Surviving Your First Autocross

So you've taken the plunge and decided it's time to attend your first SCCA Autocross event. Great! But, er, what now? An autocross is a great time, and you'll find the people are very friendly and willing to help out new folks. But, it helps if you have an idea of what's going to happen so you can be prepared.

Before the Event

Before the event, you'll want to make sure you and your car are ready so that you can have a safe and fun race. Make sure your car is in good working order, check to make sure your lug-nuts are tight, and your tires are not worn. Clean everything out of your car. Everything! There should be nothing in your car that is not solidly tied down, any cd's, Mcdonald's wrappers, floor-mats, and other junk should be removed. If you want, you can also take out your spare tire and jack for a little weight savings and a little better balance. Although it's optional, it's best for your car to look it's best, so you may want to clean it up a bit.

Further prepping of the car is optional, however you probably want to adjust your tire pressure. Racing puts much more stress on your tires, and at normal pressures the sidewall will begin to roll thus giving you a decreased contact area. For a front wheel drive car, you generally want to put your front tires at a higher pressure so they will have a greater contact area under aggressive cornering thus helping to reduce understeer. Getting the right pressure takes time and experience. In general, go 5-6 PSI over the recommended pressure. For FWD cars this is usually around 38F/35R. For RWD cars, try the opposite.

What to bring

You want to be prepared so that you can have a good time without worrying about stuff you forgot. Here's my list of stuff the first timer should take.
  • Sunscreen - You will be standing in the sun all day long except for brief stints driving
  • Sunglasses - again, standing in the sun all day...
  • Cooler - Depending on the schedule and your club, you might not get much of a lunch break. I always take a cooler with bottled water, ice, and a couple of energy bars so I can keep myself going if we're tight on time. The water is most important, you'll want to drink a lot to avoid dehydration.
  • Tire Pressure Gauge - so you can adjust if needed. Several people there will have air tanks and most people won't mind letting you use it, but if you have a compressor, bring it along too.
  • White Shoe Polish - unless you want to buy magnetic stick on numbers ($$$) you'll need to put your number on your windows with shoe polish (it comes off with Windex). You can also use it to mark the sides of your tires so that you can see how far your tires are rolling over and adjust tire pressure accordingly.
  • Money - The fee will vary from club to club. For my local region, events are $20 for members or $25 for non members. Most clubs also have a policy that if you join the club that day, you can race for free.
  • Aspirin - you're not going to have much fun if you get a headache from standing out in the sun all day, so it never hurts to have some aspirin or ibueprofen.
  • If you're the type who likes their car to look good, bring some rags and quick detailing spray
  • helmet - if you've got one. Your club will have helmets you can borrow, so no biggie if you don't have one. However, the helmets tend to get rather sweaty as the day goes on and don't always fit great, so if you do this for any period of time you want to get a helmet (They run anywhere from $100 to $300).

Arriving at the Event

Find out what time the event starts at and get there early. There is generally a check in window. At our events, check in is 8-10 AM. Get there early! This is your first time, you don't want to be rushed. When you arrive, you'll first need to pay your fee and register. If you don't know what class your car is in, someone will help you pick the right one. Also, most clubs have a novice category you should sign up for. Generally awards are given out for novices separately.

Once you've registered, you should park in the designated area and unload your car. Paint your number on the car with the shoe polish (someone will have some if you forgot), and drive over to the tech inspection. Pop your hood, shut the car off, and wait for the tech. They'll just do a basic run down to make sure you're signed up for the right class and that your car is not going to fall apart. After your car is inspected, return to the parking area and get ready to walk the course.

Walking the course is a very important thing. As this is your first autocross, your goal is to not get lost on course. Cones mark the track, but there are intersections and other areas where it's not obvious at speed which way you should go. Walk the course several times on your own. Walk the lines you want to drive, and try to form a good mental image of the course. Being prepared for what is next is the most important thing you can do to improve your course times. You might also want to draw a map so you can study it back at your car.

After walking the course 3 or more times, you can head back to your car and relax a bit. Chat with some of the other folks, check out some cars, but make sure you're not late for the driver's meeting. During this meeting, the organizers will go over some things such as work assignments and the schedule.


Thought it was all fun, eh? Nope, you have to work too. You're not going to be sitting around doing nothing unless you're waiting in line to race. Generally there are several types of jobs. You can record times, announce, record penalties, direct traffic if needed, start cars, line up cars to the start, or work on the course. Most of these will be explained by the organizers, we'll just go over working out on the course as this is where most of the jobs are.

On the course, your job is to check for penalties and to reset the course. The course is marked out with cones. Each cone will have a chalk outline around the base. There are also two types of cones. Direction cones are used to point which way the car should go on the track. Course cones mark the boundaries of the course. A penalty occurs if a course cone is either 1) knocked over or 2) nudged out of the chalk outline. Note the difference here, a cone can be nudged without penalty as long as any part of it is still inside the chalk outline and it is upright. Direction cones are never penalized. How a penalty is handled depends on your club. Typically you will either wave the cone clearly over your head to the person who marks down penalties, or you will report it over a walkie talkie.

The most important thing about working the course is to stay alert. Keep track of where the cars are at all times. You will have a designated safe area to stand at, make sure you watch out for out of control cars coming your way :) When a car hits a cone, run over quickly (after making sure there are no cars coming your way) and reset them, and notify the appropriate person of the penalty. You will also have flags, if you notice a dangerous situation you should use the flag to wave off the oncoming car. You should do this if a car has spun out on course and another car is approaching it, or if someone is setting up cones and a car is approaching.


Okay, you've reached the moment. You will have multiple runs, so it's important to pace yourself. On your first run, go slow! I know you won't but try. In reality, you'll probably go out there, get pumped up on adrenaline, go way to fast, take out a bunch of cones, and possibly go off course. Don't do that! Remember, your goal is to not get lost. Take it nice and easy the first run, you'll have several more runs to go faster. Think ahead, look ahead, be prepared for the next turn, and get around clean, not quick.

When you pull up to the starting line, don't get to carried away. Wait for the starter to signal you to go, and take off. This is not a drag race, so don't do a smoky burnout... But, you do want to get on it a bit so you can get up to speed. The fastest launch is one with very slight wheelspin. How to accomplish this depends on your car, so you'll just have to practice.

Now you're going, just keep it calm and smooth. The key to a fast run is keeping it smooth. Shifting weight around on your car and forcefully braking and accelerating is not good. Smooth is the key to speed. Watch the other cars out there, you'll notice the fastest cars out there aren't very exciting. They don't squeal their tires or look like they're going fast because they are driving smooth and under control. Start out easy, and pick it up a bit more each time. After the first couple of runs you should know the course well enough to start driving faster.

The end of the day

At the end of the day, you'll probably be hooked. After the racing is complete, they'll hand out trophies. Odds are you're not getting one of these on your first time out. Stick around and help clean up the course if needed. Hopefully you had a good time and you're ready to plan for your next event.

After the event

Whatever you do, don't run out and start modifying your car! You'll be tempted I know, you'll be thinking that if you just had some stiffer shocks you could beat that guy ahead of you. Forget it. Leave your car alone and work on making yourself a better driver. You can shave several seconds off of your time just by improving your driving, and that's part of what makes this a great sport. You can always challenge yourself to get better and better. After you've improved you can worrying about making your car more competitive.

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