Windy City Miata Club Autocross Posted on 29 Aug 16:35
Autocross is a fantastic way to get a performance driving/racing experience in your own car, without having to spend loads of money for entry fees and the considerable cost of consumables; tires, brakes, etc. It is a form of racing where your top speed is limited and precise driving technique is more rewarded. My go-to group when it comes to autocrossing and one of the best ways to experience it, is with the Windy City Miata Club. This local club has been around for nearly 30 years now, and has hundreds of members across Chicagoland and the neighboring states. The unifying car for the club is the Miata/MX-5 of all generations. The car is a pure expression of driving simply for the enjoyment of driving, and this club is all about the enjoyment of driving. Aside from autocrossing, the club holds many meets and cruises throughout the year for all lovers of the Miata. If you are in the midwest and own a Miata, you need to check them out! The autocross events Windy City Miata Club host however, are not just for Miatas. In fact, the club is very welcoming toward their non-Miata competitors, and you will see all manner of cars on the course during any given event. When I say welcoming, I do not mean they simply tolerate non-Miata's, but they actively encourage and will offer tips/coaching to anyone who runs during the event whether driving a Miata or a Challenger Hellcat. This brings me to the key element of WCMC autocross events, and that is the people. The main staff who organize, set up, and run the event are always friendly, helpful, and keep things running in a tight and timely manner. These are all extremely important ingredients in not only maximizing the amount of runs you get throughout the day, but also maximizing the fun you have.
A day of autocross is incredibly fun, but it is also work. By the end of most events I am happy, but also fairly worn out. The combination of getting up early in the morning, standing outside for hours in the summer sun, baking inside a hot car wearing a full face helmet, and just the physical exertion of piloting that little sweat box around a sea of cones, all cumulate to leave one pretty drained by the end of the late afternoon. Still, the fun of doing it, the valuable lessons learned, and the excitement are well worth the price of admission and effort exerted. If you've never heard of autocross before, or were curious what it's like, I recently attended two of WCMC's events to give you the scoop on what to expect.
The day starts early, the event's official time is 8am and you generally want to get there on time or a bit early. Add to that your transit time, and depending on where you are traveling from, you could be rising from bed pretty early. For me, a morning coffee accompanies me as I load my supplies for the day into the car. A generous number of water bottles, a few snacks, a bag lunch, and ice go into a portable cooler. A folding chair and baseball cap reside next to the cooler in the back seat. For me, this is basically it buy others may bring more competition focused gear, tire pressure gauges, water sprayers, torque wrenches and more. Having checked my fluids, brakes and tires the night before, and with all the days supplies loaded up, I set off for the autocross venue.
Upon arrival, I check in with registration as soon as possible where you recieve or confirm you racing number for the day, get your wristband that allows you to run, and acquire the map of the day's course. Windy City Miata Club does a nice job in that regard, an easy to read and detailed course map on one side and a clear concise schedule and detailed rules on the other, make it easy for even beginners to find their way. The next step, is walking the course, which is critical to learning the day's course layout. I like to start walking the course as early as possible, and as many times as possible, just to imprint the route in my mind before going at it full speed. Unlike a road course, an autocross course can look like nothing more than a vast expanse of traffic cones placed at random, it takes a bit of learning to decipher exactly where you need to maneuver during your runs. The next step is the drivers'/safety meeting, which is mandatory for any competitors to attend. This is true of any racing event, as it not only serves the purpose of fulfilling insurance liability requirements, but it allows everyone to be informed of how the day's event will be run and what they need to do to keep things safe and fun. After detailing all of the competition and safety rules, WCMC lay out their "work/rest/run" schedules.
My day starts with work, which entails working a corner station of the course. A corner worker's role is simple, watch the cars passing through your section of the autocross and if they hit a cone or cones, report the infraction to the timing and scoring tent. There is also the responsibility of keeping an eye on things to report anything that might be unsafe, or to "red flag" a driver if conditions warrant a stoppage to prevent incidents. Red flags are pretty rare, as things flow pretty smoothly throughout the day, and the possibility of a wreck is essentially nill. While you are watching the corner, and hustling onto the course to replace battered cones, you can also glean a bit of information on how to navigate the course. Watching some of the faster drivers go through different sections gave me a bit more information on how to drive the course, and helped further commit to memory the designated route. After working, was my rest period, which for me meant snapping some photos of the day. Being a relative novice to photography, this too was an added learning experience. It's one thing to shoot a parked car at a show or meet, but quite another to shoot one in motion and trying to capture that sensation. After fiddling with the camera and trying a few things, I started to figure out how to snap some panning motion shots and was pretty happy with the outcome, especially considering it was my first attempt.
As the group running the course was finishing up, I had to hustle back to my car put away the camera and get ready for my turn to race. I could feel the nerves, butterflies in stomach, and some anticipatory adrenaline running through my system. I lined up in grid, the FC's engine humming happily it's signature stacatto idle. I strapped on my helmet, click the seat belt in place, and creep the car forward as the queue ahead files into the course one at a time. An NB miata launches from the start line, it's little engine bark accompanied by a hint of wheel spin as the rear wheels dig in for traction. The line creeps forward again, and I am now third in line. I examine my gauges, half out of caution ensuring everything is operating normally, and half out of nervous need to occupy my mind. An S2000 leaps off the start line, with little drama it thrusts forward, the exhaust note of it's F20 engine cut well short of 8,000 rpm as it brakes for the first corner. Now just one car ahead of me, I could feel the nerves of anticipation. I could feel the impact of summer heat in a hot car as well, a breeze finds it's way into the visor opening of my helmet, providing a temporary reprieve from the heat. The sound of the NA Miata ahead of me firing forward into the sea of cones, snaps my attention forward once again. I could feel my heart rate increase now as I creep the car up to the start line and watch the starter intently for the go signal. My mind raced over the course layout, making a final check of where I needed to go, I felt ready and anxious to mash the acclerator. The starter gives me the go ahead wave, and I take off quickly with no wheel spin and no drama. I make a mess of the cloverleaf, turned the wrong way and earned a DNF already, I continued on and botched the "box" portion, I simply lost track of where I needed to go. In short, the first one was pretty disastrous. Not surprising though, at least for a relative novice for me, I find the first run to be overly emotional and adrenaline filled. It is essentially a blur, everything seems to happen fast and your mind isn't caught up to speed.
Thankfully, as the day goes on, that feeling gives way to a different one, that of a zen like focus. No longer preoccupied with getting lost on the course, and with less adrenaline giving a false sense of heightened speed and danger, my mind was able to focus on task, and things seemed to slow down for me. My times improved slowly with each run, and although I was nowhere near the leaders in my class, it brought me much satisfaction to see I was making improvements. Throughout the event, I found myself combating quite a bit of understeer in the FC, which was surprising to me because it seems almost tail happy at times driving on the street. This is something that performance driving events do, whether a road course track day or parking lot autocross, they can reveal your car's personality in ways that you will never experience during normal street driving.
This really highlights the key element that draws me to racing, it is the challenge it presents, but at it's heart there is an element of learning. By the final runs of the day, I began to learn how I could rotate the car using the throttle to help combat the understeer and how it felt. I began to understand how my eagerness to open the taps and go full throttle was making it difficult to negotiate the next tight corner. I began to get a better feel for spacing, being able to drive ever closer to the cones I needed to drive around, thus shortening my course distance and improving my lap times. I began to clear my tunnel vision by controlling my nerves and adrenaline, keeping my focus ahead to the next corner and not simply the one I was in. All of these things help make you a better driver both competitively and when it comes to driving on the street. As I mentioned, racing reveals traits in your car you may not encounter on the street under normal circumstances, but these traits may come into play in an emergency situation; a hard swerve to avoid a crash, panic braking, and simply when traction is limited like snow or rain. Far better to see how your car behaves in an open parking lot full of rubber cones, than on a traffic crowded street or highway lined with hard barriers!
So now a confession to make, I was never really a fan of autocrossing. I had run a couple events years ago, but in a different car that was perhaps a bit ill suited for it, and just came away not "getting it". Truth is, I was comparing it to road course racing, which I had fallen in love with that same year. The reality is, autocrossing is a completely different animal than road course racing, and if you approach it in the same manner or with the same expectations, it may disappoint. However, after running twice with the Windy City Miata Club this year, I now "get" autocross and I genuinely enjoy it. I understand now that it is about understanding the limits of your car and learning to operate on the knife's edge of that limit, just like any racing. Autocross makes it even easier and safer to do so, because is forces that limit to occur at lower speeds. It teaches you all the tiny little nuances of driving that will make you better and faster. Combined with the welcoming and nurturing culture of Windy City Miata Club, it makes it one of the most enjoyable and enriching events you can run with your car. If you've never autocrossed, or driven in a competitive manner before, I highly recommend you make it out for at least one of WCMC's many events! Plenty more shots from the day below, scroll, enjoy and thanks for reading!
- photos and writing: Robert Sixto