Even though I have thousands of autocross runs underneath my butt, there is only a handful that are noteworthy. Of these, my most memorable would have to be one that was almost 30 years ago and didn't come from behind the wheel of a Camaro. The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) has their premiere Solo event each fall and, at the Nationals, the best of the best compete for that elusive Championship trophy, jacket, recognition within our sport, and the bragging rights that go along with it. I can tell you firsthand (actually I can tell you 11 times), winning your class against the top caliber drivers is pretty cool. My most memorable run? Well, it came deep from within and involved trust in myself, knowing the car and its limits, and feeling what those four corners were doing underneath me. I danced with the car and felt that it just couldn't put a wheel wrong that day. It's a rare "in the zone" run that brings that all together, and while it sounds a bit Zen-like with a hint of "voodoo," it really isn't.
I'm guessing that if you've gotten this far, you've run a couple of the Goodguys autocrosses and want more. While you may never compete at an SCCA Pro-Solo or National championship event, there are lots of regional and local club events where you can hone your skills and develop your car. If you compete for any length of time, you'll improve both. As for pulling the trigger and entering some higher level events, all I can tell you is this: Just do it and don't worry about the stuff you can't control. When you throw down some awesome runs, it will all be worth it.
So how do you get to this level of competition and become that ace driver? Simply put, you work at it. Hard! Autocrossing isn't easy and it's pretty funny when people who haven't tried it tell you that driving tight courses at 35 mph max isn't that difficult and they could turn a quicker time at that Goodguys Autocross. If you've never tried autocross, it's easy to "arm chair" it, but the driving part is much harder than it looks. It's harder than driving on a racetrack as well.
Getting in the groove and putting the smack down on your competition starts with you. Not your car, not the course, but you, the driver. Your attitude can make or break your finishing position not to mention that peg-the-meter fun part. Each autocross run takes about a minute, give or take a few seconds. Some are longer and involve a lot more elements. You're talking huge chunks of concentration and focus as inches on the course translate into tenths and hundredth of a second for your time. Everything has to be precise and controlled with no room for error. While most novices see a parking lot sprinkled with traffic cones, I'm seeing small segments, or elements as we refer to them, all the while looking for any tidbit of available space to fit my big, fat '72 Camaro. It's saving precious real estate without losing length or traction that brings about a quick time no matter the type of course. When I return to my grid space after a run, I mentally replay it, focusing on what I did right and identifying areas on course where I can improve (we'll talk more about this later on). While it's hard not to do, don't beat yourself up about mistakes, as we all make them, myself included. The most important thing is to never give up and to keep attacking the course elements. While spectators think fast is lots of tire smoke and sliding sideways, that winning run will need smart, calculating precision coupled with smoothness behind the wheel. Realize, too, there is no such thing as a "perfect" autocross run, although some do come close.
One thing the Goodguys autocrosses don't offer but every other event will is the course walk and usually a map to go with it. Definitely take this opportunity to get acquainted with the course and, if you can, walk it with people who are experienced autocrossers, as they'll help you with the driving line, apexes, braking points, and the key corners and cones. Walk the course in the position of the driver's perspective and allow more room on your right side than your left. Your Camaro is about 5 feet wide and 7 feet long, so walk the course with that in mind. Depending on your run group or time, you'll want to either walk the course or get registered first. Ask at registration where tech inspection is and in which class your Camaro will run, where your run and work groups are, where grid is, and then take your Camaro to tech.
Technical inspection isn't to be feared as it's a basic safety check to ensure your car is safe to compete. You can make this easier ahead of time by making sure that the battery is secured and not free to roam, all belts and hoses are in good condition, the fluids are at safe operating levels (I usually run the crankcase about a half-quart overfull), there's no "junk in the trunk" or the interior tires are properly inflated with no cord showing (most DOT street tires like 35-40 psi and this helps prevent them from rolling over), and that your helmet will pass inspection. If you're new to this sport, let registration know. They'll get you a mentor as they'll want to make sure you have a good experience and hopefully come back. There's so much happening at every autocross event. For example, your car has to be on grid, there's the course walk, you may be wondering where the tech is or what class you run in, whether your registration card is in the car and properly filled out or if everything's out of the car-that's brain overload even before your car turns a wheel on the course. Don't be rushed. Plan on about two hours to get all of this done before you run.
As I mentioned before, let people know you are just starting out. Talk with those experienced drivers and ask to ride with them on a run or two or ask if they'll ride with you. If they're not in a heated points battle they'll usually say yes and you'll get a bird's-eye view of the course while seeing that driving line and those key cones, and you'll feel the sensations of speed and g-forces from the passenger seat. It's a terrific rush when those corners come up quick. I love handing passengers that light feeling in the pit of their gut when I mat the throttle and the torque kicks in. Riding shotgun helps boost your driving learning curve a ton.
Ready, Set, Go
So, now you're sitting on grid, nervous as hell. You've forgotten all you learned during the course walk and the map they gave you is an unreadable soggy mess from your sweaty mitts. You're wondering what insane moment possessed you to even try an autocross and then suddenly you're at the starting line. The flagger signals you slowly forward and then motions you to stop. He's holding the green flag furled and watching the cars already on course to get the correct time spacing so you can start. You, on the other hand, are still trying to focus, all the while looking intently ahead trying to remember where you need to go once that green flag drops. Before you realize it, the starter unfurls that green and you're off! And this is where the "driving smart" comes in.
If you've done it right then you've mentally driven the course before you even got to the starting line. Think about how you'll steer, where you'll brake, where you'll want to be back on the gas, areas where you really can haul the mail, and what your car's track position will be. All should be considered in your mind before you ever entertain driving any autocross course. Remember that this is your first time on this particular course and my recommendation is to continue that "get to know you" relationship. You'll almost never turn your fastest autocross lap on your very first run so use this to your advantage. Use this first run to identify that key apex to turn cones we talked about earlier and focus on looking ahead-far ahead if the course allows it. That Zen-like feeling I spoke of earlier? Well, it comes from your core or, in this case, your butt, as you feel where the car is at the moment, where it's going, and what it's going to do when you apply some steering, throttle, or braking input. You're not visually looking at where the car is at the present but where it will be many seconds from now. Keep those eyes up and moving; this is an acquired talent and one that all proficient autocrossers possess. Trust me and work hard on this part.
After The Action
You got around the course and crossed the finish line. Now you can breathe. Your time flashes on the digital display as you stop to get your official time slip before motoring back to the grid area. Most newbies worry about getting lost, going too slow, and hitting cones. If you've walked the course and are keeping those eyes up, you won't get lost. If you are confident about the elements and how to tie them together, you won't be slow. And if things don't go as planned, yes, you may annihilate a few cones. When presented with the choice of an orange traffic cone or going off course, nail that sucker and forget about it. Regroup, reacquire the course, and then continue at racing speeds to the finish. Each cone displaced from its box will add a second or two to your time. And if you take nothing else away from this, remember that you can never go back and redo time. Once you've hit that cone, that moment is history. Work toward the future and don't dwell on the past. A killed cone is just that: in the past.
One of the key things I do when back in grid is review my run. Hopefully, each run will be faster than the one before it and usually my final attempt on course is my quickest. This can be good or bad because, if I do push the envelope and get greedy, my final time may be my best but also may have a cone penalty attached to it, which really sucks!
My review is simple and I identify the areas, or elements, of the course that felt good and focus on those parts that weren't that stellar. Can I get further into that sweeper or accelerate out earlier? Can I get a little closer to each slalom cone? Are my braking points correct and am I braking in a straight line and to the threshold point? How does the car feel and can I be smoother striving for better balance? Simple stuff like that. I don't worry about the areas of the course that felt good. It's those sections where time was left on the table that are mentally replayed and addressed. Each subsequent run has fewer and fewer issues and after three or four runs, my time, give or take a tenth, is pretty much where it will stay no matter how many runs I take after that.
Another thing I do is take tire temperatures and adjust pressures based on car feel. This is an individual adjustment and one that's done based on if the car's loose or tight. If it's loose, or oversteering, then the rear's stepping out and I want to identify where that's happening. If it's on corner entry, then I've gotten in too deep while simultaneously turning the steering wheel, over-anticipating my apex and corner exit. If it's tail happy on corner exit, then my right foot is to blame and I need to soften my application of the go pedal or only add power when the car's straight. If the car's tight, then it's understeering or pushing like a proverbial dump truck. This I hate, as it means the front end's too stiff or I've done a very bonehead thing, like doing a banzai dive-bomb attack into a corner expecting the car to make me a rock star. You can make little tweaks to the tire pressures and can correct for some of the inherent tight and loose handling quirks. Tire sidewalls are compressible so think of each tire like a mini-shock absorber and an adjustable one at that.
If your Camaro has adjustable sway bars and shocks, you have even more in your handling arsenal than you can take advantage of. Personally, I like my car to rotate when I trail brake into a corner. This happens starting before the corner and from gradual brake pressure that gets huge the closer I am to the apex. I'm turning the steering wheel during the approach to my apex and then start back on power when almost on it. The rear end's getting light as the front end is just approaching threshold grip. The rear starts to come around while I'm nearing the apex and then I move weight back to the rear by adding throttle while unwinding the steering wheel. The car doesn't track but slides around the corner and if I clobber the apex cone, I've entered the corner too slow, which also sucks. At no time am I looking at the wheel or even the car as I'm focused on what's ahead of me.
There's an old saying: "In slow, out fast. In fast, out backward." This is so true and should be your mantra for autocrossing, or any type of motorsports for that matter. With autocross, you want to lengthen that "power on" area, which means you want to start laying down the throttle at or before your corner apex. You have to create these straight sections within the slaloms and offset elements so look for them during your course walk; there will be sections that your car can fit through without using brakes or steering. It takes skill, confidence, and big 'nads to find and then haul the mail through these sections. If you brake early and get your Camaro slowed down, you can get to that apex and not be sliding past it with the brakes locked, which then means you can get turned and headed toward the next element under power a hell of a lot sooner. Aside from flat spotting your tires, you'll lose valuable time by getting in deep to each corner compared to time spent slowing down early before the entrance. Trust me on this, too.
When I talk about key corners, cones, and apexes, this means that these are the cones that'll matter most. On any autocross course, the majority of cones are mere decoration. They keep you within the perimeter of the course and if you venture out toward them it will only add time to your run due to the increased distance you traveled to get there. There are, however, about 10-15 key cones that are very important; these must be located and their positions locked in your memory bank. Your corner apex is the point at which the car is closest to the inside of the corner; it's the point where your car is coming in and going out. There may be a cone at that point or there may not be. Ideally, you want your car to be leaving the corner at that point or simply put, taking a late apex as this allows you to pick up throttle sooner. Keeping your eyes up and looking ahead will make picking up these key pylons easy. You'll drive smoother and won't be prone to driving "point to point." Be patient young grasshopper and you'll be rewarded with smooth, clean, and, most important, fast autocross runs.
In 1999, after 12 years off from autocross competition, I decided I would come back out and play. I was lucky enough to win myself a Pro Solo Championship that year. At the start of the '00 season, I changed from the Civic that I was running to a Camaro Z28. In an effort to learn the car and polish my skills, my girlfriend talked me into taking the Evolution School. Like most men, I thought to myself, "What are they going to teach me?" Well, I headed out anyway, and decided if I was going to spend money on learning, I was going to have an open mind about it. I'm so glad I did. Aside from breaking down the course by each element, my instructors taught me to try things I never would have thought about on my own. At the time, I felt some of the things they were asking me to do were quite awkward, but upon my ride home, I realized they were really just things that I do every day. The difference being, we don't drive every day on a giant piece of Tarmac lined with cones.
You can be the best driver in the world but once you're taken off the road and put into an autocross environment, you tend to fixate on the end of the hood, thus, everything sneaks up on you. So, one of the most important things that Evolution teaches you is the art of "looking ahead." We all do it every day. We don't take that favorite exit ramp and stare at the end of the hood. We look way around the corner. That same thing even applies to driving in traffic. We don't stare at the car in front of us, we look through that car to see what's going on in front of them. So by having the students start looking far ahead, we find everything becomes smoother, the corrections become much smaller, and the times start to drop.
For me, it wasn't just some driving school I took, but a whole new approach to the skills I already had. Evolution helped refine my driving and the results followed. Within two years of taking the classes, I was instructing, and am now one of the owners. It's very rare you're able to do something in life you love for a living, and I am thankful every day for this. If you've ever thought about going to driving school but thought it was too expensive or thought, "What can they teach me?" Well my friends, come on out to an Evo School. We'll refine your skills and do it for a very reasonable price. Go check out our website and look for a school in your area. You won't be disappointed!
Hope to see you there! Mike "Junior" Johnson Evolution Performance Driving School