This past Sunday I traveled 35 miles northeast to Rantoul, IL, for an Autocross hosted by the Champaign County Sports Car Club. The club has secured regular access to a large section of apron on the former Chanute Air Force base. With acres of grippy concrete and very few obstructions, this venue is perfect for autocross and is similar to the location of the Solo Nationals. I consider myself very lucky to live so close to such a great site. This event drew 101 contestants from as far as Chicago and St Louis. The weather was almost perfect, and the event was well organized. Despite the large turn-out, each driver was given 6 competition runs on the course. I posted a couple dozen pictures of the event here.
In the not-too-distant past I committed a lot of time and effort to autocross. For the last three years, however, I have concentrated primarily on Road Rally and have driven in only a handful of autocross events. That lack of much recent experience was quite evident on Sunday when I finished 7th out of 8 in my class. When I was at the peak of my autocross game I would frequently finish in the top 7 overall and, on a couple of occasions, even earned the FTDI (Fastest Time of Day, Index) honors. Clearly I have much work to do to get back to form.
On the equipment side, it was quickly apparent that my current tires are well past their prime for competition use. They don’t have many miles on them but are a few years old and haven’t always been stored in ideal conditions. The age and heat cycling seem to have hardened the compound considerably and the tires just flat-out lacked grip. After 6 runs the rear tires were barely above ambient temperature and the fronts were only lukewarm. Another competitor in my class with a similarly prepared WRX was running a fresher set of Hankook RS-3’s. In between runs I took a moment to inspect his tires and found them considerably warmer and gummy to the touch, even at the rear. It seems I’m going to need to replace this set of tires sooner than I expected. The braking performance was less than satisfactory as well. I’m not sure whether to attribute that to the thin front pads, the lack of tire grip, or both. As I will be addressing both issues soon, I hope to see improvements in this area. While the grip was low, the overall balance of the car was much better than in the past. The rear swaybar seems to be working more or less as expected. There’s still just a bit more understeer than I’d like, but I suspect some alignment tuning can bring a bit more grip to the front and improve the balance further. Keep following the blog for future installments on brakes, tires, and alignment.
It would be convenient to blame the lackluster performance entirely on equipment, but in the end the driver matters the most. I did not have a good plan of attack for the course, and had some problems with hitting cones. My fastest run of the day was ruined with two cone penalties, and I had no idea where on the course I hit them. Clearly I need practice. Of the three disciplines in this challenge, Autocross, also called “Solo,” is the one where the talent is deepest and the most commitment is required to become competitive at a high level. Luckily for me there are plenty of local events to get more repetition and plenty of talented local drivers to benchmark. I also must keep in mind that at the Solo Nationals I will be competing in the new RTA, or “Road Tire, All-Wheel-Drive,” class. Since CCSCC hasn’t embraced the Road Tire concept yet I will be competing locally against cars with actual race tires. Even if I put in the best drive in class it may not be reflected in the standings. I will try not to get distracted by the local rankings and concentrate on the real goal of finishing in the trophies in RTA at the Solo Nationals.
Speaking of the Solo Nationals, that event is only 5 months away. I need to bend the re-learning curve in my favor. With that in mind, I will be attending Phase II of the Evolution Driving School in late April. Aimed specifically at autocross competitors, with many of the best autocross drivers in the country as instructors, this school should be just what I need to get may A-game back in a hurry. I took Phase I of this school many years ago and my competitiveness was elevated immediately. I’m hoping for a similar boost this time around. Keep following the blog to see an entry on the Evolution school and to see if the driver and car can get up to competitive autocross speed soon. Next up, however, is the first Road Rally of the year. My wife Angela and I will be in Indiana next weekend to compete with the Indianapolis Region SCCA. Check back early next week for a report on that event.