhausted we left with massive smiles and a better sense of how to get the most out of our cars.