Driving around plastic traffic cones in a parking lot sounds straightforward, but my first attempts at autocrossing proved otherwise. In the first event I entered, I finished 114th out of 124 cars; in the second, I was 120th out of 163 entrants. Fortunately Tire Rack and the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) run the Starting Line school to help newbies get the hang of autocross (also known as Solo).
Heyward Wagner, director of experiential programs for the SCCA, explains that the Starting Line program was launched in 2013 to help beginners improve their driving skills, and to help entice the curious to try autocrossing for the first time.
“This is intended to be SCCA's, 'How to get started in motorsports' brand,” he says. “We're converting enthusiasts into participants.”
This year, the Tire Rack SCCA Starting Line school takes place in 19 cities nationwide. The school aims for 15 to 20 students at each location; keeping the number low provides more time driving and allows the SCCA to provide one-on-one instruction from professionals. A full-time teacher from the Evolution Performance Driving School rides shotgun on all but three of the laps each student completes each day, and students spend so much time behind the wheel in one day that Wagner claims the school offers, “about a season's worth of time in the car.”
I signed up for the Tire Rack SCCA Starting Line's Detroit stop, held in the crumbling parking lot of the Pontiac Silverdome, about 30 miles north of downtown Detroit. The assembled students’ rides closely mirrored what you'll see at any local autocross event: a handful of first-gen Mazda Miatas, some Volkswagen GTI hatchbacks, a couple of Ford Mustangs, and my ride for the day, our Four Seasons 2014 Ford Fiesta ST.
After a brief orientation, our first stop is a coned-off oval course where the instructors ask us to lap while they ride shotgun to evaluate our current driving skills. I set off at a brisk but reasonable pace with instructor Tom O'Gorman riding shotgun. He says I have a pretty good driving line around the wide 180-degree turns at either end of our small oval, but says to brake and accelerate more enthusiastically. When we change seats for two demo laps, O'Gorman demonstrates that idea by braking hard enough to use the ABS on every stop, and rolling onto the throttle far before the end of the turn.
We trade seats again, and I soon get the hang of braking later and with far more force, the ABS chattering and kicking back through the brake pedal, and then applying throttle while the steering wheel is still turned, front tires just starting to squirm and squeal. On the approach to each turn, O'Gorman shouts, "Look for your straight," an invocation to visually locate and aim for he end of the corner before even entering it. It's tough to do, but when I start looking for the exit as I enter a corner, I'm able to pick a smoother line that requires less correction partway through.
The next challenge is to turn that oval into a figure-eight course, tightening the turn at the end to cross over in the center of our coned-off area. O'Gorman suggests using the Fiesta's natural propensity for a tiny bit of lift-throttle oversteer to our advantage. On my first attempt, I lift too early, the car turns in before I'm ready, and I hear the thunk of an orange cone smacking the Fiesta's right-front corner. Next time, I get the timing down, helping me flick around the figure-eight course faster and faster.
Left and RightNext up is the slalom, with Evo Driving School employee Billy Davis watching me slither around the cones twice before hopping in and showing how it's really done. The key, he explains, is to aim the car for the back side of each of the slalom cones. Many beginners, myself included, create arcs with the cone at the center. But that means you must rush to turn the opposite direction and set up for the next cone, slowing your progress and hindering smoothness. Instead, Davis tells me to turn far before reaching a cone, giving me more time to straighten the car and turn it the opposite direction for the next slalom.
Smoothness, it turns out, is the key to acing the slalom, rather than outright speed. "It should feel like a rhythm, like a dance," Davis says. It starts making sense, and I feel myself gliding left, right, left, right through the cones, rather than struggling to get the car turned in time for the next one. Davis stresses that hitting the first cone correctly -- “backsiding it” -- is the key to a quick time through a slalom, as missing the timing on the first cone only compounds your error through the next cones.
Putting It TogetherFinally it's on to the full autocross course. We start by walking through it with instructor David O'Maley who points out where to drive and, more important, where to look. Another Evo Driving School teacher, Jenny Williams, straps into the Fiesta's passenger seat and I set two baseline times, 35.013 and 34.243 seconds. Williams takes the wheel for two runs and promptly shaves a second off my times -- and it's the first time she's ever driven a Fiesta ST. Clearly, there's room for me to improve.
Her first suggestion sounds obvious but takes effort to put into practice: "There's no coasting in autocross." If I'm not braking or accelerating, I could either have braked later or accelerated sooner, Williams explains. And speaking of braking, I need to do it sooner so I'm not entering turns or slaloms with too much speed and wasting it by scrubbing the tires through turns.
I put those tips to practice, and my next run drops to 33.625 seconds, followed by a 33.971 and a 33.791. I no longer overdrive the front tires into corners, and I transitions from one turn to the next more smoothly. The last three turns become my favorite part of the course as I begin to visualize a precise driving line, taking a sweeping right-hander into a quick right, before using a dab of lift-throttle oversteer to go left through the finish line.
Then my times start going in the wrong direction. Williams encourages me to tuck in tighter to the cones in turns, which helps at first, but when I'm too aggressive I end up clipping cones. It rattles my confidence and the clock shows my time creeping up half a second, to 34.243 and then 34.507. On subsequent runs I am much quicker through the first half of the course, but I arrive at later sections too fast, brake too late, understeer, and waste time. Williams again recommends slowing down and braking earlier, then offers tips on setting up the car wider to the left for the course's tricky second slalom. The last tip, especially, helps me find a smoother, less hurried line into the series of cones. My times fall again, but before long we're out of time.
The AftermathThe day over, cones collected, and cars ticking as they cool, we gather one last time to recap what we've learned in nine hours at the Tire Rack SCCA Starting Line school. Look far ahead. Only one input at a time. Aim for the back side of slalom cones. Brake hard and brake early.
Considering the amount of one-on-one instruction involved, and the sheer amount of time spent driving, the Tire Rack SCCA Starting Line school is a great value for its $325 price tag. It's an even better deal when you consider that the entrance fee includes a year's membership in the SCCA, a free entrance to your local region's next autocross event, and even lunch in the middle of the day. Drivers who think they'll continue with motorsports events can also pick up a helmet for a big discount at the program; Wagner emphasizes that the discount is intended to get students to return to future events because, “If you don't have a helmet yet, then you're not really invested in the concept yet.” And for students who want to learn more, the closely affiliated Evolution Performance Driving School offers lessons that build upon what the Starting Line teaches.
Now I just have to put all the advice and tips to use at my next autocross event...
Find more information at about the SCCA Starting Line school at www.sccastartingline.com
Photos courtesy Jennifer Merideth.