Lessons Learned in Autocross Part 1: Picking Your Rubber

I started autocrossing about three seasons ago.  That means that I am no expert, let me get that out of the way right up front. At best, I would consider myself mediocre, but that’s a big step up from God-awful like I was in season one! During those three seasons, I can say that I’ve truly fallen in love with the sport and our time apart every winter only seems to make me grow fonder. I’ve spent a lot of time, and hefty chunk of change, trying to improve both myself and my car and I’ve even set the goal of one day winning a Solo National Championship. I know I have a lot left to learn, but I’ve also come a long way. I’ve had “aha!” moments and “oh shit, why did I do that!?!” moments while navigating the steep learning curve that comes with being a newbie in autocross.  I already told you why the Miata is a great budget racer and Mike already gave you a primer about how not to suck at your first autocross, but now it’s time to move beyond the 101 course!

These experiences have taught me a lot, and I think it’s time to share some of them so others can learn from my mistakes and triumphs and hopefully have a smoother entry into the sport than I did. So, this will be Part 1 of my “Lessons Learned in Autocross” series, where I’ll share my perspective on decisions and situations you’ll probably encounter while trying to become a skilled racer. Part 1 will focus mainly on tires; specifically, should a beginner learn on autocross tires or stock tires?

It’s All About Tires.  Mostly.

There are a lot of factors that go into what tires are right for you, but usually the story begins the same way for every newbie. You start autocrossing on whatever tires are on your car when you buy it. Generally, that means either an all season tire or a somewhat stickier factory summer tire. For me, this meant I was on a set of Toyo Extensa All Season tires with a 340 tread wear rating and dry handling rated at 3/5 stars on Toyo’s own website. Not great tires by any stretch of the imagination, but even so, after my first few autocross events, I was hooked. I knew I would be autocrossing for the foreseeable future, so I had to make a decision. Should I keep my all-seasons, or should I upgrade to a competitive autocross tire?

Arguing For All-seasons

autocross
Sideways! DC Region member gets car control practice in a low grip situation

I heard some surprisingly good arguments for sticking with all seasons. The most common being that the Extreme Performance Summer Tires used for most classes in autocross have so much grip that they will cover up your mistakes, robbing you of the chance to learn and, ultimately, making you a less skilled driver. For example, one of the biggest mistakes you can make in autocross is going into a corner with more speed than your tires can handle. Low grip tires, like all seasons, will quickly teach you how to manage your speed and keep your car planted and fast through a corner, instead of slidey and slow because it takes more control to keep them from sliding. They also teach you car control, as less grip means more time sideways and more time “saving” your car. Having set the goal of eventually becoming a National Champion I bit on this advice, and bit hard. I didn’t want to miss out on any learning, so I stayed on my all season tires for two and a half seasons! I should have been a great driver by then right?

Well, not so much. While I got a lot of practice and definitely learned and improved, my practice was not as effective as it could have been. Being one of the only people showing up consistently to autocrosses without extreme performance summer tires, I was consistently in last place, or close to it, which gave me no direct competitors to compare times with. Expecting to lose every week was also discouraging and it affected my mindset to the point where I just ended up frustrated, instead of being focused on learning.

I finally got fed up and after searching and searching I came across a set of used wheels and tires on the New Jersey Miatas Facebook page. It was a hell of a deal, so I drove the 4+ hours to Newark, NJ from Silver Spring, MD, where I live, praying the whole way that there wasn’t something wrong with them that the seller hadn’t told me about. Everything checked out and I slapped my new set of Hankook Ventus RS3’s on my Miata and went off to my first autocross with real tires!

autocross tires
Discount Deals! This used set cost me $500 less than a new set and still lasted a full season

Deliberate Practice Makes Perfect

Okay, side bar time. You may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule before, but what you may not know is that the 10,000 hour rule isn’t the full story. Malcolm Gladwell made the assertion in his book “Outliers” that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be really good at something; like an expert at it. Basically, practice makes perfect. Easy stuff, right? Unfortunately, Gladwell’s work was based on the research of another behavioral psychologist, and Gladwell left out the most important part! Anders Ericcson is that other behavioral psychologist, and in his book “Peak” he argued that while practice is important, what’s more important is how you practice. He says deliberate practice makes perfect, which means all of your practice should be targeted at improving certain skills, while getting feedback to further enhance your practice.

The Argument For Autocross Tires

So what in the world does that have to do with my story? While I was racing on all seasons for the better part of two and half

miata
Late Nights! Installing my autocross tires the night before an event

seasons, I was getting a lot of practice, but it wasn’t deliberate practice. Having no direct competitors, I had no feedback to improve myself. I got used to being slow and making excuses for it. “Did I have a good run today or a bad run? I don’t know, but I’m sure no one could have driven faster on these crappy tires…”

Having competitive tires is a game changer. I can no longer convince myself that my slow times are “as good as I can do on these tires” because there are plenty of other cars with similar tires ready to beat me. It’s obvious right away whether my runs are fast or not and, even more importantly, it’s obvious if my adjustments make a difference or not. Racing against similar cars with similar tires gave me the opportunity to make adjustments with real time feedback and get the deliberate practice that Anders Ericcson says is the key to improvement.

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On Edge! Mom pretending she’s not nervous before her first autocross ride along.

Seeing yourself improve is also a huge confidence booster and I improved more this season than in my first two seasons combined. I drive my Miata in the Street Touring Roadster class in the Washington D.C. Region SCCA. This is a very competitive class with several Solo National Championship trophy winners. When running on my all seasons I would consistently finish in last place, about 10-11 seconds out of first. At the beginning of last season, with my Hankooks, my average finish improved to around 7 seconds out of first place. Although still pretty far behind, this was a big jump and feeling faster gave me confidence and motivated me to work harder and show up more. By continuously analyzing my runs, comparing my times to similar cars, making adjustments, and getting feedback from more skilled drivers, I had the deliberate practice I needed to watch my times improve.

By the end of the season, my average finish was around 3.5 seconds behind the leader. I kept improving and won my first trophy ever for 3rd place in PAX at a BMW club event. I ended up earning 4 trophies by the end of the summer, which I proudly display in my living room (much to my wife’s chagrin). I even won first place in my class at one event in the Blue Ridge Region SCCA in Verona, VA with my parents there riding along with me. That one felt pretty good.

What have I learned?

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Cones Match Everything! Two of my trophies on display in the living room

Good tires aren’t the only reason for my improvement this season, but they sure had a major impact. Outside of just the tires, I put a lot of time and effort into improving myself by reading books, analyzing videos, getting skilled drivers to ride along with me, and even paying for instruction. I also drove in more events this season than I ever have before, by quite a lot. But, without good tires and the excitement they bring, I wouldn’t have been as eager to put in all that extra time and effort. I would still be the frustrated guy driving his way to last place at every event.

So, while a lot can be learned on all seasons, autocross tires gave me small victories that built my confidence. Winning my first trophy filled me with the belief that I can actually be good at this some day. It made my National Championship goal seem less like a pipe dream. Another season on stock tires and I never would have experienced that success. Just like any other sport, knowing you’re going to lose every event can put you in a bad mindset and keep you from improving (the Cleveland Browns come to mind…). Instead of planning to lose, get autocross tires, gain some confidence, and go get better!

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Success! Saving the memory of my first ever class win!
  • Justin Hughes

    It’s interesting for an autocross old coot like me to read this comparison between “normal” and “street performance” tires. When I autocrossed many years ago, it was all about whether to start on street tires or R-compound tires. There were no Street or Street Touring classes then, and R-comps were basically required to have any chance of being competitive today, like street performance like your Hankooks are today. But the advice back then was to stick with street tires for your first year or two, the way you did, to learn car control under reduced traction conditions.

    Today the gap between, say, OEM tires and street class autocross tires isn’t as vast as it was when R-compounds ruled, but it’s still there, and it’s interesting to hear you give the opposite advice that I was given. But I also understand why – practice and learn with the tires you’ll be using to win. Yes, some of the same old arguments apply, like that grippier tires will hide some of your driving mistakes. But if you’re making those mistakes, you won’t become a national champion, and you’ll learn to avoid them regardless of which tires you use.

    Good read! I look forward to more.

    • Cody Hunt

      Thanks Justin! Luckily I wasn’t driving when you had to be on the R-Comps, I’ve heard lots of stories of how many sets of tires people had to go through in a season (or even an event) to be competitive and it makes me cringe! I think the relatively longer life of the Extreme Performance Summer Tires is another reason to switch sooner because it’s not as big of an investment. I know people getting two seasons out of a set! Hopefully I will too once I stop locking up my brakes 🙂

      • Justin Hughes

        It’s true – I got two years and 6-7 track days out of my Michelin Pilot Super Sports. Yet the no-name all-seasons that came with my ’87 MR2 were destroyed in just one weekend on an outdoor go-kart track! There’s a sweet spot between the extremes of those all-seasons and R-comps with a group of tires that both perform and endure well to the type of driving we do.

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