Basic Autocross Techniques
Competitive autocrossing is a great alternative or supplement to track days. In autocross events, yours is the only car on the course while you’re running, so you don’t need to worry about anyone else getting in your way, or worse. Speeds are typically slower than on the track, so if something should go wrong, you are more likely to be able to deal with it than you might on the track.
Under the worse of circumstances much less damage is likely to be done should the car get out of control on the autocross course. Typically only a few cones will get knocked around, and your pride might suffer a blow, but that’s about it.
Autocross events generally cost much less to enter than full-blown track days. While you’ll get less seat time, when you’re in the car you’ll be learning as much about driving and car control as you would on the track, generally in a much more concentrated manner.
Principles of Autocrossing
Autocross techniques are pretty much the same as track driving techniques. They’re just done on tighter courses and in lower gears, but the same principles apply.
Look Ahead, Think Ahead
The first rule for all types of driving is to look ahead of where you are and look in the direction you want to go. In autocross, this means that as you make your turn, you should already be looking at the next turn, or often the turns after that.
By the time your car is coming around a pylon, there is little you can do to make any difference, so your eyes should be on the next turn, and your mind should be planning the turns beyond that.
Look for the Straightest Lines
The second principle of autocrossing is to find the line that allows you to go as straight as possible. The straighter the line, the faster you’ll go. In autocrossing as in track racing, you need to look for every opportunity to point the car in a straight line so you can get hard on the throttle. Typically in autocross, this means looking for the straightest line through the corners, rather than turning every time the course turns.
Don’t be deceived by the cones. They define the edges of the course, but have little to do with finding the fast line. This is not a game of connect the dots; instead it is a game of turning square corners into smooth curves.
When you watch other drivers going through the autocross, they can often be divided into two camps. There’s the noisy, almost out-of-control driver whose car seems to be skidding and squealing around each corner, with abrupt changes in direction. Then there’s the smooth driver who seems to be fluid all the way through, with the car rolling easily from one turn to the next.
If you were sitting inside the car, you’d see the first driver’s hands moving rapidly on the wheel, so fast they almost seem a blur. The second driver’s hands wouldn’t seem to move much at all. His hands would generally on opposite sides of the wheel and not leave the wheel nearly as often.
Which one do you think will come in with the faster lap time? If you guessed the smooth driver, you’d be right. The really fast drivers know where they need to go, plan ahead, rarely get caught off-guard, and very rarely look as if they’re out of control.
Finding the Fast Line
Walking the course ahead of time can make a big difference. Since most autocross events only allow the drivers two or at most three runs, there really isn’t enough time to develop a strategy for the course and figure out the best line while driving it. Instead, serious competitors will arrive early enough so they can walk the course and scope it out.
When you do walk the course, try to ignore the rest of the crowd. Don’t just walk around to see where it goes; instead look at each corner, or sequence of corners and pause long enough to figure out how to go through that portion most quickly.
As you walk the course, divide it into cornering sequences and straightaways. You want to be in a position to get on the throttle quickly going into a straightaway, so that may sometimes mean planning your line through several corners in such a way that you can come out of the last corner at the right point and pointed in the right direction to burn up the straight.
The best strategy to deal with a sequence of turns leading up to a straight is to work backwards. Start with the straight, looking at where the car will be straightened out and pointed in the proper direction, then figure out how to take the previous corner so that the car winds up at the right point, facing in the right direction. Then evaluate the next previous corner and so on until you’ve figured out where you need to enter the sequence and how you should take it.
Autocross courses are typically made up of standard right and left turns, plus some ingenious obstacles that will be incorporated into every course. These include slaloms, chicanes, 360-degree turns, and sweeping turns. For each of these, we can offer some tips to take them as fast as possible
Slaloms are an important part of every autocross course. This segment of the course will consist of a straight line of cones, typically placed at equal distances from one another. The task is to go from right to left to right again, weaving through the line while maintaining as high a speed as possible.
To run a slalom sequence quickly, you definitely need to be looking two to three cones ahead, rather than simply concentrating on turning around the next cone. Drivers who focus on the cones one at a time typically start fast, then find themselves going wider and wider with each turn until they finally reach a point where they have gone too wide and can’t get turned without going off course or hitting a cone.
Instead, you should choose your turning point outside the line of cones, so that you just brush past each cone on the way to the point where you turn to line up to pass the next cone. If anything, you should start the sequence more slowly than you think will be necessary. That way you can gradually gain speed as you go through, rather than having to slide around and scrub off speed in order to stay on course.
Most courses you encounter are likely to have at least one section where the cones extend across your direct line of travel, on an otherwise straight section, forcing you to make a set of three tight turns, for example first right, then left, then right, to stay on course. These obstacles, a favorite of the fiends who lay out autocross courses, are called “chicanes.” (A good term, since the word is the root of the word chicanery, meaning trickery or deception.)
Often the chicane is enclosed in a box of cones to make the problem a little more difficult. A few tips will help you negotiate this obstacle as quickly as possible. First, remember that the main trick to autocrossing well is to turn series of straight lines into smooth curves. Don’t think of the chicane as a set of separate turns, but rather as a sort of slalom, where you want to take as straight a line as possible through the box.
Second, plan ahead to figure out where you want the car to be pointed when you exit the chicane. Then work your line back to determine how you want to enter the chicane.
Third, as you go through the chicane, don’t be tricked into dropping your sight line. Instead, look across and out towards the next turn as you enter the chicane. This will help you find the quickest way through.
Finally, don’t be timid, and don’t be tricked into making your turns sharper than they need to be. Be aggressive at the entrance and make your turns early. On most chicanes, you will be able to get on a straight line and back on the accelerator well before you’re actually through the obstacle, turning what could be three turns into only two turns.
Hairpins and 360 Turns
Another typical element of many autocross courses is the tight hairpin around a cone. Sometimes, the course may even require a 360 turn. This turn will be marked a single pylon sitting in the center of the path of travel with some large open space around it. Your challenge is to go around the pylon, executing a 180- or 360-degree turn and then continuing on the course.
This type of obstacle is tailor-made for the MINI’s front-drive capabilities and easily-reached handbrake. The trick to this is to use the handbrake or your left foot to release the grip of the rear tires on the pavement, then use the powered front wheels to pull you around in a controlled skid.
To manage this, you’ll drive close to the pylon, and when you’re even with it, turn the steering wheel to put the car in a sharp turn around the pylon. Holding the wheel turned with your left hand, you’ll give a quick pull on the handbrake, holding the button down and then immediately release the brake. You can also accomplish the same effect by using your left foot to stamp on the brake pedal and immediately release it, while keeping your right foot on the gas.
Either way, the quick braking should break the rear end loose so you can bring the car around with the nose almost touching the pylon. Once you’re about three-quarters of the way through the turn, you get hard on the accelerator to pull you back into a straight line and on down the course, and allow the steering wheel to unwind.
High-Speed Straights and Sweepers
Autocross courses are great places to find the limits of your car. In particular, most courses will include at least one high-speed sweeper. On these corners, you’ll want to get your car right at the edge of adhesion. You’ll be able to tell where that is by the squeal that the tires make as they struggle to hold on. You’ll often hear the saying, “A squealing tire is a happy tire,” but you won’t know what that means until you turn your car into that long curve then push down on the throttle until the car is right at its limits, using the throttle as much as the steering wheel to keep the car on course.
Gear selection and shifting is one of the few driving techniques that you probably won’t get to practice much when you’re autocrossing. Because most courses are so short and tight, you’ll probably find that you start in first, shift up into second as quickly as possible, and then stay in second gear for the entire course.
Occasionally an event may be able to set a course that does include one or perhaps two very long straight sections, where an upshift into third is needed towards the end to keep on the power band or avoid exceeding the rev limits. Even on these courses, you’ll need to downshift again almost immediately to be ready to power through the next corner, so you won’t lose much if you just run the car up to the top of the rev range without shifting.
Starts and Finishes
Nearly all autocross courses are timed electronically, with a beam of light and electric eye at the start and at the finish. As you make your start and cross the finish, your car breaks the beam of light, starting and stopping the timer.
For safety purposes, the SCCA has had a long-standing rule that there must be a right-angle turn before the start line, and another right-angle turn before the finish line. The cones that mark the turn before the start line, and after the finish line count just as much any other cone on the course, so you have to be careful in your start and finish. These rules help assure that cars don’t enter the course or leave the course at unsafe rates of speed.
The most obvious tip is that you want to be going as fast as possible when you cross the starting line, so that you begin the course with as much momentum as possible. Similarly at the finish, you don’t want to slow down until you’ve crossed the line and are off the course.
But you don’t want to be faster off the mark than the course permits. On many courses, the person setting the course will set up the first obstacle in such a way that the real hotshoes will find themselves in trouble as soon as they’re across the starting line.
When you walk the course, and as you sit at the start line waiting for your signal to begin, have a plan of attack on how you should negotiate the corner into the start line, based upon the direction you need to be going for the next two or three corners.
Similarly, there may be a complicated set of turns going into the finish that can trip up the unwary, causing them to be off the throttle just when they need a fast finish. Keep these possibilities in mind as you walk the course, and plan your strategies accordingly.
Gearing isn’t quite as complicated. With the MINI, your best bet on most courses is to start off in first, and then shift up into second as soon as you can. For the rest of the course, you can then just stay in second, confident that you’re well up in the rev range where you’ve got good torque for maneuvering. Few courses offer enough space to build up sufficient speed to justify a shift up into third or to require a downshift into first, and in most cases, the time you might gain by being in a better rev band will be lost by the time it takes to make the shift.
Setting Up the Car
During your first season, you don’t need to make many changes to the car. Most of your improvements in time will come through improvements in your own driving skill. In fact, the SCCA stock class places significant limits on what you can do to the car. In these classes you can make only a few changes to the engine. You can substitute a more efficient air filter, and replace the exhaust system behind the catalytic converter, but that’s about it on the power side.
On the suspension, you can substitute adjustable shocks and a front sway bar to reduce the car’s tendency to understeer. However, with the MINI’s excellent stock handling capabilities, it may take a season of practice before you would notice the difference in your time by these modifications.
What you can do within the limitations of the stock class is to replace the wheels and tires, so long as you stay within the stock sizes. Here you can make a great deal of difference in your lap times. As we’ve discussed above, by replace the stock wheels with a lighter-weight set you give the engine less mass to move. By mounting some good-performing tires to replace the run-flat tires that came with the car, you can get much better traction, and reduce the unsprung weight to boot.
If you get serious about autocrossing, you might consider buying tires that are designed specifically for racing, with a softer compound. However, these tires won’t last long at all if they’re also used on the street, so you would have to mount them on a separate set of wheels and put them on the car after you arrive at the event. Making this investment can certainly wait until you’ve worn out your first set of street tires and have gained the skill to take advantage of the improved tires.
But even if you decide to use the original run-flats for your first few events, experienced MINI autocrossers suggest that you can accomplish a lot by adjusting your tire pressures. You’ll probably want to increase the pressure on the tires so that they are less likely to roll. Inflate the fronts with about four pounds less pressure than the rear and you’ll do a lot to reduce the MINI’s basic understeering tendencies.
Another tip to find the right pressures is to make a mark with chalk or white shoe polish on the tire at the point where the tread joins the sidewall. If the mark is worn off after a run, then the tire is rolling over too far and you should increase the pressure that you’re running. Experiment with different pressures over the course of several sessions until you find a level that works best for you.
Be sure to check that the lug nuts are tight while you’re adjusting tire pressure and before going out on the track before every run. To be absolutely sure that they’re tight, you’ll need a “torque wrench” which measures the pound-feet of pressure required to twist the lug nut. You don’t need the best quality, since you won’t be using it every day, but a good one can be purchased for about $50. Tighten the lug nuts individually to 80 pound-feet and you’ll be sure that you won’t be singing, “You picked a fine time to leave me, loose wheel.”
You Can Learn a Lot by Watching
In between your runs, you also need to use your time effectively. After your first run, you may have some idea of which corners are toughest, or where you seemed to be slowing down too much. Watch the other competitors to see what line they’re taking through that portion, and watch where everyone seems to be having the greatest difficulty. As you watch, try to visualize in your mind what the course looks like from the driver’s windshield so you’ll have an idea of where to go when you’re on the course.
Many autocross events will require competitors to act as corner marshals on the course, with their primary task to replace cones that are knocked over and to help the starter make sure the corner is clear. These are excellent opportunities to get up-close-and personal as other drivers run the course. Check out the techniques of the fast drivers and see how they are taking specific corners. Their experience may help you take seconds off your own time.
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