Autocross your heart …

Author Ben Garrido is serious about autocross. Below, Wes Friesen’s Mazda Miata is ready to race.

Author Ben Garrido is serious about autocross. Below, Wes Friesen’s Mazda Miata is ready to race.

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story and photos by Ben Garrido

Are you a driving god? Do you watch the so-called “professionals” in Formula 1, World Rally and NASCAR and think, “bah, I could smash you all”? If so, our fair town offers ample opportunity to prove your superiority.

I refer to the Reno Chapter of the Sports Car Club of America, or SCCA, as the cool kids say. For $75, anyone can join. You will receive a subscription to the stiflingly boring Sportscar Magazine, lots of little discounts and the eternal thanks of your new friends.

You will also get to race. Most expensive are the track days, or Performance Driving Experiences. In these events at the Reno-Fernley Raceway, you may drive as fast as you please on track. It costs $190. You may compete in your normal, full-roof street car.

For $25 a session, or $40 if you aren’t a permanent member, the SCCA also offers rallycross and autocross competition. In both events you must drive as fast as you can between cones on a twisty, short course. Speeds rarely exceed 60 mph, but that doesn’t mean you won’t scare yourself silly. The only real difference is locale. Rallycrosses take place in dirt fields and autocrosses take place on big slabs of concrete—airfields, go-cart tracks and parking lots.

Autocross day one

Don Smith, Reno SCCA head honcho, promised me a ride at the autocross. He smiled like Cruella Deville and made sly little references to “making you scream.” What sort of horrors did he have planned? A Centex powered lawn chair? A sled built entirely from broken glass and rabies?

I arrived at the Stead Airport and beheld some truly terrifying devices, a Triumph Spitfire—which weighs about the same as spit—powered by an atomic Mazda rotary, a Chevrolet Corvair with the engine in the back seat, a gaggle of turbocharged Subarus. Surely Don Smith would get me killed me in one of those.

But no. Wes Friesen, an older gentleman with white hair and suntanned cheeks, invited me into his stock-looking, effeminate and depressingly eco-friendly Mazda Miata. Surely the slowest racecar in all human history.

Miatas are about the size of a chicken nugget, and so when I eased into the passenger seat a great deal of accidental yoga ensued. We pulled up to the starting line and Friesen went quiet. We launched with the ferocity of a mildly irresponsible commuter. Oh, dear. As I contemplated the Miata as cure for insomnia we reached the first, very sharp corner. Friesen didn’t slow down. Then he didn’t slow down some more. I thought “death” and braced my leg against the center console hard enough that it bruised.

Friesen smashed the brake pedal .3 inches away from the corner. He slammed the effete little car at the apex like Albert Pujols swatting a curveball. The violence of this maneuver made me literally forget to breathe. Then he did it again, and again.

About halfway through, Friesen went too fast into a left-hand turn. The Miata bit back. You just don’t catch a car turning this hard, I thought. You don’t rescue a car sliding this much. Once again, I was wrong. Friesen gathered it up, laughed and continued.

We finished the lap in 52 seconds, and Friesen told me to get out. My leg hurt, my head was stuck in the convertible top, and I’d just remembered to breathe. He didn’t have to ask twice.

Autocross day two

I have a friend who rarely reaches the speed limit. Gina Akao, a 30 year-old expert in institutional analysis, prefers to drive with glasses pushed down near the tip of her nose, the steering wheel right up against her chest—the infamous old lady lean. It was natural I should go straight to Gina for my racecar needs.

“You can use my car,” she said. “But you’d better not break it, and I am not going to drive in the race.”

I accepted these terms for two reasons. First, if I did break the car, I’m pretty sure I can run faster than Gina. Second, my masterful driving would surely convince her to partake in the joys of autocross herself. I am, after all, a driving god.

We arrived at Stead Airport around 11:30 a.m. and headed for the safety inspection. Gina’s 1998 Civic was in good condition, and so the inspector sent us through quickly. Her completely standard car had no special adjustments to make, no racing equipment to tune.

This left us 45 minutes of sitting on the grid, doing absolutely nothing. I decided to fill the gap with trash talk. I went first to Friesen and University of Nevada, Reno professor/Porsche racer Robert Morrison.

“I’m here to crush you with my amazing skills,” I said. “Think of this as an opportunity to admire my majesty.”

This clearly frightened them, but, being crafty older men, they quickly covered their fear by pointing and laughing. Well pleased, I moved on to 21 year-old UNR student Iris “The Stig” Satus. I scoffed at her 2007 Mini Cooper S and predicted crushing defeat. This struck fear into her heart.

“I’m trembling,” she said. “I just tremble really small so you can’t see it.”

Competition cowed, Gina and I went to the start line. In an effort to boost my confidence, she said, “That girl is probably gonna beat you.” I brushed off her nay-saying and focused on glory. It was my first time driving Gina’s car, and I was unfamiliar with the track, so I decided to do an easy first lap.

“I won’t even squeal the tires,” I said.

That lasted 2 seconds. I had the tires screaming through the first slalom, the car sliding sideways on the first long corner and the engine yelping in pain. Then I got lost. I’m still not sure where, but I missed a corner. My time slip read 82.9 seconds, DNF.

No matter, I would take my proper, exalted spot next run. Sadly, the second time I got even more lost and hit about 20 cones. 104.3 seconds, the slowest time of the day by miles. An achingly slow, cautious third lap resulted in my one clean run of the day, 82.7 seconds. During the fourth and final run I once again got lost and cut a corner somewhere, but at least my time got down in the low 80 second range.

“Maybe you should use a map,” Gina said.

I returned to the pits and spoke once more to Satus and Morrison. Iris beat me by a mere seven seconds and Morrison had beaten me by only 10 seconds. Some would view that as a call to humility, but not me. My competition had reached those heights only because of the inspiration my amazing skills provided them.

It really doesn’t take a lot to participate in local autocross. You need a car that doesn’t look like rolling death—trucks are generally not welcome. You need to either borrow a helmet or bring your own, and the organizers will ask you to clean all the crap out of your ride.

For a standard car, I would recommend running higher than normal tire pressures. About 42 psi works well. Just go to a gas station and use their air pumps if you don’t have an air compressor. Autocross rewards agility above power. It’s not unusual for old econoboxes to beat Ferraris. You don’t need, or even want, a nice car. Building up your own skill and buying better tires will improve your times more than mortgaging the house for a Lamborghini.

Bring a good attitude and do your work assignment. Most sessions are split into two groups. One will race while the other monitors the track and replaces cones. Everybody works for at least one session. If you want others to hate you a lot, skip the work.

Lastly, have fun. There aren’t many activities that combine low cost, adrenaline and such a good chance to socialize.