I push the gas pedal to the floor and my little red sedan screeches through the final curve, then I almost instantly have to slam on the brakes to stay on course and cross the finish line that lies in the shadow of FedEx Field.
The stench of tortured tires wafts through my open windows as I creep past a sign displaying my elapsed time: 63.277 seconds. In just over a minute, I’d snaked through three slaloms, careened around five sweeping corners, nearly slid out while overdriving a 360 degree loop and, judging from my need for air and my pounding pulse, had barely taken a breath the whole time.
This is autocross. And this is awesome.
My minute of automotive mayhem was one of four runs I took one day last month with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) in Landover. There’s at least one autocross race in the area nearly every weekend from March through November held by SCCA and a handful of other groups in the parking lots of local stadiums and high schools. Courses are laid out with traffic cones to create winding routes that typically take 40 to 60 seconds to complete. Depending on the venue, drivers get between four and 12 runs to put together their fastest possible lap.
All you need to get started in autocross is a car in working order and a roll of masking tape to apply race numbers to the doors. Clubs sometimes allow walk-up registration, but to ensure a spot, register online first. Events usually start by 8 a.m. and last until mid-afternoon. Once you arrive, you’ll have to remove any loose items from the cabin and trunk, then follow the other drivers to the vehicle inspection line.
Volunteers will make sure everything is tight under your hood and tell you where to find one of the club’s loaner helmets (or inspect your helmet if you have one). Once all cars have been checked, the organizers call a mandatory drivers’ meeting to explain the rules. Finally, one of the veteran drivers will lead novices on a walk through the course while explaining the fastest and safest way to take every turn.
All drivers are expected to help replace cones that have been knocked over by errant racers. Spectators are welcome to watch for free. Many families, particularly those with young kids and dogs, set up camp chairs under trees or pop-up canopies and spend the whole day at the races.
For optimal safety, participants attack the course one at a time, racing the clock instead of each other. Drivers must have a valid license and passengers can be any age, as long as they are safely secured.
Speeds at autocrosses rarely exceed 60 miles an hour. But don’t let the modest pace fool you: The courses are specifically set up to be challenging at low speeds. Rapid-fire turns, hard acceleration and brutal braking ensure that drivers are working at the limits of their reaction times and their cars’ capabilities. Unless you’ve been to a race track — or to jail after running from the police — you’ve never experienced automotive extremes anywhere near what you’ll go through on an autocross course.
Jeff Goldsmith, who has been racing for six years and occasionally helps organize autocross events put on by the Capital Driving Club (CDC), offered some advice for beginners. “Don’t take it too seriously and don’t be afraid to make a mistake,” he said. “It can teach you a lot about car control. If you like cars and you like driving, this is probably the least expensive way to get a feel for really pushing your car.”
Goldsmith drives a Miata, which handles like a true sports car, but he and others at an August CDC event at Prince Georges Stadium in Bowie were quick to point out that you don’t need a particular type of car to race.
Kelli and Chris Wells of Southern Maryland, who were on their third autocross outing, felt the same. “You can autocross almost anything short of trucks and SUVs,” said Chris, although he cautions novices to stay away from high-powered cars or major modifications until they’ve mastered the basics. “I’m the limiting factor right now,” said Kelli, who enjoys racing while husband Chris rides shotgun in their 2002 Mini Cooper, “so there’s no point in making the car faster until I learn to drive better, and then I might add something to the car.”
Autocross isn’t just about racing through cone-lined courses. Many of the people at the CDC event were eager to emphasize the everyday benefits. “This is a safe and controlled way to find the limits of your car and become a better driver,” Goldsmith said. “After whipping it around on an autocross course you know better what not to do on the street and how to be safer on the road.”
James Jackson of Springfield, who races at CDC autocrosses with his 9-year-old son Riley in the passenger seat, thinks it could make people less likely to drive aggressively on public roads. “You come out here and you run this and you don’t feel like hooning on the highway at all. You just say, I’ve gotten it out of my system, I’ll go 55 on the way home.”
It’s a lesson he hopes Riley will benefit from in a few years. “When you have this as an outlet,” he said, “you don’t have to drive like an idiot on the street.”
Riordan is a freelance writer
Is autocross too tame for you? Try the sport’s dirtier cousin: rallycross.
Like autocross, you’ll careen through a course laid out with cones, but you’ll do it over mud, gravel and grass. If you treasure your car’s gleaming paint, this isn’t the sport for you. But if you can tolerate dirt, a few scratches and a dent or two, it’s one of the cheapest ways to have even more fun in your car than you can with autocross.
To learn more, visit the Washington region SCCA page (www.wdcr-scca.org) and click on RallyCross.
Capital Driving Club (www.capitaldrivingclub.com) holds two events a month. A family friendly atmosphere, helpful volunteers and friendly competition make it a great venue for beginners and experts alike.
Others clubs to check out include the Sports Car Club of America (www.wdcr-scca.org), BMW Car Club’s National Capital Chapter (www.nccbmwcca.org), Mazda Sports Car Club of Washington (www.mscw.com) and the Potomac Region of the Porsche Club of America (www. pcapotomac.org). All events allow any make of car.
Prices, restrictions and insurance requirements vary; check with each club for details.