If you’ve always wanted to win a sanctioned national racing championship and didn’t start driving go-karts until you could walk, autocross might be your best bet.
This is why I stand on the 60,000 square meters of concrete at the former site of Canadian Forces Base Summerside in Prince Edward Island. This area, once used to park, load and unload planes, now accommodates 81 people who want to ride as fast as possible as part of the 2022 Canadian Autoslalom Championships.
Autocross, or autoslalom, is a timed motor sport. It started on fields in Britain in the 1950s, but quickly moved to pavement because it’s faster. One car at a time runs the clock on a course made up of pylons. It’s a test of maneuverability rather than pure power, but it’s also a serious mental exercise. Before running, you have about an hour to walk the course and its hundreds of cones to familiarize yourself with it, followed by four timed runs.
Hit a cone and get a time penalty. Turn away from class, you don’t have time. Your riding style should be balanced between aggressive and cautious while trying to learn a whole new track at the same time.
Imagine Formula 1 drivers getting just four laps to qualify for a race on a new track that’s less forgiving than the Monaco Grand Prix.
The beauty of autocross is that any car can enter. That really means everything, as there was a Nissan Micra at this year’s event, parked alongside highly modified Chevrolet Corvettes and purpose-built single-seater race cars. And, thanks to an incredibly arcane mathematical equalization formula for picking the winner, all three of these vehicle types can compete for victory.
Wide open terrain makes it almost impossible to hit anything larger than a pylon. Courses designed to keep most cars in second gear and under 100 kilometers per hour make the sport easy on your engine and brakes, so it’s very friendly for the everyday driver. Most of the cars participating in the race will be used to return home afterwards.
I started autocross 10 years ago in a bone Honda Civic Hybrid. Yes, a hybrid-electric car with 110 horsepower on a good day and a CVT transmission. With sticky tires, this car finished in the top five at a local event. I have since moved on to faster rides.
For this event in Summerside, I’m driving a 2022 Subaru BRZ. The latest generation of the rear-drive sport coupe continues to be a serious autocross contender and I wanted to see if the second-generation, newer, and slightly more powerful, was up to the challenge.
Race day is an early start. The course opens for walking at 8am, and if you want a chance to see it beforehand, you better get there early and early. Drivers will drive the long course and try to memorize the hundreds of cones. They look for places where they can save time, where to go wide or hug a peak tightly, and when what looks like a straight line is actually a series of small turns.
If you want the full experience, arrive the day before. People don’t tow cars from Quebec and Ontario just to try to win a trophy. For many attendees, this is part of a family vacation. An excuse to visit a new part of the country and enjoy PEI’s red beaches. for a long weekend.
So, the day before the race, there is a party. Not wild, since most of us need to be up for that 8am start, but a few hours so we can hang out with people who enjoy the same hobby as you.
It’s also a chance to assess your competition, empathize with people who couldn’t get “the right tire” for the event, and prepare your apologies for why you might be slow tomorrow.
With autocross, every participant in a race also has to work. If you compete in the morning, you work in the afternoon. To work is to run after the cones. With drivers pushing the limits of skill and car, the cones are brushed, rubbed and sometimes driven into a different zip code. Workers will put the cones back in place before the next car enters the track.
Our event has two race groups, each containing approximately half of the 81 cars. Autocross rules have a dizzying array of car classes to keep similar vehicles competing against each other. It starts with six classes ranging from the near-stock Street class to purpose-built racing cars in the Modified class. In each of these categories, cars are grouped together with other cars of similar performance.
With only four races to get your time low, autocross is important for engagement and memory. You can spare a race to make sure you know where you’re going, but the rest should focus on reducing that time.
A glance at the timesheet shows you the most experienced participants. All of their runs will be within seconds of each other. Beginners will take a huge amount of time in each race, showing that they are learning the course and their car.
I am one of those who discover my car, but the 2022 Subaru BRZ is a dream for events like this. The first-gen car absolutely dominated autocross in my part of the country, and the results show the rig is still a strong contender.
Why? Rear-wheel drive and an affordable price help, but it’s the drive that holds it together. It is a car that makes it easy to find the grip limit when braking, cornering and accelerating. More importantly, it’s easy to stay within those limits. To dial in exactly the reverse spin you need in fractions of a second, you need it without having to push the pedals like a raging bull to do it.
As I learn the car, I take blocks off my times on the first day of the race. That’s enough to leave me sitting 11th in my class at the end of the day.
The second day reverses the direction of the course and the order of passage. Today I will be competing in the 31 degree afternoon heat instead of the cooler morning. This time I know the car. But my closest competitors too. The driver of the BMW 128i that I cut two tenths of a second on Saturday stepped up his game to enter the top 10. He, his car and his tires can handle the heat better than me.
Event winners are determined by adding your fastest runs from each day, and I finish in two and a half seconds. He climbs 10th, I fall 12th in my category and 7th out of 12 in my class.
The fastest car in gross times was an impressive 2004 Subaru WRX driven by Simon Gagnon of Club Autosport Delta de Québec. It is a heavily modified car with slick tires over 30 centimeters wide and a heat exchanger mounted where a track car would put a rear spoiler.
While Gagnon learns that he was the fastest driver on both days, this does not translate to a trophy as first place is decided using adjusted times.
The adjustment takes into account the results of thousands of top cars and drivers and their finishes at some of the autocross races sanctioned by its governing federations, such as the GDS/SDG ASN Canada FIA in that country, or its American counterpart , the Sports Car Club of America.
Not everyone likes this method, but it works. And that’s how it’s done. This is also why adjusted and unadjusted results are shown.
The trophy for this event went to Peter L (not everyone wants his full name in the results) in a highly-prepared 2014 Scion FR-S. Simon’s Subaru finished fourth. I was 50th out of 81, but to show how close it was, half a second would have moved me up five places. Or down the results almost the same number.
We are all hot and tired, but it was a great weekend. Competitors help each other go faster, help fix broken cars, and just have a good time. I’ve already registered for my next local event.
You want to try?
The Greater Toronto Area is home to several autocross clubs including Push It to the Limit Toronto, Oshawa Motor Sport Club, Twin Lakes Motor Club Barrie and the Canadian Automobile Sport Clubs – Ontario Region