The Midfield Report: Observations from an Autocross Apprentice

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

Here we are, in the middle of no-autocross season. I don't know about you, but I really miss the adrenaline rush that you experience when you push your Porsche to its limits. We all know that you can't really duplicate the experience on public roads (seriously, it's too dangerous given the capabilities of your Porsche).

So, what's an enthusiast to do in this long, long winter? Two things come to mind: (1) prepare your car; (2) prepare yourself.

Preparing your car for the upcoming autocross season could potentially involve many things, some expensive and time-consuming, others not as much. I believe one should attend to potential mechanical issues that impact safety, so for me, the first item I will check is tires. Today, I was reminded of the importance of adequate tread while out on a drive on wet and slippery roads.  After two autocross seasons (and a 9,000-mile cross-country trip), my rear tires are near the end of their useful life. On dry pavement, the reduced tread depth is not particularly noticeable, but on wet pavement, it's a different story! I was testing the performance of my recently repaired engine and discovered that it now has sufficient power to spin the tires while accelerating hard in second gear on wet pavement! Not a pleasant surprise to be sure, so next Monday means a call to Tire Rack for some new rear tires. Before the first autocross, make sure to inspect your tires, paying particular attention to tread depth. Autocross events may be run rain or shine, so you will be much happier with good tires if an event happens to be wet.

After tires, you should raise and support your car safely, and inspect your brake pads and rotors.  If the pads are nearly worn out, replace them before autocross season. You'll be giving your brakes a workout, and you don't want to risk damaging your rotors if you wear the pads completely out. At the same time, it's a good idea to ensure that your rotors aren't worn beyond specification. You can check them easily with an inexpensive digital caliper. Finally, if your brake fluid is more than a couple of years old, change it as well. Old brake fluid attracts moisture from the air, and that moisture will compromise your braking performance when the brakes get hot.

If you have any routine maintenance to perform, such as oil changes, valve adjustments (all of you who own newer Porsches miss out on this thrilling chore!), or spark plug changes, now's the time to do it. Football season will be over in plenty of time to complete these tasks, and you'll feel better knowing that your car is at its mechanical best.

Moving on to the interior, you might want to think about the car/driver interface.  For example, as I am slowly approaching the cornering limits of my car, I find that my leather seats (which look great and are comfortable) don't hold me in place very well. The seats could use more lateral support, and the leather is slippery, especially in the summer. If you're in a similar position, you may want to check out some of the aftermarket solutions available. Along those lines, an upgrade to your 3-point seatbelts might be in order too. I'm planning to install a bolt-in harness bar to my car, which will allow use of 4-point belts. Those belts will keep you more centered behind the steering wheel, which can't hurt your performance. If your leather steering wheel is too slippery, consider some racing gloves to give you better grip. The more solidly connected to your car you are, the more accurate you can be with your control inputs.

Obviously, it's difficult to simulate the autocross driving experience on public roads, but there are still many things you can do during your daily and weekend driving to keep sharp. I find it helpful to remember the fundamental premise of autocross: it is a PRECISION driving event. Of course, another goal is to complete the course as quickly as possible, but if you are imprecise, your time will suffer via cone penalties. Given that precision is the primary objective, there are ample opportunities to practice that skill in everyday driving. Any time you're on a curvy road (especially one you're familiar with), turn it into an autocross course. Try to visualize the proper line through the corner, and attempt to hit your apex and turn exit. Pretend that the center line and limit line on the right side of the lane are cones, and don't touch them. Practice smooth corner entries and exits, and learn precisely where the edge of your car is. It sounds a little hokey, but I find that it keeps me more engaged with my driving, and given the growing number of inattentive folks out there, that's a big benefit. For those of us without anti-lock brakes, it can also be beneficial to know just how hard you can brake without locking the wheels. Discretion is called for here, because you could collect the inattentive person behind you if you brake forcefully. Threshold braking exercises are best done on empty roads! There are plenty more exercises, but I hope the ones presented get you thinking of other ways to improve your autocross driving on a daily basis.

Time to start the preparations! Redwood Region's first autocross of the year is March 10, and you want to be ready! I hope to see you at a Redwood Region event before then, so check the calendar frequently as new events are being added rapidly! See you out on the road. 



Mike

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