Porsche Club of America (PCA) - Potomac Region

Autocross Tips & Tricks

#1 - Seeing the course through the "Sea of Cones"

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An autocross course is set up with orange traffic cones. Some cones are on their sides with the narrow ends pointing to one side of a standing cone. Sometime two cones will be spaced a car width apart. Often there are single cones spaced in what almost appears to be a line. What does it all mean?! Learning to read an autocross course is your first priority when you are new to autocross. Our novice coordinator will take you through the course during the walk-through, and you will start to know what the cones mean. But it takes time. The first time driving a course may leave you feeling like you see nothing but a "sea of cones." At some point, you will start to immediately know what the cones mean; but you will still have trouble driving the course quickly and may go off course (DNF). Eventually, after enough autocrosses, you will no longer see the cones -- you will see the line your car will travel. When you get to that point, now you can focus on driving even faster. Just know ahead of time that it takes practice to read an autocross course. But rest assured, autocross is still a kick when you are just learning to navigate the course.


#2 - Walking and Memorizing the Course

Autocrossing is clearly a sport of driving skill, but it has a mental aspect to it as well. Whereas on a racetrack you must learn the "line" around the track, the pavement is always the same regardless of which day you are there. However, an autocross course will vary from event to event. A very important element of the sport is being able to quickly memorize the course. Some tips to try to help you memorize:  (1) redraw the map onto a separate piece of paper; (2) walk it as many times as possible, as fast as possible; (3) stand at some point on the course (e.g., the start) and look out at the next section as you visualize the driving line through that section of the course over and over again; (4) close your eyes and imagine driving through the course; (5) make a video of the course during the walk-through; and (6) get a camera mount and video the course on your first run to watch afterward. Try to avoid walking at the back of a crowd during the course walk-through. If you're surrounded by people, you can't see what the course will look like when you're behind the wheel.


#3 - Tire Pressure

Many autocrossers will set their tire pressures to that which will maximize the performance of their car. But what if you're new to the sport? Then ask someone who has a car and tires similar to yours to find out what starting tire pressure he/she prefers. Also, for most cars with modern tires, setting the pressure slightly above OEM recommendations will give the car good handling. But keep in mind that many variables come into play, including vintage of the car, wheel size, tire size and tire brand. Advice from others can be a good starting point, but your own equipment and driving style will dictate which pressures are best for YOU. One trick that is often used is to observe how much the tire is "rolling over" following an autocross run. As your car approaches maximum cornering, the tires will be stressed and will be leaning over a bit in response to cornering forces. Ideally, the tire should never roll over more than a ½ inch below the shoulder between the sidewall and tread surface. If abrasion is greater down towards the sidewall, the tire is under inflated. If the abrasion appears to be upwards towards the tread, the tire may have too much air, which can cause the tread surface to bulge and reduce the contact patch with the pavement. The goal is to keep maximum contact between the tire and pavement. Some people like to use chalk or crayon to mark their tires to make the wear more evident. Don't be afraid to ask someone to show you how to read your tire wear after a run! Part of the fun of autocross is learning such concepts, if they are unfamiliar to you.


#4 - Keep your expectations realistic

Many newcomers to autocrossing become frustrated when they can't immediately post fast times. Even seasoned track drivers will sometimes find that autocrossing doesn't immediately come naturally. It's very important to remember that you're competing on a "track" that you've never seen or driven before -- and one that you've only been given a limited time to walk. You also have to commit the course to memory. It takes a fair amount of experience to learn to memorize the course quickly and to then be able to apply your driving skills to the pavement. Memorizing the course is crucial. If you go off-course, it drastically reduces your ability to improve with each successive run. The best thing you can do is drive slowly enough on the first run to complete an on-course run. Don't worry about the time. As you complete more runs on-course, your times will drop on their own.


#5 - Don't be afraid to ask questions

You will find that most autocrossers are happy to talk about the sport. Ask about tire pressures, car setup, driving technique, changing brake pads and rotors, and/or memorizing the course. Find someone to walk the course with so you can exchange ideas. Ask someone with more experience to watch your runs in order to give you feedback or tell you where you may have gone off-course or hit a cone. In addition to gaining insight about driving the course, you may even make a new friend or two along the way.


#6 - Be aware of the car classing rules

As our program is growing, we have more people competing together in the same class. It's very important that your car is placed in the appropriate class -- particularly when we run everyone in a class in the same heat. Stock classes are very limited in terms of allowed changes. Prepared, Improved, and Modified classes allow progressively more tweaks. If you have any questions about your own car, or even a competitors' car, please feel free to ask the Tech Inspectors or anyone else on the autocross committee. Rules and class allowances are always available at Autocross Rules.


#7 - Learn to use weight transfer to your advantage

As you drive your car through an autocross course, the car is always in contact with the pavement via the underside of each tire. As you drive around a corner, accelerate or brake, the weight of the car will be shifting among the bottom of the four tires constantly. In order to achieve maximum cornering, you need sufficient weight transferring to your front tires. When the weight transfers to your front tires (e.g., think of braking hard), more of the bottom of the front tires will be compressed (i.e., touching) into the pavement, making the front tires' contact with the pavement larger. A larger contact with the pavement on the front tires will provide you with more grip and cornering ability. If you enter a corner and let off the brakes too early, you'll find that some of the weight will transfer back to the rear tire patches, and the front tires will start loosing grip, causing understeer (i.e., the car won't turn where you want it to go) into the turn. Trail braking is one method to keep weight on the front tires so they'll have more cornering capability. Trail braking means to keep some pressure on the brake pedal as you turn. However, at the same time, if the rear tires get too light, then the car will be prone to oversteer (i.e., the back-end will come out on you) as you go through the turn. The key is understanding the dynamics at play and learning to recognize why your car is exhibiting one behavior versus another. The same weight transfer principles affect how your car will accelerate. If you've transferred a lot of weight to the front under braking, and then quickly stab the accelerator, there won't be enough weight on the rear tires to generate traction and keep them from spinning. Modulating the transfer of weight between the front to the rear will enable you to more effectively apply power coming out of a turn. Autocross is an excellent way to learn about and feel weight transfer.


#8 - Looking Ahead

Looking as far ahead as possible is key to successful autocrossing. In order to successfully set up your entry and exit at each corner, it's very important that you're aware of what is coming up next. To do so, you must look ahead and visualize the line your car will take next rather than focus your eyes on each cone/gate as you drive through it. As you look to the next gates/cones, use your lower peripheral vision to manage what is happening immediately in front of you and your car. Your brain can process a great deal of information from peripheral vision. As you navigate toward the next element with better planning in mind, you'll find that the cones coming at the nose of your car are where they should be, and navigating them with your peripheral vision feels natural rather than a crisis. If you focus only on each gate right in front of you, you'll find it more difficult to manage a smooth line through a series of gates, and you will instead make choppy turns as you constantly try to correct your line as you decide to look at each successive gate. By combining your memorization of the course with the skill of looking ahead, you can drive the "line" through various series of connected gates, rather than one gate at a time. You'll find your driving becomes more efficient, and your times will drop.


#9 - Preparing Yourself

It's important to make sure that you are comfortable in order to drive the best you can. First, you want to make sure that you're alert; so be sure to get a good night's sleep. Have a healthy breakfast that doesn't unsettle your stomach. You also want to take the weather into account. Dress appropriately. Fluids also are always important to keep yourself hydrated -- not only when the sun is out. Although too much salt/sodium isn't good, our body needs some to function well. On especially hot and sunny days, a bit of salt on some chips or crackers can avert headaches and other pains. When it's your turn to get behind the wheel, make sure that you are comfortable in your seat. The seat angle should be comfortable, and your reach to the steering wheel should have your elbows slightly bent. The pedals should be easy to modulate. Additionally, you want to wear a helmet that fits you snugly. It should not be so tight as to be painful, or so loose that it moves around on your head. Even cleaning the windshield ensures that dirty spot won't catch the sun and interfere with your view at the worst possible moment. Finally, try to keep yourself on schedule so that you are always aware of when your line in grid is moving forward. Running to grab your helmet from the grass or realizing you forgot to check your tire pressures will interfere with your concentration.


#10 - Pointer & Helper Cones

On many autocross courses you will find some cones that do not delineate a particular gate. Novices will sometimes find these cones to be confusing. But understanding the purpose of these cones will help. One variant is the double gate, which is a pair of cones on either side of the gate. There will be a double gate when the course has a loop built into it, requiring you to navigate through the double gate more than once. Another type of cone is a pointer cone, which will be laying on its side, usually next to a standing cone, and will "point" the direction you should be traveling. Sometimes cones are used as barriers, too. These cones may be grouped in a line to form a wall and are at times simply standing up and at other times laying down to also point you in a particular direction. Do note, however, that most standing cones will incur you a time penalty if hit. An exception will be the "second" cone used in a double gate; the pair of cones together in a double gate count only as a single cone penalty, whether one or both go down. Pointer cones that are laying down normally do not incur you a penalty if hit.


Books & Other Helpful References

Below are some books to read to learn more about autocross. If you have something you think should be added to the list, send an email to autocross@pcapotomac.org.

Secrets of Solo Racing by Henry A Watts: This book is a classic. Although it was written long ago, the information still is invaluable today.

Winning Autocross Techniques (Speed Secrets) by Ross Bentley: The author is a performance coach, race car driver, author, and speaker. His website also contains useful performance driving information.

How to Make Your Car Handle by Fred Puhn: This book is another automotive classic that delves into the workings of your car. It covers, in simple and easy to understand terms, everything from suspension and alignments to brakes and tires. It also has a great collection of pictures and illustrations explaining many of the topics.

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