So you’ve got a few autocrosses under your belt and now you’re seeking wisdom and enlightenment that will shave seconds off of your time, right? By now you’ve probably figured out that of all of the variables involved in autocross, THE DRIVER is the one that makes the most difference. If you haven’t figured it out, go ahead and have a hot-shoe take a run or two in your car at your next autocross. That should put it into perspective for you.
Now that you’ve accepted that you need to “tune the driver”, how do you do it? The most common mantra in all forms of racing fits here: “Seat Time, Seat Time, Seat Time”. Get out there and drive your car in as many autocrosses as you can. Push yourself, push the car. Make mistakes, make observations. Ask for advice and criticism. Learn from all of it.
Oh, you wanted more than that? You want easy answers to complex problems? You were expecting some actual driving tips? Well, we can’t tell you everything here. Many books have been written on the subject, and there are many different techniques and styles. We can, however, give you a few basic universal tips:
Sometimes the simplest things are the easiest to overlook. Position your seat close enough that you can comfortably work the pedals without stretching, but far enough back that you aren’t banging your knees or getting your feet tied in knots. Adjust the seat back so that your elbows are bent at nearly 90 degrees when at the standard 10-and-2 (that’s left hand at 10:00, right hand at 2:00) driving position. Depending on your car and your size, you may have to compromise your driving position, but try to get as close as you can to a proper position. To make this position seem more natural to you, it’s a good idea to use the same position for your street driving. Hand position. Use the standard 10-and-2 (some say 3-and-9 is even better) that you have seated yourself comfortably for and you will find that you can make most maneuvers without changing your position on the wheel. For sharper turns, most drivers find shuffle-steering (sliding one hand at a time to get another grip on the wheel) to be a smoother method than hand-over-hand (crossing your arms to get one hand over the other to get another grip on the wheel). Use whichever technique works for you, but DO keep both hands on the wheel whenever possible. Never release the wheel and allow it to re-center itself. Always unwind the wheel in a smooth and controlled fashion and steer out of a turn the same way you steered into it.
If you read the novice driving tips, you’ve heard this one before. But since you’re no longer a novice, we’ll take it a step further. Look WAY ahead. At least 2-3 turns ahead. On most courses, you need to be thinking about what’s that far ahead. Each turn affects the next. The perfect line through this turn just might put you in an awkward place up ahead. Giving up a little on this turn to smooth out what lies ahead can be of great benefit. Look ahead. Think ahead. Get close to the cones. No, not all of them, just the important ones. When you walk the course, you’ll figure out which cones are really “defining” the course. Those are the cones that should flap in your wake as you pass them. Slalom cones, for instance. The closer you are to them, the faster you can get through that slalom. It’s simple physics, and you’ll have to thump a few cones to learn just exactly how close you can cut it. It’s all part of the game.
This is the hardest skill for a lot of people to grasp because novice autocrossers tend to fall into two groups: smooth and timid or rough and aggressive. You’ll have to figure out which group you fall into and adjust accordingly. Smoothness is critical, but smooth does not mean slow. Being smooth means that you’re coaxing the car to “flow” through the course. You’re not jerking the car around abruptly. Steering inputs are precise and always controlled. You’re gently “feeding” the throttle, “rolling” onto the power, rather than just flooring it and letting the car wag it’s way around the course. You’re modulating the brakes so that you never lock the wheels or upset the car. The smoother you drive, the closer to the edge of traction you can keep the car at all times. But, again, smooth does not equate to slow. The term “controlled aggression” has been used to describe the driving style of some of the fastest autocrossers. It is this balance that you should strive for.
Choose the Right Line
When you walk the course, you want to find the line that will get you through the course as smoothly as possible. Take tight turns as wide as possible to maintain more speed through them. Maximize the straights. That is, make them as long as possible by the line you take approaching and exiting them, and try to have the fastest speed INTO them as possible. The key to many courses is to have the fastest possible exit speed on the turn before the longest straight. Don’t overdrive. Learn to recognize when you’re overdriving the car. If you feel like you’re hopelessly spinning your wheels, locking up your brakes, understeering or oversteering around the course… chances are you’re pushing it too hard. Sometimes you have to slow down to go faster. Another classic term: “Slow In – Fast Out” applies here. It’s better to give up a little speed on the entrance to a turn (slow in) and take that turn such that you can get on the gas earlier (fast out).
Don’t Brake While Turning
In general, you can’t effectively brake and turn at the same time. Braking shifts a lot of your car’s weight to the front tires, which are then working as hard as they can to slow the car. Asking those tires to also TURN at the same time is not a realistic expectation. The most likely outcome is severe understeer and possible flat-spotting of your tires. The next most likely outcome, if the front tires do hold when you’re braking hard and turning sharply is severe and rapid oversteer because the weight that has transferred to the front tires is obviously no longer holding down the rear! Always try to do your heavy braking in a straight line BEFORE you start a turn.
Push the Envelope
It almost sounds contradictory to tell you to not overdrive, but to “push the envelope”, doesn’t it? Well, if you’re outside the envelope so much that you’re out of control and your times are suffering, you’re overdriving, and that’s bad. But if you’re being smooth and controlled and creeping up on the limits of the tires, you need to always push it just a little bit more to learn exactly where those limits are. The only way to find the limit is to exceed it. “If you don’t spin every now and then, you’re not trying hard enough!”
Learn From Others
Ride with other drivers whenever you can. Even if they aren’t any better than you, you can learn from THEIR mistakes as well as your own. Have more experienced drivers ride along with you or evaluate your runs from the sidelines. They can often provide simple feedback on obvious things that you are doing that you don’t even notice.
Practice the Line
Remember that you can practice the basic principle of “the racing line” everywhere you go. I’m not saying you have to drive at unsafe and illegal speeds on public roads, but you can help make the right line more instinctual by forcing yourself to practice it. When traffic permits, you’ve got plenty of lane width to use, concentrate on finding the proper line through that off-ramp on your way to work in the morning. You don’t even have to be in a car to think this way. You can do it on a bicycle, you can do it while pushing your shopping cart through the grocery store, or even just walking around. It gets into your head after a while and you’ll learn to pick out that efficient proper racing line without even thinking about it.