by Justin Mckeown
“Porsche. There is no substitute.”
These words, immortalized by Tom Cruise in Risky Business, truly sums up what the ownership experience is all about; the ability to have a vehicle capable of tackling the daily chores, traveling far and wide, as well as exploring the exceptional performance capabilities our vehicles were endowed with.
Opportunities for the first two present themselves frequently and without occasion, but what about the third and most important?
Autocross is an opportunity for novice and experienced drivers alike to explore both their, and their car’s capabilities, in a safe, controlled environment.
Keep reading, and I’ll outline what it is and what to expect, how to prepare for your first event(s), and suggestions for equipment that will both enhance and benefit your beginner’s experience.
What is Autocross and What to Expect?
Autocross is an event to explore the performance potential of your Porsche. These events typically take place in large stadium parking lots, airstrips, or small sections of road courses. Speeds rarely exceed 50 mph and the emphasis is on car control and driver skill, not outright speed.
Cones are used to define an improvised road course; there are slaloms, sweepers, as well as a few straights to wind out the gears.
Depending on course length and the car being used, a typical run will last between 35 seconds to 1 minute.
There are three different groups of particpants; drive, rest, and work. You will be assigned one of these groups as your initial group for the day. You and your group will then cycle through the groups (drive -> rest -> work) throughout the day.
During the drive session, drivers are out on the course making their runs.
Rest is as the name implies and this is the time to grab a snack, hydrate, and mingle with the other participants and spectators at the event.
Work is when participants are out on the course and keeping things flowing.
Duties for work can include working the starting gate, the stop box (the end of the course), though most will be out on the course calling out cones that get hit, and running onto the course to reset them.
Running onto a course with sports cars driving may seem like a dangerous endeavor, but the emphasis placed on safety is paramount and people only run to retrieve a cone and reset it when ample opportunity is presented.
The Chicago Region has been graced with not only a wonderful team committed to maximizing autocross events throughout the season, but also participants that are charismatic, uplifting the experience for all there.
Potential participants may be deterred by lack of experience in this arena. Don’t be.
At the start of every event, there is a safety meeting where the plan for the day and course rules are gone over, as well as a course walk-through explaining the various challenges integrated into the course.
The courses are designed to be challenging, but that’s no reason to be put off. There are always several experienced members that are also autocross instructors.
They will work with you to improve your driving, all in the name of helping you form good habits, ensure safety, and advance your driving skills.
Traditionally, they ride in the car with you and offer inputs in real-time, however, this practice has been suspended until local health guidelines permit.
Additionally, non-instructors who’ve been in the game for a while will point out things you may be overlooking, or offer their insights as part of walking the course or as part of conversations by participants during the event.
I was one of those deterred at first, but my experience after two seasons is that everyone just wants each other to get better, faster, and have a great time doing so.
An excellent opportunity to get comfortable with driving your car the way it was meant to be is the upcoming Precision Car Clinic (AKA Autocross School) on April 18 where you receive classroom and driving instructions and exercises.
If you have not driven an Autocross or Track event, this is the event for you, to learn in a safe and controlled environment.
Preparing for an event
Maintenance is crucial for a successful day with any high performance driving, and autocross is no exception. With many cars coming out of winter hibernation, making sure that all systems are operating as intended is crucial to avoiding any unplanned excitement during the event.
After registering for the event, you will be sent a tech sheet to go over with a tech inspector (which can be found at here) before being allowed to run the event, but here are some important things to look over before heading out to the event:
Ensure you have adequate tread depth, check your date codes and replace if the tires are over five years old, and inspect the tire to be sure it’s free of any cracks, or other signs of deterioration.
Inspect the rotors to make sure there is no evident lip on the outer edge, if one is present, it’s due for replacement. Additionally, inspect the brake pads to see how much life is left in them.
Normally, brake pads should be replaced around 2.5-3mm remaining, and rotors at 26mm thickness, though you should check the measurements for your specific model, as there are variances between various car models.
Oil, coolant, brake fluid. Check these fluids to make sure they are at the appropriate level and top off as needed. If they are past the recommended time in service, change the fluids.
All loose items, including floor mats, iPasses, phones, golf balls, gym bags, etc. must be removed from your car before you can run your car at an event. This is to ensure things don’t fly around, or get stuck under one of the peddles while you are driving.
Timed events need something to attach your run performed to your car, this is done via numbers. You will need to choose a three digit number for this and display it on the car. Typically, first timers will use painter’s tape while those who have done several events usually use removable vinyl for their numbers.
Make sure your numbers at least 8 inches tall and are in a contrasting color to your car body so they can be seen by the timing and scoring team. If they are not, you will be required to fix them.
For more specific details, as well as how to obtain a permanent number, click here.
You must have a helmet in order to drive on the autocross course or to drive during the autocross school. It must be a SNELL SA or M 2015 or later with no cracks. If you car does not have a windshield, it also must be full-faced.
If you also plan on attending our DE track day events, you cannot use a “M” style helmet. I recommend that you invest in a SNELL SA 2015 or later helmet regardless and skip the M style helmet all together. Ensure the SNELL SA sticker is attached to the inside of the helmet as it will be checked as part of the tech process.
Helmets come in a wide range range of prices and while it might not make sense to purchase a top of the line racing helmet for your first autocross experience, you probably don’t want to trust your head to the cheapest helmet you can buy.
The region has a spring tech session where helmets and other safety equipment are always on the agenda. I recommend attending and getting expert advice from folks from Northstar Motorsports on which helmet makes the most sense for you.
You must be wearing closed-toed shoes to participate in autocross events. Sandals, flip-flops, and the like are not allowed. Sneakers, driving shoes, or similar are required.
In addition to the maintenance previously mentioned, there are a few key purchases that are recommended for making the most of your autocross experience.
Tire pressure gauge
Applying simple physics, air density has a direct correlation with tire pressure and heat. As you go through your runs, the tires heat up and as a result, the tire pressure increases. A simple, yet reputable, tire pressure gauge should be used to keep your tires at an optimal pressure between runs.
After adjusting pressures all day in the search of peak grip, when it is time to go home, you should restore the tire pressures to the manufacturers recommended levels. A small compressor allows you to restore those pressures before departing for the day.
1 quart of spare oil should suffice, but this serves as merely a contingency plan if you happen to find yourself running low.
A basic tool set
Similar to the spare oil, it never hurts to have a contingency plan and it’s a better scenario to have a ratchet set and not need it, than to not have a ratchet set and need it.
As mentioned before, these are all day affairs broken up into three different groups; drive, rest, work. Naturally, you can always hangout in your car during the rest period.
Personally, I like to grab my chair and run for the closest bit of shade; and with the impressive usable space offered by most Porsches, these aren’t too hard to fit in the car.
Miscellaneous Must Haves
A tarp, cooler, sunscreen, umbrella, a garbage bag to hold stuff taken out of the car, car numbers. These less than sexy items are absolute must haves to making your day more enjoyable. Pack snacks, lunch, and water as if you are going on a small picnic.
Get Out There!
With autocross being one of the most affordable and accessible outlets to properly exercise your Porsche. Now that you have a know how to get started, there’s no reason to not get out there.
Take the plunge, visit PCA Chicago’s site to verify the dates and sign up! You’ll be met with a group of enthusiastic individuals, have a great time out there and more than likely, be hooked!