Autocross 101 – How to Get Started in Low-Cost Motorsport with Minimal Risk

It was the year 2000, the new millennium, and we were all super excited that the world didn’t end because of “Y2K.” I was still driving a fairly new 1999 Honda Civic EX, but my roommate had upgraded to a brand-new 2000 Accord EX. Yep, the one with the 200 horsepower V6. I was on my heels every time we went for a drive. My car may have been a bit more nimble, but he had the power advantage on the Washington, D.C. Beltway. Later that year, I wandered into the local Honda dealer and walked out with a brand-new Electron Blue Honda Prelude. What happened next affected my weekend availability for months on end, but was massive fun and made me into a much better driver.

Spoiler alert, it was autocross. That Prelude got me connected with a car club, and they got me into amateur motorsport. Oh, and very quickly, my credentials come from years of doing it. I campaigned the aforementioned Prelude, as well as a prepped Ford Mustang GT and several other cars over the years. It’s been a while, but I won my class at least once during the Metropolitan Washington Council of Sports Car Clubs series. I’ve also helped host events and held a few informal “autocross 101” classes.

Let’s get to it.

Will Byrd's autocross cars
The author’s two autocross cars, a final-gen Honda Prelude and a NB Mazda Miata

What is Autocross?

The most basic answer is “you drive around some cones really quickly in a parking lot – oh, and it’s timed,” but there’s a lot more to it than that. The Sports Car Club of America (aka SCCA) also has a brand name for autocross called “Solo.” So if you hear someone saying how much they “love Solo” and you say “I know,” and they look confused, it may be a motorsports reference and not from Star Wars. Or they just love spending time alone, whatever, I don’t judge. The SCCA has a quick “What is Autocross” primer as well, but mine is more fun, so stick around.

The complexity – and fun – in autocross comes from a combination of the course layout and the classing. No two autocross courses are the same, and it’s an art form to create something new and fun each time. When my local club hosted events, we had to build courses for each event. It’s a challenging but rewarding way to experience the event, since you find out just how hard the volunteers are working to let you go fast and have fun. Courses can be complex, to say the least. They can double back on themselves, use the same section more than once, and generally confuse the driver. Part of the challenge is learning the route as quickly as possible.

autocross grid

Meanwhile, the classing system allows you to compete against “comparable” cars. No, it’s not a socioeconomic strata that keeps you from competing with your neighbor, it has to do with your vehicle. Any modification can affect your class – here’s a quick index of the lengthy rule book. Don’t worry about all that though, just run what you have. If your modifications bump you up a class, that’s not important – you’re there to learn.

The more important aspect of “what is autocross” is that it is a fairly safe and inexpensive way to get into motorsports in almost any car. Remember all those budget track cars that you saw bombing around Summit Point Motorsports Park recently? Those can also be autocross cars, and so can your daily driver. According to the SCCA your car just has to be in “good shape mechanically and doesn’t have a roll-over risk”. I’ve seen it described broadly as “if it is at least as wide as it is tall, you’re good.” So… no SUVs, sorry.

autocross grid

How Do I Get Into Autocrossing?

The short answer is “sign up, show up,” but first you have to find an event. SCCA isn’t the only game in town, but they do host a lot of events. Click here to see what regional action is happening near you. Next, there are also some clubs like the Porsche Club of America (PCA) and the BMW Car Club of America (BMW CCA) that host events as well. Occasionally they are limited to members driving that brand, but not always. Finally, there are some motorsports event aggregation websites like Hagerty’s MotorsportReg that track events around the country. When in doubt, Google “autocross events near me” and you’ll likely find something. If not, sorry, move somewhere cooler.

All you need is a valid driver’s license and your car. Every autocross event will require a helmet, though every event I’ve attended has provided loaner helmets (at least pre-COVID they did). You can always borrow one from a friend, too, assuming that friend has a similar sized noggin and doesn’t mind sharing some sweat. That’s literally it. No more magic sauce, no modifications, no driver training needed. Just show up and run.

Dakar Yellow E36 M3 autocross

What Happens When I Get There?

OK, I’m not going to throw you out there without a bit more prep – although that’s how my first autocross event went! For those without previous experience, preparation is super easy. Look through your car and ditch (or secure) all loose items before you leave home. Like, everything, even the floor mats. You don’t want anything that could roll around or distract you. Worse yet, you don’t want something finding its way under your brake pedal at an inopportune moment. There will be spots in the parking area to leave some items if you forget, but don’t leave anything out that you care about just in case.

The best prep you can do for your first time is to pay attention. Autocrossers, largely, are a friendly bunch and will go out of their way to help newbies. Listen to announcements, they’ll tell you where to go and when.

SCCA autocross Verona VA start line

The basic plotline of an event is something along the lines of:

Registration – When you arrive, find the registration desk. The folks there will check you in, provide a map of the course (usually), let you know what group you’ll run in, and can answer any initial questions you might have. You’ll also have to add a temporary number to your car. You can do this with blue painter’s tape – a fan favorite – or white shoe polish. If you don’t have either, just ask and someone will help you out. Your number will be used to track your time and any cones you may hit.

Technical Inspection – Before the event starts, the organizers will want to check out your car. You’ll get in line, making sure you have already emptied things out, and they’ll direct you to pull up for inspection. It’s quick, you need to pop the hood and the trunk and volunteers will check to see if your battery is secure, your wheels are mounted nice and tight, and there isn’t a bunch of crap laying around. You might be asked to do a throttle blip, and perhaps even a quick brake check (drive straight, take your hands off the wheel and hit the brakes) to make sure you’ll stop pretty straight in a panic situation.

Course Walk Through – Even experts do the course walk, and you should never skip the opportunity to see the course on foot. They may offer it more than once, and I recommend doing it every time it’s offered if you still have runs to do. Walk with a friend or see if you can hop in with an experienced group. Just be aware (and this applies to the entire event) that some folks may be fighting for points during a season and may not have as much time for tutorials. I’d venture a guess that 90% or more of the regulars will be more than willing to show you the ropes. The course is set up with pointer cones to tell you which way to go, so getting the hang of which cone means what is critical during the walk through.

Drivers Meeting – Finally, before the event kicks off there will be a drivers’ meeting. Everyone must attend, it’s a great chance to hear the agenda for the day and critical to ensure a safe event. Sometimes they’ll ask if there are any new people. Raise yo’ damn hand. It’s okay, everyone there was new at some point. They will sometimes pair you up with a regular to help keep you on track. Listen closely to the announcements and safety briefing.

Now it’s time to autocross!

VW Passat wagon autocross

The Main Event

The event kicks off with everyone divided into heats. They’ll explain this at the driver’s meeting, but you’re going to have to work a bit as well. If you aren’t driving, you’ll be sent out onto the course to help. “That sounds dangerous,” you might be saying, and it can be if you don’t pay attention. All those cones won’t right themselves after someone knocks them over. So groups of two, armed with radios, will disperse to safe spots around the course to fix cones and report time penalties.

Once your heat is called, bring your car to the staging area, then proceed to the start line when it is your turn. This is a great time to check your seat belt one more time, give it a nice snap to make sure it’s tight around you. A lot of regulars also turn the rear view mirror away from view, it can distract you from paying attention to what’s ahead.

autocross driver

When the starter gives you the green light, get hard on the gas, but don’t end up with a bunch of tire spin. Your time doesn’t start until you break the beam at the start gate, and spinning through the first 20 feet doesn’t help. Critically, out on the course, always look ahead at upcoming gates, not right in front of you. Drive the first run at reduced speed. It’ll give you a chance to learn the course, and your car. Create a nice flowing line that goes from gate to gate. Drive smoothly, inputs on brake and throttle should be deliberate but not too violent.

Watch for the course workers, particularly for their warning flags. Clubs that run autocross regularly may have two cars out on course at the same time with a staggered start. If someone spins in front of you and the course is red flagged, come to a complete stop and wait for direction. Don’t worry, you’ll get another run to make up for it.

If you spin, keep your hands at three-and-nine and put both feet in on the clutch and brake (or just brake, nothing wrong with that). You want to come to a quick but controlled stop. Again, look for course workers to direct you to re-start. Finish out the course, you don’t get another run if you screw up.

autocross POV cones

Why Autocross?

Despite all that, you might ask yourself, “why should I try this over some other form of motorsports?” Compared to a full open track driving experience, it’s not quite the same. However, the risks are microscopic in comparison. If you are driving a vehicle you really care about, autocross is a great way to get started without the risk of a total loss.

“But will it damage my car?” Nah, not really. Consumables like brake pads and tires can wear a bit faster if you autocross regularly, but I used to compete every weekend with a daily driver and didn’t have any issues. For older vehicles, it makes it critical to keep up on routine maintenance. Runs are quick, but they can put some wear and tear on the drivetrain.

The best part – autocross is cheap. Events can be as inexpensive as $20 and don’t typically crest $60 depending on the size of the event and the region. So, what are you waiting for? Oh yeah, good weather. Well, there are even events in the winter, I participated in an event in the snow once. But that’s a story for another time.

Now get out and drive!

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