Winning Autocross: 10 Things I Learned From A Championship Season

This has been a big year for me. Thanks to you, Racers HQ is thriving. (Download the Racers HQ Magazine app on iTunes) I’m so thrilled to be playing a role in your racing endeavor. It’s so humbling and I’m looking forward to 2017.

On a personal level I have successfully transitioned from the stunt driving world into the racing world by winning my first regional autocross championship. I won three out of nine events and only finished off the podium once in a field of twenty-four drivers. I simply cannot wait to compete at a higher level and bigger stage this coming season.

Even with how well the season went, I doubt I could have been winning autocross if I hadn’t been constantly learning. And, if you don’t already know, sharing valuable information is one of my absolute favorite things to do.

So, in classic form, here are ten most important things I learned from winning my first autocross championship. I highly recommend using them as you strategize for 2017.

 

1. Winning autocross with tires.

I feel like I’m always going on about tires. But I also don’t feel bad about it because you can’t  talk about them too much. Having a set of performance autocross tires was the biggest gamechanger for me. This one change instantly took me from mid-pack to competing for the win. A good set of performance tires are worth 1-2 seconds.

If you don’t fully understand why tires make a big difference, you have some research to do. The links below are incredibly helpful in getting you up to par and making you as competitive as possible.

I highly recommend learning why tires are so important, right down to the molecular level. If you’re shopping for a new set, Tire Rack has a great performance comparison of the latest autocross tires. The Bridgestone Potenza RE-71r still seems to be the top dog, with the BRGoodrich Rival S clinging to 2nd. 

 

2. iRacing will augment your physical racing skills.

There are a lot of people on the fence about iRacing and virtual racing simulators in general. And I genuinely can’t figure out why that is because iRacing is turning out to be a big deal. Multiple people have used iRacing to become professional racing drivers. The physics engine, graphics, and GPS/laser mapping are so realistic that several gamers have moved from iRacing into real pro racing.

The investment to start iRacing is minimal. I have a refurbished Logitech G35 with pedals, force feedback wheel, and six speed gearbox that I acquired for about $250. Can’t afford to race? Start iRacing right now. If you can’t afford $250 you aren’t trying hard enough and you clearly don’t want it. (Read more about iRacing, turning pro, and virtual sims)

I’ve been using iRacing for several months now and have experienced several instances where the sim helped in real world autocross. My most prominent memory was when I entered a sweeper that went through the timing lights at the end of the course. I was going a bit too fast and the rear of the car started to lose grip.

Rather than coming off the throttle and correcting (which likely would have spun the car), I added just a smidgen of throttle. This shifted enough weight to the rear and added enough rear grip to continue through the lights at speed in a small oversteer. This was a situation I frequently encountered inside the iRacing sim and had become familiar with. iRacing taught me the correct response and now I make better natural driving decisions without even thinking.

 

3. Do somethings that stands out (The Purple Cow theory).

The Purple Cow theory is beautifully explained in Seth Godin’s book, Purple Cow. The premise suggests that to stand out and be noticed, your brand (or company, campaign, nonprofit, etc) needs to have something unique and unusual that people will remember.

I saw this theory take effect several times in 2016. For example, the Racers HQ brand is being talked about because I offer monetary grassroots autocross sponsorships. Since no one else is doing that, it’s creating buzz in the amateur racing community. Over 300 people applied for further information about the sponsorship and likely told a few friends about it. (Read more about the Racers HQ sponsorship program)

This same philosophy is definitely working for Paul Sexton, who I’m sure you’ve heard of if you follow Racers HQ. By competing in a bright red Toyota Prius, Paul has gotten a ton of PR this season. He’s been on my podcast, Racers HQ Magazine, on the homepage of SCCA.com, and is supported by multiple entry level sponsors.

Madison Campeau has a naturally occurring Purple Cow: She’s a girl. There aren’t a whole lot of women in the amateur racing ranks, so she possesses an immediate PR advantage. Everyone will remember her. This, plus the fact that she just become the a 2016 World Karting Association national champion at 12 years of age, will easily solidify her in everyone’s memory. Madison will be featured in the February issue of Racers HQ Magazine.

Don’t get lost in the sea of Miatas winning autocross. Do something unique that people will never forget. One of the local drivers here in the Northeast has a large stuffed chimp that hangs from the spoiler of his tuned Subaru. Get creative. Paint your car like a taco. Install wig wag lights and use them during your runs. Whatever you do, you must pair consistent results along with your Purple Cow.

 

4. Get a data acquisition system.

This was another huge game changer for me. Rather than guessing about how make improvements to my next run at an autocross event, I’d let science tell me. Data systems can record information about speed, braking points, and other variables that determine your overall time.

The great part about data systems is that you can overlay your last couple of laps to see where you were faster or slower. After three or four runs you can piece together a strategy for a fast run. Rather than guessing about where to improve, you can quickly analyze the data between runs to implement a real, tangible plan.

Once you set the system up in the morning, it basically runs itself. When you pass the start marker, data starts being recorded. Once you pass the finish, recording stops. It’s incredibly simple and unbelievably valuable.

You may be pleasantly surprised about the price. I use the full version of Harry’s Lap Timer, which can be purchased for just $30. There’s even a $10 version with less features. If you want be that guy winning autocross, stop guessing and start using real information to make a positive plan for every single run.

 

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5. Don’t be too competitive.

The thought of winning is a powerful motivator. Winning is how you prove to yourself, and the world, that you can rise to the top. Winning is how you attract attention. It’s how you progress your career. But the desire to win has a downside.

The greater your desire to win, the greater your competitive spirit. Don’t get me wrong, you need to be competitive. You need to fuel the fire that drives you to be better. But don’t be so competitive that you isolate yourself from other competitors. Be quick to help others out. Loan them tools, talk tactics, and learn from each other.

I learned so much more near the end of 2016 than I could have imagined. By being friendly and talking shop with everyone I was racing against, I accomplished several things. First, I made some great friends. Second, I (and my brand) have a great reputation here in the northeast. And lastly, I picked up some great tactical advice from people who are faster than me.

Be approachable, friendly, and quick to help in the pits and in grid. If you can save the day for someone, they’ll tell your story. It’s an easy (and free) way to spread your brand. Remember, you don’t need to run a company to have a brand. *INSERT YOUR NAME* is a brand. Ross Bentley told me once that a brand is what people say about you when you aren’t around. (Listen to Ross’s guest appearance on the Racers HQ Podcast)

So be nice and reserve your ferocity for the track.

 

6. Never get into the car without a plan.

Something annoying always happens to me when I go racing without a strategy: I end up doing exactly the same thing as last time. If I won the previous time out I can justify it, even though I shouldn’t. I believe you should always strive for improvement. Just because you’re winning everything now doesn’t mean you will when you move up to the next level. And you should move up if you’re winning.

Having an actionable plan is the only way to ensure you’re progressing. Spend a little time figuring out what needs improvement. Have one of the fast guys ride with you. Maybe you’re ratcheting too much, or waiting a little too long to come back into the throttle. Pick one or two things and make them your focus for the entire day.

Going onto the track without a plan and expecting to become better is foolish. Getting more seat time is not the same as gaining experience. Experience is earned when you learn something new, make a plan with that new information, and implement it into your racing program.

Autocrossers have extremely limited seat time, and winning autocross doesn’t just happen. Don’t waste your precious seat time. Make a plan. (Download a free eBook which explains how to increase your seat time by 11,250%)

 

7. Don’t spread yourself too thin.

The first part of 2016 was pretty simple for me. I was getting my feet wet with the Racers HQ blog and racing on the weekends. I immersed myself in racing, read about it, studied it, fell asleep thinking about, and I got up to write about it. It was easy.

As the season progressed, my attention started being drawn in more directions. I started the Racers HQ Podcast, traveled to Qatar, and collaborated with other brands, started networking with industry leaders and interviewing the best racing drivers on earth, began conceptualizing Racers HQ Magazine, and brought in a partner to lighten the load. I was busy. Toward the end the racing season my results began to fall off.

I had stopped purposefully setting aside time to study racecraft, and it showed. Luckily I had built up enough of a points lead to win the championship by an entire event.

Even though I won the championship, I will never allow myself to repeat this kind of season. When I begin racing again, I will make time to do it the right way or I won’t start at all. This is a potent, powerful lesson that I happened to learn without losing anything. I was very lucky.

 

8. Ignore people who say autocross isn’t real racing.

There are lots of these ignorant, ridiculous people. No, let me rephrase that. The people are probably great, but their view of this particular topic is dangerously skewed.

I’ve shown time and time again that autocross is a very real and viable option for launching your career in professional racing. (Racers HQ Podcast Episode 002 and Episode 017) I’m not shooting from the hip or making wild claims here. Multiple professionals have used autocross as a springboard to a pro career.

The most common argument against autocross is that it’s not wheel to wheel, so it’s not real racing. That’s absurd. If that were true we’d have to say that drag racing, the World Rally Championship, Rally America, the Baja 1000, Pike’s Peak, and dozens of other popular series aren’t “real” racing. Any method or strategy that leads to a racing career is completely, wholly, and decisively legitimate.

My advice? Leave the naysayers to themselves. They’re only ruining their own chances of success, so move on and focus on what you need to do.

 

9. Commit to the entirety of the series.

This one seriously bums me out. There are so many talented drivers out there. Many of them might have won their entire series had they simply attended all the events. This kind of wavering commitment makes zero sense to me.

I can’t figure out why a talented driver would purposefully butcher his chances to win a season-long racing title, diminish his capabilities to prove consistency, and lower the possibility of getting sponsorship in the future.

This is why I’m always prattling on about the short-sightedness of skipping events. There were two drivers in my local club that earned an overall podium in their divisions for 2016. Neither of these drivers had any wins. But they still ended up on the podium by being more consistent than their competitors.

If you’re going to race, you must also commit. If you don’t feel like getting up early in the morning to go race, too bad. Gather yourself up, decide to make the tough decision, and look to the future. You’ll be glad you did.

 

10. Driver intelligence > shiny car parts.

Pay attention, because this one is most important.

We love modifying our cars. We’re car enthusiasts, that’s what we do. But it shouldn’t be.

I’m a massive proponent of leaving your car alone (with the exception of tires and perhaps an anti-roll bar). Shiny car parts are fun, I won’t argue with that. But there is a dark side to the world of tuning: your focus of improvement shifts away from your own ability and toward the next car part.

It’s true that better car parts have the potential to make you faster. In fact you might find massive gains. The problem lies in the fact that if you remove all those parts, you’ll stop winning autocross. You’ll be slow again.

Shiny car parts only make you a slightly faster poor driver. And there is no long term strategy in that. 

Real results will always come from knowledge that’s learned, implemented, and mastered. Sebastian Loeb doesn’t have more talent than anyone else. His seven consecutive WRC championships were won because he has a deeper knowledge of the racing world than his competitors.

There is no doubt about it: Sebastian Loeb will be fast in any car he drives.

 

2017 is coming to a city near you.

I know we haven’t quite landed on Christmas yet, but don’t let that fool you. The new racing season will be here before you know it. Whatever you do, don’t get caught going into the new season with no plan.

Implementing this information about tires, iRacing, Purple Cows, data, competition, planning, committed, and driver intelligence is a fantastic place to begin winning autocross for 2017.

If you approach the new year without an actual, tangible plan, you’ll have the same mediocre results as the previous year. Never waste the chance to improve yourself. And in this case, it won’t cost you a penny.

What do you have to lose?

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