Tomorrow I’m heading to Bowling Green to instruct at the Tennessee Region SCCA autocross school in the National Corvette Museum parking lot. I was thinking about what I would tell my students and decided I’d better write it down.
Now, some of this I was told when I started, but a lot of it I wasn’t. And I was told some stuff that turned out to be, shall we say, incomplete or possibly even misleading but certainly “problematic” which is a curious and pretentious word I learned when I was a Philosophy major a little while back. I’ve learned a lot from taking an EVO school or two and I really learned a lot from our Twickenham Automobile Club advanced autocross school that we put on each year with a curriculum developed by Steve Brolliar. (It’s coming up in a few weeks. Registration opens on 9/1 at teamtac.org)
So, below is what I wish I’d been told when I was a novice autocrosser, based on what I’ve learned over the last roughly 10 years.
Ed Fisher’s Teaching Points For Novice Autocrossers- 2019
Walking The Course
- Plan your driving line and initially drive to your plan but don’t get too wedded to it. Things may not be as they appear and conditions will change each run.
- Plan the entry and exit for each corner. A cone is usually (but not always) the apex location. The apex is the point where you will finish slowing and start accelerating. To plan the exit, stand at the apex cone and determine the correct angle (at your estimated minimum speed) to get the fastest possible exit that sets you up correctly for the next feature. Then figure out how to get to that apex location and angle as quickly as possible, i.e. where to initiate braking, how much to brake and where to initiate the turn. That’s your plan for corner entry.
- Autocross often contain a series of connected corners. The entire course may, in fact, consist of one long set of connected corners. (This differs from track driving that features mostly stand-alone corners.) Plan a compromised line and set of entries and exits to optimize a connected section in order to find the fastest average speed through it. Fastest average speed wins every time.
- As you walk think hard about where to be looking at each point, far enough ahead to see where you want to go. This may mean looking through the side window. 90% of autocross is just “get where you want to go as fast as possible.” Give yourself that command and give your mind and body the space to do it (by looking ahead) and you’ll do it mostly right and will get better with experience.
Driving The Course
- Drive in the moment and keep the car working as hard as possible. Forget about being smooth. You can do that when you’re old(er).
- Keep visually scanning far ahead from the time you leave your grid spot until you return. Use peripheral vision to aim at the key cones. Six inches from a key cone is four inches too far away.
- Constantly test for the lateral limit when turning. There’s grip on the other side of slip. Get comfortable over there. Only the car can tell you, when one end or the other begins to slide, that you’re driving at the limit. Every corner is different from the others. Each corner changes from one run to the next. Only by constantly testing the limit can you stay at the limit. (Don’t do this on the street!)
- Adjust your braking points earlier as each run gets faster or later if you’ve been too conservative in your planning.
- Minimize the distance travelled, but for short corners, i.e. < ~120 degrees, go wide on entry to get the best angle. This decreases time to the apex and will increase the minimum speed and shorten the time through any roughly symmetrical corner. (Road-racers call this “using all of the available track width.”)
- In long corners, i.e. > ~120 degrees, stay tight and limit how wide you go on entry. The shortest time around a circular path for all cars is on the minimum radius. Find the apex (the location and angle where you can throttle up and start opening the wheel) like any other corner.
- Really long corners, more than 180 degrees, may technically be double-apexes. There’s a special way to do those (see The Perfect Corner 2) but if you stay tight and keep the car working near the limit you’ll be close to optimum. Determine the exit apex like any other corner.
- The lower your car’s power the bigger the cornering arcs you must drive to keep your speed up. This is called maintaining momentum to maximize your average speed. It’s worth the extra distance travelled when you learn to optimize the balance between speed and distance. High power cars should run a smaller corner radius when given the choice, but the difference is not huge within Street classes.
- Learn to trail-brake. Now. This is the safe place to practice it. Initially brake hard and fast (ok to activate ABS) then release the brakes slower and smoother as you turn in. Perfectly done, braking ends at the apex.
- Mentally review each completed run and find two or three mistakes to eliminate or places to improve. The third run needs to be close to perfect if you have national event aspirations. Consistency will not happen overnight. In the beginning it’s mostly about eliminating major mistakes and minimizing minor ones.