Why Autocross is a Gateway Drug

My life as a weekend autocrosser and track day junkie started with a bet. I was bench racing online like any other eighteen year old, when a friend called me out. I was a massive Mustang enthusiast at the time, and was arguing the benefits of having 400 hp. This friend, tired of the usual rhetoric, challenged the two of us to an autocross. When the day came,  I got my ass kicked in a 06’ Civic, but I was hooked.

Photo: Will Parsons
Photo: Will Parsons

When most enthusiasts think about performance driving, the glorious site of a racetrack at dawn comes to mind. However, track events are not necessarily the best place for someone who is unfamiliar with driving at high speeds. Racetracks are fast, unforgiving, and expensive. An average track day will cost you around $100-$200. Factor in the cost of gas and you’ve got yourself a several hundred dollar day. Also, even the most reliable cars will falter on the racetrack. Tires will quickly get reduced to powder, brake pads will fade, brake fluid will boil, and over time, you’re looking at premature engine problems, damaged differentials, blown engine mounts, or worse.

Autocross, however; is extremely affordable. An average event will cost you around $40 and you will be hard-pressed to blow more than a quarter tank of gas. Over a year you might go through a set of tires, and you will be replacing brake pads more often, but that’s pretty much it. It is also extremely forgiving. Autocross events are designed to keep your speed down; you will almost never see third gear. Don’t let that discourage you. The average autocross course has more turns than an F1 race, which will make it feel like you are going plenty quick. Because of the limited speed, mistakes are not expensive.

At the track, worst case scenario, you could potentially crash into a wall. If you are lucky enough to spin-out somewhere open, there’s still a good chance you will break something. At autocross, the biggest risk you face is the possibility of taking out an innocent line of cones. Because it’s so safe, you can push your limits without risking life and limb, making it an amazing place to learn to drive fast. Your fellow enthusiasts will be more than happy to give you advice, often coming along on runs to provide coaching. All you need to do is pull up, pay your dues, and slap a number sticker on your car.

Just because it’s safer, doesn’t mean autocross is not challenging. You will show up, and there will be a course laid out in pylons that has never existed before, and will never exist again. You walk the course in the morning, try your best to memorize it, and are usually allowed five runs. That means you get five tries to put down your fastest time around the course before it disappears forever. Anybody can show up to a racetrack, put in several days of driving, and set a satisfactory lap time. More so, autocross is actually competitive. You can win an autocross. Track days are great for chasing lap times, but there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with seeing your name at the top of a roster.

When this dreadful winter finally comes to an end and temperatures mercifully creep up above freezing, add attending an autocross to your spring ‘to-do’ list. If the thought of learning to drive fast excites you, autocross will prove to be the best $40 you’ve ever spent.