Novice School. Getting a lot faster!

Novice School day had arrived and now it was time to learn what I’d been doing wrong and what I needed to do to get better. This event had professional instructors, who were also regional autocross champions, ride shotgun with novices such as myself. I was able to use their expertise to understand some solid fundamentals and apply it to subsequent runs. I think the day went great as I was able to improve my course times from 58 seconds to 49 seconds!

First, you may notice in the main post picture the new stickers and number panel on my car. Obviously that was to add horsepower and make the car faster! The number panel is actually a large magnet that I ordered from to my specifications (size, colors, name, flag, etc). I think it turned out really well and is a great value.

IMG_5832 - staging 1

This novice event only happens once a year at the club and is the prime way for those new to autocross to get valuable professional instruction. Each instructor is a veteran of the club with between 3 and 25 years experience in racing. You just get paired up randomly with an instructor for each session (morning and afternoon) but you do get to stick with them through the entire session.

Above you can see my car pre-staged with about 25 other cars in preparation for our run (50 cars total came out). There were a lot of different car models at the event. We had Mustangs, Camaros, Miatas, Civics, Subarus, FRSs, RX7s and even two BMW M3s (2003 and 2010 model years). I was really looking forward to seeing how the different models performed.

Course Map - Novice

Time for the course walk. As you can see in the picture above, we were provided with a course map this time. All the black dots represent the cones. The triangles next to some cones point to which side of the cone that you must go around it. After walking the course three times, I thought that I had a pretty good understanding of the main sections. But of course I had to work a station first instead of run…

IMG_5816 - course walk

I was working Station 3 as a cone guy. The track was definitely damp with certain areas worse off than others. However, the sun was shining occasionally and the track should dry a little as the day wore on.

M3 & Miata

It was pretty interesting to see all the drivers progress in their driving skills run after run. I ended up talking with the driver of the 2003 E46 M3 quite a bit. Nice guy that had just purchased the car a couple years ago. It had a similar suspension setup to mine with camber/caster plates, Koni shocks, and higher rate springs (but with better tires of course). He ended up having an instructor take his car for a lap and he turned a 48 second time with it after the car’s novice owner had been running low 60 second times. Amazing what experience will do for you!

IMG_5835 - mod

Work over, let’s get out on the course! The first instructor who jumped in my car was Alicia, a 20+ year veteran of autocross who had been a regional champion and was also a European car mechanic. She was a professional instructor who worked at local racetracks to provide instruction for different companies. We had a lot of pre-talk about what we were going to do on the first run, what her instruction was going to look like and where we might change things after each run. She seemed to know what she was talking about and seemed like exactly what I needed for the morning session.

Run 1 – 58.5 seconds:

The first run of the day, as is normal for most drivers, was more of an exploratory drive to get familiar with the track features and conditions. Alicia gave me some good pointers (literally pointing as you saw in the video) and also explained some core fundamentals, such as only try to brake hard or accelerate quickly in a straight line. Also to use “maintenance throttle” through the corners. As you also heard right after the run, she agrees that my tires are terrible! In case you don’t remember, the tires look brand new but are very high treadwear (i.e. hard and not grippy) and made for long life, not handling. After this run we aired down the rear tires from 31psi to 28psi (we kept the fronts at 31psi). We also adjusted the rear shocks to be softer. All this in the quest to be able to put the power down sooner and reduce the amount of oversteer that I was encountering. She did also mention that I don’t lack aggression in my driving style…

Run 2 – 56.7 seconds:

Getting better and really started to use the advice of the instructor. Able to shave a couple seconds off my time. Aired the rear tires down to 26.5 psi.

Run 3 – 56.1 seconds:

Alicia says “Perfect!” but I knew I had a lot more in me to get the run time even lower. She was very conservative when she wanted me to apply brakes or how much speed to take through corners. I had learned a lot from Alicia but I knew the afternoon session would be a great time to make a change in instructors.

During our lunch break the instructors were taking their own cars around the course. It even looked like some novices had grabbed their helmets and were jumping in their cars to ride shotgun. What a great idea! From looking at past event results, I knew which car was normally the fastest, a white 2012 Volkswagen Golf R built to a “Prepared” class, basically the next step after STX (my class).

The driver, Chris, told me that the car was all wheel drive, had a full coilover kit with very stiff springs, and some brand new grippy tires. I knew this would be fun! Unfortunately, I don’t have any in car video but the run was very fast and seemingly nothing like the runs that I’d been doing up to that point in my E36. It just stuck through all the slaloms and the AWD clawed out of every low speed corner. The run time ended up being 43 seconds and none of the other cars present for the day were faster!

I did end up finding a youtube video of someone else taking a ride in the car and his reaction to it was similar to mine. There’s even a car walkaround at the very end. If you do watch the video, notice how smooth Chris’s steering inputs are, not all jerky like mine…

Now that I knew what I was aiming for, back to my runs!

Run 4 – 51.8 seconds:

A five second improvement over my previous run! Notice my new instructor in the car, Gabe, and his very different instruction style. Gabe is in autocross for the fun of it, not professionally, but is still a very competitive driver after only 4 years of experience. We still had a lot of post-run discussion, not recorded, to help prep for subsequent runs. Notice how he kept his fingers interlocked during the runs. I’m assuming he was praying that I wouldn’t kill him…

Run 5 – 50.3 seconds:

Gained another 1.5 seconds! This was my last run with an instructor in the car and the next runs would be solo. Gabe seemed pleased and ready to jump out. On the next runs I was going to give it everything that I had and see what happened!

Run 7 – 49.2 seconds (forgot to push record on Run 6 but it was a 49.6 second run):

Best run of the day! I was so close to breaking into the 48 second range if I only didn’t hit that wet patch and get all out of shape at the end (notice my frustration in the video).

Run 8 – 49.4 seconds:

Last run of the day and it went pretty much like the last two before it. Consistently down in the 49 second range.

Overall, this Novice School event went amazing and I learned a ton. I was proud to be able to get down below 50 seconds as only a few other novices were able to do this. The pros were on a different level though with most of them 5 seconds or better faster than me. Five seconds may not seem like a ton to non-racers but it’s a pretty large gap with total run times this low.

Can’t wait for the next event in April!

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