The Midfield Report: Observations from an Autocross Apprentice

mike hinton headshot 2011
by Mike

June 2012 Redwood Region Zone 7 Autocross

June 2012 Redwood Region Zone 7 Autocross
Video by John Jackson
 Hinton, Redwood Region Secretary, July 2012

After an invigorating event on May 19, the next autocross event on Redwood Region's (very) busy calendar was the Zone 7 event that was held on June 23 and 24. That's right, the Zone 7 events are two-day affairs. I have participated in a couple such events previously, but I've never attended both days of the event. Unfortunately, that trend continued this year, as I was only able to attend on Saturday.

In my experience, Zone 7 events tend to be a bit more competitive than our "normal" events. I'm sure that the added intensity results from the fact that Zone championship points are on the line, which means that the more serious (and faster) drivers tend to participate in the Zone events. Imagine my surprise on Saturday when many of the "usual suspects" were not in attendance! It appears that there was an unfortunate scheduling conflict with a couple of the other Zone 7 regions, which caused participation by the fast guys to lag. My chief rival, Chris, was also unable to attend, due to a demanding work and travel schedule. That left Barney and me to fly the midfield flag for the event.

Our Autocross Co-Chair, Tom Strobel, had laid out a course with an interesting design feature: no traditional slaloms! In all of my previous events, the course had always featured at least one, and sometimes two, slaloms, where the vehicles negotiate a series of left and right swerves around single cones. Instead, the course featured a few series of gates, which replicated the left-right swerve of the slalom, but with tighter spacing. Counterbalancing the slower part of the design were a couple of higher-speed sections (almost straight!), and our normal rollercoaster ride through the "go-kart" section of our course. That section had been repaired recently to fill in a gaping pothole, and the repair seemed to be holding up well. I had the distinct impression that the first "straightaway" would be too fast for me to negotiate in second gear, which would create issues....

As noted earlier, our total number of participants was low, meaning, once again, that everyone would have to work in the morning and afternoon, and would have to cover a station alone. Everyone was hoping that the drivers would be precise, in order to minimize cone shagging. At least the weather was cooperating, with mild temperatures and a refreshing breeze. After getting our worker assignments and instructions at the drivers' meeting, I climbed into Barney and prepared to do battle.

While waiting for my first run, I was checking out the times of others in my run group, and noticed that most times were in the high-50 second range. Those times indicated that the slow-appearing sections of the course were just that, and also that the course was a bit longer than usual. Finally, I was flagged off to start my first run, and I got lost! I misread the course and began slowing halfway through the long straight! Totally embarrassing, and not conducive to good times!  Fortunately, we would have 5 more runs in the morning to correct that mistake. I had mentioned last month that I always rediscover that my tires are grip-free on their first run, and that proved to be the case again. After much sliding around on the first and second runs, the tires finally felt good on the third run. All was well through the first set of swerves, then about halfway down the straight, there was the unmistakable "popping" of the engine hitting the rev limiter in second gear!  I decided to try and drive around that problem for the following three runs in the morning, but had little success in improving my times. A new approach would be needed for the afternoon....

After our morning runs, it was time to work. Fortunately, the drivers in the second group were relatively fastidious, as far as hitting cones was concerned, so there was not too much sprinting required to retrieve downed cones. We did get to witness a few spins and near-spins, but all of the participants and cars were able to continue without incident.  My worker station allowed me a good vantage point for one of the more critical sections of the course, and I was intrigued to see some different approaches that were taken at that point. I vowed to discuss that issue over lunch.

During lunch I decided that I would try the "third gear" approach to the straightaway. I had learned from the April event that shifting needs to be done in a straight line, so that meant early. Of course, using 3rd gear on the straight meant that I had to go back to 2nd for the rest of the course, and THAT meant the dreaded heel/toe downshift (braking while blipping the throttle to match engine and gearbox rpm). It's easy if you have 3 feet. Not my strongest point! I also decided to try a different approach to the back side of the course, after talking to a couple of the more talented pilots over lunch. 

As I approached the end of the straight the first time in 3rd, I was definitely going faster, but then came the shift back to 2nd gear, and it worked! The new approach to the back section didn't seem to be as successful, as I couldn't get the car to turn properly. Also, as the day warmed up, there seemed to be less grip, so I decided to reduce the air pressure in the tires, which improved matters. Finally, for the last two runs, I switched back to my "morning" approach to the back side of the course, and improved on both runs. All in all, a great learning experience!

Our next event is the Ladies Day event on July 7, which will run prior to publication of the newsletter. So mark your calendars for July 21 for Round 7 of the season. I guarantee you'll learn new things about your driving and your car! See you out on the course!


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