GRX: Autocross report

My Generic Racecar Experiment, or GRX, is a 2007 Toyota Yaris. What makes it a racecar? Well honestly, I think any car can be a racecar. But in the case of the Yaris, it’s all the safety equipment (roll cage, harness, fire system, etc.). I’m planning on driving this in all manner of racing events like autocross, rallycross, hillclimb, endurance racing, sprint racing, and even stage rally. Today, I took the GRX to an autocross event because it’s something I’ve never tried.

The event took place in the parking lot at Sonoma raceway. Normally when I go to Sonoma, it’s to drive the racetrack, not the paddock. But when TrackMasters Racing hosts track days at Sonoma, they sometimes also host autocross events. I’ve seen people doing this and it looked like the course was big and you get a lot of runs. Sounds like fun, and for $75 it’s less expensive than a typical track day.

The day started at 6 am. Sonoma is about an hour from my house. The weather forecast was for rain, so I brought my longish raincoat and an umbrella. The car was packed the night before with a helmet, tool box, and some track tires. I had 205/50/15 Nitto NT-05s for the front and 195/65/14 Dunlop Star Specs for the rear.

At the driver’s meeting, the organizer told us the rules. Briefly, you work half the time and drive half the time. Working means replacing cones and waving a red flag if a car stops for any length of time. I was in the work first group. The schedule was 1.5 hours of working in the morning followed by two 1 hour shifts in the afternoon. So a total of 3.5 hours of working and 3.5 hours of driving.

Working an autocross event is pretty simple stuff. You wait for cars to mess up then replace cones. Each station has several people, so you end up doing a lot of talking. If you’re a car enthusiast and want to talk to other car enthusiasts about cars and driving, you can make a lot of new friends at an autocross event. If you like the actual driving, do something else. In the morning session, I spent 2 hours and 56 minutes waiting to drive and 4 minutes driving. In the afternoon session I was home, doing something more useful with my time.

I’ve never tried surfing. Years ago, I asked a surfer what surfing is like. He said it’s like swimming. In the spirit of that answer, I will summarize what autocross is like: spectating. There are brief moments of driving here and there, but the majority of the day is spent watching and talking.

Autocross is far more popular than track driving. I’m trying to figure out why that is. Certainly it’s more accessible. You can turn any parking lot into an autocross course with a few orange cones. And the cars don’t need nearly as much safety equipment. Those may be reasons enough, but I suspect that the real reason are social and cultural. For car enthusiasts, standing around talking about cars is not just part of the fun, but the best part. It can’t be the driving. There just isn’t enough of it.

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6 thoughts on “GRX: Autocross report

  1. Sure, the amount of seat time at an autocross is pretty low. In fact, it sounds like the Trackmasters event was higher than usual — if you go to an SCCA autox you typically only get 3-4 runs (although you’re also only working 1 group).

    So why do it? Well, if you want timed competition in a car, autox is vastly cheaper than pretty much any other option. Speeds are low and it’s not wheel-to-wheel, so safety equipment requirements are low, which means you can do it in your street car. Road racing starts at $10K for a used beat-up race car and a beater tow rig, whereas you can get into autoxing for $35 by using a loaner helmet and the car you drive to work.

    The time commitment is also lower, most parts of the country you can find an autox a lot closer to your house than you can a big track, so it’s practical to go there for half a day rather than getting a hotel and spending the weekend there. This is less true in the bay area, partly because we have a lot more big tracks than average but also because the population density has put an end to the sorts of big empty parking lots that make good autox sites.

    One challenge that’s fairly unique to autox is that the course is different every time. Unlike the big track where you may have done thousands and thousands of laps, you’ll only get 3-5 chances at a particular course. To go fast you need to learn to analyze the course while walking it, picking a line quickly, and then adapting to it when you actually drive it for the first time. Also, while the courses are short, they tend to be more intense, with a lot more corners per second than a big track

    And yes, the social aspect is pretty important too. 🙂

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    1. I get what you’re saying. For some people, autocross is the only show in town. For me, the show isn’t good enough to justify the time. I’ve tried some USPSA/IDPA competition pistol shooting. It’s sort of like autocross. You spend hours re-taping targets and picking up brass and then shoot a few times for 10-20 seconds. The few seconds of fun aren’t enough fun to justify all the waiting around. I’m either too impatient or too anti-social (possibly both) to make these kinds of events work for me.

      My racecar was about $7K to build (including the car) and it’s street legal in California. So it’s certainly possible to have an inexpensive racecar that can pull grocery duty. Enthusiasts might scoff at my choice of car (Yaris), handgun (Makarov), and tennis racquet (Snauwaert wood/glass composites), but the drivers, shooters, and touch players get where I’m coming from.

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      1. While it’s possible to have a road race car that is street legal, IMHO they are unsafe to use on the street because (ironically) of the road racing safety equipment. Safety equipment is designed to work as a system, so factory seats + 3-point belts + air bags works well, and race seat + 6-point belts + cage + HANS works well, but mixing and matching can be very iffy. 3-point belts don’t work with most race seats, so you’re putting on the 6-pointers for every drive. Hope you don’t need to open the glove box! 🙂 Cages put hard metal bars in close proximity to one’s head, and the SFI padding that goes on the cage bars is for helmeted heads, not bare ones. I guess you could wear a helmet to the grocery store, but… Also, the trend is towards “halo” seats, which make it impossible to turn around and look behind you while backing up. Mirrors are fine for locating race cars behind you on the track, but parking lots contain shopping carts, kids, etc.

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      2. I wear a 6 point belt when I drive. The cage is fully padded and is a long way from my head since the car is high and the seat is low. But I agree, turning a street car into a racecar ruins it as a street car. However, I would argue that it’s safer driving a racecar to the track than towing it. Towing sucks.

        I don’t have a halo seat. I have window and center nets, and I also wear a Necksgen, which protects from side impacts.

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  2. Ian, you appear to have missed what auto-x teaches you–the performance limits of your car and the foresight of how best to handle an obstacle. Did you perform well as compared to your group? If not, then why not? Look for videos of their runs; see where their lines and braking points were compared to yours. It’s a very precise sport. You don’t think that level of precision is required in track racing?

    Yes, you don’t get to enjoy the speeds or wheel-to-wheel action of a track event, but it still is satisfying when the adjusted time of your clapped-out CRX is better than that other guy’s BMW. I would imagine that even a Yaris would be able to take down more powerful entries in the equalizing sport of auto-x. And you don’t get to do long slaloms while on a track either–those are just fun.

    I do both auto-x and track events–the techniques learned in auto-x may have even helped save my *** on a couple of occasions on the track. The more driving skills the better.

    .earl

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    1. A skid pad is a great place to learn performance limits of the car. Not long ago I posted about the merits of the figure 8 drill (see Chalk Talk: Figure 8). But training on a skid pad is very different from getting timed for 30-60 seconds. Driving on track and driving around cones are really similar and I find them both a lot of fun. My point is that I can’t justify standing around all day to drive so little. Similarly, I wouldn’t go to a track event to drive just 2 laps over the course of a day.

      Yes, I got timed. It was raining, and I saw one 4WD car post times faster than mine. If I cared about trophies, I would enter autocross races in the rain.

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