PCA Autocross in Chattanooga

I had a great time at the Advanced Collision/Porsche of Chattanooga autocross last weekend at Soddy-Daisy High School. The lot is not big, but they did a good job of creating a fun, one-car-at-a-time course. Thirty-two folks came out and we got 8 runs. They’re planning another event in August.

I thought I’d take the liberty of commenting on a couple of choices folks were making at two key points in the course. The difference between the two is interesting. The first concerns turning nearly 180 degrees around a single pin-cone. The situation looked something like the figure below.


The approach speed was quite fast and too many drivers were taking the dashed line path. They often ended up nose into the wall of cones, having gone deep past the pin cone and coming nearly to a stop (some actually did stop) as they tried to not hit the wall. Others plowed into the wall, taking out 3, 4 even 5 cones at a whack.

The more experienced drivers took a better line more like the solid one, where they gave it up early, went wide to the left (it was a little painful to do), then added power as they went past the pin cone, already opening the steering wheel. This was a typical case of giving it up early to get more back later.

The second situation was leading to the finish and is a little more complicated. In this case most people were giving it up early to get more back later, only they didn’t get much of anything back. It looked like the figure below.


Once again, the approach speed was quite high. Most took the dashed line path, braking at A so they could loop out toward B. This gave them a clean way to get into the finish chute, under control and moving well. I chose a different option that saved time, I think, though it may have required more car control skill than is available to a novice.

I kept accelerating and didn’t brake until C, then jerked the wheel left and put the car into an oversteering slide at D. I then released the brakes, hit the throttle to send weight reward, which stopped the slide, and shot into the finish where I again locked up the wheels with the car tank-slapping right in order to not plow through the cones after the finish. Crossing the finish line I was a bit sideways and not moving very fast.

If the finish had not been the finish, if the course had continued further, then looping out to B would have been correct. What I did meant that I could not have continued on. I was totally out of shape by the finish line, but who cares? Once across the line nothing else mattered. I think the advantage was almost the distance between B and D.

Autocross is all about when and where to give it up to save time later, or not. It’ll either drive you crazy or keep you interested for a long time.

Never Late-Apex!

(I suggest you read the post below and then read the update here.)

Well, almost never.

While the late-apex cornering technique is a staple of road-racing and track-day driving, it has almost zero applicability to autocross. Why? Autocross almost never has an acceleration zone long enough to make up for what you give up in the corner for the late apex. Occasionally, yes, you will want to late apex, but not very often. Autocross is mostly made up of connected curves of varying radius. Usually it’s best to simply take the shortest path from one to the next, as Piero Taruffi stated in the first-ever scientific book on race-car driving in 1959. He was right then, he’s still right.

Late-apexing is done on track for various good reasons, but the only one related to saving time is to increase exit speed off the corner by “lengthening” the straight. The increased exit speed is carried down the ensuing straight whose average speed is now increased, reducing lap time. This is the only occasion to use a late-apex: when the length of the ensuing straight is long enough to save more time than lost in the corner.

Be careful not to confuse late-apexing with the technique of “back-siding” the cones. Back-siding a cone is not late-apexing. Back-siding a cone is a result of the racer deciding where the beginning and end of the corner are and on what radius. When he tells you he plans to backside a particular cone, it means he has decided that that cone is on the minimum radius but not at the apex of the “corner” he has imagined out there among the orange cones. When he passes it he plans to try to run over the base of the cone with his rear tire, meaning he is wrapping around it in order to be going in the best direction toward the next feature. By definition, therefore, the backsided cone is not an apex in the road-racing sense because the car continues to turn hard well past it.

Now, I suppose one can be perverse and “decide where the corner is” and decide to late apex it and decide that the cone marks the late apex or is at least within shouting distance of it. In that case I admit that you have sort of backsided the cone and pulled off a late apex simultaneously. Good luck with that. Please go back and read the title of this post again.

Be aware as well that designating an offset cone as your corner exit and deciding you want to be accelerating at that point toward the next offset cone is also not late-apexing. (I plan a later post on that subject, complete with diagrams and spreadsheet calculations. I know: You. Just. Can’t. Wait.) How you performed that corner, what path you took, etc. determines whether you late-apexed it or not, not what you were doing as you passed the cone marking the exit. Did you take an extra-long, small-radius, time consuming path that allowed you to increase the length of the straight you created toward the next cone, rather than get to the cone on the shortest, fastest geometric radius? Then you did, indeed, late-apex that baby. You were probably wrong. And slow. 2019 Update: Adam Brouillard in The Perfect Corner has shown that the car that takes the “extra-long, time consuming path” never catches up to the car that didn’t, no matter how long the straight that follows.

Remember that in good autocross course design, the exact location of the corner and even it’s radius is to a large extent at the discretion of the racer to decide. Yes, most of us have seen courses completely lined on both sides with a zillion cones, all marking a path 12 to 20 feet wide. Unfortunately, some organizations still do courses like that, but the top levels of the sport have moved beyond such drudgery. People who always race on such courses will never get FAST at high-level autocross. If they should attend an event where the path is not dictated to them, or even if it has only one or two sections not dictated to them, they become lost, dazed and confused. It’s not the heat, it’s the course.

This is one reason why autocross is so challenging and so rewarding. Every course is different and full of “corners” that the racer has to look ahead and “find” before he can even analyze and then drive them! This may also be why road-racers typically have a hard time adapting to autocross if they didn’t start with autocross. On a track the “corner” is more of a fixed, known quantity. There is great skill in figuring out how to take it at ever greater speeds, how to pass someone in it, and how to not get passed in it. Plus, the same corner is different in different conditions. However, the skill of “deciding where the corner is and what it looks like” doesn’t get developed.

All Those Books On Cornering Are Wrong

Most books present racing cornering in three stages: the approach, where (after braking is completed) the car transitions from an infinite radius (straight) down to the minimum radius for the corner, the middle stage on a constant, minimum radius that (mercifully) ends at the apex, and the exit on an increasing radius, accelerating and tracking out until straight again. This is a nice, neat theory, perhaps first worked out by Piero Taruffi in his book “The Technique of Motor Racing” in 1959. If you think this concept has relevance to autocross racing, best get it out of your head.

As Taruffi goes on to say (after spending many pages working out the geometry of the three stages of every corner) the three-stage method is not the cornering method used by the fast drivers, not even in the 1920’s when he was coming up, much less the 1950’s when he wrote the book and certainly not now in the 2010s. So, put this concept into your head instead: the FAST way through a section of smaller radius has only two stages: Stage 1 is a different type of approach, which ends at the apex, followed by the exit stage as before. The Stage 1 approach is done by turning in later and while traveling faster, then transitioning into a trail-braking slide to scrub off speed, with the path radius constantly getting smaller (and the car slower) until a minimum radius is finally reached at the apex. The second stage, the exit, is done by accelerating on a line of increasing radius just as in the three-stage description. This method allows you to delay your braking and, in fact, to use less braking. Your average speed from turn-in to the apex is higher and the car is pointed better for the exit. It requires a very high degree of car control skill to execute. It requires you to not care about the life of your tires.

I know you want to ask, “Why don’t road-racers corner this way all the time if it’s so fast, Fool?” Probably for two main reasons. Two-stage cornering 1) causes rapid tire wear, and 2) is more prone to error, which is often positively dangerous on a track because an error can easily send you directly off the corner or off on the exit. For road-racers in qualifying, tire wear is no issue, so the fast ones do it. (Somewhat modified this technique is also used to execute passes at corner entry. Fernando Alonso is particularly good at it.) For Time-Trialers going for a fast lap or two per session, tire wear is no issue, so the fast ones do it. For autocrossers, tire wear is a given, there is zero danger, so the fast ones do it.

Smooth is Slow!

The common advice that smooth is fast is just plain wrong. It’s the worst advice you can give to a beginner… totally useless and, in fact, misleading.

The idea that it is necessary to be smooth to be fast is probably an illusion, possibly caused by looking at a car driven by an expert from the outside. It ignores what’s happening on the inside.

From inside the car, the driver should be making constant, rapid and sometimes even violent corrections. If not, the car is not being driven on the limit. The expert autocross driver doesn’t look smooth from an in-car video or to a passenger nor does it necessarily feel smooth to the driver himself. After a 60-second run the driver may well be huffing and puffing from the exertion and from having his breathing interrupted by high lateral-G forces.

Now, if the car looks herky-jerky from the outside, then the tires are probably being shock-loaded beyond their capacity, grip is being sacrificed and the positioning is not correct. All such faults are most likely the result of not looking ahead, not due to a lack of smoothness. So, if looking from the outside is what people mean by “smooth is fast” well, okay, but it’s so misleading as to be useless. To look smooth from the outside, and therefore to be FAST, look ahead. Do not “try” to be smooth. There is no more colossal waste of time in autocross than “trying” to be smooth. It can only slow your reflexes, make you late and make you fail to transition rapidly enough. All things that make you SLOW.

All that said, it is true that we do get smoother as our car control skills improve, as we look farther ahead and as we better anticipate what the car is about to do next. That type of smoothness only comes with experience. Forget about it. Learn to drive on the limit, smooth or not, and you’ll get fast. You can be smooth in your old age.

Drag Racers Rule

Learn to launch and cross the start line at the highest possible speed to save time. Maximum acceleration before the start light is important to increase the average speed to the first feature, not only in Pro-Solo, but in many regional and even some National Tour events. Maybe it’s not supposed to be that way. Get used to it.

Many people setting up courses mistakenly think that a short distance from the staging point to the start light reduces the advantage to the higher power car. Therefore, they design very short starts. I don’t think they’ve thought this through. It’s true that a long, straight start will allow the higher power-to-weight ratio car to reach a high speed. So, people tend to think that the shorter the start the better. But, even a short straight start gives a big advantage to a car that’s powerful and can get that power to the ground.

So, what’s done at most National events is a longer start that has a kink or turn right before the light. Either that or a short but severe 90 degree turn between the staging point and the start light. The severe 90 start still gives an initial advantage to the high-power car, but at least that advantage occurs as the cars accelerate after the clutch has been fully engaged and after the start-light is crossed, not before it. Either way, but especially with the longer start with a kink, the low-power car and the high-power car can only negotiate the turn or kink at about the same speed, because lateral G capabilities vary much less within classes than power-to weight ratios. So, they both cross the start line about the same speed.

Straight starts, long or short, give the advantage to the experienced drag-racer with the stout clutch, which is not what autocross is supposed to be about. Since this is the way it is, learn to launch fast, my friend. When you come across a real “national” type of course with a longer, kinked start then you can take it easy on your clutch.