How to Go From Spectator to Full-Fledged Autocrosser in One Day

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Nov 27, 2017 | Nissan | Posted in News and Notes | From the June 2014 issue | Never miss an article

Photos by Tom Suddard

Most of us survived that first autocross the traditional way: found a local event, showed up, and stumbled through it. If we were lucky, the local region offered some kind of novice instruction.

There is another way that involves more guidance–a nationwide program aimed at the total novice. Welcome to the Tire Rack SCCA Starting Line school. It’s boot camp for newbies, first-timers and all those souls interested in getting involved.

For Rookies, By Experts

Autocross instruction isn’t anything new, but generally it’s either a quickie ground school held the morning of an event or one of the Evolution schools aimed at competitors looking to get to the next level. Some SCCA regions have more robust programs–like Chicago Region’s Learning Curve–but on the national scale, the sport has lacked a program that takes novices by the hand and eases them into things.

Starting Line aims to fill that gap. This is a standardized autocross school administered by the SCCA national office and staffed with instructors from the Evolution Performance Driving School–basically the main autocross school in the country. Their instructor pool includes some of the top autocrossers in the country, and many of them hold SCCA national titles.

It’s a wandering program, too. During 2014, the school visits many major markets: New York, Houston, St. Louis, Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Boston, Milwaukee, Denver, Las Vegas, Portland, Orlando and more.

“The genesis started when I was teaching for Evolution Performance Driving Schools on the West Coast,” explains Heyward Wagner, operations manager for the Starting Line program. He recalls that their Bay Area schools regularly attracted students with high-end cars–and brand-new helmets.

“I started asking, and it turned out there was a guy who worked at Google who took a school and started recommending it to his co-workers when they bought a fun car,” Heyward continues. “His recommendation apparently came with the advice to get a helmet, too, because he had the unfortunate experience of a well-used loaner.”

Heyward saw a need: “These guys had zero performance-driving experience, and the product we were selling them really was a bit too advanced for what they really needed. It got me thinking about what would make a great introduction experience, and including the helmet option seemed like a no-brainer.”

Friends With Benefits

Starting Line tuition costs $325, but you’re getting a bit more than just the classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction–usually a $250 to $300 expenditure at an Evolution school. The Starting Tuition also includes a one-year SCCA membership–an $85 value–plus entry to a local event.

But wait, that’s not all: Starting Line students also get free entry to an SCCA National Series event, which could be a Championship Tour, ProSolo or Match Tour event. Figure that’s another $100-plus benefit.

Students also get a subscription to Grassroots Motorsports and a hat. Every autocrosser needs a hat.

Heyward’s idea for a full-service, turnkey beginner autocross program was fully realized–down to the helmet. It’s also possible to supersize that order. Thanks to SafeRacer, students can pony up another $100 ($425 total) to receive a Snell-rated, open-face helmet. For $525 total, the Starting Line package comes with a full-face helmet.

Meet Nancy, Star Pupil

All this talk is great, but what is it like to go through the program? First, we needed a test subject–someone who was new to autocross.

Nancy Gomes would be our guinea pig. She’s been with the magazine for eight years and runs our circulation department. You might have met her at one of our events, too. However, Nancy has never turned a wheel in anger.

Her prep before the Orlando school covered the basics: She read the SCCA driving school website and talked to co-workers. Going in, she did have some fears: “Stalling the car, embarrassing myself–or worse, the magazine.”

Nancy comes from a two-truck household, so she needed something a bit more autocross-ready. Enter our 2003 Nissan 350Z project car. Don’t let the fancy graphics fool you, though.

It’s just smoke and mirrors. After sitting dormant for months, the car had only recently been put back into service.

We had quickly prepped the Z for the SCCA Dixie Tour held two weeks earlier–we basically got it safe enough to autocross. The tires and suspension were still in as-purchased condition, meaning the car still sported springs of unknown origin and mismatched tires from brands you’ve never heard of. (We have BFGoodrich Rivals ready to be installed–hence the sticker–but the wheels hadn’t arrived yet.)

The car was safe and reliable, though. Before the big autocross event, we replaced the junk clutch with a fresh, original-spec one from Exedy. The original suspension bushings were equally hammered, so we installed a set of urethane replacements from Whiteline. The fluids and brakes were fresh, too.

First Bell

The Starting Line school makes the most of the day, as cars were already on course by 8:30. First up was a series of basic exercises–a slalom, figure 8 and oval–always done with an instructor in the car.

Nancy alternated between two instructors, Teddie Alexandrova and Darren Seltzer. Both of these drivers have the credentials to dish out advice. At last year’s Tire Rack SCCA Solo National Championships, Teddie took the Road Tire RWD Ladies win. Darren made his first Nationals appearance last year, winning the F Modified title by nearly 3.5 seconds–an eternity in the sport. The run earned him SCCA Solo Rookie of the Year honors as well.

From the onset, Nancy reports, the instructors drilled four major points into their students’ heads: Look ahead, brake hard, use proper hand placement, and don’t be afraid to go faster. “They were real big about ‘Look ahead, look ahead, look ahead,’” she emphasizes.

The afternoon session used a more traditional autocross course, and again, there was plenty of coaching from inside the vehicle–with the instructors alternating between the passenger seat and behind the wheel.

The day’s weather, which included plenty of rain and storms, added a wrinkle to our visit. Before attacking the course at speed, students slowly drove through the course instead of walking it. “With the way the weather was, those guys never missed a beat,” our pupil reports. “It never felt disorganized.”

Report Card

In autocross, progress is measured by the stopwatch. During the afternoon session on the full autocross course, Nancy’s times dropped from 61 seconds to 54.

Her bigger gains came from improved confidence and technique. She picked up skills ranging from looking ahead–something just as useful when driving on the streets–to rotating the car early enough to get the backside of the slalom cones. “It helped me realize that I was capable of more than I thought,” Nancy now admits.

And those fears about wrecking the place and causing embarrassment? They were just fears. Nancy boasts that she never dragged any cones and never went off course.

She confesses that she did stall the car once: in her driveway upon returning home.

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