Novice Guide

Are you new to Solo / AutoX?  You’re at the right spot!

They say pictures are worth 1000 words.  If that’s true, a video must be worth even more. Here’s an example of what AutoX is all about:

The SCCA’s national site has this to say about AutoX:
“AutoX events are driving skill contests that emphasize the driver’s ability and the car’s handling characteristics. This is accomplished by driving a course that is designated by traffic cones on a low hazard location, such as a parking lot or inactive airstrip. While speeds are no greater than those normally encountered in legal highway driving, the combination of concentration and car feedback creates an adrenaline pumping experience. It is like being in a movie chase scene, only you are holding onto the steering wheel instead of a box of popcorn! “

So what do I need to participate?

AutoX is one of the most accessible motorsports in existence.  There are only a few “must haves”.  You’ll have to have a car to drive, your entry fee, a valid driver’s license, and a minor waiver signed by both parents/guardians if you’re under 18 years old.  And yes, you can share a car with a friend.

There are also some “can’t haves”.  Alcohol/drugs aren’t allowed, and you also can’t run high center of gravity vehicles like most SUVs and the occasional narrow/tall car (the Fiat 500 and ’04-’06 Scion XB, for example, aren’t legal to run unless they have been lowered.  Though the Mazda 2 is fine, as are most cars.  Get in touch with one of our officials if you have any questions).  Nitrous Oxide Systems (NOS) are also prohibited.

The list for what you may want to bring can be considerably longer.  Most people will bring their own helmet (loaners are available for free though… There’s no need to buy a helmet for your first event!), class letters/numbers, extra air for your tires, sunscreen, suitable shoes for driving, weather appropriate clothing, water, and whatever else they think might make the day more enjoyable.

You’ll want to plan to show up beyween 8:00- 8:30am on the day of the event.

How does the event work?

AutoX events in general are broken up into four main parts.  The first is Registration, Tech Inspection, and the Driver’s Meeting.  Registration opens at 8:30am and runs to 9:30am.  This is where you’ll pay your entry fee and tell us who you are, what type of car you drive, what class you’re in (don’t worry, we’ll help with this if you need it!), what number you’d like to run, and probably fill out a weekend membership form if you’re not an SCCA member already.  You’ll also have to show us your driver’s license and sign a liability waiver.

After you register, you’ll get your car ready and take it to tech inspection (open from 8:30am to 9:30am).  Tech will check over your car for general road worthiness (batteries held securely, loose items out of the car, functioning brakes, tight lug nuts, etc.).  They’ll also check that you have your class and number displayed on the car.  Most folks that have been doing this for awhile will have magnetic or vinyl stickers to show their class letters & number, but for your first few events don’t worry about this and just use the painter’s tape we supply to put on your class & number.  Just ask your tech inspector for any help you need.  They’re there to help you get your car ready!

As all this is going on, you’ll probably hear someone announcing for two types of driver’s meetings.  The first one to happen is called the “Novice Walk”.  If you’re new to AutoX, you don’t want to miss this.  Our Novice Chair will gather together a group of people at the start line and take you all on a guided walk around the course.  This is a great chance to see the course through the eyes of an experienced autocrosser and pick up tips and tricks for how to attack it.  They’ll also be able to answer any general questions you might have about how AutoX works, describe how cones are used to mark the course, etc.  So don’t be shy about speaking up!  These novice walks are informative enough that you’ll regularly see experienced autocrosseres tagging along as well to pickup tips.  Attending the novice walk is mandatory if you’re new.  It will generally occur around 9:45am, but listen for the announcements.

The second driver meeting is a general one for all participants.  It’s the last part of the day before competition runs start, and the event chair will go over things for the day like run heat and work heat assignments, any general announcements, any particular safety concerns for the day, etc.  Everyone that’s going to run is required to attend the Driver’s meeting.  The Driver’s meeting generally happens around 10am, but again, listen for the announcements.

The next part of the day has actually already been happening while registration & tech are going on.  It’s Course Walking, and it’s a big part of what makes AutoX the unique motorsport that it is.  Course walking is the time before competition starts where everyone gets a chance to walk the course to see where it goes, what key features they want to remember, how they want to attack it, etc.  Since AutoX events never use the same course twice, everyone has to walk the course prior to running so that they know where to go.  Generally, people walk the course multiple times.  It’s not uncommon to see people draw maps of the course, make notes for later review, etc.  You’re only going to get a limited number of runs to put down your best time out on course, so knowing where you’re going and how you’re going to attack the course is extremely important.  Experience autocrossers usually can close their eyes after a few course walks and mentally “drive the course”.

Now it’s time to actually Compete!  At the driver’s meeting, you’ll have been assigned your run heat.  Generally at Steel Cities events, you’ll get three runs in your morning heat and three runs in your afternoon heat.  Your single best run from either the morning or afternoon heat is compared to everyone else’s best run to determine how you stack up.  Remember, it only takes one!

When it’s your heat’s turn to run, you’ll get your car (and helmet, air, pressure gauge, and anything else you’ll want during your heat) and take it to your grid spot.  Grid spots are pre-assigned and there will be a grid worker to tell you where to go.  Just look for the person with a clipboard that everyone stops to talk to.  After cars are in grid, the grid workers will come around and tell you when you should pull up to the line.  Generally grid workers will go through the grid sending out two driver cars first, then start back over at the beginning of grid and send out single drivers and 2nd drivers.

As you see the grid worker approaching you, it’s time to put on your helmet and get belted in, ready to run.  If you’re using a loaner helmet, make sure you’ve gotten it prior to this point.  If loaner helmets are in short supply, ask the grid workers to help you get the helmet before you need to run.  When the grid worker sends you up to the line, drive (at a slow, controlled pace!) up to the line.  The starter will be there, and he’ll help you position your car exactly at the staging line.  When it’s clear to go, the starter will tell you to go ahead.  Note that there’s nothing to be gained from launching the car the moment the starter tells you to go… The clock doesn’t start until your car crosses the actual start line, which will be a ways up the course.  At the same time, be ready to go so that you don’t cause additional delay.  Generally there will be two cars on course at a time in different areas of the course, so starting sometime soon after the starter tells you to go will help keep you a safe distance from the other car on course.

During your run, drive as fast as you can.  Generally controlled aggression is the key.  Drifting the car around like a Hollywood stuntman is rarely fast and Miss Daisy doesn’t need a ride either.  Finding that balance between aggression and precision is what AutoX is all about.

If you see a worker waving a red flag or their arms,  see cones out of place, or see anything that you think might be a danger… Just come to a controlled stop.  After it’s clear to proceed, you’ll drive around the rest of the course at an 80% pace and you’ll get a rerun (and this time with warm tires and an additional look at the course!).

At the end of your run (how’d you do?  Told you it was fun!), you’ll come across the finish line.  The clock stops then, so get your car back down to a slow, controlled pace in the shutdown section of the course.  We design the courses to have plenty of room to slow down, but it’s important not to miss where the finish line is, so be sure to give that a little extra attention.  As you pull off the course there will usually be an LED display hanging on the trailer that will show you your time, along with someone writing your time and any cone penalties you may have on a small post-it that they’ll hand to you.  Please don’t just drive right by the post-it worker, it’s rude!

After you get your time slip, head back (again, slow controlled pace!) to your grid spot.  If you have more runs left, this is when you want to think about what went wrong and what went right, figure out what you want to change for the next run, check your air pressure, and get ready to do it again!  If it’s your last run for the heat, you’ll want to check your grid spot for anything you brought with you to grid, then head back to your paddock spot.

During your competition heat, you can also ride with another driver or ask an experienced driver to ride with you.  If you’re a single driver, you’ll usually have 15 to 20 minutes between your runs, so use that time to ask an experienced person to give you a ride around the course.  Many folks are happy to give you a ride, but do be aware that your extra weight in the car can affect their times as well, so it’s best to ask for a ride when everything isn’t on the line for that particular driver.  Like everything in autocross, when in doubt ask.  Even if they can’t give you a ride just then, they’ll probably be able help you get a ride with someone else or you can catch a ride during fun runs later.

The final part of a AutoX event is Working.  Another unique part of AutoX is that everyone competing at the event also works a job to help the event run.  As someone new, you’ll almost certainly be assigned to work the course, but there are a lot of jobs necessary to put on an event and they’re all performed by our entrants.  At the driver’s meeting, in addition to your run heat, you’ll also have been given a work heat.  Just like with driving, you’ll usually have one work heat in the morning and one work heat in the afternoon.  When it’s your turn to work, head up to the timing trailer to sign in.  Your work heat may happen before your driving heat.  It also might be directly after your driving heat.  If that happens, there’s no need to rush excessively back to your paddock spot and get up to the timing trailer, but you also don’t want to lollygag around either.  Put your car back in it’s paddock spot, grab a drink, and head on up to check in for working.  Again, everyone is required to work.  If there’s some condition or special circumstance that might affect your ability to work, just talk with the officials in the morning about it.  There’s usually no problem accommodating someone’s special circumstances.

When you check in for work at the timing trailer, be sure to let the worker chief know that you’re new.  You’ll almost certainly be put out on the course at one of a handful of worker stations to pickup cones that drivers hit.  You’ll be paired up with other workers at your station who are experienced.  Introduce yourself and let those folks know you’re new, bring up any questions, etc.  You’ll probably be out there for about an hour, so again, bring along something to drink.

What you don’t want to bring is anything that would distract you… Cell phones and cameras in particular aren’t allowed, because we want your attention on the cars around you, not the latest Facebook post.  Your job is to watch the cones in your area as the cars drive by.  Each cone is sitting in box drawn on the ground with chalk.  It’s important that the cones stay centered in those boxes.  An experienced driver will usually get within an inch or two of key cones out on course, so even if a cone is only displaced half a foot or so, it can matter.  A tip here is to watch the cone just after the car goes by, not the car.  If you see the cone move at all, you’ll need to go over and reset it back into the center of the box.

However, before you run over to cone, check your surroundings!  There’s another car coming along about 15 or 20 seconds after that first car and in a case where a car and a person collide, the person always is the loser.  We’ve never yet had a worker hit by a car at Steel Cities and it happens extremely rarely across all of the many hundreds of AutoX events per year, but you have to stay on your toes and stay aware.  Resetting that cone is not worth the risk of injury.  If you’re unable to reset a cone in time, wait for the following car to pass and then worry about getting the cone.  If a driver sees a downed/displaced cone, they should come to a controlled stop and point out the cone.  After acknowledgement, the driver will continue around the course at an 80% pace or so and they’ll get a rerun.

After you placed the cone back in it’s box and gotten back to an area of safety, signal the timing van.  A cone that’s still standing up and has any part of the base touching the box is safe, and you’ll signal that to the timing van like an umpire giving the safe sign.  A cone that is knocked over or is standing up but isn’t touching the box is a penalty.  Signal that by waving the cone over your head prior to putting it back in the box (if there was time) and by someone at your worker station calling the cone penalty back in to the timing van over the radio.  Note that you should try and mention the car number and class, or some other identifying feature on the car.

The other part of working the course is the red flag.  If a car has spun ahead of the following car or there’s some other reason that a car needs to be stopped, each worker station is equipped with a red flag.  That red flag should be in someone’s hand at all times while cars are running (ideally someone experienced).  If you see something that makes you think the following car should be stopped, don’t wait.  Wave the red flag at the car, possibly moving into the driver’s line of sight (but not the car’s path!).  If you don’t have the red flag, wave your arms up and down and shout exciting things like “RED FLAG!!!” at the driver.  The driver should come to a controlled stop, and then after the worker station tells them it’s ok, proceed around the rest of the course at 80% speed.  They’ll get a rerun.

Then what happens?

And that’s it!  You’ve now competed at your first AutoX event!  After the competition runs, there are generally fun runs, where you’ll get to take a few more cracks at the course (usually these cost $1 per run, but you may have gotten some free “SCR Fun Run Bucks” during the Novice Walk).  Come up to the timing trailer after competition is over for the fun run meeting to participate.  Fun runs are also a great time to ask experienced folks to ride along with you, to try out your buddy’s car, etc.  They’re called Fun Runs for a reason.

At the very end of the day, people usually pitch in to help clean up the course and put everything away.  If you have to leave and don’t have time to stay until after fun runs are over, no worries.  But if you’ve got some extra time, it’s always fun to hang out and shoot the breeze with your fellow autocrossers as you all clean up from a long hard day having fun.

If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this Novice Guide, congratulations!  Remember, most everyone at the event wants to make sure you have a good time.  Autocrossers are a friendly breed, and we want to help you get addicted to one of the best motorsports around just like we are.  During the event if there’s anything we can help with, ASK!  If its not during the event, get in touch with one of our officers or head over to our Facebook Page or  RacePA is the local motorsports forum of choice for the Pittsburgh area and there’s a great group of autocrossers there who will be able to answer pretty much any question you come up with.

Also, as you might imagine, this is far from the only ‘Novice Guide to AutoX’ out there. Tirerack also hosts one that is well respected.  Read it here.

See you at the event!