FAST Autocross: Season Opener
Unfortunately for many, motorsports are too expensive to actually participate in; the financial burden put on running a race team at the highest levels of racing has made giant auto manufacturers abandon their quests for glory throughout history. However in a local parking lot or airfield near you, there's a type of racing that is affordable, fun, and addicting; it's called autocross. If you have the itch to drive your car fast, carve turns, smoke rubber, or just learn how to control your vehicle, the best place to start would be MotorsportReg.com, a search engine created to help those with a need for speed connect to local events. The website which links drivers to events nationwide was shared with me by fellow Toyota enthusiast Matt (owners of the Beams powered MR2 featured here) who had signed up for Florida's west coast autocross organizer FAST season opener event in Lakeland; and invited me along for the fun.
The process from getting off your computer/smartphone and in to the driver's seat at an autocross event is fairly simple as are the rules for the event. By using a website like MotorsportReg.com you simply create a free account that has all your basic details along with car information, enter your location, find an event that interests you, sign up, pick a number and pay the fee. Of course once you sign up for an event there is usually a required tech inspection, for autocross that means a general safety inspection (battery tie down, tires, no loose items in the vehicle, no leaks, etc) and also to check to see if your car is in the correct category. Autocross does a great job at dividing cars in to classes based on engine size, tire type, and modifications in order to make things a bit more competitive, but how exactly do you compete? What are the rules? And how do you win?
The first step in winning of course is having fun, the next step would have to be navigating whichever course is chosen by organizers at the giant parking lots occupied by event organizers the day(s) of. The main idea of autocross is to make your way as fast as you can through a track lined with orange safety cones, scoring your best time at the end of a run, and attempting the feat as many times your chosen section offers. There's no wheel to wheel racing, generally it is safe to say that you will almost never risk coming into contact with a car, wall, or any other object but a cone that threatens to leave a rubber stain on a bumper. Autocross is also relatively low speed for most, the tracks are designed to be a bit more intricate than your typical full fledged race track, slaloms at the beginning or the end, cones you have to squeeze in between, long sweepers, and the daunted crossovers where you must remember which color cone you should be following for the transition; it can be very difficult. Do not let the "lack" of speed discourage you, staying in 2nd or 3rd gear offers plenty of acceleration and torque on most cars that make the whole race a real riot, there's a reason why so many participants come back, become addicted, and eventually travel from the regional to the national level. At the end of your session your top time will be put up against others in the category your car fits in, you will have points added to your name if you choose to attend another autocross by the same organizer, and in between all of the racing, waiting, picking up cones for the other session, and changing tire pressure you will have had plenty of fun.
Now while fun was definitely had, it did not come so easy for me as I entered my temporarily numbered 86 Scion FR-S to Lakeland to meet with Matt's trusty MR2 to attack the cones. With hot coffee in hand and snacks for later I made my way east to Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, FL, the offseason home of the MLB Detroit Tigers. With a parking lot big enough for an autocross with new enough pavement to prevent the unsettling of the suspension on most cars (except for one dip), the layout of the actual track made the best use of the available space and didn't include any confusing intersections. However, finding any success on what I considered an easy layout for my Scion proved to be a frustrating challenge.
The Scion FRS/ Toyota 86 is a car meant to handle almost anything thrown at it, from carving through your local back road, working flawlessly throughout a full track day, and being a strong competitor at autocross. With a 2.0 liter flat four cylinder engine that keeps the center of gravity low, a precise six speed manual, and a balanced chassis; it has all of the ingredients to perform but my pearl white daily driver just wouldn't shift into 2nd gear when I needed it to. After launching my car from the starting line and passing through the slalom without knocking over any cones, the only thing left to do was shift into 2nd gear to carry some speed through the first turn, but something was preventing my Kart Boy shifter from getting the job done. Of course this was of great concern to me, was my car still too cold? Did I burn up some transmission fluid during my last track day or through spirited driving? Maybe the original clutch fork finally cracked like has happened to so many others? Whatever it was, it put a damper on pretty much every run I had. With my line memorized, it was aggravating to lose so much speed as i stumbled in between 1st and 2nd gear and then having to granny shift into 3rd, I had waited weeks to finally participate in an autocross only to score some of the slowest times of the day.
When the dust settled I had only managed to muster up a 28.921which placed in me in 9th out of 10th place in the S2 Street Tire class. My fastest pass was made in my last run where I basically started in second gear, hung the revs high, and dumped the clutch in order to motivate my FRS to scoot out of the launch pad and into the start of the slalom. It was interesting that I was unable to get in to 2nd gear while in motion but even with that mishap I still enjoyed working the course, and watching Matt place 8th in the M3 Modified Street Tire class with a 25.083 best time. After packing up my car from all the loose items I removed in order to pass the tech inspection, I was able to slam into 2nd gear on the first open straight road that i found... the issue has seemingly repaired itself in the weeks and months since this event. No leaks were found, my clutch isn't slipping, and luckily my syncros are intact, which means I must get redemption at the next event I will be available for so stay tuned!
Photos by Philip Petrie: Flickr