The Midfield Report: Observations from an Autocross Apprentice

mike hinton headshot 2011
by Mike  Hinton, Redwood Region Secretary, October 2012

All of the regular autocross attendees had a relatively extended layoff after the August 11 event, as the following event wasn't scheduled until September 22. Since I missed the August event, my layoff would be just over two months. I was hoping that I hadn't forgotten all of the lessons learned over this year's events, but there was only one way to find out....

One thing I hadn't forgotten was to leave early, allowing time to replenish fuel supplies on the way. I arrived shortly after 8:00 a.m., and was encouraged to see that a good crowd had already gathered. The weather was looking promising, if a bit warm, and as an added attraction, there was a dirigible parked on the runway out beyond our course. That made for a unique photo backdrop!

This event's course was designed by a first-time course designer, our Vice-President (and my "fierce" rival), Chris Harrell. Chris had shown me the proposed layout a couple of days in advance, and asked for my thoughts. I felt that the course would be interesting, as it incorporated several interesting elements: there was a "Chicago box," which rewards very precise driving, a "skidpad" section that would definitely heat up the left-side tires, the infamous 180-degree right-hand exit out of the go-kart section (very slow), and two or three sections where wide-open throttle could be used. I liked the design, but knew that the go-kart exit would be challenging. On paper, the course looked like it might favor the lower-powered cars, but the true test would be in the driving.

Much like the July 21 event, the weather started off relatively cool, but promised to warm considerably as the afternoon approached. I've mentioned before that the course surface seems to lose grip as temperatures climb, and the drivers would certainly get to test that theory later in the day. The skidpad section would be especially challenging, as that particular section of the course always seems to have little, if any, grip, regardless of conditions. The track walk seemed to confirm that the go-kart exit would be very slow (and difficult) because the following gate was placed far to the driver's right - directly opposite to where the car would want to go.  A compromise between speed and car placement would be necessary to minimize lost time....

At the drivers' meeting, it was encouraging to see the crowd - we had 37 drivers for the event, many of whom were first-timers or novices. The instructors would be a busy group today. In addition, there was a good complement of experienced drivers, which is a valuable asset for drivers who want to improve. I've always found that experienced drivers are more than happy to help the less-experienced participants to improve their times and fun quotient. The combination of a challenging course and big group of drivers meant that a fun day was on tap.

Again, due to work commitments, my archrival Chris wasn't able to attend the event, which meant that he wouldn't get to drive on the course he designed! I promised to give him a full report after the event. Our group was first on the course, and to no one's surprise, the course seemed very slippery at first. I know that in my case, it's just a matter of heating the tires up a bit (which takes two runs maximum). However, even after the tires were up to temperature, grip seemed to be elusive. As expected, the exit out of the go-kart was punishing - I felt like I could get out and push my car faster, and I experienced massive understeer trying to negotiate the following gate. Five runs in the morning proved to be insufficient for me to solve this problem. Fortunately, I seemed to have a reasonably good handle on the rest of the course, so my times weren't horrible. Definitely, there was work to be done!

Fortunately, I was working out on the course very close to the offending section.  Doing so allowed me to observe the line that other (faster) drivers were using, and I vowed to incorporate those techniques in the afternoon. Working out on the course also allowed me to admire the various cornering and acceleration attitudes of a broad range of cars. For example, the 356 driven by the Powers family seemed to spend more time on three wheels than four! I've experienced that a bit with Barney, and it's fun (but I don't know if it's fast!). It was interesting to watch how the turbocharged cars reacted when the boost kicked in. The car would become unstable as the tires attempted to cope with the extra horsepower. That HAS to be a little scary! Finally, watching the way that Henry Watts skillfully used the throttle of his car to vary its cornering attitude was a thing of beauty. Definitely something to aspire to!

In the afternoon, I tried my new approach to the go-kart exit, and discovered that it improved that section of the course. Unfortunately, the small amount of grip we had in the morning seemed to diminish in the afternoon sun, making it difficult to improve on morning times. Out of the seven runs we had in the afternoon, I had perhaps two that I was happy with, and indeed, one of those runs was my best of the day! The lesson seems to be to never give up. The Oakland A's never did, and look what happened to them!

Our final event of the 2012 season is approaching - it's on October 20. You don't want to miss it, as it is our annual "Enduro" event. Instead of completing one lap of the course at a time, the Enduro consists of a four-lap run. It's sure to get your heart rate up, and always is my favorite event. See you out on the course!


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