Why I'll always autocross | Column

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Jul 21, 2022 | Miata, Autocross, Column | Posted in Columns | From the June 2022 issue | Never miss an article

Maury Hamill walked up to me, unfolding a photocopy. On it was an article I had written about his Porsche 944, a retired IMSA car that had found a new home in club racing. 

The piece ran in the September/October 1994 issue of GRM. I was two years out of school and had just recently joined the staff full-time.

We met up at a PCA Club Race up at West Virginia’s Summit Point. It might have been my first big road trip for the magazine–just me and our Chrysler minivan. No cell phone, no laptop, no internet access. I wouldn’t know if my photos from the event came out until I returned home. 

The reconnection happened at one of our local autocrosses, a Martin Sports Car Club event at The FIRM. Throw down a few cones, and the track suddenly takes on a whole new flavor as things happen even quicker than before. 

[The fastest project car to lap the official GRM test track? | C5 Z06 FIRM fast lap | Video]

At 90, Maury is still playing with cars, and he drove a Cayman at that Martin event. His daughter and grandson were also there, running Porsches as well. 

This season marks my 30th year autocrossing. I started with a Nissan Sentra SE-R, the hot D Stock car at the time, with the Atlanta Region SCCA in the Lakewood Amphitheatre parking lot. I had a SuperTrapp, some take-off Yokohama A008s and a used motorcycle helmet. 

Some things stick with me, even all these years later. I remember once seeing some flurries as I got to the end of my driveway. I turned off the engine, yanked up the parking brake, and ran up to my tiny studio apartment–not to bail on the day’s plans but simply to grab another layer. 

We wore our helmets while walking the course just to keep warm and had to avoid a patch of ice down at the far end of the site. Did I care about the cold? Heck no, I was autocrossing. 

And during those Georgia summers, yes, it was brutally hot. But we were out there.

I met my friend Rob through autocross. And through the years I made a few more, with several friendships now going back decades. 

Why do I still autocross? Why get up at an uncivilized hour to trek to a parking lot or airstrip somewhere to stand around for maybe 5 minutes of seat time? 

For me, it’s the fun, the thrill, the challenge, the socializing. Just the entire experience.

It’s not those minutes of seat time. It’s a day of doing car stuff. Start it off with some time on a two-lane road, spend the meat of the day surrounded by other gearheads, and then enjoy another top-down drive to get home. 

Every event is different, too. Insert the analogy involving a box of chocolates. Earlier this year, we ran a course designed by Karen Babb, a legend in the sport. It walked one way yet ran another. Despite working with a smaller lot, she delivered a fast, flowing course that challenged the experienced yet didn’t leave the rookies lost in a sea of cones. 

And a month before that, in the same lot, we ran a night autocross. We got three runs in the evening and then three more after sunset. Each cone was topped with a glowstick, while corner workers got those light-up batons. We felt like we should be parking planes down at MCO.

I’ve road raced, run the quarter-mile, and done a ton of track events.  I once helped Saab set a bunch of land-speed records at Talladega. I’ve been lucky to sample rally. I’ve shown cars on both the local and national scene. 

But I still come back to autocross.

When I put my Miata back on the road last year, I didn’t hesitate to run back to the sport. I ran 11 events last season yet didn’t venture out until the end of April. 

[One season and 18 painless events after resurrecting our Miata | Garage Rescue Miata]

The added, new thrill: As I’m now part of the older guard–those who remember when the Neon ACR was the hot car–I get to watch a new generation dip their toes. Nothing will reignite your love of the sport like shagging cones with a 20-something who’s at one of their first autocrosses. Yeah, that’s fine, you can grab the cones and I’ll work the radio. No, really, it’s okay. 

Whether or not we (finally) have our flying cars, will I still be autocrossing when I’m 90? We can only hope.

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Comments
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BobbySmith1953
BobbySmith1953
5/25/22 1:33 p.m.

I've know Maury for years. We met at a PCA auto-x back in the 1980's. Great guy and we still chat on occasion about the hot auto-x tires and set ups etc. So glad he's still running strong. That gives me hope that I too will get going that long. Cheers Maury...my hero.

Warlock
Warlock New Reader
5/25/22 2:25 p.m.

Only autocrossers have conversations like this.

 

Danny Shields (Forum Supporter)
Danny Shields (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
5/25/22 2:33 p.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens :

I'm with you, brother!

I started autocrossing at 16, moved on to road racing and stock car racing, and eventually realized that autocross was more fun and less hassle, at least for me. I could afford it, in a competitive car, and my wife could enjoy it along with me. And, yes, we have come to know some fine people in the autocross world. Maury is a great example. The whole format tends to generate camaraderie. And I am sure glad someone followed through and started an autocross magazine back in '84!

 

David Elfering
David Elfering GRM+ Memberand Reader
5/25/22 2:40 p.m.

My first autocross was in 1986 and I was hooked. Me and a buddy couldn't afford the A008 tires so found some used Eagle Gatorbacks and did the best we could in my Omni GLHS. 

Family time kicked in and though it would be 30 years until I autocrossed again, I never forgot about it. Side note: Being a rookie driver in two different centuries has to be a record or something right?

Why autocross? Easy answer. I can hoon my car at 100% with very low chance of anything being dented except my pride. What really brought me back after three decades of commute mode driving? A lot has to do with the people, perhaps as much as the cars. Put the two together and its one of the best ways to spend a weekend I can think of.

Plus there's this!

 

BA5
BA5 GRM+ Memberand Reader
5/25/22 2:52 p.m.

It's cheap, easy, and fun.  What's not to like about it?

Sometimes I don't want to have to plan for a whole weekend, have all the cost, and travel so far.  Sometimes I just want to hoon it up one Sunday morning.

I also got my first start autocrossing at Lakewood Amphitheater with the Atlanta Region SCCA!  Although I only started ~20 years ago.

350z247
350z247 Reader
5/25/22 3:08 p.m.

I just wish you got more seat time for your dollar. $10 a minute plus a full day in the sun is a hard sell compared to a track day at $3-$5 a minute with most of the day to work on the car or walk the paddock. Great for testing a new car/set-up in a lower speed environment.

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
5/25/22 11:32 p.m.

I still have the same car In was auto crossing 33 years ago but I don't autocross it..........cuz I got a car just for autocross.........yet I consider myself a road racer.

trucke
trucke SuperDork
5/26/22 9:08 a.m.

I attended my first autocross in 1984.  Ran with the Killington Sports Car Club in Keene, NH.  Our lot was the airport runway.  We had a ball!  Then one day, Chuck Noonan arrived with his CSP CRX.  Chuck blew away the field by about 20 seconds and went on to win a National Championship.  He continued to capture those titles.  I was blessed to get to know Chuck and many others when I joined the New England Region SCCA.  

Back then I had a '76 Capri II, then an X-1/9, then an FX16 which I autocrossed for decades.

Today I have a Civic Type R.  Great fun!  Even more fun when reconnecting in North Carolina with Jinx and Ginette Jordan when they show up with their Type R.

I cannot remember all the people I've met and coached over the years.  I still love to help new people enjoy the sport. Every now and then someone will come up to me and tell me about something I did to help them get faster sometime in the past.  What a blessing!

To top it off, I met my wife of 26 years from a blind date set-up by autocross friends!  Can't top that!

lateapexer
lateapexer Reader
5/26/22 9:23 a.m.

I ran my first autocross in 1964 and have played with varying degrees of intensity ever since. I have rarely been highly competitive, but I have always enjoyed myself. The absolute best experience are the people you meet. My children and grandchildren are also involved in autocross and motorsport in general. I think the best aspect of the sport is the absolute commitment that each run entails. I have a few mobility and vision issues that limit how much I can do but plan on keeping on, keeping on. wink

lateapexer
lateapexer Reader
5/26/22 9:35 a.m.

To ease my obsessive side, it was a gymkhana ,then slalom, then autoslalom, then solo 2, then autocross. At least in Canada and maybe not in that order. 

jr02518
jr02518 HalfDork
5/26/22 10:23 a.m.

I was fortunate to start a, what has turned into, a gate way of sharing my passion of driving way beyond what you should do on the street.  I no longer feel the need to drive like a Hooligan among the rolling chicanes of daily street traffic.  That and I can share something with my kids!

My daughter purchased this car and until she has a garage she lets me keep it out of the weather.  Yes, I might be improving it while I have it in my care but it is always available when she is back in town on event weekends.

I have take the opportunity to spend some time at a number of track events and I do understand the draw. But the difference of driving a race car and racing a race car, I get it.  But yes, everyone should get to drive their car down the "cork screw" at Laguna Seca!

 

 

 

pinchvalve (Forum Supporter)
pinchvalve (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
5/26/22 12:05 p.m.

I always think that I am still pretty new to autocrossing, until I think back and remember that my first race was over 22 years ago.  My mother was about to trade in a 1990 Civic DX sedan on a new car and I offered her more than the dealer ($400 IIRC). It needed work and I wanted to learn how to work on cars and had a limited budget. Did you know that the 88-91 Civic platform is kinda popular? I didn't, but soon learned how many Intergra parts I could grab from the junkyard and swap over. The car was coming together nicely when a co-worker suggested that I visit him at the local autocross that weekend. I watched exactly one event before I signed up for the next one. 

I raced that car consistently and kept making it handle better and go faster, I was chasing better times through wrenching and never put time into the nut behind the wheel. I figured experience was the only thing needed. I moved to an AW11 MR2 for a while, but it was more of a build project than a functional car, so I was off and on for several years. When I bought my Fiesta ST in 2014, I decided to jump back in with both feet. I attended the Redline School and the Starting Line school and started to work on my skills. I got a lot better, not a top driver mind you, but better than I thought I could.  

 

Today, I have moved on to an Elantra N and tell myself that I am not going to be as obsessed as I have been. Compared to my colleagues who travel all over for regionals and nationals, I am still a casual participant. That said, I hate to miss a race and I hate not doing as well as I think I can. So, I am not modifying the car, I am keeping the 200tw tires on all summer, I am not tracking every millisecond...I just want to have fun and do OK. With so many amazing DS cars (CTR, WRX, GR-86) I can tell myself that mid-pack is fine for a Huyndai. We shall see how long this lasts before I am swapping to the latest hot tire and re-valving my shocks and adding power...

malibuguy
malibuguy GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
5/27/22 9:07 a.m.

I grew up a drag racer, did well in that, but not long out of high school I started doing HPDE because gran turismo.  Had alot of fun there but it was expensive even tho technically I was paying $1.87 per racing mile which still made it the best value doller per mile.

Had buddies that were into AX and I dipped my toes did a couple schools, when I beat some hot shoes in hotter cars with my Yaris daily...I was hooked.

Started running my "track car" in autoX and was doing really well and the car worked really well in that environment.

But...its the PEOPLE i met being into AX.  They really make the sport.  I took a bit of a hiatus did trackcross for a while but last year I got back into AX and I am fully committed to the sport.  Most of my car friends are from AX.

It definitely helps its low risk to me and the cars.

 

Warlock
Warlock New Reader
5/27/22 9:40 p.m.
350z247 said:

$10 a minute plus a full day in the sun is a hard sell compared to a track day at $3-$5 a minute with most of the day to work on the car or walk the paddock. 

If $/seat time, or even just seat time is your yardstick, then yes.  On the other hand, if your measure is being able to drive the car at 10/10 and be almost as certain that you'll take it home in the shape you brought it, track days are like Russian roulette...sooner or later, you're bringing the car home in a bucket, and the $/seat time figure just took a jump.

dps214
dps214 Dork
5/27/22 11:34 p.m.
Warlock said:
350z247 said:

$10 a minute plus a full day in the sun is a hard sell compared to a track day at $3-$5 a minute with most of the day to work on the car or walk the paddock. 

If $/seat time, or even just seat time is your yardstick, then yes.  On the other hand, if your measure is being able to drive the car at 10/10 and be almost as certain that you'll take it home in the shape you brought it, track days are like Russian roulette...sooner or later, you're bringing the car home in a bucket, and the $/seat time figure just took a jump.

That hits on an interesting point, part of the reason I like both and think both have fairly equal value is that they're two very different approaches to approximately the same activity. Autocross you're going out at 100% (or more) and reigning your driving in as necessary to perfect things. Whereas on track you're starting under the limit and slowly pushing up to it.

Then there's the competition aspect which makes a direct comparison between the two somewhat unfair. Yes, the $/minute of a normal track day is less, but that's irrelevant if you want a competitive environment. But even ignoring that that price comparison isn't quite fair because the entry fee is just one of the costs involved. Autocross external costs are basically tires, a little bit of fuel, and maybe insurance (which is basically free). Track external costs are tires, brakes, a lot of fuel, other fluids to some extent, much more expensive insurance, and *generally* more travel expenses. I'm not saying autocross doesn't work out more expensive overall, because it probably does for most people, but it's not quite as simple as comparing entry fees.

Floating Doc (Forum Supporter)
Floating Doc (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
5/28/22 8:45 a.m.

Great column, David. Autocross hits that spot for some of us, even if it's not the first choice for everyone. 
 

I got a very late start, attending my first event at age 62.
 

I'm all in, and the cost comparison I use is autocross vs. offshore fishing. For the same price that I paid for my last (steaming POS) fishing boat, I bought my current Miata.  It was driven to a trophy finish at Nationals, and included the hard top and three sets of wheels. The maintenance and fuel costs are minuscule compared to a boat. The preparation the night before and cleanup after is far less as well, and I wash my car after every event. 
 

 I just finished my fourth year in April, and somewhere beyond 100 events. 

There's been some obstacles to deal with, including one of the clubs going inactive (FAST), loss of venues, working frequent weekends and the pandemic. 

I've been able to compete with ten clubs (Challenge would make that 11), at 17 sites. I've made a lot of friends (I met Maury at a Martin Sports Car Club autocross school in 2019), which is definitely one of the best things about it. 

Starting this month, I'm not going to be working Sundays anymore, and I'm down from three to four Saturdays a month to one. 

I'm looking forward to more fun with you, David!

 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
5/28/22 12:34 p.m.

In reply to Floating Doc (Forum Supporter) :

It is fun, and it's been fun hanging with you at events. 

I think some people are quick to get on the "my sport is better than yours and here's why," and that wasn't the point of the piece.

Here is the point: After 30 years, I keep coming back to autocross because I enjoy it. 

Guess what? I like track events, too–and most other things involving cars. But I got my start with autocross, and I'm still doing it. 

That's kind the beauty of motorsports: lotta choices and, at the end of the day, we're all just having fun with cars. 

 

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
5/28/22 2:51 p.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens :

Came for the competition stayed for the people.

Floating Doc (Forum Supporter)
Floating Doc (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
5/28/22 3:18 p.m.
Tom1200 said:

In reply to David S. Wallens :

Came for the competition stayed for the people.

So true. 

Woody (Forum Supportum)
Woody (Forum Supportum) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
5/28/22 8:43 p.m.

In reply to trucke :

Chuck was amazing. 
 

I'll always remember another Civic Si driver adamantly exclaiming, "Chuck makes cars go FAST!"


RIP Chuck, and Chuck's Civic Center.

https://grassrootsmotorsports.com/forum/grm/rip-chuck-noonan/71678/page1/

 

AnthonyGS (Forum Supporter)
AnthonyGS (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
5/29/22 12:25 a.m.
dps214 said:

That hits on an interesting point, part of the reason I like both and think both have fairly equal value is that they're two very different approaches to approximately the same activity. Autocross you're going out at 100% (or more) and reigning your driving in as necessary to perfect things. Whereas on track you're starting under the limit and slowly pushing up to it.

This is what I like about rallycross.  You can SEND IT, and worst I've had is a spin.  I've way overdriven the car learning what it and I can do.  It is even safer in that regards than any autocross I have ever done.  Less corner workers and more space to be offline and curbs or light poles, etc.  

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
5/29/22 9:06 p.m.
Floating Doc (Forum Supporter) said:
Tom1200 said:

In reply to David S. Wallens :

Came for the competition stayed for the people.

So true. 

Yup. That, too. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
7/21/22 12:15 p.m.

Unfortunately I had to skip our latest autocross when I noticed our water heater leaking the night before. Could it hold another day? I dunno, but I decided to spend Sunday shopping water heaters. Turns out I was able to do the entire deal online, so lesson learned....

redptc
redptc
7/21/22 1:37 p.m.

Yes, the cost per minute of driving is high but it's also high with skydiving.  At least with autocross you get to be a corner worker and have fun watching the other competitors.  You might even learn a thing or two while meeting a bunch of friendly people with a common interest.  When asked about autocross, I typically end up saying that it's the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

aw614
aw614 Reader
7/21/22 1:42 p.m.
David S. Wallens said:

Unfortunately I had to skip our latest autocross when I noticed our water heater leaking the night before. Could it hold another day? I dunno, but I decided to spend Sunday shopping water heaters. Turns out I was able to do the entire deal online, so lesson learned....

I was wondering where you were since I saw you registered. XS-B competition with Martin is deep, I'm expecting to be midpack in overall raw time, but close to the bottom in the class lol.

OCCC in August?

livinon2wheels
livinon2wheels GRM+ Memberand New Reader
7/21/22 2:33 p.m.
BobbySmith1953 said:

I've know Maury for years. We met at a PCA auto-x back in the 1980's. Great guy and we still chat on occasion about the hot auto-x tires and set ups etc. So glad he's still running strong. That gives me hope that I too will get going that long. Cheers Maury...my hero.

I remember Maury vividly, that orange 914 he drove so brilliantly, he was the poster child for 'smooth is fast'. You could watch him run the course and it didnt matter where you were running, it would 'look' slow to the uninitiated, but then the clock would show an almost unbelievably quick time. And such a super nice guy. Always willing to talk about any subject you showed an interest in, he was friendly and engaging, and always respectful and helpful to new people. He certainly was a help to me in my early years in the sport. I wish him the very best. I hope the 6 cylinder 914 that he road raced is still going strong too. Never got to see him drive that one except at one autocross and because it was set up for more open courses it did not fare nearly as well on the tight courses of the day in BRR as his 4 cyl 914. Hope you are still doing well Maury...may the cones you hit be few, and the apexes many.

livinon2wheels
livinon2wheels GRM+ Memberand New Reader
7/21/22 2:58 p.m.

I came to autocross via a childhood experience in which I was the unbelted child 'ballast' in a fairly current TR-3a a friend of my father owned when we lived in the Bay area in the former great state of Californication. I hung on for dear life while the somewhat crazed driver ( it was california in the sixties remember) attempted to set FTD. I held on for dear life and wanted to do it AGAIN and again. From that point on, I was a G junky. Fast forward to my early thirties and a strong association formed with BRR-SCCA and a well worn 74 Chevy Nova...some of you may still remember it. Its beginnings as an autorcross car were humble to be sure, mostly stock, but eventually became a strong contender in B street prepared as development of the car and my driving skills progressed. There were other notable cars that made appearance as short term rides, but the Nova was a real long termer...approximately a decade. The color of the car changed to protect the guilty and discourage easy recognition with dubious effectiveness. Eventually between the ravages of rust, lack of money, divorce, job change and other such life events, its went to the crusher somewhere after being sold for the drivetrain. Current autocross/track cars include an older WRX and an even older Legacy Wagon. Oddly the wagon is the favorite of the two. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
7/21/22 5:29 p.m.

In reply to aw614 :

Hopefully yes to OCCC in August.

And, yeah, I was packed and ready to go. 

I mowed the lawn Saturday evening and noticed the water while putting away the mower. It wasn't much water, but it was wet. Our water heater was original to the house, so it was from 1977. 

New one was installed that Monday. 

docwyte
docwyte PowerDork
7/21/22 6:10 p.m.

I like auto-xing and find it useful when I'm in a new car that I'm uncomfortable with.  However once I'm comfortable with the handling of the car I gravitate towards track days.  I don't like the ratio of not driving vs driving time at an auto-x. 

FSP33Hotruck
FSP33Hotruck New Reader
7/25/22 8:51 p.m.

I ran my first autocross in a 1977 Toyota truck, in 1977.  I autocrossed the truck because it was all I had and I wanted to go autocrossing.  As the years went by, I did enough to the Hotuck to make it obscene amounts of fun, to where when I could afford a more appropriate autocross car, the Hotruck was too much fun to stop driving. I had a stretch of I think three years when I was never beaten by anything on street tires.  How times change!  The Hotruck remains the best handling thing with doors I have ever autocrossed, but it is sooooo slow in a straight line it is no longer competitive.

But it is still in the garage, and it still comes out to play every couple of years.  The 1999 Miata ES car is probably faster, and my daughter will codrive in the Miata but not the Hotruck, so usually the Miata comes out.  The Hotruck is cooler...

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
7/25/22 9:46 p.m.

In reply to FSP33Hotruck :

Photos of the Hotruck, please? :) 

AnthonyGS (Forum Supporter)
AnthonyGS (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
7/26/22 12:21 p.m.

Why I'll always rallycross......  as long as there are venues and groups doing it.

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