Bob Tunnell's Advice For The First Time Autocrosser
Lots of great advice has been written for the novice autocrosser. Kate Hughes' Novice Handbook is just one fine example.
But I've also noticed that despite all the good advice, first-timers often still don't get the most out of the experience. Here are four things I suggest to pay particular attention to.
1) Go to have fun. This has been my primary motivation for more than 20 years and if you ain't goin' out to have fun, then go golfing or scuba diving or shopping or somethin' else. After all, you're gonna get to drive your Ultimate Driving Machine in a totally irresponsible and illegal manner, and not worry about getting busted for it -- what more could you ask for!!
2) Treat walking the course like voting: Do it early and often. You don't get practice laps in autocrossing -- that's a major part of the spirit of the sport -- so walk the course until your feet bleed. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. This is probably the single most common "mistake" beginners make -- they walk the course only enough to avoid getting lost, but that isn't nearly enough to be FAST. The course will look a lot different from the driver seat "at speed" than it does at a stroll.
Think about driving around in a strange neighborhood looking for an address. The next time you go to that house, you'll get there in half the time because it looks familiar. Walk the course until various sections are imprinted in your brain and you can "drive" the entire course in your mind.
I actually put a clock on my mental "practice runs." When I can mentally drive a course within a couple seconds of my actual run time, I did a good job of memorizing it. But that's probably way more than a beginner should expect to be able to do.
While walking, pay particular attention to the "straightaways." I define those as sections of the course -- straight or not -- that can be taken without lifting off the gas. Autocross (or any racing for that matter) is nothing more than drag racing with corners. Of course you need to slow down for the corners (see #3), but look for the earliest point at which you can get back on the gas and not have to lift at the exit of a corner. Now see if you can get on the gas even earlier than that. As long as you don't have to lift at the exit, you didn't get on the gas too soon. Remember, "He who late apexes the earliest wins." (paraphrased quote stolen from John Ames)
3) Go fast in the fast places and slow in the slow places. That may be a bastardization of an Emerson Fittipaldi quote, but it's the absolute truth.
Most beginners can't believe how fast they can really go through some high-speed maneuvers (as evidenced by the stains in my passenger seat), but they also try to make up for it by going 11/10ths through slow maneuvers. Bad idea.
Really good drivers know when to go slowly and when to go all out. And great drivers can actually do it.
Going faster in the fast sections will come naturally with time, so be aware of the "slow" sections and be sure you don't overcook them. In general, you should take the shortest line possible. This ain't NASCAR and runnin' the high line next to the wall like The King won't cut it -- in autocross the shortest line is almost always the quickest. This is particularly true in corners more than 90 degrees and is a must in corners greater than 120 degrees. Our BMW's have a reputation for "pushing" or "understeering" in slow corners and IMNSHO the biggest contributing factor is usually excessive entry speed -- drivers trying to take a "wide line" to "carry speed." Uh-uh. That's a no-no.
4) Remember to have fun. It bears repeating because beginners almost always get discouraged when they see how much slower they are than someone that's been doing it a while, even only once or twice before.
An average 60-second autocross course can have as many as 100-150 of what I call "decision points" -- places where the driver needs to make a decision regarding when to get on the gas, when to lift, when to brake, how much to brake, when to turn into a corner, how sharply to turn into a corner, when to begin unwinding the wheel out of a corner, etc. AND all the various subtleties, variations, and combinations of those techniques.
The difference between a really good autocrosser and a slug-slow novice may be as little as a tenth of a second at each decision point -- an imperceptible amount. (Provided the driver isn't also wondering, "Where is the next corner?") But multiply that tenth of a second by 100 decision points and you've now got a 10-second difference between a truly great run and a very good novice run.
In reality, the difference between a discouraged beginner and a great driver really only boils down to a tenth of a second. But it all adds up.
I hope that helps. Good luck and have fun!