Why You Should Run Autocross Even If Your Car Is A Hunk Of Crap

Autocross: is it just an excuse to talk about buying swaybars? No! It's an extremely cheap way to do excitingly stupid things in your car, even if your car is a hunk of crap like mine.

There are two problems with autocross: it's not sexy and it's intimidating for everyone who isn't driving a tuned BMW E36 M3 or a lowered '90s Civic hatchback.

There are good reasons why you should ignore those problems:

  • It's cheap.
  • It's easily available.
  • It's a hoon's paradise.

I know this because I just took my car to an autocross, and I have no experience doing autocross, and I drive the most unsuited car to autocross possible: a rolly-polly 1973 Baja Bug. I did just about everything wrong for doing an autocross right, and I still had an amazing time. Let me explain how it all happened, and you'll see why autocross isn't a bad idea, even if you don't think it's for you.

Why You Should Run Autocross Even If Your Car Is A Hunk Of Crap

Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove

If you're absolutely unfamiliar with autocross here's an in-depth primer, but basically you show up to a big parking lot, drive a course set out with cones, run a few laps as fast a lap as possible, then spend the rest of the day working the event picking up knocked-over cones. What you learn is car control. You learn the course quickly and you spend the rest of your day focusing exactly on how to put the exact right amount of steering into every turn, not more not less. How to put the exact right amount of power down after ever turn, not more not less (oversteer is as big a crime as understeer in the world of competitive autocross). How to drive at the absolute limit of your tires, not more not less.

What I did was different than that, but the end result was the same.

I hopped into my one car, my 1973 Baja Bug. Once rolled, once frozen, often repaired on the side of the road. Well, I didn't just hop into my car, because I had to go to the South Bronx to pick up a new starter motor because I roasted the last one, then I swapped that in, then I hopped into my car, then I drove north for just under two hours to get to Lime Rock Park, Connecticut.

(Full Disclosure: Lime Rock invited me up to Lime Rock to run one of their events to see what it's like up there. I got to run the $225 day this time for free, but expect to see me back as a paying customer this summer.)

Lime Rock is one of the prettiest circuits in the world, laid down in a clearing of the rolling forest hills of northeast. I was not going to be driving on the Lime Rock circuit. I was going to drive on their go kart track, with strategically-placed cones to make a tighter course.

Why You Should Run Autocross Even If Your Car Is A Hunk Of Crap

Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove

This was fine because it still fulfilled the mission of giving me a place to drive as hard as I wanted and test how well I could drive at all. And it was fine because it felt a little bit more classy than driving on a parking lot. And it was also fine because it's gorgeous up at Lime Rock.

Why You Should Run Autocross Even If Your Car Is A Hunk Of Crap

Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove

The setup at Lime Rock's autocross is also a little different from most others because at a typical autocross event (or at least a rallycross event) there's a lot of strict planning and division and order. At Lime Rock usually about 20 cars show up in a summer session and the staff just lines people up and sends them out when there's room on track. Everyone gets the same amount of driving time, at Lime Rock it's just a nicer, more low-key affair.

Below Photo Credit: Kurt Ernst of Hemmings Motor News

Why You Should Run Autocross Even If Your Car Is A Hunk Of Crap

The track was something like a kidney with a chicane set up on one side. Two right handers that encouraged patiently waiting to get on the throttle. This was particularly true in my car, which lifted its nose the moment I touched the gas pedal. You might think an old Volkswagen would be always oversteery, but with all the weight (and traction) over the rear wheels, I was fighting understeer most of the time.

I got a few laps with an instructor, got my times down to within a tenth of a second of each other, and learned a thing or two about handling my car near the limit. Then they opened up the course to include a half-dozen more corners, some elevation change, and one semi-high-speed turn. This is when I decided to have some fun.

I was later told that I was on three wheels. And that wasn't even the best corner. I was three-wheeling all the way through one long right-hander. It's not hard in the Baja, which is as softly sprung as any car I've ever been in. The whole thing leans over so far in the turn, it lifts the inside front wheel clear into the air. You can feel it as it lifts off the ground, then chirps back onto the pavement.

Why You Should Run Autocross Even If Your Car Is A Hunk Of Crap

Photo Credit: Kurt Ernst of Hemmings Motor News

The best corner was a sharp left going downhill. All the weight of the car was to the back and I knew that it would be easy to get the car sideways. So that's what I did. Left foot to brush the brake, wait for the heavy engine in the back to start turning the car around, then countersteer. Hop the curb on the left, slide out to the curb on the left. Once I'd get back on the gas, the car would start to straighten out.

The thing about driving a baja bug (or any really soft, ordinary car or truck) is that everything is exaggerated, but it's the same kinds of motions that happen in even the most advanced race cars. Every car goes through the same weight transfer in a left/right chicane, only in the baja you tip over so much the car is "driving more on the side of the tire than the bottom," as one instructor told me. Every car will start to push wide if you get on the power too early, only in the baja you see the nose point to the sky. Every car pushes its weight (and traction) forward under heavy braking, only in the baja you can feel the front tires rubbing against the fenders it dives so much.

Why You Should Run Autocross Even If Your Car Is A Hunk Of Crap

Photo Credit: Kurt Ernst of Hemmings Motor News

I was reminded a lot about the physics of driving because my car was awful on track, not in spite of it. And I got to drive like I'd never drive on the street. I spun twice. I had just wanted to see how much I could trail brake into a corner before it would loop around me.

I didn't slide into the oncoming lane and hit a soccer mom taking her kids to school. I didn't go backwards into a tree. I did a full 360 and went around again. The next time I hit that corner, I toned it back a bit and went through with some fantastic turn-in oversteer. I'm neither brave enough or dumb enough try that on even the most remote country road I can think of.

It's all legal, and affordable, even for a jackass like me.

Why You Should Run Autocross Even If Your Car Is A Hunk Of Crap

Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove

So don't be afraid to take even your shitty-ass car to autocross. You might learn more than you think.

Find more about Lime Rock autocross right here. They'll be running lots of events once the weather warms up, and should have no more than 24 cars per showing.

Photo Credits: Kurt Ernst of Hemmings Motor News (top photo and others credited), Raphael Orlove (where credited)