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How I Learned to Autocross by Making a Complete Fool of Myself and Having Fun Anyway

Ann Morey November 1, 2013 Motorsports 36 Comments

Ann's M Coupe at autocross

Photo: Johnathan Gohde

I really had zero clue what I was doing when I showed up at autocross. But I knew I wasn’t getting anywhere near the limits with M, my new 2006 BMW Z4 M Coupe, and my car friends, inconveniently located in other cities, encouraged me to try autocross before I went sideways down another exit ramp and it ended badly. So I just Googled “Minneapolis autocross” and found the Minnesota Autosports Club website and went wherever it told me to go that weekend.

The site of the autocross event was about 45 minutes away from my house, so I had to get up really super early on a Sunday morning, which is very uncharacteristic of me. But I filled up my spill proof travel mug with extra strong coffee and managed to make it right before registration closed. I had to follow a Miata in order to find the place. I figured autocross would be the only reason a Miata would be driving around the middle of nowhere before 8 a.m. on a Sunday. When I got there I had no idea where to go. There were all sorts of cars parked everywhere – lots of Miatas and S2000s, but also muscle cars and Nissan Leafs and big Mercedes and and MR2s that looked like a zebras. I parked somewhere random and started roaming around. An instructor named Phil came over to talk to me. Phil is about my dad’s age and has a big Lotus belt buckle. I told him I’m super new and have no idea what’s going on. He tells me not to worry and then he thinks it’s easier to teach women how to autocross than men, because women go slowly and learn technique, and then it’s easy to teach them to go fast, but men try to go fast right away and it’s hard to teach them technique. Phil tells me to get registered and where the tech inspection is how to park my car in the paddock. He tells me to be sure to attend the novice course walk and come find him before I run for some instruction.

Photo of MR2s with zebra stripes

Photo: William Gregory

I got checked in and choose a work assignment. The folks at registration helped me decide to do “corner work,” or picking up cones that get knocked down on the course, because I wouldn’t have to totally know what was going on to do that. “Be sure to watch the cones and not the cars!” they emphasized. Then I go back and get my car and take it through tech inspection. A group of guys ask me to open the hood and trunk and get out of the car. They check the brakes and suspension and tell me to take the case of water bottles out of my car so they don’t turn into projectiles. They also compliment me on my car. I got the sense that they had noticed that some woman they’d never heard of registered a rare car they’d never seen and were kind of wondering when I’d show up.

Photo of 1966 Chevelle with M-parallel wheels

I found a paddock spot next to a 1966 Chevelle on M-Parallel wheels (which sounds odd now but made perfect sense at the time) and scurried off to the novice course walk. I was nervous about missing it , because I had no clue what was up with all those cones, so I pestered a few different groups of people until I found the right one. It was a handful of instructors and several novice drivers, and I was relieved to not be the only first timer. I think I was probably the most clueless, though. The instructors explained a lot of different information as we went through the course, like when to brake and when to accelerate and when to turn and what things might be tricky. But all of that pretty much went over my head except for two critical pieces of information; the cone that was laying down pointed in the direction you were supposed to go, and that you should shift to second right about here and stay in second gear the entire time. That last point came as a huge relief, since I was terrified at the idea of trying to go around all those cones and shift at the same time. I’d gotten to the point where I comfortable on the street in a manner than was safe for myself and others and M, but I was terrified of shifting and turning and being timed. I still couldn’t believe that anyone could remember all this information and go around all those cones correctly with any kind of speed. But we were all here and everyone seemed fine with the concept, so it must be possible.

After walking the course, I met back up with Phil. He said I could ride along with him in his Lotus Elise, and then he’d ride with me and instruct. This sounded like an excellent plan to me, since I’d never been in a Lotus before and I was not feeling confident about attempting the course without somehow ruining everything for everyone. While Phil warmed up his car, I watched the cars start to run the course. They were going SO. FAST. I regret not watching some YouTube videos of autocross after I’d decided to try it. I’d seen autocross videos, but you watch differently when you know you’re going to try something versus just wanting to see a 911 spin out. When it was Phil’s turn to run I put on my loaner helmet and followed his specific instructions for safely getting into and securing myself in the Lotus.

Lotuses are crazy, tiny little cars. They’re light and nimble and low to the ground and the suspension is firm. You hear their revy little engines quite clearly, especially with the windows down. The guy at the starting line gave Phil the okay to go, and the Lotus took off and started darting and weaving around cones. I held on to the seat belt. I don’t even remember what Phil said. It just felt so fast. I couldn’t help it, I burst out laughing and screaming. It was like an amusement park ride, but better, since we were in a racecar! It was all over in less than a minute. I was amazed. I could do that in my car?

Photo of Lotus on autocross coruse

Photo: Johnathan Gohde

Then it was my turn. I drove up to the start of the course. I looked out at the parking lot and my mind was blank. My brain is all, “WTF I’M IN A PARKING LOT FULL OF RANDOM CONES!!?” Phil started pointing out where to go and I slowly picked my way through the cones, missing many of them entirely. My time is 1:59. More than double Phil’s time. But he tells me not to worry, I’ll get the hang of it.

After my first run, I ride with Phil again. This time I’m prepared for the amusement park ride that is being a Lotus passenger and don’t laugh and scream but do pay attention. I see there is a course there. There is logic to it! When it’s my turn for another run, I totally find the course. I go around all the cones and don’t miss any and feel like I’m driving super fast. I’m so excited! I’m doing it! My time is 1:25. Still worse than everyone else’s time, but much better than my first time. I rode with Phil one more time, and this time I pay attention to how he explains when he accelerates and when he brakes and what cones he’s aiming for.

For the next run Phil needed to ride with someone else, but said there’s a group of instructors near the start of the course available to ride with people. And sure enough there was. They consulted with one another about who gets to ride in M. I assured them they shouldn’t worry because I will need lots more instruction. My next instructor directs me through the course a little differently than Phil did, so I miss one cone. But I don’t even care, because my time is 1:22 and I’m feeling so much more confident. And this is FUN. SUPER FUN.

After my 3rd run I had a break while the other run group went. I looked at all the cars and talked to all the people. I found out that everyone in the paddock area  could hear me laughing and screaming from Phil’s car. And then they all saw me miss the course entirely on my first run. But they are all still super nice about it. I told them that I just bought M a month ago and I just learned stick. They told me everyone sucks at first and good for me for coming out and sticking with it. I loved talking to the autocross people. There’s a whole heard of people who want to talk about cars just as much as I do. There are V8 swapped Miatas and heavily modified old Civics and even a pretty E46 M3 with a stick.

Before the next run group started, I found some new instructors to tag along with; Jody and her son Nic. Jody and Nic have been doing autocross as a mother/son thing for years. I told them that I just started and I’m not fast but I’m just having fun getting out and driving M. Jody told me that when she first started she felt like that and thought she could be in the Novice class forever, but now she competes at nationals. Jody drives a cute yellow Mini Cooper S with a curvy road symbol on the roof.  She teaches me that I can secure my purse in my trunk instead of leaving it at the paddock and how to twist the seat belts around so they stay taught, and takes me with her for a couple of runs. As I see how Jody runs the course with her Mini, I’m so glad I test drove all those cars. While I never drove a Mini, I drove some FWD hot hatches, and I understood what Jody was doing on the course and how it was different from what I would need to do with M. She fought off understeer and steered more overall than I knew I needed to, but I was still able to get a lot out of the instruction. Like how in a carousel, you pick one angle with the steering wheel and hold the wheel in place. And how when you slalom you’re aiming to go around the next cone before you’re even finished going around the current cone.

After riding along with Jody, I realize it’s after noon already and I’m starving. There is a vendor selling pulled pork sandwiches, so I get myself some lunch and use the bathroom. I hurry quickly and eat so I can ride with Nic. I cannot believe how fast this day is going by.

Nic usually drives a Mazda 3, but it’s out of commission today, so he’s co-driving his friend’s Evo. He warned me that the Evo has four point harnesses and I’ll see why when we get out on the course.(Protip: Close the car door before you buckle yourself into a four-point harness.) And I do see why those harnesses are necessary, along with the seat bolsters than dig into my hipbones. The Evo tosses us around and wants to drift all over the place. Nic felt he would have gotten better times in a FWD car, since that’s where he has the most experience, but I had a ton of fun going around the course in the Evo. Again, I’m glad I’ve driven so many cars, because I drove an AWD car, too, and I get how it behaves differently than M does. Nic still walked me through everything he’s doing on the course. After hearing three different people’s thought process, things are starting to click. Here’s where you gain speed, there’s where you brake. You want to stay tight to this cone, but that cone will just throw you off, so just ignore it and aim for the next one.

Photo of Ann in an Evo on the autocross course

Photo: Johnathan Gohde

After I rode with Nic, it was my turn to run again. I’ve now been on the course 10 times. Three times driving myself and seven times with  instructors. I stop and pick up an instructor on my way to the course. My new instructor’s name is Tim, and he drives a silver Volkswagen R32. As I take off on the course, something clicks. I get it. I push M harder and feel confident I know where I’m going. M accelerates effortlessly and stops instantly and stays stuck firmly to the ground through every corner. I start laughing and screaming from my own driving. I GET IT. I’ve never gotten to push M like this, and she handles it like it’s nothing for her. It’s a walk in the park. Tim tells me to go faster. We rev up high in second gear and I love the sound of her straight six growling. After the run I see my time is 1:11. “WHOOOO!!!” I scream. I gush about how much I love M. Tim asks, “Uh, is that good?” “Good?” I said. “It’s awesome! That’s like forty seconds better than my first run!” Tim was shocked. I told him about my first run. He told me I seem to have the basic concept down, but I need to go waaaay faster. And then brake earlier. And turn earlier, too. Especially through the slalom. And get closer to the cones. They’re not scary. But all this I can deal with. The feedback all makes sense, and I can do this. I love doing this!

My next run all the instructors are busy, so I go by myself for the first time. I try to go faster and get closer to the cones. I love how it feels to take M around the carousel and through the corners. She is so much better at this than I am. My time is 1:12, and I’m a little disappointed I didn’t improve, but feel good that I’ve at least stabilized.

Nic goes with me for my last run. He pushes me to go faster and to get on top of those cones. I’m still scared of the cones for some reason, but I improve by another second this time, coming in at 1:10. I’m still the slowest driver, but I’m also the most improved driver. Nic tells me not to worry, that once I get confident I’ll be fast. After my run Nic gives me a few more pointers and some general and much appreciated manual transmission driving tips. I get so caught up in talking about rev matching that I’m late to my shift for corner work.

The corner work was perfect for me. It was a beautiful, sunny day and I was just happy to be outside around cars. I loved hearing their different exhaust notes as they zoomed past me. I tried to focus on the cones as I chased them across the parking lot, but I could’t help but watch the cars, too. The Corvettes were some of my favorites to watch. I remembered driving a Corvette and how badly I would lose control of the rear end and it was fascinating to watch how these drivers use that trait to their advantage to practically pivot the cars through the corners. And it was good to see that no one’s perfect and everyone makes mistakes. Even the fastest drivers spin out sometimes and hit the occasional cones.

By 4:30 in the afternoon I was sunburned and exhausted and happy. I couldn’t believe I’d been there for 8 hours, since I barely had time to eat lunch. But there was so much to learn and so many cars to see and so many great people to talk to that it was hard to even fit everything in one day. I am hooked.

Photo of the M Coupe at autocross in the rain

Photo: William Gregory

I went back the very next weekend, even though I had to leave early. It was the last event of the season, and I didn’t want to miss it. This course was a shorter, tighter, less complex course. I got to go on more Lotus rides in a different Lotus, which was still very fun. My first run was 36 seconds, while most people were running in the 20s. It was still slower, but it didn’t feel so far off. As the day wore on, it started to rain, but my times still got faster. 35 seconds. 33 seconds. The last run of the day, I messed up the first corner. The instructor who was riding with me said, “When I blow something like that, I’ll take the rest of the run and try something crazy, take some risks I might not otherwise take.” So I really pushed M. I accelerated harder and took corners faster. We might have drifted a little bit. And my time was 32 seconds! My fastest run that day. The lesson was clear – speed is my friend. And I wasn’t even the slowest person at the event! There were two whole people slower than me.

Along with speed, many of the new autocross people I met are my friends, too. The club was so welcoming and supportive of my new, clueless self. People reached out to me through the club’s online forums, and I’m planning to attend some meetings and events this fall and winter. And I can’t wait for novice school in the spring. May will come eventually, and I then will be fast.

 

  • skitter

    My brain struggles to make sense of autocross courses. On the couple of ride-alongs I've done, I start to think 'OK, now the course will go this way', and then smack my face into the window as the R-compounds or slicks yank the car in the opposite direction I was expecting.

  • ThirdPedalGirl

    I have yet to meet nasty people at real-life car events. Plenty of them on the internets, fewer in real life. Or at least they're not as loud in real life.

    That looks like so much fun. I rode along in a Boxster at an autocross, then got out and went directly to ride along in a Mustang GT. HOLY COW what a difference. The Boxster was like doing fine needlework, the GT was like creating landscape art with a tank and some IEDs.

    • In my experience the nasty people are typically in the upper echelons of most car clubs, where they're valuable because they take things so seriously, but they have to be carefully managed… because they take things so seriously. I once watched my region's autocross equipment chief and the event chairman get into a shouting match over the placement of porta-potties that ended with one of them packing up his car and driving home. Still, 98% of everybody else are cool people who just enjoy the opportunity to have some friendly fun and shoot the breeze.

  • Harold

    This pretty much echos how I started out, except I hung out and spectated for years. Even after all that, I was still scared to make a fool of myself. This club is really inviting and even the most competitive drivers will talk with you all day about how you might be able to drop some time.

    What's really fun is when you're doing a course walk or in the middle of a run and something just clicks. At my last event, I suddenly realized I knew what I was looking at and could come up with a good plan of attack. Those chump cones weren't going to catch me out anymore!

    • ThirdPedalGirl

      I am really scared of making an idiot of myself! But I do want to autocross someday when I have an appropriate car!

      • TheAnnM

        I'm pretty sure that everyone there also made an idiot of themselves at the beginning, so they don't judge. There are also novice schools and "test and tune" days that are lower pressure. Also, I was surprised with how many people were co-drivers in someone else's car. Cars break down and life stuff happens and people seemed so generous.

        • ThirdPedalGirl

          I worked a day last spring, doing cones like you did, just for the fun of being outside and around cars. Everyone was SUPER nice.

          • Eric Rood

            I've tagged along to a lot of autocrosses, resetting cones and just generally BS'ing with people and enjoying little things like exhaust notes and blow-off valves. It's a really great, low-pressure way to enjoy cars and be close to them.

  • dukeisduke

    Wow, very cool, Ann. A friend of mine autocrosses an '88 Fiero (it's only got 50,000 miles on it), and I'm interested in riding along. My only experience with autocross is doing tech inspection, at one we did when we hosted the national CORSA convention (Corvairs) back in '95. I'm really wanting to get involved now, even though I don't own anything I'd autocross.

  • So how long before you buy a second set of wheels and tires just for Autocross?

    I used to go out and make a fool of myself on Solo II courses. I found out that you can stall an automatic transmission if you send the car flying backwards out of a skid. I was never any good, but had a blast.

    Most of my driving was in a 1977 Corvette in the early-mid 1990s. I did autocross my 1992 T-Bird S/C and my 1994 Vette one time each.

    • TheAnnM

      I'm going to need a trailer hitch and one of those cute little trailers if I want to try that. Also, I wonder what tires would be good for autocross and road courses…

      • MVEilenstein
      • For a long time the joke was that people who autocrossed for very long soon got hooked on Purple Crack, but the SCCA is rejiggering classes next year so that most people can run on regular summer tires and still be competitive. I've heard rave reviews for the new BFG g-Force Rival, in particular.

      • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

        bike rack 😉 Never done this, glad you had blast.

  • mosqueda

    Excellent write-up! I helped out at my BMW club's High Performance Driving School. I have the same issues of feeling incompetence and fear. You've inspired me!

  • Speed and adrenaline is a helluva drug. Welcome to the club! Wait until you do some open track driving – as a good friend of mine says, the go-fast crack pipe will make you consider autocrossing to be the handjob of motorsports.

    • In my very limited experience, that seems about right. I did an autocross in a friend's Corvette last year and in my Park Avenue (!) this year, and also did two LeMons races this year in the ZomBee. No doubt that track driving >> autocross.

      • Besides, autocross has all of those treacherous cones.

    • TheAnnM

      I've been on a track now too, (story coming soon!) and while you can bet I'll be waiting at the gates the second that place opens next spring, it's still much easier to get to autocross events than track days. Plus, autocross is good practice for becoming a super amazing racecar driver.

      • Definitely true. The more time behind the wheel, the better.

  • D_M

    Auto-x is fun at first, but a whole day for a few minutes of seat time gets old fast. Definitely try a track day

    • JayP2112

      Some people dig autox, some dig DEs.
      I autox'd for years but that ended after my first DE. I'm lucky I live in a place with several tracks and my pal runs the DEs. Yay!!

    • BlackVR

      HPDEs are fun, but some people need or want competition, and autocross is far and away the least expensive way to get a competitive motorsports experience.

  • MVEilenstein

    I'm buzzed just reading your story, so mission accomplished. I want to throw my 5,000 lb. truck around a slalom now, just to say I did.

    Excellent article, and congratulations on officially catching the bug.

  • jake

    That's a great write up . Autoxing is contagious I got my girlfriend into it this past year she is hooked. The scca next year is making all stock classes run on street tires next year . The tread wear will be 140 and greater in 2014 and 200 for 2015 . hankook rs3 bfg rival and dunlopDunlop z11are all great tires that can also work for a track day .

  • krazykarguy

    You've now done something that most of us have always wanted to do – buy a car that is a precision track tool and autoX it. Congrats!

  • Rene

    Thanks for the inspiration. I have always held back because I was scared I would spend all my time trying to figure out the cones rather than focusing on how to drive the course.

  • Autocross is on my to do list. This write up has (mostly) cured my rookie fears of looking like a fool. I have no disposable $$ for it now and I'm sure the season is done here in OH anyway. I'll have to look into the costs, I bet my Mazda3 would be fun.

    Oh, and I loved this quote from the instructor:

    "He tells me not to worry and then he thinks it’s easier to teach women how to autocross than men, because women go slowly and learn technique, and then it’s easy to teach them to go fast, but men try to go fast right away and it’s hard to teach them technique."

    My oldest daughter got to attend a teen driving day at Mid Ohio and one of the events was an emergency lane change. Three lanes marked out by cones with a gap in which they'd have to change lanes. They'd start in the center lane and at the last minute get a signal for which lane to change to.

    The boys charged in fast right away (30-35) and sent cones flying. The girls started slow and worked faster. By the end, the boys had gotten better, but no faster and still were hitting cones. The girls got faster and more accurate. Within a few runs, my daughter was hitting 35 MPH and sometimes clipping a cone. A couple MPH slower and she was nailing it every time.

  • Jonathan

    So you inspired me to attend the SCCA Houston autox at Royal Purple. Had a blast in my WRX. 53 secs versus 40 – 44 for the faster folks.[youtube yhFbFmqY6Oc http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhFbFmqY6Oc youtube]

    • TheAnnM

      I'm so glad you got out and had a great time!

  • George

    Nice write up. Don't laugh, but I used to autocross a 88 Tempo back in the early 90's. I had shorter springs and sticky tires on black steelies. It wasn't the fastest, but it also wasn't the slowest 🙂

    • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

      But t'was bestest, rock on George!

  • Sabrina

    My first event was just June. I had also just learned to drive stick. My first run time was two times the next slowest driver.. whoops. But you're right about everybody being so welcoming and helpful. Other drivers would even get super excited for me when my times improved.

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