The Midfield Report: Observations
from an Autocross Apprentice
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.
here for detailed results from all Redwood Region autocross events.