Newly returned from Solo Nationals 2019 is a good time to talk about the elephant in the room that we insist on buying drinks for. I’m not talking about electric cars or spotty availability of the hot new tire or clouds of cement dust. But I have to start with a little history.
Once upon a time you had only your memory to tell you what you did wrong or right after taking an autocross run. If the back end came around 90 degrees that would be an obvious mistake. If a section “felt” faster then you must have done it better, right? Maybe not. It took a lot of experience to know for sure.
We walked the course as much as possible and with a certain discipline. What to do while walking, what to notice, where to look… the walking task was as much a part of the sport as the driving because every course was different, one of the key differentiators for autocross. Then came the mental planning part without any practice runs (all runs are officially timed), another key differentiator. What line to take in each corner, how much to brake, how soon to get on the throttle and much more had to be estimated, planned and remembered, not practiced over and over and refined like for time-trials or road racing. At a national event you had all night(!) to think and plan. Then, after a first run, you had only two chances to make changes where your plan was proven wrong by reality and to fix the inevitable mistakes. We’ve all heard the lament, “I can’t believe I coned away 27th!”
We learned various guidelines to help us, like Slow-In and Fast-Out, Maintain Momentum and Cut Distance and we could judge ourselves based on those guidelines (even if they were sometimes mutually inconsistent) and whatever the timer said. It was difficult to tell what was really going on from the timer, right or wrong, because being fast in one section is often negated by being slow somewhere else, especially in the beginning when we were very inconsistent. A few people set up single corners and used the stop watch to figure out which of several methods was faster. That was about as good as it got until Revolution 1.0.
Revolution 1.0: Portable Data & Video Electronics
The advent of GPS data devices allows us to analyze in detail exactly how we’ve driven a course, even during the event. We can compare doing the same corner different ways from run to run, either driving differently on purpose ourselves or compared to others who drove the same course with different choices. Did we gain on entry or exit or lose time everywhere? Where was it worthwhile to give it up to Save Time somewhere else? Gradually we proved out what actually worked and what didn’t. We learned that a lot of the guidelines carried over from road-racing were not applicable to autocross, at least not without some fine-tuning. Road-racing was going through a similar revolution and learning new things.
Here’s an example of how different autocross and road-racing can be. I’ve heard others tell a similar story. In my second year of autocross (before I had data or video) I asked a very successful former road-racer who owned a race shop at the time to co-drive with me. I had maybe 20 events under my belt. It took only a few seconds into the first run for me to be blown away by his car-control skills in a car he’d only ever driven on a test drive after he fixed it for me! He was immediately on the edge of adhesion, using the tires and controlling the car in a way I’d never experienced. That was eight years ago and I still remember my amazement.
But, I killed him on time.
When it was over neither of us had a clear idea as to how I was consistently faster over the day’s runs. He got faster run to run but I got faster even faster. I was too new to know why and he’d only done a couple of autocrosses in the distant past. With data it would have been obvious. Maybe something about not having track edges to set limits. (There’s another key differentiator in there somewhere.)
The portable high-resolution video cameras not only allow us to see our driving after the event but also allow us to video the course as we walk it before the event. Then we can speed it up and see the course at speed. This helps a lot with knowing the course before you ever drive it and determining where to look at each point along the way, a key aspect of being fast. When you can do this a day or even two before you run, like at Nationals, it’s even more helpful.
Early on I took still pictures with a digital camera as I walked my proposed driving line the afternoon before the national event. Then I would flip through the pictures many times before the first run. Later I used a smart-phone camera. Now I video with my Go-Pro as I walk. When viewing the movie I can stop it to get stills at any point, paying attention to the background as well as the immediate course. I think this helps you to unconsciously recognize your position, similar to the strong home-court advantage in basketball.
Revolution 1.5: Pre-Viewing with Virtual Reality Video
Now we have consumer-level devices that create a 3-D picture, really a 3-D visual model, of the entire course which you can later view along the course path wearing a Virtual Reality headset. You can turn your head left and right just as you would when driving to look ahead. If you run the last two days at Nationals, for instance, you can attach the camera to a car that runs the first two days. This gives the ability to visually tour the course at whatever speed desired many times before ever driving it. The old days of everyone walking the course, imagining in their head what it will be like at speed and planning how to drive it are long gone. I haven’t personally used the 3-D VR technology but others are. We’re no longer in Kansas, Toto.
But, wait. You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet.
Revolution 2.0: Pre-Driving with Virtual Reality Simulators
If I go ever back to Nationals I’ll take a complete driving simulator. That means a gaming PC, wheel, pedals, shifter, chair and VR headset. I will have already created a car who physics matches as close as possible to my actual autocross car. I will GPS-mark each key cone on the course and create the course in VR, maybe even combining it with the scene model from a VR camera. I will have developed a way to measure the surface characteristics of various sites (and tested it at previous events) and put that into the physics engine also. I can even change it to a wet surface (dump a bottle of water on the surface and remeasure) and use my VR rain tires. Then I’ll drive the course many times in VR before I ever run it for real. I will analyze what techniques and lines are fast and what are not. These capabilities are available now, if not all in one package, and will only get better and more accurate with time. Soon it will all be very cheap. Incredibly, this is all perfectly legal.
Autocross is about to become more like time-trials where you can practice the road course however many times you can afford to visit the track before the event, limited only by how much you can afford in tires, other consumables and time, or, you can VR drive it if it’s been mapped! Much of the previous mental key differentiator is no longer necessary, except at local events where the course is created the morning of and there’s little time to collect the data and drive the simulator. Does anyone doubt that soon it will take only a few minutes to collect the data, download it and drive the simulator (in the back of your pickup?) a few times in the paddock? Can you imagine what this will do to the sport at the local level the first time someone shows up with one of these?
This is actually really good for someone like me, an older and somewhat technically savvy person who has trouble walking National courses an unlimited number of times. I think I stand to gain. I can figure out the technical aspects. I can afford the time and at least some level of a VR driving simulator. Being older it’s become harder for me to pick out the key cones at speed. VR simulation driving may help a lot with that limitation and somewhat even the playing field between myself and the younger competitors.
Except I don’t want it. I probably won’t do it. The sport will have lost a lot of it’s interest for me.
Get it done in three, as the saying once went. Now it’s get it done in 100 VR runs in a simulator and then, oh yeah, drive it three times in RR (Real Reality) to prove the accuracy of your simulation.
I wrote a letter to the Solo Events Board on this subject this time last year. Thank you for your input. I see no indication that the technology tsunamis Revolutions 1.0, 1.5 and 2.0 are being given any thought. The elephant is about to step on our foot and it will be painful.
Can anything be done? It’s true that technology, left unabated, changes everything forever. There is no more potent force for change on the face of the Earth. So I think a lot of people are shrugging it off, thinking nothing can be done. Nothing can stand in the way of technology, right? Wrong!
I was a technologist by trade. It’s been proven over and over that Sport can preserve it’s essence in the face of technology. Even a highly dysfunctional sport like Formula 1 was smart enough to outlaw anti-lock brake systems, for example, in order to keep some driver skill relevant. Formula 1 outlaws all sorts of other technology as well. They do it to protect their sport and their revenues.
Automobile technology is changing autocross, of course, what with paddle- shifted automatic and dual-clutch transmissions, launch control, sophisticated traction and differential control, and the (smaller) elephant in the room everyone recognizes: electric cars. The SCCA is working hard to keep the sport relevant. Most seem to think we are headed for split classes: electric vs. internal combustion. This is where everyone is looking. We’re gazing at the wrong elephant.
I think we can and must preserve the mental aspect key differentiator of the sport. We do it with the ban hammer.
I don’t see why we can’t outlaw the problem at the root. The root is acquiring the course data. Don’t publish the course designs until after the event. No GPS or video electronics allowed on course walks. Use of any location-determining or picture taking electronics on course walks, including cell-phones, should be outlawed.
We don’t allow cells phones or other personal electronics in many other places, such as while driving or in construction zones or in classified work areas. Why can’t we ban their use during autocross course walks?
Any off-course use of technology (like LIDAR) to spot the cones and develop a virtual course map should also be banned as that would be an easy evasion of the course walk electronics ban. Finally, any attempt to use a racing simulator to predrive the course or a set of pictures or video to view the course, no matter the source, should be clearly outlawed as well.
Please, let’s have none of this I know, we’ll publish the course maps just before the event so it can’t(?) happen again but we don’t have the guts to clearly say that what happened last year was wrong ‘cause we’re PeeCeed, weak-kneed, chickenshits without any real principles. Stand up for our sport.
Only a clear ban on VR pre-driving will keep the mental aspect of the sport as challenging as it was when it started. Otherwise this key differentiator is certain to disappear.
Our new rallying cry: Protect our key differentiators! (Or something equally catchy.)
Could people cheat? Of course they could. People can cheat at anything. (I just read The Art of the Con. Wow!) But most won’t. Those that do cheat and get caught should be handed severe penalities.
One last thing: the SCCA should publish accurate electronic maps of copywrited as-run Nationals courses after the event is over. These can be obtained with GPS but more accurate methods are available. Why not negotiate a tie-in with one of the big VR driving simulator software houses? Isn’t this a no-brainer? We should be encouraging people to virtually drive previous Nationals courses on their racing simulators just like they VR-drive race-tracks around the world. Imagine a generation of kids that grow up doing VR autocross racing who can’t wait to get into the sport for real!