Autocross – Basic Handling
What is autocross?
Autocross is a timed event where the contestants drive a closed, low-speed course one at a time. It’s not the door to door racing against a field of competitors dicing it out for the top spot. The winner is not the ace who leaves big black tire marks on the side of your car forcing you to take an unplanned trip through the weeds while they collect the trophy. It’s the driver and car combination that negotiates the course in the least time. As such it has two very manageable elements: you and your car.
It is usually a temporary course that is marked off by traffic cones in a parking lot, paved tarmac or other non-traffic paved areas big enough to have an event safely. One circuit of the course is typically 40 to 60 seconds. There is a structure of classes depending on the sponsoring body, usually, it breaks down to modified cars or stock vehicles. A few vehicle types are banned, like those big tippy SUV’s, but most sedans and sports cars are O.K.
Why is autocross so popular?
Autocross is a fun low-cost way to be a driver, not just a spectator! You have a chance to win without a lot of danger to yourself or your vehicle, and there is always the bragging rights to the non-racers back at work that thinks you must have the major nerve to go racing. It is low cost, especially in the stock classes where you can drive to the event and compete, no trailering, or special gear other than a helmet. That is not to say you couldn’t show up in a flashy driver suit, and gloves that will put you in tight with the stylin’ crowd. You just need enough room to haul that big shiny trophy home without leaving your passenger to thumb their way back. Since there are a lot of drivers, a few spectators, and good clean competition it is extremely rewarding to the racers who try their best in what is one of the fairest forms of motor-sports.
What does it take to compete?
It takes very little; a car that can pass a tech (safety) inspection, a helmet, a valid driver's license and the nerve to dive! That is the cool part about autocross; it is very low cost to compete. Some events even have loaner helmets so you don’t even need to invest in one. Check with the sponsor to get info on how they run their event. But don’t let the fact you don’t have the experience, or a helmet or whatever get in the way of having a fantastic time as a driver! It might be good to attend a couple of events to get the feel of how it all goes down, kind of a courage builder as well. You will meet people who are drivers like you who what a little more adrenaline than cruising the boulevard can give them.
What should I do to make my car competitive?
Since this about you and car, if you are prepared to compete then all that remains is what the car might or might not need in the form of some tweaks. As a competitor you want your ride to behave and do what you expect of it; namely corner and handle well.
Steering and suspension will be a logical starting point, although a good set of sticky tires won't hurt. Try your car out; are you happy with how it responds? Is there any play or mush in the system? It will need to be addressed. A rack and pinion conversions like Steeroids TM rack and pinion will give you the necessary precision you need. On a short, tight, twisty course like the typical autocross track, you want precision. The car must go where you point it and the steering must be great at re-centering itself leaving a turn, otherwise, you will look like you have eight arms trying to make the machine do what it should do on its own. This is where the right suspension geometry counts. Look into a set of control arms that will raise the roll center, and give the castor you need for a short course. If you have a ’63-’82 Vette it just so happens SpeedDirect sells the Shark Bite aluminum control arms that will bolt right up and do all that cool geometry stuff plus trim over eight pounds off the machine!
If you want to go deeper then springs and shocks are next to consider. Incidentally, all of this stuff will not only make your car handle well on the track but when you jump into it to head home you will love its improved manners on the road too. One of the best ways to improve handling is to adjust the ride height, spring rate, and shock damping. Ride height lowers it is usually better since it will lower the center of gravity. The Shark Bite coil-over shocks and springs for Vettes will make setting a ride height a breeze. It can be done without disassembling the suspension, right at the track! It makes it easy to take your daily driver racing and not have to worry about grinding off the underside of your car on every driveway or bump. The same goes for Mustang owners with our Vector Series Coil-Over kit.
Spring rate is important to reduce body roll. The coil-over system again gives you a way to increase the spring rate with minimal effort. On the Vette rear coil-over kit, you can change them in about twenty minutes or so. Take the stiff ones with to the track, swap them, make your best time then you can ride home on a softer set. The shocks are even easier. If you choose the adjustable ones you can tweak the setting right on the car with a turn of a knob. The ultimate setup is double adjustable. With these, you can set the damping on the compression and extension stroke separately! Talk about fine-tuning for max performance.
Which ever you decide to do with your ride, definitely look into autocross. It doesn’t matter if you’re a spectator, or if you decide to go for the full deal and upgrade like mad. For that matter, if you decide to just take her to the track as she sits that’s OK too. Once you get the feel of racing the clock you will be back for more. It’s your ticket to fifteen minutes of fame, or maybe go on to full road race track events, either way its all about having fun driving and the speed heads here at SpeedDirect will be with you all the way to the finish line!