Monday, March 17, 2008

Miata + Autocross = Education + Entertainment

Now that I own a proper sports car, I've decided to learn how to drive it well. Thus, last weekend, I took 2 days of autocross school taught by the Washington DC Region of the Sports Car Club of America. The Level 1 (first day) curriculum consisted learning how autoX events are run, learning how to work the course, walking the course, instructed driving of the course, and solo driving of that same course. In the Level 2 class (the second day), we did some figure-8 and slalom drills in the cars, did more course work, and got to do a lot of instructed and solo driving on the course. Overall, it was a fun and educational experience. I learned quite a lot about performance driving, I got to see some really cool cars driven very hard, and had the opportunity to meet some friendly people with at least one interest in common with me. The downside was that the ratio of driving to working the course was well below 1, and the ratio of driving to total non driving time was even lower. Real autocross events are quite a bit less expensive, and include actual competition against similarly capable cars, but have even lower duty cycles.

Here is some of what I learned and some anecdotes about the vehicles in attendance. (I'll leave out the actual driving techniques, since those are had to convey in text.)

Probably the most important lesson I learned at the event was that the driver is far more important than the car. I knew this was the case before I attended the schools, but the point was demonstrated and driven home repeatedly over the weekend. With one exception, the instructor was always significantly faster in a car than the owner was. I guess that's why they're instructors. Additionally, one member of a married couple sharing a car was much faster than the other.

The corollary to the above lesson is that there's no need for me to upgrade my car or buy a faster one until I can drive it at its limit. Fortunately, I think the Miata makes a good basis for learning performance driving; in the words of one instructor, "it's a forgiving car, but still a very capable one." For example, being front-engined and rear-wheel-drive, it will oversteer, but it's more like the car is saying, "By the way, we're going a little sideways," than "I'm going to swap ends right now!"

My little Miata can be driven much, much faster than I had thought. The instructors drove Mia much harder and faster than I did, but even I learned to get comfortable with reaching the cornering limit of the car. On the shorter-than-standard instructional course, the instructors turned in times just over 34 seconds. My very first run was 46 and change, but I worked my way down to a clean run at 36.7 s.

I had 3 instructors in my car over the weekend. Every time a new one got in my car, he said something like "I love Miatas." This pattern made me feel confident about my recent purchase.*

One of the instructors told me that each autoX school invariably has 2 Miatas, 2 BMWs, and 2 Subarus. That was the case on the first day, if you count the Mini Cooper S as a Bimmer. On the second day, we carried over about 1/3 of the cars and drivers. That day was apparently an anomaly: the only "BMW" was a (different) Cooper S, though we still had 2 MX-5s (1 different) and two (different) Subies. (All the Subarus were WRXs or STIs, by the way. Big surprise.)

Probably the rarest vehicle present was the 2003 Caterham Seven Superlight R, which was in attendance on Day 2. Caterham---pronounced "Kate-er-am"---owns the rights to Colin Chapman's design for the Lotus Seven, and they've been selling and refining the design for decades. The Sevens are extremely tiny, only about 1350 pounds, and have no bumpers, crumple zones, or airbags. Thus, they can only be registered in the States as kit cars. As you can imagine, they handle and brake very well, and, since one can spec one's Caterham with up to 260 brake horsepower,** they accelerate like nobody's business. I think the Caterham put in the fastest times of any stock car, in the high 29-second range. The build quality on the Seven was quite disappointing, however.

My favorite car at the even was the 2004 Lotus Elise, which was there on Day 1. The Elise weighs just under 2000 lbs, is powered by a Toyota Celica engine (actually made by Yamaha) tuned to put out 190 bhp. Almost all unneeded weight is removed--the interior is just the exposed aluminum chassis and some carbon-fiber dash and transmission-tunnel bits, thought the workmanship is top-notch. The bodywork is gorgeous, and did I mention it was Chrome Orange? Aside from all that, the Elise comes with all the DOT-required safety equipment, a removable but well-sealing top, and a small trunk. Thus, it's almost as practical as my Miata as a daily driver. Anyway, the Lotus ran times just a bit slower, than the Seven, I think.

If the best looking car at the event weren't the Elise, then it would have to be the 2008 Corvette Z06. I must say that the edgy bodywork of the C6 'Vette has really grown on me, and the extra intakes on the Z06 make the car look mean. I was almost afraid my little Mia was going to get sucked up if it got too close. The Corvette was unable to really use all its power on the very tight course, and it was hampered by a footprint nearly as big as a Mustang's---see next paragraph---but it's comparatively light weight and sophisticated suspension enabled it to turn in times almost as low as the Lotus'.

Two modified late-model Mustang GTs were there, and I must say that autocross is not the Mustang's element. The course was way too tight for it to use all it's power, and its mass (around 3500 lbs), footprint, and crappy live-axle rear suspension meant that it couldn't brake or handle well at all. Even in the hands of an instructor, the cars were only turning in times of around 39 seconds.

There were 3 different Honda S2000s over the 2 days. Each was silver. (I think 90% of all the S2000s I've seen have been some shade of silver. That's fine, they look good in that color.) You might think of the S2000 as a slightly higher-performance Honda version of a Miata. You'd be wrong. They are much faster cars, which partially explains their substantially higher prices. Stock Miatas with 1.8- to 2.0-liter engines, even my turbo-charged one, are classed in C Stock, while the S2000 is placed 2 classes up, in A Stock. By comparison, the Lotus and Z06 are classed in the fastest stock class, Super Stock. (I think the Caterhams are classed as Prepared or Modified, even when straight from the factory.)

The car that turned in the fastest times was a modified Mitsubishi Evo IX. In the hands of the owner, who was faster than the instructor, it turned in times as low as 29.1 s. And man was it loud!

So, I'm sure you're bored with all my car blather by now, so I'll stop writing.

* On a related note, a semi-recent Question of the Day over at Jalopnik also makes me feel good about owning Mia. They asked, "What's the best real-word driver's car?" A few comments suggested various BMW 3-series cars, a few suggested the Mini Cooper S, and a few suggested various Imprezza WRXs or STIs. Numerous other cars were also put forth, but probably the most common submission (and the choice of the Jalopnik staffer who posed the question) was the Mazda MX-5 Miata.

** Until the ridiculous 500-bhp V8-powered Caterham goes on sale.


  1. The fast time turned in by that Mitsubishi (and its apparent popularity in racing events) is surprising to me, because I rented a stock-trim Lancer a few years ago (after the murder of my beloved Protege), and it was just a dreadful car. It only had about 8k miles on it, but the dash rattled, the window seals leaked, and it managed the trick of feeling floaty and disconnected while simlutaneously providing an unpleasantly rough ride. The racing version of that car must have nary a part in common with its base model.

    I'm also surprised by the time the 'Vette threw down; I didn't realize they handled like that. According to my dad, who used to drive in rally-type events on occasion in his youth, the Corvettes of the 60's handled like tanks due to their poor load distribution, and on a short course, his MG could absolutely smoke one. (On a long, straight course, it was a different story.)

  2. I didn't get a chance to ride in the Lancer Evo, but I do know that Mitsu has been running them in the World Rally Championship for several years, with some success. I think you are probably correct about the small parts overlap between the base Lancer and the AWD, turbocharged Evo. Of course, the Evo probably still has a rattling dash and a harsh ride, just like the one you drove.

    The 'Vette has come a long way since the 1960s. It has a much superior suspension and weight distribution now. In fact, the Corvette is technically mid-engined, since the engine sits behind the front axle and thus between the axles. (This is called a front-mid layout.) The base Corvette and the Z06 have almost 50/50 weight distribution, but the ZR1 is a bit nose-heavy due to the supercharger, intercooler and all their plumbing.

    One interesting thing about the Corvette and the Mustang. Because the course was so small and the cars so big, they appeared to be going slower than they were. The "scale speed," so to speek, was lower than my Miata going the same speed.

  3. Update: I added a couple of paragraphs right at the beginning about how the driver is more important than the car.

  4. Two more silly questions:

    How fast would a standard, unmodified FWD compact like my 120-ish hp 2001 Civic run that course?

    How similar was the real-world autocross experience to Forza?

  5. Those aren't silly questions. I'm happy to have someone to talk to about this, since Alison has heard more than she cares to.

    Actually, one of the most fun cars to watch was an unmodified 1996-1999 Civic that had more than a few dents. It was entertaining because the drivers (both owner and instructor) were pushing that car around the course pretty fast, even though it wasn't really in its element. Body roll was more than modest, to say the least. I didn't see or don't remember the times put up by that car, but I can give you some helpful info.

    The A Stock S2000s went as fast as about 30 s.

    My C Stock Miata went as fast as 34.5 s when driven by an instructor.

    The G Stock Mini Cooper S turned in times as low as about 36 s.

    It looks like your Civic, since it's not an Si, would be in H Stock. I'd guess it could turn in times below 38 s, maybe as low as 37.

    I think car racing is one of the many endeavors where you run into diminishing returns.

  6. One thing to keep in mind is that an autocross course is very different than the kinds of circuits in Forza. In autoX, you only ever have the steering wheel pointed straight ahead if you are transitioning from a left turn to a right, or vice versa.

    Certainly, Forza does as good a job as you could expect, without going to a giant high-speed 3-axis rotation stage with 360* of display.

    Certainly, Forza can't capture the forces you feel on your body. When I wasn't driving, I was holding onto the Jesus handle with one hand and the underside of my seat with the other. Actually, when I rode in the M3 the first morning, I was wishing I hadn't had quite such a large snack beforehand.

    In answer to your question, Forza does pretty well, but you really have to do it in person to get the full-sensory experience.

  7. Oh, I forgot to add this info about classing:

    Here's the SCCA's list of classifications, by class:

    Here's the list sorted by make:

    Note that "NOC" means not otherwise covered.

    Here's a description of what constitutes a "stock" car:

    You can find the corresponding descriptions for "modified," "prepared," and so on, here:

    If you are actually interested in trying autoX out, I encourage you to do it, but I'd go watch an event or attend a school before driving an event. I hasten to point out that there's pretty much no chance that you will injure yourself or your car (at least, if you have a rev limiter).