Even if you primarily do other forms of racing, autocross can be a great place to shake down a car. You get to toss the car around at its limit like a total hooligan in the company of other car geeks. If things go wrong, you're in good, knowledgeable company. Oh yes, things went wrong when I autocrossed my 944.
People show up with a little bit of everything to an autocross, including the occasional rally cars, drift cars, and yes, LeMons cars. Does your car have four wheels, and is it not a rollover risk? Congratulations! You should autocross it.
So, when I saw that the Texas Spokes Sports Car Club was hosting an event at the track where the Porschelump 944 lives in early October and realized that my car still ran, of course I entered my LeMons car.
Confession time: I suck at autocross. I'm not good at it, so I'm not exactly risking a season championship title for a class where a) the Lancer I usually run is vastly out of place among faster, more chuckable machinery and b) I suck at driving anyway. I'm here for the good company, and to beat on my car for a bit, so I've got nothing to lose by entering my LeMons car for the lulz.
I brought the 944 out of its carport to Harris Hill Road's main lower paddock that was being used as a parking lot for the event. I taped on my autocross class letters and left it there to class up the joint. Finally, when it was my turn to run, I got in line in the paddock that Spokes had set up on the track's main straight. We did a parade lap to get ourselves acquainted with the course, as it was a longer course set up on the racetrack itself and not everyone wanted to walk the full 1.8-mile circuit just to see the course before their run. Even I only had enough time to speed-walk it once before cars lined up for the first run group.
Someone suggested that I warm the car up by letting it idle so I'm not revving the snot out of it cold. That makes sense, I thought—until the car started barfing coolant all in the paddock.
I killed the car. Okay, it should be warm. For better or for worse, they were having technical difficulties that day, meaning that I had time to let the car cool down and check if there was still enough coolant in the reservoir. There was, so I figured I must have overfilled it. My coolant reservoir is so old and yellowed that I can't see into it very well anymore, so that's a highly plausible theory.
Then came my first run, wherein I tiptoed around the tight course just trying to learn where things are at a faster speed, and set at least one clean time. I had three or four more runs, so okay.
I pulled back into the paddock, laughing at how ridiculously floaty this car is, and how unwieldy this manual steering'd flopmobile was on a tight course.
"Who put all these cones in the way?" I joked.
Then, as if karma overheard that, the car started to vomit boiling coolant in the paddock again.
Even though we'd used the downtime between LeMons races to rewire the entire front of my wiring harness that got eaten by a tossed alternator belt at Eagles' Canyon, only one of my fans actually worked. This isn't a problem on an open race track, where constant movement forces enough air through the radiator to keep it cool. It is, however, a huge problem when you're parked in a hot autocross paddock. Zero air moves through that part of the car unless you count heat emanating from the hot asphalt of early Fall in central Texas.
I killed the car, apologized for my radioactive green puddle of shame, and snuck back up to the clubhouse to refill the reservoir with water. More technical difficulties with timing and scoring meant that I had ample time to do so without upsetting the order of things too much.
Looks like I can't idle the car. Okay. So, don't idle the car. Pull in the paddock = car turns off.
My first run of the day had been clean, but it was slow. It felt slow. Slow feels bad, but this car also had a track day coming up and a LeMons date in October. How hard could I actually push this car without damaging it?
This brings me to the other issue I discovered when autocrossing the 944, and it's not one I experience all that often: mechanical sympathy. Everything I've ever done to or said about this car was to make it last, which is the complete opposite of the banzai mentality needed for a good, quick autocross run. I don't typically let my team rev it over 5,000 RPM in order to save the engine. Go to 5,500 RPM in a pinch, but that's it. No more. Be gentle with it so we're still out on track when the other guy breaks. Don't spin out the car and flat spot the tires. A couple hours in a car with flat-spotted tires is torture on your butt.
Gentle. Careful. These are the keys to making an old turd last in a LeMons race.
Even today, this car had to last. I wanted a higher-speed shakedown at the last Porsche Club of America event our region was ever going to host at Texas World Speedway, and after that was the race itself. I can't screw an entire LeMons team out of fourteen hours of run time by ham-fisting a hundred-second autocross run.
Once it was decided among an esteemed group of autocross wonks that a few short blasts near the rev limiter wouldn't hurt it as long as I shifted up shortly thereafter, I took my second run.
This car soon proved why most autocross suspensions are more, ahem, "grounded to the ground" than most other forms of racing. In order to hit quick transitions at speed, it helps to at least have a competent suspension, if not one with less travel than a lot of road racing cars due to the smoother course surfaces that autocrosses usually use.
My 944's shocks are as worn out as they come, which keeps us in Class B for LeMons but is wholly inappropriate for an autocross run. It washed out accordingly, almost sending me plowing into lines of cones. I need to be more nuts and more smooth at the same time somehow.
Tossing it around also caused the car's engine to cut out a few times in hard cornering, like you'd get with oil starvation. What the crap? The oil level was fine according to the dipstick.
So, because the car was just low enough from full and the event's timing system was still in limbo, I got out of line, filled it up all the way with oil and then went back into the paddock.
Round three: will I not drive like an idiot this time?
Nope, but I definitely found out the limits of the car's suspension. I spun in a most magnificent fashion. It was a gentle slow spin.
If there's one concept that autocross drives home better than any other motorsport, it's weight transfer. When your car nosedives in hard braking, for example, it's because the weight of the car itself is shifting towards the nose. Tight turns like the one where I spun load the car's weight onto your outer set of wheels.
So, snapping from the car's weight being loaded onto one side to abruptly loading up the other side flopped the back end right around on me in a tidy, gradual doughnut that seemed to last forever. Oh, boy, the idiot who brought a full-on race car is the worst driver here, hahaha. It's been a while since I'd spun a car, so all I could do is laugh.
Later, I figured out that running the car low on gas that day exacerbated its tendency to snap into a spin. With no hatch on the car, it has a much higher front weight bias than it came with stock. As the rear end lightens, it tends to have trouble keeping its back wheels stuck to the ground.
Fortunately, my DNF was a mulligan. The timing system was still acting up, so it didn't get an accurate time.
My remaining two runs were neater and tidier, albeit still slow. To drive the Porschelump well, you have to be smooth. Jerking it around only ends in a spin because of its worn out suspension.
I experienced the same odd engine cut-out in the turn at the bottom of what's usually Turn 5 on my third run that counted, so I decided to take it easy the rest of the day. At this point, I'm seeing how many guys in Novice Class I can beat.
I brushed it off as oil starvation from taking a floppy car to an autocross at the time, but the longer I think about it, maybe it's the same issue that one of my teammates experienced in practice after all. Even I experienced a couple brief periods of dead-car-scare while loaded up in MSR-Houston's double-turn 16/17 combo. It may be one gradual right turn arc around, but it's still a pretty sharp one, similar to taking turn 5 uphill at Harris Hill in this autocross course. We now think the cut-out may be a fuel delivery issue as opposed to oil slosh.
Should you autocross your crapcan, then? Your precious little crapcan that you've spent many bruised-knuckle hours on to get ready?
Absolutely. One day of brief, but rowdy runs punctuated by long, friendly BS sessions with other car people will tell you a ton of information about the car's handling, if not all the other issues you still need to fix.
Photo credits: Jon Etkins