Try Before You Buy

Want to go vintage racing, but wary of the cost and commitment? Try autocrossing instead.

In the collector-car world, there’s probably nothing more igniting and exciting than vintage racing. Whether it’s buzzing Sprites and Midgets or raging Sting Rays and Cobras, the sights, sounds and smells of historic cars in flight are just about impossible to resist. However, real racing costs real money. Dedicated racecars often aren’t street legal and always need garaging, transportation and maintenance. Plus, event sanctioning bodies require comprehensive safety equipment for car and driver alike. And wheel-to-wheel competition on the track can be daunting for beginners.

So what to do?

If you’re interested in vintage racing but don’t want to commit by purchasing a racecar right away, take your road car – either vintage or modern – to a nearby autocross event. Unlike road racing, autocrossing pits one car at a time against the clock, with the quickest lap taking the win. Numerous classes ensure even competition for most all cars and skill levels. Competitions are often held in parking lots with highway cones instead of walls and guard rails marking the course. Since rules typically don’t require roll cages, fire suits or racing harnesses, autocrossing thus provides a feel for race driving for the nominal cost of a single-day event entry and the gas it takes to get there.

Despite its simplicity, autocrossing imparts tons of knowledge. “Autocross is a great teacher,” says Randy Pobst, winner of six autocross national championships (and 10 more in road racing). “It’s a fabulous training ground because it has almost no risk, which lets you develop your skills without worrying about what might happen if you lose control of the car – which is a natural part of pushing the limits. That said, the greatest benefit is that autocross trains your eyes and your mind to think ahead. This is the single best thing you can do as a driver, and autocross is really good at teaching it.”

A typical autocross course has a dozen or more turns, from tight first-gear horseshoes up to third-gear esses or kinks. As such, speeds rarely eclipse 60 mph in most cars, adding to the safety factor. This low-speed character is good for beginners, good for families, and relatively more easy on tires and brakes than proper road-racing courses. But there’s still plenty of challenge wrapped into every 30- to 60-second lap. “The turns are tight by nature and tight turns require looking ahead,” Pobst adds. “They also require patience – resisting the urge to use lots of throttle while cornering. There’s only so much grip available from the tires, and the more you ask the car to accelerate, the less it will want to corner.”

Typically you can drive a local autocross with just a currently rated helmet as the only required safety equipment. But it’s worth noting where your car’s insurance coverage begins and ends. Typically, coverage fully applies while you’re driving to the event and even while you’re parked there. However coverage ceases the moment you enter the course, meaning that any damage suffered during competition is all yours.

Just tell your neighbor you were gunning for the lead at Le Mans.


Autocross resources

Sports Car Club of America (SCCA)
National Auto Sport Association (NASA)

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