The Midfield Report: Observations from an Autocross Apprentice

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

Last month, I reported on Redwood Region's first July autocross event, which was held on July 7, and was designated as a "Ladies Day" event. This report will cover the second event, which was held on July 21. As I indicated earlier, July was a busy month! Unfortunately, I was out of town for the August 11 event, but participants assured me that a good time was had by all!

In contrast to our previous event, most of our normal autocross crew would be attending, so I didn't have to arrive particularly early. Once I arrived, I was happy to see that attendance was greatly improved over our July 7 event, which meant that we would have plenty of people to man the various duties that go with conducting an autocross event.

This event's course was designed by our Zone 7 Representative, Sharon Neidel, and it differed significantly from the fast, flowing course at the July 7 event. The course featured the usual slalom sections, and the typically bumpy ride through the go-kart section, with a couple of interesting additions: the first major difference was that there was a 180-degree right-hand exit out of the go-kart section, which would be a very slow turn. The second interesting feature was a very fast set of gates near the finish line. The brave drivers felt that this last section could be taken without braking, or even lifting the throttle! We'd see about that....

The weather started off relatively cool, but the absence of cloud cover meant that the temperatures would warm quickly. As our course tends to get slippery in the afternoon, there would be great emphasis on trying to set quick times during the morning runs. Personally, I've always found that it takes me several runs to find the quickest way around an autocross course, so I usually post my fastest times in the afternoon, even if the track surface is more slippery. It could be that the slightly-reduced traction enables me to rotate the car more easily into the tighter corners, which leads to faster times. That's my theory, and it seems to work, so I'm sticking with it!

My archrival Chris wasn't able to attend this time, so my direct competition would be another 914, driven by Bob Schoenherr, one of our talented instructors. Bob has participated in a few (dozen) more autocross events than I have, and he always seems to extract the maximum performance from his 914. He is also a very knowledgeable instructor, so if you get the chance to get him in your car, take it! I was anxious to see how we'd match up. After the obligatory tire-warming runs, it was time to try and tame the course. As anticipated, the exit out of the go-kart was excruciatingly slow, and I found it very difficult to exit at the correct point to be properly set up for the following turn. Also, the set of gates at the end of the course was quite fast, but I couldn't quite get up the nerve to take the section flat out. If you ran too wide out of the penultimate gate, you'd wind up in the dirt, and the last gate would require a very quick right/left flick in order to avoid knocking down cones. Bob was comfortably ahead of me. There was work to be done after the lunch break....

As anticipated, the temperature had increased significantly by the time our lunch break ended. Accordingly, we decided to have fewer runs than in the morning, which would allow everyone to get home a bit earlier. After discussing the go-kart section with other drivers, and adjusting tire pressures, it was time for the afternoon session. I was still not very happy with my performance in the go-kart section, but I seemed to be going just a bit faster. On my second run, I was almost able to take the last section flat out, but I chickened out at the last minute, just lifting the throttle before the last gate. Finally, on my third run, I successfully negotiated the last section without slowing. The car just drifted through the last gate, right on the edge of control. I thought that better have been faster, because that was a bit scary! Fortunately, that run was over half a second better than my previous best. I pulled off the same trick on the following run, and improved a bit more. The last time I tried that approach, the track (or my tires) had lost just a wee bit of grip, and the car fishtailed into a spin after the last gate. Part of the good news was that the spin happened after the finish line, and I didn't hit any cones, so there was no time penalty. The other part of the good news is that I didn't try to repeat that approach on my last run, so no more spinning! Who says dinosaurs can't learn?! After the event, I compared my times with Bob's and found that he had gone about 0.6 seconds faster than I had. I'll have to try again in September!

Speaking of September, I will report on the September 22 event in our next newsletter. Although I was unable to attend the August event, I was encouraged by the level of participation. Be sure to come out to the September event - you'll want to practice up for the grand finale (the "enduro" event) in October. See you out on the course!


Click here for detailed results from all Redwood Region autocross events