Monday, January 24, 2011

Feature: Introduction To Motorsports - Autocross

Every Sunday morning, when we turn on the television to watch Porsches, Aston Martins and Ferraris enduring the 24 Hours of Le Mans, or Funny Cars streak down the quarter mile, or a rugged Ford, Subaru or Mitsubishi tearing up a rally stage, there is always an urge hidden deep down inside us wanting to be that fearless soul behind the wheel. The problem is, motorsport is a complex and financially exhausting sport. Cars need to be built to exacting standards that are continuously grilled over by suspicious tech inspectors looking for any deviation from the rulebook. A massive bureaucracy of rules, guidelines and safety regulations must be strictly adhered to. If that isn’t enough, the cost of competing for a full year can be as expensive as most people’s yearly income.

However, there is another way. There are several forms of motorsport that are extremely easy to get into, require very little investment and offer not only a great experience, but an excellent stepping stone into more competitive forms of racing. Rallying has TSD events, would-be drag racers have Friday Nighters, and those who love track racing have Autocross.

Now, Autocross is a particularly effective sport to build up the technical skills of racing. An event usually consists of traffic cones laid out in a tight course over an open stretch of tarmac. The tightness of the course and low speeds require the driver to get the most out of the mechanical grip of the car and to drive with an absolutely perfect driving line to eek out the fractions of a second that can determine first from fifth. It is excellent grass roots training to sharpen track-day skills, and as a result, you’ll find everything from bone-stock cars to high-dollar purpose-built open-wheelers taking part in this fun sport.

Just this last August, the Vancouver Chinese Motorsports Club (VCMC) held the largest Autocross event in all of B.C., the Kumho Super Challenge, which attracted competitors from B.C., Alberta, Washington and Oregon. So, to satisfy my urge to drive a car in anger once again, I handed in an entry form for the event.

With just about any car available to me to tackle this event with, as I would be utilizing my access to press vehicles, my choice may have seemed foolish to some. However, to an Autocrosser, it was a wise choice, indeed. In the tight confines of a cone-riddled lot, there is one car that has for nearly twenty years been the staple for Autocrossers – the Mazda MX-5. The MX-5 represents the perfect storm for the needs of such an event. It’s lightweight, and has a good power-to-weight ratio with a spunky 2.0L engine that loves to rev. However, its RWD layout and a short wheelbase are its real attributes, allowing it to change direction lightning-fast, letting drivers thread the needle, so to speak.

With entry fee paid, and home-made magnetic numbers fixed to the doors of my little MX-5, I showed up at Pitt Meadows airport, where racing would be held at the B.C. Driving Centre. Due to the sheer number of competitors, the airport shut down runway 8-Left for use as a paddock.
After a quick inspection to ensure there were no loose items, that my helmet was up to date and that my car truly was stock, competition began. This was not my first Autocross attendance as I have competed in such an event several years ago, but back then, the course was a sea of orange cones forming a complicated course. Getting lost was a very real threat that affected run times, if you managed not to miss a gate. The workers at the Kumho Super Challenge had put together a smooth, fast flowing course that was both fun and allowed me to reach third gear in the MX-5’s close-ratio gearbox.

As I had four runs on the first day, I chose to sacrifice the first to ensure I remembered the morning’s course walk, while coming to grips with the car’s characteristics on the edge of adhesion. That was a good thing as I had forgotten to turn off the traction control. Thinking that running on standard tires, I may need to bump up the air pressures to keep the sidewall of the tires solid, my tactic backfired on the second run. With the red mist blinding me and over-inflated tires only scratching the surface, the MX-5 skated sideways between every gate. It was a miracle that I did not hit a cone (2-second penalty), and my time was six seconds slower than my first run.

With the tires aired down a little and calming myself down for the third run, everything was going well. That was until I got a little sideways out of one gate and had to rotate the car back around the next gate, resulting in the car spinning. Old habits die hard, as I desperately tried to save the run. Once I knew the slide couldn’t be saved, I slapped 1st, popped the clutch and in a glorious mixture of tire smoke and a bouncing rev limiter I was back on track. However, in Autocross, if you spin, your run is a writeoff, thus such acts are not always greeted with the same cheers as rally fans. After a small talking to, I managed to eek out a civilized final run devoid of drifting and tire smoke to pull myself up to 7th in class.

The next day brought a rain-soaked track, with lots of standing water, much more suited to my style of driving. I was looking forward to making up time now that I had my tire pressures sorted out, the only modification you can do in stock class. After missing a gate on my first run, I linked up a beautifully clean second run. By the third, my confidence was flowing and I was ready to make a push for the top spot. However, as I carved through the first corner, a series of hums and vibrations could be heard from the rear as my momentum was taken from me. I had again forgotten to turn off the traction control. In the heat of competition, I could not risk taking my hand off the wheel for the eight seconds needed to turn the system off, and had to endure the handicap throughout my run. My time only slightly bettered my second run, capturing 5th place in my class. Despite the regrets of “what ifs,” the placing was quite good as most of my competition had Ultra High Performance tires to work with.

With the weekend wound up, I couldn’t help but admit that the bang-for-buck enjoyment of Autocrossing is second to none. Nowhere else can you challenge both you and your car’s performance driving abilities for such a small investment. The valuable skills you develop along with the perma-smile that will never leave your face makes Autocross a must for any driving enthusiast.

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