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Autocross 101 Timed Driving Event Basics - Safe Racing

The Basics And Beyond

Greg Aleck Jan 1, 2005
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By nature, Corvette owners are a competitive breed. They compete against each other in Concours, battle the clock in road rallies, and support their beloved Corvette C5-R at the world's most demanding road courses.

Many dream of pushing their Corvettes to the limit like Ron Fellows or Oliver Gavin piloting a C5-R. But unless you have the natural talent and someone to pay the bills, it's unlikely.

There is an easier alternative-a way to experience real, live motorsports competition without risking damage to yourself or your car.

Welcome to Autocross 101.

Let's start with the basics. An autocross is a timed driving event on a course marked with highway cones. The speed at which a car negotiates the course is up to the driver; there's no obligation to drive any faster than you feel comfortable. Winners are determined by the lowest elapsed time for negotiating the course. Winning times can differ by as little as hundredths of a second, so elapsed times are important.

Autocrosses test driving precision at relatively low speeds. Courses consist of tight turns and short straightaways, which intensify the illusion of speed on the course. For each cone that's hit and/or moved, a time penalty is assessed. Going off course usually nullifies the run. It's virtually impossible for competitive drivers to make up the time lost to such penalties, so precise driving talent is more important a heavy foot on the gas.

Autocrossing allows drivers to explore the limits of their Corvettes with minimal risk. The late racing legend Mark Donohue said, "The best way to learn your limits is to exceed them once in a while." In either race driving or street driving, losing control and going off the road at speed can result in dire consequences. On an autocross course, the worst you can do is run over a couple of highway cones.

Virtually every racing and high-performance driving school in the United States uses autocross-type courses to train drivers because mistakes won't endanger themselves or others. Best of all, you can learn these lessons in the Corvette you drive every day, provided it has seatbelts and is in safe driving condition. Technical inspectors check each car for safety. Drivers must wear a racing helmet and use seatbelts. Anyone with a valid driver's license and a safe automobile can take a crack at a challenging autocross course.

Getting StartedFirst find an event in your area. Check with local Corvette clubs, the SCCA Solo II region, surf the Internet, or find a nearby sports car club. Odds are, there's an event somewhere near you.

You'll find out at the event where to register, how to fill out the required forms, where to take your car for a safety inspection, and where and when the drivers' meeting will take place.

A typical local Autocross (Solo II) starts with the registration and safety inspection for the participants, followed by a course walk for the drivers. After a brief drivers' meeting, one group of drivers lines up for their turn, while others go to work stations on the course to pick up and record knocked-down pylons or do other tasks. After one or more runs, drivers return to their pits. Then other drivers take their turns, alternating until all have run on the course. Each run is timed, and the fastest single run by a driver is his score for that event. When all runs are complete, trophies are awarded to the best drivers.

For the most part, autocrossing is no more dangerous than driving to work. Most courses are set up to keep everyone under 60 mph. That may sound slow at first, but you can be sure it feels a lot faster, especially your first time out.

An approved helmet is required for competition. Specs may vary from club to club, but many follow the SCCA's lead and require a Snell M90, SA90 or better rating. Loaner helmets are usually available, but having your own is a plus.

Your car will be inspected for safety at the event, but any decent street-driven car should pass. Inspectors will check the condition of your throttle return spring, battery hold-down, lug nuts, wheel bearings, and seatbelts. They'll make sure your brake pedal doesn't go all the way to the floor and that no cords are showing on the tires.

Before you leave home, clean out your car, removing any loose articles in the glovebox, interior, and trunk. Make sure everything is properly tightened down. Raising or lowering tire pressure will affect handling and can make a big change in your lap times. The fast guys use DOT-approved race tires, but street tires are fine for novices. Race tires are faster, more predictable, handle better, and last longer, so consider picking up a set.

In general, most of the drivers you'll meet are sports car enthusiasts who enjoy the opportunity to drive hard and smart, and seek out the chance to compete against other drivers. The sport may be enjoyed at a modest cost (tires may be the biggest expense), so it isn't limited to an elite group.

There are no specialized workers or officials in autocrossing. The drivers are the officials, and are required to work some portion of each event. This cooperation makes autocrossing one of the friendliest forms of auto racing.

In addition to local events, premier events are staged throughout the country, many featuring two days of competition. A number of major series allow drivers to compete against the best in their area.

In autocrossing and solo competition, you can drive as hard as you can without fear of arrest and experience the adrenaline rush of competition even though you're in your own daily driver. With hundreds of events nationwide, competition is usually nearby and frequent. Go have fun.

Big RedWe recently attended the National Council of Corvette Clubs (NCCC) autocross at the Florida State Fairgrounds. There was a wide variety of Corvettes in attendance, from an early shark to a Z06, but the one that stood out was the mild-mannered, fire-breathing C4 of John Haskell.

John, who in late August sat in second place in the men's division in the NCCC National Competition, was the class of the autocross, recording the fastest time in each run with his '96 C4 coupe.

John runs the family wire business in Shelby, North Carolina, and has been in 85 events as of this writing, while chasing the NCCC Men's National Competition points championship. Even though "Big Red" is trailered to events, it's still streetable.

"I saved her from the repo man in December 2001," says John. "When I bought her, the brakes were shot, the clutch slipped badly, and there was a serious knock in the LT4 engine. She needed some work." After the rescue and disassembly, John took the LT4 to M&H Engineering in Columbia, South Carolina, where they balanced and blueprinted, recalibrated the computer, and added headers and a 3-inch-diameter exhaust system. For good measure, an underdrive harmonic balancer and an 8-quart road-racing oil pan was added.

After all this attention, the 355ci LT4 boasts 341hp at 6,300 rpm and 350 lb-ft of torque. Both figures were measured at the rear wheels. The stock six-speed gearbox sends the motivation to the rear wheels through a 4.56 rear gear and a Posi-traction differential. In the aero department, the guys at Riches Bodyshop in Shelby, North Carolina, added the attractive Greenwood body kit, as well as the red/white paint job.

But John is most proud of the brake, suspension, and chassis work he did in his shop at home, called "Rock & Roll Race Shop." "Doing the brake, suspension, and chassis work on the car was almost as much fun as driving it," says John. "I replaced all the rubber bushings with polymer ones to give me a better feel for what the car was doing. The brakes were trash, so I replaced them with Grand Sports calipers, stainless steel braided lines, and Carbotech pads. I mounted Kumho ECSTA-Series tires all around on CCW wheels. I also installed a rollbar, a five-point harness, a new steering wheel, and a B&M close-ratio shifter."

John says, "I've had this car going on three years. In that time, I put 8,000 miles on it. Most of that was on an autocross course, but I sometimes take her to Corvette shows. Over the years we've had some wild rides. I've spun it at over 100 mph. I backed it into a pond at over 60 mph here in Florida once. I still get kidded about that one. But she doesn't let me down often at an event. I was the 2003 Carolina Region men's champion and I currently hold the Group G2 track record at the Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, South Carolina. It's a genuine blast to own and drive."

Picking Your ClassThe four major groups at most autocrosses are Stock, Street Prepared, Prepared, and Modified.

The Stock category is the largest. Cars are permitted only minor changes from original showroom condition. Late-model Corvettes dominate Super Stock, and because the cars are grouped by speed potential, older cars can remain competitive.

The Street Prepared Class consists of cars that have been modified by using exhaust headers, wider wheels, or other minor changes to improve handling or speed. This group includes only production cars capable of running on the street despite their modifications.

The Prepared Class is for the driver who wants to go even faster. These production cars are permitted to have major engine, suspension, and body modifications, and racing slicks. They're more like real race cars.

For the ultimate thrill, Modified Classes are available for the potentially fastest cars of all. They range from tiny, single-seat formula cars, with a variety of highly tuned powerplants, to purpose-built cars with extra-wide racing tires and sophisticated suspension systems.

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