gamut (2006-30)

I know your type. Young, dumb, full of come, all clanking balls and attitude and swagger. You probably think you’re bad. You think your shit doesn’t stink. In short, you’re a punk.

And you probably drive a punk-ass car, too, some overhyped little sporty number that you’ve bastardized with a ridiculous off-the-shelf body kit, added a whale-tail spoiler and some other useless crap, cut the springs and lowered it so far to the ground that a snail couldn’t crawl under it without getting road rash. You’ve got a bad attitude, a bad car, and you think you can drive .

Well prove it, punk. Trek out to an autocross event—they have ‘em every two or three weeks or so, March thru November, at various high school parking lots and hicktown malls across East Tennessee —and ask for John Brown. You’ll know him; he’s slim, tanned, 50ish with a neatly trimmed gray beard, looks a lot like your uncle who always shows up late at Christmas, the one who laughs a lot but never says much. “He is so mine,” you’ll think, and you’ll be so wrong. Just then you’ll notice his car—a 2003 yellow Porsche Boxster S with shocks and tires and brake pads that together are worth damn near as much as the bluebook on your heap—and if you’re half bright, you’ll start to wonder what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into.

But you’re not half bright. Besides, John’s a good man. Running against you in the Porsche wouldn’t even be fair; he’ll be happy to beat you in your own car. So you’ll take turns. John will go first, just to show you how it’s done, even let you ride along in the passenger’s seat as he navigates the course, an invisible maze that weaves through a bunch of orange highway cones scattered in seemingly haphazard fashion through the parking lot. Twenty-eight seconds and 12 or 15 tightly executed hairpins later, and it’ll be your turn. He’ll even allow you a few slow practice runs, to get a feel for the course.

On second thought, screw all that. They probably won’t even let you pull out on the course until you’ve gone through SCCA Autocross training school, held every spring before the season begins. Because these autocross guys have seen it before. They know better than to let a punk like you run shitwild on their regular course.

“Most people who don’t ‘get it’ show up thinking they’re going to stomp everybody,” Brown says. “It looks a lot easier than it is. And it’s one of those sports where the harder you try to go, the slower you are.”

“Slow down to go fast.” That’s one of the sayings they have in autocross. It’s a sport that’s been around for decades now—guys (and more and more often, girls and women, too) with day jobs and families and whatnot who get together on weekends at big empty lots and run time trials through highway cones, usually under sanction of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). It’s not much of a spectator sport, to be sure, but the participants—many of whom go on to compete in full-on SCCA or professional road racing—are too caught up in the day to care.

“You’re either hooked, or you hate it, right from the start,” says Brown, who obviously falls into the former category. An ex-motorcycle racer, he was introduced to autocross back in 1977, when he bought a Fiat 124 Spider from a dealer who was into the sport. A former car dealer himself, and now a manager at LNS Motorsports, he’s got a better line on new cars than most, and he looks a little sheepish when you ask him just how many he’s run through over the years.

“I quit counting at 50,” he says. “Maybe 40 percent of us [in autocross] are involved in the car business one way or another. We have all kinds of other people who run, too, doctors and lawyers and brain surgeons. But no matter what you do, you have to be a car enthusiast, not just a driving enthusiast. It’s a big-picture thing.”

Here’s how it works. On a Sunday morning in July at Smokies Baseball Stadium in Sevierville, a herd of SCCAers show up early and set out traffic cones, on a roped-off section that takes up about two-thirds of the Interstate side of the parking lot.

Contestants start filing in before 9 a.m., most of them driving their cars to the venue, but a few actually towing them onto the lot on big fancy trailers that fairly scream “Check out my ride!” The cars run the gamut from staid-looking “grocery getters”—Subarus and Preludes or an old gray Scirroco beater—to pimped-out racers like the well-kept cherry red #47 Sprite, or the 2002 NCAC Champion “Hoosier” F-mod, a bright yellow super-miniature racer with an Indy-style body, its credentials pasted on the side.

“Most of them are daily drivers; only a few of them are not,” explains Scott Gibson, a local SCCA officer. A stocky, 60ish fellow with a gray beard and an ever-present woven straw hat to shade him, when he isn’t racing, from the withering July sun, Gibson has been doing this for 30 years now, though he adds drolly that, “you couldn’t tell from my driving.” His racer is also his daily driver, a boxy yellow 2002 Mini Cooper S he runs in the so-called STX touring class. The ST is for “street tire,” he says, which means the cars in his class must have the minimum DOT-approved tire treadwear (durability) rating of 160 (the average car on the street rides on 300-400 treadwear tires; a stock car racer runs on 40).

“Without the right tires, you’re not going to do well at all,” Gibson says. “Autocross is mostly a combination of driving skill and car setup. Horsepower is probably the last, least important factor.”

To prove his point, Gibson doffs his straw sun visor and pulls on one of those comically oversized fiberglass-racing helmets—safety first in autocross—and ponies up to the starting line for his first run. The nearly day-long event will see 80 competitors in a dozen or so classes each run the winding course through five different times, looking for the single best time of the day. 

From the sideline, the heats don’t look so fast, the occasional squealing tire notwithstanding. But inside the car, each one is a nifty white-knuckle hellride, especially for the driver throwing the whole of his concentration into navigating all of those weaves and turns and double switch-backs without ever leaving second gear. As another racer puts it, in almost Yogi Berra-like fashion, “A run is 30 or 40 seconds of 100 percent concentration.”

“Screwed up there… Screwed up again there…,” Gibson mutters through clenched teeth to the guest who is riding shotgun on his first go-round. In the end, it’s not a great run, though it’s certainly a respectable one, as he finishes the course in just over 33 seconds, with no penalties.

Almost as difficult as the driving itself is figuring out which class to drive in. Depending on who you ask, there are 24 classes, or maybe 26, or more, or less. The actual number is allegedly recorded somewhere in the arcane depths of a 100-page rulebook, which is available online, for those of us with the capacity to read PDFs.

For instance, one driver tells me there are eight “stock,” or (relatively) unmodified, classes—Stock Class A through Stock Class H, plus Super Stock. Which actually makes nine, but who’s counting? Stock class competitors aren’t allowed to change anything on their cars, save for tires, shocks, and brake pads. Which seems reasonable enough, until you consider that John Brown’s Stock Porsche has $10,000 shocks, and a $1,100 set of tires.

The bottom line is that from the standpoint of vehicular set-up, everyone in a particular class should start on more-or-less equal footing. Says driver David Disney, “There’s a class for almost anything you drive out here, from ‘I haven’t touched it,’ to ‘I’ve done everything in the world.’”

After they run, many of the drivers walk around their charges with spray bottles full of distilled water, cooling their tires between heats. “There’s an optimum temperature for tires for adhesion,” Gibson explains.

There’s also plenty of time for drivers to kill between heats. Even for mediocre competitors, the total racing time at a five-heat event is scarcely more than three minutes; the rest of the time—maybe eight hours or more—is spent attending to your car, taking turns working the race, or shooting the bull with fellow ‘crossers who’ve also given over their summer weekends to chronic sunburn and driving too fast in a parking lot.

“How’d you do, Chris,” Gibson asks of fellow driver Chris Harp, who’s just finished a run in his black Subaru.

“I got slower,” Harp says with a weary smile.

“That’s good,” Gibson chortles. Then he adds, “No, really, it’s a very friendly competition. If somebody’s car breaks down, someone will usually lend them a car. Sometimes that means getting beat by your own car, which has happened to me several times. Winning is good, but my goal each time out is just to do my best with the car I have, which today is probably about 31 seconds.”

Two heats later, Gibson hits the mark with a 31.8, good for a respectable placing in his class and his best run of the day.

“I went out expecting to be real fast, because I had a cool car,” Disney says. “But I ended up realizing I didn’t know how to control my car as well as I should. I thought fishtailing was fast. But I learned pretty quick to maintain a grip on the road.”

Now he’s a real stud, a several-time regional class champion in the Street Modified II class with his turbo-charged 1999 Miata; he’s leading in points in his class for the current season and expects another championship this year. He’s also an instructor for the springtime SCCA Autocross driving class, and he’s got a few tips to offer, so maybe you won’t make such a jackass of yourself the first time you drive that sorry bucket of bolts you call a car out onto an autocross parking lot.

“Don’t cut the springs just to lower your car,” he says. “It gives you a really poor ride. And body kits and spoilers don’t do any good. They just add weight.”

And then there’s that driving too hard thing—remember “slow down to go fast?” Because nothing will make you look stupider quicker than slamming into a tight turn coming out of third gear, your rear end pulling around so hard you end up on the wrong side of the parking lot. “Most of the time, your car shouldn’t get out of second gear.”

And one other thing: no jacking around, either—no doughnuts or spinouts or whooping like some liquored-up waterhead Dukes of Hazzard refugee. “We’re picky,” Disney says. “We don’t put up with people screwing around. We want the site owners to let us come back again.”

So how about it, studboy? Come out to an autocross event some weekend, or else sign up for SCCA Autocross training school. Put your money where your muffler is. And the leave the whale tail at home, punk.

For autocross info, go to www.etrscca.org .