Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Autocross!

I like to drive. I like controlling machines, I like trying to control them exactly the way I want. I used to be mostly thrilled about motorcycling, trying different ones, small ones, powerful big ones, quick, nimble ones. But recently I did something that gave me almost the same thrill - I participated in an Autocross event.

I did not know what Autocross was until a few weeks ago. When I heard Autocross for the first time, I thought about dirt bikes jumping through the air and since the colleague I heard it from was into car racing, I imagined monster trucks doing the same. But then I learnt that it actually is something that happens in a parking lot or any large open flat space which can be used to set up a racing track with traffic cones. The good thing is that there is not much chance of you doing much damage to your car as you race against the clock rather than against other cars and there are only cones (and track helpers) you can hit. You can bring whatever car you have to the event, as long as it is safe to drive and isn't too loud. Many people bring their regular commuter cars but there are also people who bring in highly modified cars to test them out and set the fastest time.

I had told my colleague that I would be interested in trying it out when he described it to me and so last Thursday when he said that there was an event coming up on Sunday, I quickly registered for it for about $80 ($55 for the event and $25 for a racing club membership). My car is a 2010 Honda Civic Si but it has less than 10000KM on it and I do maintain in reasonably well and so wasn't too worried about it qualifying for the race. I also needed a helmet, but I learnt that I could use my motorcycle helmet, so I was okay there too - you could also rent a helmet at the event. I am not too picky about putting my head in things that have had other heads put into, but it might make sense to get your own helmet, or maybe get a balaclava to wear under the loaner helmet.

There was a huge variety of cars, from fast Porches and BMW M3s to beat up Corollas and little Yaris'. The cars are divided into classes, so that you can compare yourself with cars in your class, but there is also a system that is used to calculate an 'indexed' lap time that lets you compare your results with all of the cars that participated to see how you ranked overall (so even if a well driven BMW M3 is a few seconds faster than say a well driven Honda Civic, they still would have similar indexed times - so the indexed time is more a measure of driving skill with car performance artificially equalized using the index).

The event was at a skid pad next to the Pitt Meadows airport. It was snowing pretty well on Saturday and it was snowing when I got up at 6:30AM on the Sunday - it took about 40 minutes to get to the airport and the registration ended at 8:45AM. I got there around 8:30AM and was asked to clear the inside of the car of anything movable and also to remove the driver floor pad - floor pads are dangerous things especially when the car is being thrown around and the pad isn't fastened properly. Then I left the hood popped so that they could inspect the car to check if it was stock (factory components) - I had registered my car as GS (Class G, Stock) according to the SCCA solo stack category classification.

The first order of the day was to 'walk' the track to learn it before you actually drove on it - there are no practice laps and there are only a very few laps that you can do even though you spend the whole morning and the afternoon at the event and so learning how the track is laid out beforehand is important. A guy walked us through the track telling us how to go about approaching each turn, and about how to 'read' the cones - apart from the regular standing cones, there are these pairs of cones, one upright and the other next to it on its side and pointing to which side of the cones you should drive on. So at turnings, you keep to the side the fallen cone is pointing to - if you accidentally go on the other side, your lap is qualified DNF (Did Not Finish). You also get a DNF if you had to reverse. If you hit a cone but managed to still stay on 'track', you get 2 seconds added to your time. Simple rules, but looking for the cones that tell you where you should go is much easier when walking than when going really fast in a car in the rain/snow.

There were three 'heats' (a set of cars grouped together) - and I was in Heat 2. Heat 1 was for the senior/experienced drivers called the Top Guns. When I said I was a novice at the sign up booth, I was told I could ride along with one of the senior drivers during their run to get a feel of the track. I was introduced to Ben, a senior driver in a 2002 Subaru Impreza. It had the same engine size as my Civic Si, but was turbo charged and so had about 30HP more in power. I knew we would be going fast, but I have never been in a car that is being raced before and was surprised by how much you can get thrown about. Ben pushed hard and I tried to see what I needed to do by looking at the cones. I mostly knew what he was looking for but sometimes I was totally lost about where we were headed. It is very easy for the track that you had been till now following closely suddenly turn into a sea of red cones that made no sense.

Ben took me around a couple of times more and his time was about 52 seconds which I thought was pretty good because he hit maybe one cone and even after accounting for my newbie impressionability, I knew he was going quite fast and I told him that it would take me quite some time to drive like that. I mean I like driving fast - no, I haven't gotten any speeding tickets (well other than one, but it doesn't count as I wasn't trying to speed) - but I LOVE being at the beginning at the red lights and to pull away from all the others by getting to the speed limit (+ 10KMPH) as fast as I can. I like my Civic Si - it is the poor man's sports car, but it is peppy, easy to handle, and though I have to put in premium gas, it beats all other cars in its class for mileage. It has exactly the right balance that I look for in a car - 200HP is enough to be thrilling, and you don't have to keep looking at the gas level when you are having fun revving it around. But you can't really let yourself go on the streets, and executing that left turn by just catching that yellow light and almost clipping the median to be perfectly in the innermost lane only gives you so much joy. So this is where I could go fast and see if I slid out of control, where I could brake as hard as I could and see when my tires gave out, to keep pushing turn after turn. So there was a lot of nervous excitement.

My first run was with an instructor on board who after each run (there were four in the morning session) gave me pointers about what I was doing wrong. I was not braking hard enough before turns and was coasting instead, and so I wasn't going fast enough where I could. I had to look at more cones ahead than just the immediate one. I shouldn't forget to turn on the wiper because of the big puddle in the beginning that blinded you even with them turned on. I shouldn't accelerate until a bit later in one of the longer turns. She definitely helped quite a bit but when she said that I could kick her out if I felt like it after 2 runs, I did so nicely because her helping was making me not learn. I did one more run and brought my time down to 59 seconds.

Then it was my turn to help on the track - those cones get a lot of abuse and somebody had to bring them back to their places when a car knocked them over (or sometimes took one with them). I was very thankful for my bicycle rain pants which I had put on as an afterthought, my thick fleece jacket under my rain jacket, and especially for my gloves that just happened to be kept inside my motorcycle helmet. It was very cold with the snow+rain and the wind but I was well dressed and it was fun watching the various cars making mistakes and beautiful smooth turns through the wet track. I really do like the Scion FRS. It has the same power as my Civic Si but one of the two at the event was driven by a much better driver than me and it was a pleasure watching it do the track and hearing its engine howl.

The second session had me improve my lap time to 57 seconds and I later found that that was pretty good. Out of the 70 cars that did get ranked, I ranked 43rd in the top times, 27 in the indexed times and 4th among the novices and so feel pretty good. I beat Porsches and BMW M3s in actual non-indexed times, but also got beaten by cars in the same class as me. Yes, this is definitely something I will try again soon.

Pictures and videos from the event

Thanks to The UBC Sports Car Club for organizing this.


4 comments:

Devidas Mannathazhath said...

The prose is like the drive! Smooth at the same time gives the twists and turns you go through while driving.

geronimo said...

:)

Mamtha said...

Great writing koranga. Enjoyed every bit of it.:-)

geronimo said...

Thank you valippi! :)