Autocross 101: How to Race Your Grocery Getter (or Sports Car)

(Updated on June 22, 2021)

Are you a car enthusiast looking to learn about your car and make some friends along the way? Are you a new driver in need of a safe space to practice your car control skills? Do you want to be a race car driver?

If you answered yes to any of the above, autocross may be for you.

Related: How to Track Your Very Own Car (High Performance Driver’s Education)

What is Autocross?

Autocross is an organized sport where drivers navigate around tight, technical courses of traffic cones as fast as possible. An autocross course could be set up in a parking lot, on a race track, or on a closed road.

Events are usually timed, and drivers are awarded points based on their class placement with respect to other drivers. Cars on course are released one at a time and spaced out so you will not encounter any other drivers during your run.

Autocross is one of the best possible ways to hone your driving skills and learn about your car in a safe, legal, controlled manner.

Autocross Classes

autocrossing Porsche convertible

Cars are broken into different performance classes to keep the focus on driver skill rather than vehicle type or aftermarket modifications.

For instance, comparing a driver in a Toyota Corolla to someone piloting a Porsche 911 Turbo would be apples to oranges, so those drivers would race in separate classes. Both drivers could win their respective classes and do not compete directly with each other.

Competitive autocrossers have to pay special attention to modifications they make to their vehicles. Wider wheels or aftermarket coilovers may bump a driver into a higher class where the vehicle would no longer be competitive.

Some people choose to ignore autocross classes entirely and mod their car to their taste, racing just for fun. This is a totally valid strategy; after all, autocross is about having fun and improving your driver skill at the end of the day.

What Do I Need to Get Started?

Autocross is an inexpensive sport with a low barrier to entry. In most cases, all you need is a driver’s license and a roadworthy vehicle!

Helmet

autocross helmet

You will be required to wear a helmet during your runs. Most clubs follow rules written by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), including which helmets are allowed. SCCA currently accepts Snell M or SA helmets, 2005 or later.

If you’re not sure about your helmet, check with your local club for more information. Some clubs also have loaner helmets if you don’t want to purchase your own.

Want to buy a helmet, but need some ideas? Here are a couple links to get you started. While M2020 helmets are usually perfectly fine for autocross, these helmets meet the SA2020 standard. The SA2020 standard is higher, and is often required for higher speed motorsports events such as hill climbs and track days.

While the cheapest M2020 helmets start around $150, the RaceQuip PRO20 Series maintains an inexpensive price tag and comes with an SA2020 rating. This helmet lists for around $200. 

As you move up in cost, helmet weight decreases and features typically increase. The Conquer Carbon Fiber Full Face Auto Racing Helmet is a great option if you’re looking for a middle of the line lightweight SA2020 helmet. Carbon fiber helmets are typically much lighter than their Kevlar composite or fiberglass counterparts.

How Long Is the Course?

Most courses can be completed in 30-60 seconds, and you’ll get approximately 5 runs depending on the club and how many people show up that day.

How Fast Will I Go?

Maximum speeds are typically below 62 mph (100 kph) as courses focus on tight, precise maneuvers such as slalom, figure eights, and hairpin turns. However, the fastest cars and drivers on more open courses may reach higher speeds in certain situations.

what is autocross

How Much Does It Cost?

Most autocross events run between $30 and $50. Some clubs offer weekend insurance you can purchase separately, or this may be included as part of the club’s membership fee.

Working the Course

To keep costs low, most clubs require you to work the course during the heat you will not be running. Some examples of coursework duties are working the radio, picking up cones, recording times, or starting drivers.

Working the course can actually be a lot of fun. If you’re a cone runner, you get a front row seat to the action. You’ll get to see some very fast and expensive cars rip right by you making some glorious noises.

You’ll also get your cardio workout in for the day, especially when the Classic American Muscle (CAM) class is running; high powered rear wheel drive cars usually hit the most cones.

Can I Autocross Anything?

You can autocross almost any vehicle; it doesn’t even have to be a car. Some people bring trucks, crossover SUVs, and even minivans to the event!

Motorcycles are typically not allowed. Some club rules prohibit any vehicle that is taller than it is wide to reduce the risk of rollover accidents.

Is Autocross Hard on Your Car?

Autocrossing is actually pretty easy on your vehicle. You may notice you go through brakes and tires a bit faster than normal, but that’s about it. Few vehicles leave second gear, and there is plenty of time to cool down between each of your runs.

If your car is aging and some components are on their way out, autocrossing may help you discover an issue in a safe, controlled environment where you are not a danger to anyone.

Is Autocross Safe?

Autocross is very safe. Most courses are set up to avoid obstacles such as light poles and curbs in parking lots. Collisions are extremely rare and happen at low speeds, resulting in minimal damage.

Course workers wear orange vests for visibility and stand well clear of the drivers’ paths. A few course workers carry red flags to signal to drivers that there is a problem on course and drivers should stop immediately.

Can I Autocross With an Automatic?

autocross with automatic

Absolutely. In fact, most days nearly half the cars in grid are automatics. On courses that would require you to shift from first to second back to first, automatics have a distinct advantage.

Many manual transmissions are tricky to shift into first while moving.

Does My Convertible Need a Roll Bar?

Most clubs do not require roll bars for autocross, but it’s a good idea to double check with your local club before you decide to autocross in a convertible.

Roll bars generally do not bump you into a higher autocross class, but they are almost always required on race tracks for high performance driver’s education (HPDE) events or track days where speeds are much higher than autocross events.

Can I Make Money Autocrossing?

While you can make money autocrossing, it’s usually not a lot and certainly not enough to live off of. However, winning high profile autocross events could open the door to other opportunities.

Autocross wins could help build your resume if you wish to become a professional driving instructor or test drive sports cars for an automotive magazine. National wins may also help you network and find your way into a professional racing career.

Autocross Tips for Beginners

1) On Your First Day, Just Have Fun

Nobody starts out fast on their first autocross day, even if they have prior experience on a race track. Autocross requires a unique set of skills to make the car dance, and the fastest way around a course isn’t always the standard racing line.

2) Look For Novice Groups

Many clubs offer a novice class or make special exceptions for newbies. For instance, you may get to ride with other drivers instead of working the course if it’s your first time! This is also a great way to make new friends.

3) Tech Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

Most autocross clubs have what’s called “tech”, or a technical inspection of your vehicle. During tech, a worker will check each vehicle for any obvious mechanical issues.

Tech is a fast process where an inspector kicks the tires, but nobody knows your vehicle as well as you do. Make sure you give the vehicle your own inspection before you leave home for race day.

This is your opportunity to check your tire pressures, top off your fluids, and check for sloppy steering, squishy brakes, coolant leaks, and loose lug nuts.

4) Check the Weather

Since you’ll be outside for a substantial portion of the day, you’ll want to make sure you check the weather so you can dress appropriately for the conditions.

Autocross runs rain or shine. Grab some sunscreen or a raincoat depending on what Mother Nature has in store.

5) Bring a Lunch

Most events do not offer food, so you’ll want to pack plenty of water and some snacks before your event. Driving while hungry or dehydrated is no fun. You might want to bring a chair to sit in between run groups as well.

Best Autocross Cars

There are excellent autocross cars for any racing class or budget. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a car to have a great time and improve your skills as a driver. If you’re looking for a sporty vehicle to enjoy on an autocross course, here are some ideas to get you started.

1) Mazda MX-5 Miata

The Mazda Miata is the most raced car in the world for a reason. Its light weight, chassis balance, and sublime handling make it the perfect autocross vehicle. In fact, you are likely to see more Miatas on course than any other model.

2) Honda S2000

The Honda S2000 is well loved in the autocross community but getting harder to find. It takes to modification very well, and can easily be turbocharged or supercharged to make an absolute missile of an autocross car. Its low center of gravity and high revving engine also make it a great track car.

3) Honda Civic Type R

The Honda Civic Type R is one of the fastest front wheel drive vehicles you can buy, and it is an outstanding choice for autocross. This car punches well above its weight, and can even take down Porsches in the right hands. They’re quite comfortable as a daily driver as well.

4) Subaru BRZ, Scion FRS, or Toyota 86

The BRZ/86 is Subaru and Toyota’s answer to Mazda’s domination of the entry level sports car market. The BRZ and FRS are becoming very inexpensive on the used market and have excellent aftermarket support. This is a great platform for learning the dynamics of a rear wheel drive vehicle.

5) Subaru WRX and WRX STI

The Subaru WRX and WRX STI are some of the most accessible and popular all wheel drive sports cars in existence. Their turbocharged flat four engines respond very well to bolt-on modifications, and the cars excel on wet courses, rally stages, and even hill climb events.

Subarus have a cult following among enthusiasts, and a very supportive community ready to answer any car question you can think of. Turbocharged Subarus are robust when treated well and did not have excessive head gasket failures like their naturally aspirated bretheren.

6) C5 Corvette

As far as Chevy Corvettes go, the C5 is an absolute bargain. The C5 Corvette is the fifth generation made between 1997 and 2004, and is a great choice if you’re looking to grab a cheaper V8 sports car that can handle track duty and autocross days.

7) Porsche 911

The Porsche 911 is the most expensive car on this list, but they are well loved for a reason. The unique flat-six rear engine configuration makes for a driving experience that can’t be found elsewhere.

These cars can be tricky to master but reward skilled driving. Plus, you’ll have quite a plush driving experience to and from the course, no matter which year you buy.

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