Well, last weekend, we did.
Since I have no financial ability to race road courses on my own at the moment, autocross is a good way to stay in driving shape without spending very much money.
Basically, for 35 bucks you get a few runs at a course laid out in a parking lot with cones and chalk. Complete the course in the fastest time and don't hit cones because you'll get a time penalty for each one. Really simple, and a great way to have a lot of fun in everyday cars in competition. SCCA puts on the events, as do other clubs.
I didn't find it quite as exciting as club racing, but you can't have as much for such a small cost.
We entered the car in the D Stock category. But since we are rookies, we elected to compete in the Novice class. The Novice class is one of the "indexed" classes. Basically, each class has a handicap that adjusts the final time based on a multiplier. Once the multiplier is computed, every class has equal footing to compete against each other.
Now you may be wondering why an experienced road racer is going into the novice class. The reason is because I have been briefly exposed to cone-dodging before. I know how different of a discipline it is.
In road racing, you have the opportunity to get practically unlimited attempts at perfecting the course prior to actually racing on it. Only money and scheduling is stopping me from going out to Infineon for a day of lapping in a race car in order to gain a better understanding of the track. Unless major construction occurs, the track will not change very much by the time I next race there.
Autocross travels to a variety of different sites, and those sites don't change very often, this is true. However, the course is always different for every event. A huge portion of the skill of a competent autocross driver revolves around extremely quick learning. I'm not familiar with learning a track in such a way. You literally cannot be methodical. A run may be around a minute long, and you may only get 3 or 4 runs. 4 minutes of track time and 4 attempts to set the fastest time possible. At a road race, I will have usually between 40 minutes to an hour of track time with around 20 laps of practice and familiarization prior to the first race. And that doesn't count previous visits to the track.
And the spontaneous nature of the sport is only half of it. Throw in another twist in the form of a very tight track at speeds less than 50 or 60 mph (when, in road racing in a Spec Miata, per-lap average mile per hour is in excess of 75 mph with top speeds approaching twice that of autocross), and you've got a very different discipline indeed.
I fully expected to do okay, but not to break any records.
My dad took the car for the first run to get acquainted with the course. I did the same soon after, taking mom for a joyride which she enjoyed immensely.
At first I turned the traction control system off. I wanted to feel how the car was set up mechanically first. It felt pretty good. Being an all wheel drive car, the engine sends half of it's power to the front tires and half to the rear. This is a recipe for some understeer and the car does push a bit. But it is controllable and it doesn't completely wash out the front grip. It is suitably agile.
The car isn't a tank but it's not a flyweight either. It weighs 3,300 pounds. Naturally that tends to pull the body around a bit as you brake, accelerate and turn,. The car has a tendency to really dig into one corner of the car at a time an that gives it a hoppy feeling as it bounds from corner to corner.
On the second run I turned the system on to see how that would fare. It didn't go well. The computer seems to have an aversion to accelerating while turning. It's so conservative, in fact, that it simply will not allow you to reach the limits of adhesion. If you enter a corner faster than it wants you to, it slows you down with additional braking. If you try to accelerate back up to the speed you intended to corner at, it won't let you, because it cuts the throttle according to how much steering you're using. And with the system on, any press of the brake will cut the throttle as well, so you cannot use the gas and the brake at the same time.
Thankfully this is all disabled by a button on the dash and the car becomes cooperative again. I will actually start disabling the system when I drive it on the street, because I do not have faith that the car will respond in a way that I am trained to expect if I have to make an emergency maneuver. This is not a fault of traction control as an idea, mind, it is just a fault of this particular system. A good traction control system will work with a driver, and I have experienced systems that do just that. This one tries to control the whole car by itself. Slightly over-reaching, in my opinion.
In any case, with the computer sleeping serenely via that special dashboard button, the car will corner like a champ. It has wonderful traction coming out of the corners and the engine is superb. I would not believe that the car was turbocharged if I didn't see the turbo under the bonnet.
Anyways, you probably want to hear about the rest of the day, so I will direct you to the video I got from my helmet camera.
There are still things to work on. My starts need to be a bit faster (I was trying to be gentle because I hear the 5-speed is kind of delicate), and there was probably at least a second on the table in my 3rd run.
So how did we do? Well, my dad, Scott, got 5th out of 16 in the Novice class with an indexed time of 37.852, and I got first place with an indexed time of 34.727.
I'm pleased with our results to say the least! I'm proud of my dad for doing so well at his first event and I can't wait to do it again.