Beginner’s Guide to Autocross

Beginner’s Guide to Autocross

Last Updated September 17, 2020 | C.J. Tragakis
Contents

For those looking at getting into motorsports, it’s tough to know where to start. But whether you have a factory-stock car or have already started modding it, autocross is a great event to jump into. Before moving on to a race track or drag strip, lots of drivers get their start on a cone course in a parking lot.

What Is Autocross?

Autocross is an automotive recreational activity that’s low-speed and focused on tight turns. Drivers navigate a course laid out with cones, trying to do so as quickly as possible.

Ford Focus on Autocross Course

Though you race the clock, it’s not typically considered the same as “racing” or going to the track. There is only ever one car on the course at any given time. Racetrack issues, such as overheating tires, brakes, or engines, are almost unheard of for autocross.

Courses are typically less than a mile and take around 60 seconds to complete. Top speeds are typically highway speeds, around 60 mph (100 kph).

Autocross is a good place to start learning performance driving before trying other automotive events. It can be used as a stepping stone to learn the basics before working your way up to the track. On the other hand, lots of folks just enjoy autocross as a sport all on its own.

What Do You Need to Autocross?

All you need to autocross is a car, a driver’s license, and an approved helmet. This low barrier to entry makes it extremely attractive to newbies. A solid helmet costs about $200 or so, but it’s easy to borrow one for your first time. Lots of drivers also like to invest in a camera so they can watch their runs and learn how to improve. Action cameras, like GoPro, are well-suited to both interior and exterior use. A cell phone will work as well, but you’ll have to find a sturdy way to mount it.

Ford Focus ST on Autocross Course

Autocross is a very low-risk event. For most people, the worst that ever happens is getting a paint scuff from hitting a cone. Though curbs and light posts can be present, you should never be close enough to an obstacle to worry about crashing.

Safety is mandated in the form of a helmet. You don’t need fancy racing seats or harnesses. Autocross helmets should be SA2015-certified. You’ll also have to sign a waiver to compete. Keep your car in good road-ready condition and you’ll be fine.

Autocross Organizations

The SCCA is the primary and most highly-regarded autocross organization in the U.S. They use the “Solo” brand name for their autocross events. Most events will be SCCA-sanctioned.

Honda S2000 on Autocross Course

Other organizations do exist, such as the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) and Optima Street Car Challenge. There are also manufacturer-specific clubs that hold events, such as the Porsche Club of America. However, SCCA is by far the most widespread, so we’ll focus on their rules and class structure.

In theory, you can start your own events by coordinating with the owner of a parking lot area. However, this takes a lot of paperwork and legal know-how. If you’re just learning how to autocross, you’ll be better off going to an established event.

SCCA Competition Levels

There are several levels of SCCA competition. There’s also the Tire Rack Starting Line School, which the SCCA offers as a jumping-off point for those who want to learn the basics.

  • Regional: Typically a few dozen entrants at each event, though there can be over 200. SCCA membership is not required, but it can get you a discount on the entry fee.
  • Divisional: More competitive and not as widespread as Regional events.
  • National Championship: The SCCA holds a year-ending championship in Lincoln, Nebraska each year. It attracts over a thousand entrants from across the country.

There are a number of other special events, which can be viewed on the SCCA calendar. Some of these include Pro Solo races. In these events, two drivers compete simultaneously on mirrored autocross courses for added excitement.

Where Can You Autocross?

Autocross events are held across the United States and all over the world. In America, all you need for autocross is a flat, open, paved area, which makes it easy in any region. Typically, events are held in a large, empty parking lot. The only obstacles on the course will be cones and maybe the occasional well-marked light pole. Other countries have their own variants and names for autocross, such as Motorkhana in Australia.

Mazda Miata on Autocross Course

The easiest way to find events is to search for “autocross near [your location]” on a search engine. You can also check out the SCCA website for a list of official Solo events. Check out social media or sites like MeetUp.com for other autocross races in your area.

What Cars Are Used for Autocross?

Cars used in autocross are usually factory stock or only lightly-modified. This is another reason why the sport is low-cost and easy to join. The SCCA car class system carefully outlines which models can be used to compete, and vehicles are classified by how heavily they are modded.

SCCA Autocross Car Classes

There are different SCCA classes based on how well a given model is likely to perform. Almost any car, no matter how modified, will fit into one of the classes. The exception is if it’s too dangerous for autocross, which is usually due to a high risk of tipping over. The main SCCA vehicle classes are listed below, in order from least to most modified:

  • Street
  • Street Touring
  • Street Prepared
  • Street Modified
  • Prepared
  • Modified

Check out the SCCA rules page to see what class your car falls under.

SCCA Autocross Street Class

The Street Class is one of the most common, and the easiest to jump into for beginners. You can use an unmodified car from the factory. Mods that add minimal power, like air filters and exhaust kits, are usually allowed. Check out the table below for some examples of vehicles within each of the Street Class subcategories.

SCCA Street Class Subcategories
SCCA Autocross Street ClassExample Cars
Super Street Jaguar F-Type R, Lotus Evora 400
Street A Chevy Camaro ZL1 (non-1LE), BMW M2 Competition
Street B Ford Mustang GT350, Subaru WRX STI
Street C Mazda MX-5 Miata, Honda S2000
Street D Ford Mustang EcoBoost, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo
Street E Datsun 240z, Toyota MR2 (non-turbo)
Street F Pontiac G8, Audi A6
Street G Lexus IS300, Ford Focus ST
Street H Ford Fiesta ST, Toyota Prius
Ineligible Jeep CJ-7, Lamborghini Aventador (Vehicles that are too fast, too expensive, or too ill-equipped to be autocrossed)

Beginner Autocross Driving Tips

While it’s tempting to get out there on your first run and try for a great time, take it slow to start. It might seem counterintuitive, but starting off at a moderate pace will help you learn the limits of your car and how it handles.

Mazda RX-8 on Autocross Course

You’ll get to walk the course before driving it, so pay attention to how it’s laid out. The course setup will be different every time. If possible, have a ridealong partner who’s experienced and can walk you through the basics. Having a good mentor riding shotgun can be invaluable when you’re first learning to autocross.

You’ll figure out good driving techniques as you go, but here are some fundamentals to keep in mind:

  • After starting in 1st gear, you’ll really only need to be in 2nd or 3rd gear throughout the course. The need for 4th gear should be rare, and probably non-existent.
  • Keep your hands at 9 and 3 on the wheel. This allows maximum control when steering.
  • Look where you want to go and steer there. Visualize how your car will drive, and keep your eyes ahead towards the next turn.
  • Slow down as needed before a turn. Through the turn, keep your foot steady on the gas. Finally, accelerate out of the turn as you leave it.

While it takes time to become a proficient autocross driver, starting with these basics will put you well on your way. Before you know it, you’ll be checking your calendar to see when the next race is.

Sources: SCCA

Images used under Creative Commons License.

Beginner’s Guide to Autocross

With low risk, affordable entry, and no mods needed, autocross is a great motorsport for beginners. Learn what you need and how to get started with this popular automotive activity.