One of the biggest advantages of owning a Corvette rather than a musclecar is the Vette's outstanding handling prowess. Pretty much everyone who drives one for the first time emerges from the experience with a goofy grin and an exclamation along the lines of, "Wow, does that thing corner!" And while taking your favorite freeway on-ramp at 15 (or 30) over the posted speed limit can be entertaining for a while, chances are good that you will eventually wish to seek a legal way to push your car, and yourself, even harder.
Autocross (AX) events, also known as SOLO, are timed, precision-driving skill contests that emphasize the driver's ability and the car's handling characteristics. The event pits one driver at a time against a demanding course defined by cones or pylons on a large, low-hazard location such as a parking lot or inactive airstrip. Most events allow each driver six attempts at the course, each one timed to a thousandth of a second. Though speeds are usually no greater than those encountered in highway driving, a run around the AX course makes for an exhilarating adrenaline rush, thanks to the combination of concentration and car feedback.
What most people want to know when they first learn of autocross is whether it is dangerous to the driver or the car. One of the virtues of autocross is that you get to push yourself and your Corvette to the absolute limit with very little risk to anything but your ego. Because of the fairly low speeds and lack of hard obstacles at most event sites, the odds of damaging an out-of-control car are remarkably low. In fact, you're far more likely to wad it up in a collision whilst driving for ice cream on Saturday night!
Many autocross events are sanctioned by regional chapters of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). Additionally, countless Corvette clubs and other sports car clubs put on their own events, most of which are open to any make of car. Because AX doesn't require a specific venue like drag racing or open-track events, it can be held almost anywhere. This has made the sport very popular. In fact, SCCA says SOLO is second only to drag racing in terms of grassroots participation.
One benefit of this popularity is that, on any given weekend, you can find an autocross within a few hours' drive of nearly anywhere. A Google search will almost certainly get you pointed in the right direction; otherwise, take a look at SCCA's Web site, www.scca.org. Once you've identified an event and pre-registered, it's time to turn your attention to your machine.
Prior to being allowed to run, your car will be subjected to a technical inspection by event staff to verify that it's safe for competition. Nothing is more irritating than spending the money and time to pre-register and travel to an event, only to be turned away because your car doesn't pass tech. Save yourself some frustration and perform your own pre-event tech inspection. It's easy and should take you no more than 30 minutes.
Start your car prep by removing everything from the interior that isn't bolted down, including floor mats, garage-door-opener remote, and radar detector. Even something as seemingly benign as a ballpoint pen can become a dangerous projectile when you start hustling the car around the course.
Assuming you will be running the event on your normal street tires, it's a good idea to add some extra air to minimize the amount they can roll over. Tire roll-over occurs when the tire flexes in a corner to the point that it allows the sidewall to contact the ground. Obviously, this is not ideal in terms of traction or tire life.
How much air should you add? Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule regarding proper tire pressure, as there are far too many variables. A good starting point is to add about 10 psi over your usual air pressure. Many drivers use a bit of white shoe polish applied to the tire shoulder to help them gauge how much roll-over they are experiencing. From there, you can get an idea how much pressure is ideal for you. While you're adding air, take a critical look at all four tires, inspecting them for bulged sidewalls and visible cords showing in the tread.
The rest of tech inspection will consist of common-sense items such as verifying that the brake pedal is firm and that the car has no excessive fluid leaks. One frequently overlooked item is the battery hold-down. Verify that your battery is bolted firmly in place. A couple of bungee cords aren't going to cut it. Don't just eyeball this; give the battery a tug and be certain it is tight. You can be sure the inspectors will.
Though the tech inspectors will verify that your wheels are relatively tight, invest two minutes to torque your lug nuts to spec (as specified in your owner's manual). The potential consequences of a loose lug or wheel should go without saying. You should also take the time to make sure the engine oil, transmission and brake fluids, and coolant levels are topped off. It's a good idea to arrive at the event with no less than a quarter tank of fuel. While less is better (think weight), you can run into problems with uncovering the in-tank pickup in hard corners, starving the engine. With these things accomplished, your Corvette should be ready to run.
If you own a helmet with a Snell SA2000 certification or better, bring it. Some clubs are more lax on this and allow older helmets, but why would you scrimp on safety? Most clubs also have loaner helmets available, but these can be a hassle if several people are trying to use them. (And that's to say nothing of the rare scalp condition the previous user may have had.)
Bring a tire-pressure gauge and a roll of painter's tape. As you make runs, your tires will heat up quickly, increasing the pressure of the air inside, which directly impacts how the car reacts to your inputs. Use the pressure gauge between runs to maintain a consistent level of inflation and help determine the pressure at which your tires work best. Painter's tape works great for applying numbers to your car and can be removed with minimal fuss.
Other items to consider bringing along are personal-comfort-type things like a hat and sunscreen. Most events last six to eight hours, so it is a good idea to pack a cooler with food and non-alcoholic drinks.
No special apparel is required, so wear whatever the weather dictates. Care should be exercised in choosing proper footwear, though. Most clubs prohibit boots, open-toe sandals, or high heels. You will definitely want shoes that are comfortable for driving and running. Autocrosses are work/play propositions, so you can count on shagging cones on course when you're not driving. You might also wish to bring a lawn chair for post-event socializing. The one thing you'll want to leave home is your ego, 'cuz you're gonna get schooled. Guaranteed.
The morning of your first event can be a nervous time. It's a great idea to arrive at the event site early. When you arrive, make your way to the registration table. As mentioned earlier, some clubs require pre-registration, usually done online, in order to streamline check-in on the morning of the event. Some will make exceptions for first-time participants, but it's best not to chance it. You'll be asked to present a driver's license and sign a waiver. You'll then be given your car number and possibly a paper bracelet identifying you as a driver. While there, be sure to find out when the course is open for walking, when tech opens, and what time the drivers' meeting starts. Don't be shy about introducing yourself as a newbie, as many clubs go out of their way to make newcomers feel welcome; some go as far as assigning an experienced mentor to help you learn the ropes.
After checking in at the registration table, you'll need to apply some painter's tape for your number and class and remove all the stuff you brought along. Then it's time to make your way to tech. The tech inspectors will go through everything you did, so if you performed your pre-event inspection, you should sail through with no issues. You'll be given a gold star for your efforts. Well, not really, but you will get a small adhesive dot or decal affixed to your windshield to let the start marshal know you're cleared to run.
Unlike many other forms of motorsports, there are no practice runs in autocross, so your first run is for time. Though you'll get six or more turns on course, this does place a premium on your ability to quickly memorize course features and identify the most expedient means of navigating them. The best way to prepare is by walking the course.
Course designers find many ways to challenge competitors, almost always employing features such as slaloms, offset gates, and decreasing-radius turns. While these are fairly straightforward methods of keeping drivers on their toes, some more-subtle and sometimes devious course elements can catch even the best driver unawares. Designers often exploit site features such as pavement changes and odd cambers. These are things that experienced drivers will note and plan for during their runs. Walk the course as many times as you can.
Prior to the start of competition, you will be required to attend the drivers' meeting. Here, most of the basic rules will be explained, including cone penalties and grid and run procedures. If you knock over a cone or otherwise displace it from its chalk-outlined box on the course, you'll be assessed a two-second penalty. If you clip a cone and it stays standing, with any part of its base touching the outline, no penalty is assessed. If you wing one just so, flip it up in the air, and it lands back in or on the box, standing up, you got away with one! Buy a lotto ticket on the way home.
If you're fortunate, your class will be assigned to a later run group, meaning you will work the course first. Working the course involves replacing cones that have been hit and making sure the information on penalties is conveyed to the timing workers via a two-way radio. This is also a good chance to observe others' runs and get an idea of how they are attacking the course.
When your run group is called to the grid, there's no need to hurry to the front of the line. Instead, use the time to prepare yourself by visualizing the course. While you wait your turn in line, put on your helmet and cinch your seatbelt as tight as you can stand it. Remember, even stock Corvettes can generate tremendous cornering forces. You don't want to be fighting to hold yourself in the seat while driving. Adjust your seat to a more upright angle than your normal, laid-back cruising position. You want to maximize visibility and allow yourself to manipulate the controls freely.
No one wins an AX in their first run of the day. Relax. Breathe deeply and take the course at a brisk, but not all-out, pace. Your goal here is to reinforce your mental picture of the course that you established in your course walks. The course looks very different from the driver seat, both because your point of view is substantially lower and because the element of speed has now been added to the equation. The time to be assertive comes with your subsequent runs.
Once you reach a point that your times stop improving, you will likely benefit from some help. One tactic is to seek out experienced Corvette drivers for their advice. Most clubs have instructors available for ride-alongs. Don't be afraid to ask an instructor to hop in. In autocross, experience is everything, and a good instructor will teach you more in one run than you could hope to learn in 30 runs on your own.
If you possess even one competitive fiber in your being, you're bound to want to improve to the point of being competitive in your class. There is much to learn both in terms of improving your car and honing your skills. Next month, I will share what I gleaned in my first season of autocross.