Wrong car, wrong tires, more than 10 years away from the sport. Can I jump back into autocross?

By Guest Writer
Jun 21, 2023 | Mazda, SCCA, Miata, Autocross, Mazda Miata, Perry Bennett | Posted in Columns | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Tradd Slayton

Story by Perry Bennett

I’ve been around the sport of autocross since 2006 and have attended national-level events as a photographer since 2009. I’ve shot National Tours, ProSolos and National Championships for over 10 years, and several times a year friends would ask, “Why aren’t you driving?” or “When are you going to get out here and drive?”

I had a few reasons, really: The last time I autocrossed was around 2010, but mostly I just no longer had a vehicle that was autocrossable.

When you do one thing well, why change things? I knew it was much easier to just keep photographing rather than trying to do that AND drive poorly. When I finally bought a 2000 Miata last year, I knew I wanted to give driving at a national-level event a shot. My first event was at the deep end of the pool: the SCCA ProSolo last July in Toledo.

My Competition Return Into the Deep End of the Pool

Being on the competition side for the first time was much different than being essentially a spectator. It was nice to actually have some downtime during the day instead of working and being on my feet the entire event. I was lucky that the DePietros let me use their awesome enclosed trailer as a home base for the weekend to escape the elements. 

I knew I was underprepared going in, however, and my results showed that. Not only did I end up at the bottom of the E Street class, but I ended up at the very bottom of the PAX results for the entire event–in last place. That wasn’t terribly surprising since I had the wrong car, the wrong engine, the wrong shocks, the wrong sway bar, the wrong tires, etc.

I still had a blast, cutting several nice lights over the weekend and being around my friends in a slightly different way than normal.

Let’s Try That Again

Earlier this year, I picked up a set of 949 Racing Tecna coil-overs, which made the car look nicer and handle better but also put me into the STR class. So now I REALLY had the wrong car and the wrong everything for the class. Down 50 horsepower, at least 19 years older than the other cars and still on 205-width Conti ECS tires really is a recipe for failure when every other Miata in class is newer and running at least 245-width, 200tw tires.

I knew I was outgunned from the start, but zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, North Carolina, was going to be my debut as a driver at a National Tour.

I decided it would be a good idea to go down early and get some instruction and coaching from the pros at Evolution. I didn’t want my first time behind the wheel in anger with the new suspension to be my first run since I only had three chances each day.

Photography Credit: Tradd Slayton

I felt pretty good about getting my times on the practice course down in the 29.6-second range–until I asked what the Miatas in the E Street class were running and heard they were turning 27s or lower.

I wasn’t really sure I could have picked up any more time in my car with its current tire choice, but I was really just there for fun at this point. I knew I was going to get slaughtered in the STR class anyway.

Being gone from the sport for so long, I was sure there was more I could do as a driver, too, but not sure it could have bridged that gap with the tire handicap. I was still going to use the ES Miatas as my benchmark for the weekend, as that was still the closest car to mine in power and prep.

I’ve always walked the course at events, even as a photographer, so I could have an idea on cool corners or photo angles and finding places to capture the best action.

Walking the course as a competitor this time was MUCH different. I paid more attention to the course and car placement and talked about corner exits and back-siding cones. I found some friends to walk with who had much more experience under their belts and who (thankfully) didn’t mind my stupid newbie questions. 

Speed, Sliding, Trying It Again

Even though I walked the course a bunch, I was most nervous about getting lost during my run. With that said, I still gave it the beans and went for it on my first run.

I didn’t get lost, but I forgot I was on cold tires and spun it so hard that I took out an entire cone wall and stalled the car. Josh Luster was hot on my heels, and he had to be red-flagged while the course workers reset the gate/wall.

I tried to get my head back in the course and remember where I was going, which luckily I did successfully. Still, it was a fairly slow 84-second raw time. Others in STR were running somewhere in the 58-second range on their first runs, while the ES Miatas were running at around 63 seconds. My fastest raw time on day one was just over 68 seconds, and I hit cones on all three runs.

Day one ran long and the course wasn’t ready for walking that evening, so that meant a few early morning course walks on Sunday and a walk during the break, too.

Thankfully I was running fourth heat. E Street was running second, so while I was working (as a spotter for the photographer, BTW–how poetic!) I got to watch them attack the course.

The fastest ES Miata set a time of 60.6 seconds, so that was my new benchmark for the day.

Top times in STR were down in the 55-second range, and I was able to get my lowest raw time to 65 seconds–still WAY off on proper STR times but at least a little closer to the ES Miata folks. No spins on day two, and I was able to drive over a second faster each round.

Photography Credit: Perry Bennett

At the end of day two, I ended up essentially at the very bottom of the PAX results again. Out of 264 entrants, I placed 240.

I would have been lower, but many of those below me had to run in the VERY wet fifth heat on day two.

No matter the results, I had a really great time at the Charlotte Tour. While there really isn’t a place for my car to run competitively in its current configuration, it was nice to get it out and see what it could do.

I would really love to drive a properly prepped car in the future, whether that means a proper E Street Miata, a later C Street Miata or an STR Miata. I feel like my driving was pretty decent, and I’d like to know just how much of my slow time was me and how much was my car.

Would I Do It Again?

It was nice to be a competitor for once, too. I was able to focus on driving and then enjoy myself in the evening by going out and then getting some rest at the hotel rather than trying to work on photos until 1 a.m. or worry about charging batteries. I also wasn’t completely worn out from standing on my feet over 10 hours trying to record the event.

Two of my best friends from Atlanta came up to Charlotte to see me and support me, and my girlfriend drove down from Charleston, West Virginia, on her own, too, to spend the weekend with me and watch me drive.

That felt really nice to have that support, but also the support from the general autocross community was pretty amazing. I’ve had some major scheduling conflicts the last year and a half, which meant I couldn’t attend many autocross events. It was good to see so many of my friends again.

In the end, the wrong car, wrong motor, wrong tires and wrong everything somehow ended up being just right. Will I do it again? Absolutely.

Photography Credit: Tradd Slayton

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