The Midfield Report: Observations from an Autocross Apprentice

mike hinton headshot 2011
by Mike Hinton, Redwood Region Member, February 2012

s the calendar moves far too slowly towards our first autocross event on March 10, I wanted to continue the prior month's discussion concerning tasks to complete to ensure that you're ready when the big day (finally) comes.

I seem to find that no matter how early I get up on the morning of an autocross, invariably, I'm rushing to make sure that I don't forget something important. So, do as I say, and not as I do, and complete most of your preparation the night before (seriously, I'm going to try and follow my own advice this year, and be better prepared!). First, gather your driving gear in one place. Items such as helmets, gloves, and shoes can be put in a duffel bag, ready to go. I'd even go so far as to put the duffel in your car the night before, giving you one less thing to worry about or forget. Certainly, you'd prefer to have your own helmet at the event, as opposed to the loaners, right? Next, get out your driving "uniform" and have it ready to go. Remember that you'll likely be out in the sun for several hours when you're working the course, so bring appropriate sun protection (long sleeves, hat, etc.). Finally, get your refreshments in order. Generally, there's no food available at the course and, honestly, there aren't many good choices for food nearby. I find it much more relaxing to bring my lunch and beverages with me to the course. Doing so also allows more time during the lunch break for socializing, plotting how to improve your times during the afternoon runs, or just resting.

Last month, I touched on some of the maintenance chores you can perform to prepare your car for the upcoming season. Even assuming that you're satisfied with your preparation, you'll still want to bring some tools and supplies to the event. Perhaps the most important adjustable component on your car is the tire pressure. I've experienced significant improvements in performance from altering tire pressures, and if it works for me, it certainly will work for you! First and foremost, you'll need to get a rugged, accurate tire gauge. Good ones are not very expensive, and accurate measurements are critical to get the most out of your tires. You also might consider purchasing an "air bottle" (sold at many auto parts stores) in order to rapidly increase tire pressures. It's possible to use a portable compressor, but the compressors don't inflate tires quickly enough to add pressure to all four tires (if necessary) between runs.

Another, often overlooked tool is white chalk or liquid shoe polish. These "marking" tools enable you to see how much the tire is flexing during your runs. The technique is simple: put a couple of dabs at two points on the sidewall of each tire (continuing onto the tread) prior to your run. After the run, examine the tire to see how much of your mark remains. If the marking on the sidewall is still entirely intact, the tire pressure is likely too high, which means that you're not using all of the tread to generate grip.  If most of the marking is gone, the tire pressure is likely too low, which also compromises grip. Grip is of paramount importance, given the fact that you're rarely traveling in a straight line in an autocross. 

Another tool to possibly employ is a pyrometer to measure your tire temperatures. Unfortunately, it's a trial-and-error process to determine the optimum temperature for your tires, and it's possible to spend a great deal of time chasing the ideal temperature, since track conditions change with each run. 

Finally, when you get to the event, you should consider removing all excess weight from your car. In my case, "dead" weight includes the spare tire (all of you newer Porsche owners only need to take out the can of tire sealant!), tool kit, air compressor, and jack. Granted, perhaps you're removing only 25 pounds, but that has to be worth at least 0.05 seconds, right? Alternately, you can ignore the previous few sentences, and leave all of the ballast in. That way, you have a reason to explain your sub-optimal times! 

I'm really excited for the upcoming season! I'm certain that our Autocross Director, David Bunch, will create fun and challenging courses for us. So, come on out and try your hand at autocrossing. A fun time is virtually guaranteed. Hope to see you on March 10!


Click here for detailed results from all Redwood Region autocross events.