Hey, You—You Should Try Autocross

You can improve your car control skills, even if you have no interest in racing.

Subaru BRZ at an autocross
Justin Hughes

I discovered autocross by accident when I stumbled into a Boston Chapter BMW CCA event (mumble mumble) years ago. I got hooked immediately, and entered every event I could. I was in it mainly for the fun, but it was still frustrating to see my name consistently at the bottom of the class results. I was giving it everything my my old Mercury Tracer had (which, admittedly, wasn't much), sliding and squealing the poor tires everywhere I could. Then a grandpa who looked like he was out for a Sunday drive in his E28 535i would beat me by a good nine seconds or so. This is what made me start re-evaluating my aggressive driving style that I learned from Knight Rider and The Dukes of Hazzard and start learning how to actually drive.

Driver's Ed didn't count. Neither did my parents yelling at me behind the wheel of my mom's Jeep Cherokee. Sure, I learned how to stay in my lane (a skill more drivers on the road today need to relearn) and parallel park, but there was one very important element missing: car control. The first time most people experience how a car handles at or beyond its limits is immediately before having their first crash. It's the absolute worst time to be learning this - right then is when you need those skills the most!

Forget the competition, car classes, and trophies. Autocross is the perfect place to explore the limits of your car and yourself as a driver. Most events take place in empty parking lots or airfields, with nothing to hit except those pesky cones that seem to keep jumping out in front of you. You can push the limits, exceed them, and recover without worrying about running into that tree, mowing down a pedestrian, or getting arrested for reckless driving. Worst case, you completely lose control, spin out, knock over a few cones, and carry on. If you're like me, you'll most likely having a good laugh about it too.

But you're not here just to hoon around. Sure, that's part of it, but even more important is the opportunity to find your car's limits in a mostly consequence-free environment. You'll learn if your car tends toward snap oversteer or terminal understeer. Then you'll learn how to recover from it. And then you'll learn how to not get into that situation in the first place. You'll leave the event a better driver than you came in. Personally, I find myself less tempted to speed on the street if I hit the autocross or track regularly. I get my speed demon urges out where it's legal and safe. I don't need to take twisty on-ramp at 60—I know the car and I can do it because we did a similar maneuver at last weekend's autocross, so I have nothing to prove.

I think every driver should attend at least one autocross during their driving career. If I ruled the world, car control training would be mandatory for all new drivers. And there are plenty of options for formal training. I was one of In Control's original instructors in the Boston area. There's also Tire Rack Street Survival and Ford Driving Skills For Life, both excellent programs that teach car control skills. But if these programs are too expensive or don't visit your area, at least try an autocross. Even the skills you learn at one event will make you a better driver for the rest of your life. And who knows: you might decide you like it and come back for more.