The Slowest Car at the Autocross
AZSolo SCCA Autocross at the Bondurant School of Driving. March 15, 2015
Normally you read about the winners of a race, and how they battled it out to the very end, just to squeeze by with the win. It’s always dramatic, and certainly entertaining. But inevitably, in any race, there are losers. And then there is the person who came dead last. And over this last weekend, that person was me. I went to an AZSolo autocross event at the Bondurant School of Driving, and somehow managed to post the slowest time of the day, excluding those who were disqualified. While I suppose it is a bit disheartening at first glance, I left the event happy and excited to come back next time.
I can get the racer’s excuses out of the way immediately. I haven’t had much real seat time in the E30, beyond commuting to class. That’s where my excuses end though, I know full well the car is capable of much more than the times I posted that day. I suppose I have a host of complaints about how the car is setup, but if you know what you’re doing you can work around those. So really the blame falls on my shoulders. But I’ll get to that later.
As soon as I arrived I began experiencing the same sensation a deer does on a freeway. It wasn’t a matter of the event being confusing, but more the sensation that I was probably ill equipped for the task at hand. I had thought to bring a basic set of tools, some water and my helmet. That and a bag full of camera gear, which didn’t see a ton of use. Mean while I noticed others were well setup in the pits with chairs, shade and food. I would later regret not bringing all three of those.
I checked in at registration, and asked where to go for tech. They pointed over to the giant tech sign that I passed on my way in. I feel like that set the tone for my runs, it should have been obvious but I missed it. My beater surprisingly passed tech, but I wasn’t going to argue with them. I was just excited to get out there and race.
They told me at tech that I should walk the course to get a feel for it and learn the layout. But as soon as I got on the track by myself, I realized this was a terrible idea. I had no idea what the cones meant, and I wasn’t entirely sure where the track even started. After shuffling around for a minute I turned to the nearest person by me and asked them if they knew when the novice walk through was.
As it turns out, he didn’t. But he offered to walk the course with me himself. I have heard a lot about how the Autocross community is very welcoming and helpful. I always assumed it was just the organizers or autocross veterans who would be the friendly ones. But everyone I talked to was genuinely helpful, and friendly. Even other novices such as myself were happy to talk to me. After two walk throughs I thought I knew the course well enough. I thought wrong.
Having a bit of time on my hands, I decided to walk the pits and get some photos. See that man on the left? That’s Tony Staples, the guy who offered to walk the course with me when I got lost. As it turns out he’s been involved with racing and the automotive world for the better part of 30 years. He brought out this mean looking Mustang. It was caged, gutted and obviously no longer a street car. He joked that even though it wasn’t a super expensive car, he has more fun with it than anything else he owns. I can certainly relate, although my nicest car isn’t as cool as his track rat. He films all his track outings, and they’re definitely worth a watch if you’re interested in seeing (and hearing) this beast in action.
As you would expect the Miata presence was staggering. I actually own a Miata myself, and when I originally bought it, it was for this very purpose. Sadly it ended up being a bit of a lemon, so I never got the chance to autocross it. But watching them whip around the track convinced me that this little car can be a weapon in the right hands. Of course the advice is a cliché at this point, but if you find yourself looking for a cheap sports car, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than a Miata. The aftermarket is huge, the car is nimble and frankly I think they look great in track spec.
Unsurprisingly the Toyobaru twins were also a popular choice. I saw more of the BRZ variant than the FRS, but in reality after they’re modified there isn’t that much of a difference between the two. I really loved the Initial-D themed BRZ. After all this car is the spiritual successor to the AE86, so its a fitting tribute. I know a lot of people want Toyota and Subaru to come out with a turbo version of this car, and that is probably is something they’ll have to look at someday. But if you aren’t looking for the best flat-out acceleration, then the Toyobaru twins seem to be one of the best small sport coupe choices right now. The way they were able to navigate the course was certainly impressive.
But it wasn’t just small Japanese coupes that dominated the grid. Honestly I was surprised at diversity in the pits. The C5 Corvette was an incredibly popular choice. While I was out working the course later in the day, someone explained to me that the C5 is almost perfect for Autocrossing, as they are geared well form the factory and can be setup on a budget to compete with newer, faster cars.
Beyond that there was a Mk1 Jetta on slicks, an Arial Atom and a whole host of other nimble cars that I wouldn’t have thought to bring to an event like this. The S14 belonged to Ty, another novice I met walking the track. It seems like most of these cars get drifted into oblivion (not that there’s anything wrong with that) so it was cool to see it doing some grip work. The Triumph really through me off though, it was by far the oldest car on the grid. It sounded like it was breaking up as it went around the course, but even so it was able to put down a surprisingly fast time.
I was expecting to see other E30s, but I ended up being the only one out there. It turns out that my E30 was something of an outlier, I was told not many show up to events in the region. I was surprised to hear this given the E30’s racing heritage, but I suppose it might be more at home Road Racing.
Embarrassingly this is where my photos run out. I learned a lot at this event, but one of the more important lessons was balancing when and how you take photos of the event. Especially if you’re participating. I couldn’t bring my camera out onto the course with me, and the way autocross is setup you don’t have much downtime. I kept thinking I would have time to go grab my camera and take more shots, but it never happened. Fortunately I did manage to get videos of my run, so it wasn’t a total loss.
This was my first run of the day. I had asked to have an instructor sit in the car with me and give me pointers as we went along. Unfortunately that all went out the window as soon as I realized I had no idea where I was going. You can see me getting lost in the maze of cones a couple times, and nearly cutting a section of the course (which I did do later). In my four competition runs (in which I got my first SCCA PAX score) I managed to post a time of 50.265. For the record this was the slowest recorded time of the day, I was the only car to post a time in the 50 second range.
After the competition was through, we had the option to do Time Only runs. This was an extra $15, and let us just go out and post times that didn’t actually apply to our season score. For me it meant extra seat time, so I jumped on the opportunity. Fortunately after having floundered around on the course during my first session, I was able to get a handle on my car.
On one of my last runs, I managed to post a 45.685 which was my best time of the day. Of course I wasn’t recording that run, I had slapped my GoPro onto my friends Corvette. But I did manage to get my second best run, with a time of 47.144. Watching the videos back to back, I can see my improvement. I think if I had another couple of runs I would have been able to crack the low 40s, or maybe even 39 seconds. Annoyingly, I was still the slowest car in the Time Only runs, despite my improvement. I managed to cut about 5 seconds off my worst time of the day.
You’d think that it would have been frustrating to have been so slow and come in dead last, but the reality is I still had a blast. Autocrossing isn’t like anything I’ve experienced before. Until this event my racing experience has been limited to Karting. When you’re out Karting, there is a definitive way to measure yourself against your opponents. You are either passing, or being passed. But when you go Autocrossing, you are just racing against your own time. It takes a lot of the stress and frustration out of being new to the sport. It gives you seat time that you might not otherwise get, and most importantly you have the ability to make the most out of it. I learned quite a bit about how my car is setup, things I can do to improve personally, and met a lot of helpful people in a single day. I knew I was going to have some fun, but I think it’s safe to say I’m hooked. I’m going to continue building the E30 with Autocrossing and Road Racing in mind, and maybe someday I’ll be able to embarrass Corvettes instead of myself.