The Midfield Report: Observations from an Autocross Apprentice

mike hinton headshot 2011
by Mike Hinton, Redwood Region Member, September 2011

In last month's report, I presented an overview of what takes place at an autocross event. Starting with this report, I'll get into a bit more detail about certain aspects of the events, and try to pass along some ideas that I hope will make your experience more enjoyable. Now, on to July's event....

Overcast skies and mild temperatures greeted the early arrivals at the PCA/ESCA Autocross held on July 9. Cars were ready to enter when the gates opened at 8:00am, even though the first runs of the day weren't until 10:00am. If you're a newcomer to autocrossing, you may be wondering what happens before the event, and why many drivers arrive so early. There are a number of things that you need to do to prepare your car (and yourself) for the event, so arriving early allows you ample time to accomplish these tasks.

The first order of business is to stake out a good parking place in the paddock, leaving yourself room to put out chairs, coolers, and all of the items that you'll be removing from the car. Next, your car (and helmet!) will have to go through tech inspection. This inspection is done to ensure that there are no safety issues that could crop up while you are on the course. You certainly don't want to have your battery come loose or have a wheel fall off! You'll also want to remove any loose items from the cabin, because they WILL fly around, and probably will wind up at your feet while you're braking for a tight corner (don't ask me why I know about this)! After passing your tech inspection, you'll register your car and receive your work assignment for the day (everyone who drives also works the course).

If you arrived early, you will now have plenty of time to grab a course map (as you may know, the course changes for every event) and take it with you as you walk around the course. The course walk allows you to familiarize yourself with the course, and theoretically gives you the opportunity to plan how you intend to drive the course. I say theoretically because, as an apprentice, I find that the "line" that looked so obvious at walking speeds looks a lot different when you're trying to drive as fast as possible, while also trying to remember where the course goes next! If you can, try to hook up with an experienced driver on your track walk - you'll not only have a better plan of attack for the course, but will also learn some of the techniques they use to analyze the course. Don't be shy! Ask questions! Experienced drivers are happy to share their knowledge with you. Those ideas will allow you to improve your time and, as I said last month, faster = more fun!

When Greg Matsumoto, Sarah Porkka, and I strolled around the course, we first noticed that Tom Strobel, the Autocross Director, had designed an unusual (at least to me) and challenging layout, featuring a skidpad-like section that I dubbed the NASCAR section because you got to drive around in circles a couple of times. We were able to determine how to attack the two slaloms on the course, but we were still unsure about the NASCAR section. We decided that we'd just have to drive the course, and experiment with different approaches to that section as the day went on.

After the drivers' meeting, the first run group assembled for the morning session. This time, my work assignment was in the timing booth, writing down the times for each driver as they completed their runs. As luck would have it, I shared the booth with Tristan Bayless and Ace Robey, who are both accomplished (and quick) pilots. As the first run group completed their laps, we all began to speculate what the fastest time of the day would be. Tristan and Ace both predicted that the best time would be about 49 seconds. After picking my jaw off the floor, I could only add that 49 seconds seemed really fast, and that I certainly wouldn't be the one posting that time! It was also interesting to hear them analyzing other drivers' runs, and trying to incorporate what they were seeing into their own approach to the course. My analysis? "Wow, those guys are fast!!"

As they day progressed, an epic battle for top time of the day ensued between Tristan, Ace, Jim Winston, and Guy Southern. Sure enough, all four of them lapped in the 49 second range, with Jim eventually topping the charts with a run of 48.775 seconds. Full results are listed here. Again, all I can say is "Wow, those guys are Tureally fast!"

If you check the calendar on the Redwood Region website, you'll see that the next event is scheduled for August 13. This will be our second Porsche-Only event of the year, and it will also be a "Ladies Day" event. I encourage all of the lady racers (and non-racers too) to come out to play. You can bring your husband/boyfriend/etc. too - we'll let them run as well! See all of you on August 13th....