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Gollum

Report: My first Autox

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So, hopefully this isn't too obnoxious to post here (as there's no west coast track section). Just thought I'd share my experience of my first autox, how it went, what I learned, and what I'll do differently or look forward to in the future.


Location:

Sonoma Raceway. Course was prepped behind main grand stands. There was an on-track event happening at the same time organized by the same club/org, so the main paddock area was used by "the big boys" paying for track time.

Format:

First off, this was a non-competitive event. Field of about 60 drivers at the beginning of the day, split into two groups. We did two sessions A group drives, B Group works then B Group drives, A group works before lunch. After lunch, we did 4 more sessions, ending the day at 5:10pm. The day started of course with a driver's meeting discussing safety, expectations, safety, cone working, safety, format, and safety. After the safety was safetied we did a course walk and discussed the "safe" line (Sonoma doesn't allow instructing, no talk of "fast" lines!). There was also a second driver's meeting after lunch which I missed as I lost track of time fixing something on my car (more on that later). The groups were staged parked in two rows at an angle. One line would pull out bit by bit, staging for their run, and once through the next side would start lining up. Nobody was counting runs, just keeping the cars rolling as often as safe/possible. Though this wasn't a competitive event, they had timing equipment on hand so you could catch your time as you slowed down after the finish line. Super helpful/awesome.

What I brought:

I roped a friend with quite a bit more track experience (mostly drift, some Lemons, etc) to be my wing man, and also hold me accountable to make sure I actually attended and didn't pull my motor out for an excuse to not go. So we'd talked ahead of time to make sure we didn't double up too badly on supplies/tools and did our best to support each other. That said, I made a spreadsheet (google docs ftw) so I could track what I needed to pack still, and also for future reference to reflect on. Here's the list:

Hat
Helmet Sock
Tire Pressure Gauge
Chalk
Folding Chair
Water Bottle
Sun Block
Timing Light
Paper Towels
Nitrile Gloves
Ear Plugs
Tape
Cardboard
Laptop
Laptop Charger
Power Inverter
Multimeter
Test Light
Long Flat Screwdriver
Short Flat Screwdriver
Long Philips Screwdriver
Short Philips Screwdriver
3/8 Ratchet
3/8 Socket Set
3/8 Extensions
Zip Ties
10mm Wrench
12mm Wrench
13mm Wrench
14mm Wrench
17mm Wrench
Crecent Wrench

That's obviously just my main column, with other columns for quantity, item details, URL if relevent, etc.

You'll notice Helmet isn't on this list. That's because my buddy had one he was gifting to me (friends are great!). It was his old one, mildly worn, with a Snell 2010 certification, so hopefully it's still good for a few seasons.

It also helps to have a friend who races regularly to give you tips (hat tip to Jesse over at DrivenDaily in New Hampshire). He shot me over his packing list, and while far more extensive he helped note some key items and some basic guidance on what to expect. He was the one to tell me to bring chalk and brought up side wall marking.

Results:

I was about to get somewhere between 15-20 runs in for the day, which was fantastic. I started my first run just putting around, making sure not to get lost and loafed out a 47 second lap. Feeling a bit more confident I wouldn't get lost, I adding some power the next go around, and ran a 38.something. I then ran a 37, and was notified I missed a gate. Woops. Pay attention! I didn't have an issue getting lost again throughout the day, and took a couple runs to get down into the 33/34 second range, where I sat most of the day. I did manage a 32.064 which I was thrilled about, though my friend was running solid 30/31's all day, so I was still a good bit behind that. Towards the end of the day I got some tips from ride alongs, and was able to see another 2 seconds out there. But I ran out of time to put it all together. That's probably the most frustrating part of the day, to feel like I needed just a few more runs, but the day was over. Working the track was great fun too though, as I was able to see a huge variety of vehicles as well as skill levels involved. From Tesla 3's creaming most of us, to an old 67 Camaro with probably six figures into it that was nothing to laugh at and put down solid times all day. Then on the other end there's a girl attending with her boyfriend, him in a SN95 and her in an 80's nissan hardbody. It was her first event, and I felt like cheering her on every run as I saw her times start at 50+ seconds and whittle their way down to a 38 (and honestly, it was a truck with a mild lift running 28"+ tall wheels, I'm not sure I'd have been any faster in it). It was also healthy to see/watch newer muscle cars span the distance from 28 seconds to 35 seconds, showing just how much of it is driver and confidence in the vehicle. All in all I felt great about my personal results, and while definitely found plenty of aspects to work on, was also encouraged that I'm not incapable of driving decently.

The Vehicle:

It's at this point I get to start making excuses. So get ready. The vehicle is a '75 280Z. It last weighed in on truck scales at 2280. Tank was probably at about 1/4 at that time. The engine is a L28ET running megasquirt (all built an tuned by me). According to my virtual dyno (which feel free to take with a grain of salt, but I can also give you all my data to back up my known degrees of accuracy) makes about 180 peak HP at about 6,000 but is also making 150hp at 4,300 and carries 160hp to 6500. So it's a nice fat HP curve. The big issue, is the tires. They're "what I've had" sitting on my shelf for.... 9 years? They're Sumitomo HTR 200 (205/60R14). It's a 380TW tire, so not the hardest tire in the world, but it's age probably isn't helping. It's also definitely an all season tire, with deep water shedding grooves. And of course they haven't been heat cycled or the like. I know I'd have ran faster times with better tires, but like I stated earlier, I could see piles of time left out on the track. I plan on buying some commuter tires soon, and will be buying 15" wheels with some "fun" tires to wear to the track next spring.

What I learned:

I need to be more aggressive with the throttle. My idea of "at the edge" apparently isn't at the edge enough. Because I'm still feeling traction limited all the time, I wasn't dipping to 1st in places I should have been. My digital gauge/dash was on the fritz, which made me less weary about pushing the RPM's in first without any form of a shift light, and looking through logs, I rarely reached 5k and even then that was only in 2nd. First was only ever reaching 4,200, so I definitely let piles of room on the table considering I can run to 6800 all day. I also didn't feel like I really had enough time to play with tire pressures with this format. There was hardly enough time to run back to my parking space 200 feet away to grab the tire pressure, let alone check all my tires. By the time I grabbed the chalk and was marking my tires and seeing the results, I realized I could have dropped a lot of air but wasn't sure it even mattered with how much time was being left out there due to me, not the tires. Another big lesson learned, was that my car didn't break. That was the big goal of the day, but it was nice to REALLY thrash on the car and find it holding up. When something has been in the garage for this long, it's hard to feel like you've REALLY checked every bolt... Also, it was 90+ degrees out there, in the shade. I couldn't have brought too much water. I kept refilling from faucets at the track, which was okay, but I wish I'd brought more. It also took me too long in the day to lose my propriety and just dunk my hat and shirt in the sink and wear wet clothing. Once I did that I realized I'd been quite dumb/silly all day. I was much happier being cooler and wet (fun note, we don't have considerable humidity here like most of Texas, so getting wet will quickly drop your skin temps what feels like 10+ degrees since the water evaporates so quickly). Another little driver less-learned was that I need to be willing to chew more wheel with my outside hand when it can prevent a shuffle and allow smoother steering. One main low speed turn kept me puzzled most of the day as I felt I couldn't get my wheel moved fast enough to exit where I wanted. I don't want to think about what stick 225 or 245 tires in the front will be like turning, but I can see that I definitely need to become more economic with my movements if I want to have any arms left at the end of another day like this. Some other lessons learned: A basket somewhere would be a handy, as I need a place to keep things like chalk and the tire pressure gauge IN the car, so I'm not running around grabbing those every-run items. My helmet hits the roof, which means when I get a kirkey or similar seat I'll need to drop my seating position about 3" if I want to pray to be SCCA legal post-cage. This might put my visibility much lower than I'm used to/comfortable with, and will likely run extra padding on the street for this reason. My friend used milk crates for his supplies. I used cardboard boxes (and a backpack)... I was jelly. I need to get better boxes for the stuff/items. An unreliable dash won't ruin your day, but it's quite annoying. Need to solve ECU to Phone communication drop outs.

What I'll do different:

Go to more events. This was $75, and probably the most fun I've had under $100 in a loooong time. It was a great way to spend a day. I should do it more. I also should try to  ride-along more. Several strangers asked if they could join in, and it was great to get other people's feedback, but there is no reason I couldn't have been taking notes on their driving. I also need to be better prepped from a toolbox perspective. I could use something like a metal tackle box for most of what I need for events like this, and could/should probably just spend the money to duplicate the base essentials.

What when wrong:

Since I mentioned working on the car. I'd been having some standing idle temp control issues with the car, and I thought that maybe my head temp sensor was sitting way above the coolant temp sensor, so I'd pulled the plug I had, and moved the sensor, Well, when I put the plug back I didn't apply more sealant, and of course it leaked. Over lunch we managed to get the plug reinstalled with a couple wraps of electrical tape, and that stopped the slow drip. In fact, now that I think about it, that tape is still on there.... I should fix that....

Anyway, some videos for fun. I don't have any of my car because of a strict hard mount only rule for cameras (safety first!). So here's my friend in his 280ZX:

And this was the fastest car I witnessed in the B group (26 second range) while I worked the course. You never know what vehicle will be fast ( a good lesson learned ) but talking to him later this guy was obviously a track rat.

Enjoy! Hope you like the book I wrote for yall.

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That sounds like a fun day! 15-20 runs sounds like a lot compared to a normal autox event? Did you have to work cones at all?

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Welcome, and good read! (must admit I only skimmed it but what I did read was good stuff. 🙂 ) glad you enjoyed your first event.

15-20 runs is quite a bit for a typical autox event-- often Houston area will hold "roookie schools" where you get 30+ runs, but a normal autoX day you will only get 3-4 runs per class/entry.  thus the reason I quit doing them years ago.   but for a first event, that's a good number of runs and really helps to let you get the feel of things before you stomp on it.  no need to try to rush straight out of the gate-  learn the basics at a good pace and then next event you'll be closer to the limit on the first run.

Keep it up- the addiction is only beginning!

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3 hours ago, robertcope said:

That sounds like a fun day! 15-20 runs sounds like a lot compared to a normal autox event? Did you have to work cones at all?

From what I understand, that's a lot of runs indeed. I've talked with guys that say some events they only get 4-5 timed runs for the day. And while nobody was out there forcing people, it was strongly advised to work the course when your group wasn't running. I took no issue with putting on the high-viz and chasing cones and waiving flags. Some of the best discussion was actually hanging out at the worker stations on course and discussing what we were seeing from the various drivers/cars and their approach to the course.

1 hour ago, Matt93SE said:

Welcome, and good read! (must admit I only skimmed it but what I did read was good stuff. 🙂 ) glad you enjoyed your first event.

15-20 runs is quite a bit for a typical autox event-- often Houston area will hold "roookie schools" where you get 30+ runs, but a normal autoX day you will only get 3-4 runs per class/entry.  thus the reason I quit doing them years ago.   but for a first event, that's a good number of runs and really helps to let you get the feel of things before you stomp on it.  no need to try to rush straight out of the gate-  learn the basics at a good pace and then next event you'll be closer to the limit on the first run.

Keep it up- the addiction is only beginning!

No worries! My wife always jokes "what book are you writing today" so I understand I tend to be long winded and never expect everyone to pay attention to every detail.

Overall I was thrilled to get in as much driving as I did, especially with such a large group. This same organization (trackmasters) does an event just like this every couple of months for most of the dry season (April to November or so) so I'm looking forward to getting back out there to get more seat time. And while my track experience is nill, the car addition started looooong ago. I've always had a hard time dealing with most car shows and car guys because I don't understand their lack of interest in the technical and complex. I've never understood liking cars and never learning fabrication, suspension geometry, port flow, and so on. I daydream in engineering crazy automotive ideas, and the logical conclusion has always been track time in my mind. And while I don't want my cars to generally become track-only vehicles, that's merely because I enjoy cars too much to relegate them to only occasional outings to the track. Cars are too much fun to not be enjoyed, and cars are too fun when driven hard to never bring to the track. 🙂

...though I guess now would be a good time to admit. I'm a recovering drag racer, which is how I spent much of my teen years, mostly because that's who I was spending time with. That's what they did, so that's what I did. I haven't spent time on the strip in about 8 years though, so this autox was a nice. Coming back to Sonoma but for a far more interesting reason was a real trip.

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It's all good.  Car guys are still car guys..  I came from the car show / stereo competition scene in the 90s to autox, HPDE, and now road racing.   I was also president of the local Z car club for a couple years and appreciate that some people (not me!!) enjoy spending hours detailing a car and putting a mirror finish on every piece that's supposed to be shiny, and keeping their all-original 1970 240Z showroom stock and absolutely pristine.  others liked to get together and drive around in their old Zs.  another group (like me) spent my free time at the track.  I would knock the dirt off at a car wash and enter the local shows, but only to help fill up the parking lot with cars so the shows appeared better attended.

Anyway, gearheads are still gearheads, regardless of what car or form of vehicular activity you enjoy.

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Oh most definitely. I didn't mean to seam like I was creating an us-vs-them mentality about it. I just tend to be a bit more obsessive about things than many/most. Just because I have a hard time understanding other people's lack of enthusiasm doesn't mean I think less of them. I hardly ever understand my wife, but that doesn't mean I think less of her! 😄

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