Next to drinking a beer in the Talladega grandstands, autocrossing has the lowest physical risk in motorsports. If you go off, you'll just squash a few orange cones. But the lower risk can actually make winning an autocross harder.
Yes, the biggest risk in autocrossing isn't hitting a wall. It's overdriving.
If you've mastered the column in which I proclaimed, "To drive fast, you must drive like an idiot," you will likely be seeing good progress on your road-course skills. But on an autocross, the fear of crashing and smashing your prized car (and your head) becomes a non-issue. A driver that struggles to overcome the fear will not suffer that disadvantage on an autocross. So it will be far more evenly matched.
I won't sit here and tell you I am an autocross expert. Truth be told, I have only competed in two events (although I have autocrossed many cars in a non competitive environment). But, I did win both comfortably. I pride myself on being able to adapt my driving to correspond with various cars and conditions. That is how I have been successful in my racing career, and autocross is no different. You look at the layout, procedures and car that you are driving and adjust your approach to suit.
The theory behind autocrossing is very simple: Go around the coned course as quickly as physically possible, without hitting anything. Winning an autocross isn't rocket science. We just need to concentrate on a few key points.
Focus on solid pre-race preparation. Make the most of your track walk or parade lap, and pay attention to the other racers when they are on course doing their runs. We are looking to get a good feel for the layout, memorize where the track goes and determine which are the most important sections. At the same time, note any undulations or cambers in the road. If there are some we must understand what that will do to the car and devise the appropriate line to compensate, prior to going on track at speed. Of course, if our planned line does not play out as expected, be ready to adjust on the fly.
Work on coming out of the blocks at full race pace. You can't afford to take a few turns to get into the groove, which is why I am emphasizing the pre-race preparation. This way you will eliminate a few crucial laps of learning and instead focus on technique. Once on track, you must understand what you are trying to achieve. Autocross is about attacking the course extremely hard and doing so straight off the bat. You don't get a chance to build up to speed, so you must explode out of the blocks like Usain Bolt.
Drive it to the very limit, but not beyond. Know the difference between driving on the edge and "over driving." Pushing to the max produces a fault in most amateurs. They can't differentiate between driving on the edge and "over driving." They think, "the harder I drive, the faster I'll go," but there is a point where you are just asking too much of the car. You are sliding and scrubbing speed, and while it may look spectacular and fast from the outside, it is actually slow. The quick guys generally look rather pedestrian-like. This is because they have the car on the limit, but they do not exceed it.
Work on accuracy and technique to minimize understeer. If you race autocross you probably spend more time fighting understeer than Kim Kardashian does buying shoes. There are plenty of reasons for this: An autocross course is usually low grip, the corners are often tight and prone to creating understeer and the car is likely set up with a hint of push, to prevent your wife from spinning into an old lady when turning into the Target parking lot. Combine all this together and you have a big pushy mess.
We can fix some of that by driving. Firstly, trail brake. A lot. Ride the brake right down to apex to keep the weight on the nose. Be patient when getting back to throttle. Don't do it before you are at the point you know you can fully commit to it. If you do it a fraction too early (which is especially common when rushing to get that fast lap) then you will induce understeer, as the back will squat and front will be left with zero grip. If this manifests then you will be back to full power late and therefore be slow down the straight. When you do get back to power, focus on getting to full power just a fraction sooner every time. The quicker we can go from partial throttle, to full throttle, the faster we will be.
Finesse is also important. Hitting a cone will destroy your race, based on the time penalty associated, but we cannot leave a safety margin or we will be too slow. You must work on consistency and accuracy first, then, once that is achieved, push to the absolute max.
It seems simple, right? And it is. Being fast is about being in control. It shouldn't feel rushed or frantic. You should be able to hum a little tune.
At Sonoma Raceway in 2007, I had to win the race to be crowned the Indy Lights Champion. I was leading with 5 to go and had a guy just inches off my gearbox. Suddenly, the world's most annoying song popped into my head (Seal's Kiss From A Rose). No idea why, but I started humming it. I even broke down into chorus.
The guy behind me never stood a chance. I took the checkered, and took the Championship.
About the author: @Alex_Lloyd began racing in the U.S. in 2006. He won the Indy Lights championship in 2007. He's competed in the Daytona 24-hour twice and the Indianapolis 500 four times — placing fourth in 2010. The native of MADchester, UK began racing karts at age 8, open-wheel race cars at 16 and finished second to Formula One World Champion - and close friend - Lewis Hamilton, in the 2003 British Formula Renault Championship, followed by a stint representing Great Britain in A1GP and winning races in Formula 3000. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife Samantha (also from England) and three young "Hoosier" children. He also enjoys racing in triathlons and is rather partial to good old English cup of tea. But not crumpets.