While track weekends can be a lot of fun with many laps on a road course it is also scheduled infrequently and takes a lot of preparation. Autocross can be a reasonable substitute or, at the very least, a way to assuage your spirited driving Jones in between track events.
This past Sunday we traveled to Danville, VA, to check out a typical autocross event. These are held in large parking lots or dis-used runways at airports. In this case it was the latter.
Autocross events require a helmet and, at minimum, DOT approved seat belts. They also require a tech inspection, but not to the level of a track event. Cars are classified into run groups according to what type of car they are and what kind of modifications (if any) have been done to them.
The hard core might run racing tires, but for most a high performance street tire is plenty adequate.
The course is defined by orange cones that mark the perimeter of corners and define areas to maneuver around and through. The runs are a measurement of the time it takes for each car to get through the specific course layout. They are started one at a time so there is no wheel-to-wheel action.
Some course layouts can be tricky to follow correctly and if you miss a turn or a gate you get a DNF (did not finish) and no time for the run. If you touch a cone enough to move it from its proper spot you are penalized.
Since these courses are far shorted than a road course they are quick and demanding. Drivers must learn the course and drive as fast and smoothly as possible. They need to keep their vision focused ahead rather than at the cones in their immediate vicinity. These are the same disciplines that a road course event demands from drivers.
These events are sponsored by local sports car clubs which means that dedicated volunteers make sure things run safely and smoothly. While the speeds are comparatively low we are still talking about vehicles that weigh in at a ton or better and can get into serious trouble. The typical autocross runs cars in at least two groups so that as one set of participants are running the course, another set is acting as corner workers that will note any deviations from the course or replace cones that are struck by contestant’s cars. On a weekend in July it can be hot work and water, a hat, and sunglasses are a requirement.
At this event there was another relatively new class of contestants. They drove go-carts through the timing lights. This is an interesting change in the sport and one to keep an eye on. The carts are easy to transport and don’t demand a lot of money to equip and maintain. They are also fast and fun. They can be transported to an event in a pickup bed or on a small trailer. Their tires can easily last a season and when you are driving something that small and low you not only feel like you are going incredibly fast, the course becomes a lot wider than it is for a car.
This is a lot of fun for the participants but it can be just as interesting to go out and be an observer, although it is likely that once you have watched an event you will be inspired to try it out for yourself. If so, spend some time talking to the folks that are competing and plan on being there for the next event.