Autocross Instructor Guide

by Leonard Cachola


Introduction

Teaching novices how to autocross is like teaching them how to drive all over again. Most novices know how to drive and may be familiar with some sort of motorsport, but have little to no idea what autocrossing is about or how to go about doing it. It is our goal as instructors to give novices a basic understanding of why we’re attracted to this most unique of motorsports.

This document assumes the reader already knows how to autocross and is meant to be a primer on generating ideas on how to teach autocrossing to novices. It is culled from several years of notes from instructing novices. It is not a definitive document on how to teach autocrossing because every instructor has their own style and goals. This document is intended to be updated over time as more information is gathered.

Most of the concepts in this document are repeated several times throughout. This repetition is done to reinforce ideas in the minds of the novice. The more you repeat them, the more the novice will remember when they drive.

Also, remember to be nice. These are newbies and we want them to tell others how good of a time they had at the end of the day and return to our sport—hopefully, with more friends. Treat them like your friends and they will respond in kind. Have fun!

The Course Walk

The course walk is usually a novice’s first experience with an autocross course. At the very minimum, it is important to get across the idea of ‘looking ahead’ so they don’t get lost. ‘Not getting lost’ is the number one reason novices attend the novice walk. Keep this in mind while guiding novices through the course.
  1. Introduce yourself
    Greet everyone who attends the novice walk and find out what they drive, their experience level, and, if possible, why they want to learn autocrossing. This info comes in handy on how to approach the course walk. With smaller crowds, you can get pretty specific about how each driver must approach the course if you wish. The larger the crowd, the more generic the information on the course has to be.
  2. Treat it like you are a tour guide
    Personally, I like walking backwards when talking to the novices instead of having my back to them. Doing this helps keep them engaged because I’m talking TO them instead of the course.
  3. Project your voice so everyone can hear 
    Use humor whenever possible, but don’t let the humor distract from the course. I like telling stories from my autocross experience, which helps keep novices engaged as well. Just beware that you do have a limited amount of time for the walk, usually thirty minutes, so keep the stories to a bare minimum.
  4. Identify elements
    Identify gates, pointer cones, and slaloms and explain each one’s significance. Make sure everyone understands the slalom and how you weave through the cones instead of driving it in a straight line. Identify where the starting line is and where the timing starts. Go over the starter and his signals for stopping and how they should wait for the green flag to be waved before going.
  5. Pointer cones and penalties
    Tell novices they can hit as many pointer cones as they like, but if they are hitting them, they’re on the wrong part of the course. Now would be a good time to explain DNFs and briefly talk about cone penalties.
  6. Focus on ‘looking ahead’
    Point out where they should be putting their eyes and why on every single element. Get the students to look as far ahead as possible. Ask them where they are looking and direct them to where you feel they should be looking. Tell students to use the horizon/eye level as their guide as to where to look. In most cases, this will probably be too far, but it gets the idea across very well. It’s always an eye opener for novices on how far ahead they should be looking.
  7. Drill students on where to put their eyes
    In 180s, turn head and look across for the ‘exit;’

    In slaloms, look at the last cone in the slalom;

    When nearing the finish line, look for it; when going up an incline, look as far up as possible;

    When going down, look as far down the course as possible; same goes with going left or right.

    Tell students when they work course they should observe all drivers, especially the fast ones, and take note of what these drivers are doing with their heads and hands when approaching a corner.
  8. Ask them questions
    Make sure they see what you‘re seeing and, most importantly, understand why. Typical questions include “Do you see what's ahead?” or “Where does the course go after this element?” Also, don‘t be afraid to fall into a discussion about decisions related to the course—i.e., which side to take on the slalom or which line to take through an element. It is good to have novices realize there are more than one ways to approach an autocross element.
  9. Don‘t get too involved with going over apexes 
    Novices have enough to worry about just finding the course. Break it down to simple visual terms, like turning to get around the back side of a cone, is a very non-technical and non-threatening way of teaching novices late apexes, which is the most common type of corner found in autocrossing.
  10. Avoid talking too much about driving technique 
    BRIEFLY cover apexes and only go into detail when someone asks. Novices are more concerned about where the course goes and talking about driving technique is just added noise. Stuff like ‘when in spin...’, cone penalties, and red flags you can leave for the driver meeting because it’s too much to cover on the walk. Stuff like oversteer, understeer, braking, etc., are best left for instructors to teach on their runs with students. 
  11. Car position
    Tell novices to line up on the left to go right, the right to go left, and don’t drive down the middle when going through any turn. Help novices link together the turns so they don‘t get lost.
  12. Speed vs. distance. 
    More speed can be carried into a corner by straightening it out as much as possible, but this also means you are adding distance since this is also the widest line possible. Explain to novices when they encounter an element where there are many line choices there are consequences and benefits of taking a corner a certain way, while keeping in mind the fastest autocross line walks that fine line between the shortest distance and the most speed.
  13. Walk the Racing Line
    I walk where I ideally want the car to be. It doesn’t mean the car will actually be there, but it should be close. Another way to look at it is walk where you think the car will end up.
  14. Point out Essential Cones
    There are really only three cones drivers need to be concerned with in any autocross element—entry, apex, and exit. Sometimes less. What novices should be looking for is the path between the cones and not the cones themselves.
  15. Course Designer Mentality
    One thing to point out are the different methods course designers employ to guide drivers through the course and how that affects where to position the car. If a driver is off the racing line by more than a foot in spots, they can get lost on course. Point out any challenging spots (i.e., sea of cones) where most novices make mistakes and why (including locking your eye onto a cone).
  16. Braking and Accelerating
    Indicate anywhere there is a straight in the course walk and note these are the best spots for full throttle or full braking.
  17. Talk about the Surface
    Point out marbles and surface texture and how they can affect the car and the racing line. This becomes even more important during the lunch walk after morning runs have been completed because the line will be limited by what drivers took in the morning. Also, look at on-camber or off-camber parts of the course and explain why that’s important. 
  18. Keep it as simple as possible. 
    That means cutting out a lot technical jargon. A lot of what you say WILL be forgotten by most people. On the flip side, the more information you give them, the more they will retain. So, strike a balance between technical and layman jargon.

When in the Car

As an instructor, you will be asked to either ride along with a novice or drive their car. Here a a few basics to cover while sitting in grid.

  1. Ask them why they are doing this 
    Most aren’t serious competitors at this point, so overdoing the technical stuff is only going to frustrate or confuse them. Those that really want to learn how to drive will be the ones you can be a bit more detailed and disciplined in your teaching.
  2. Find out what, if any, instruction they’ve had
    If they’ve had track instruction only, they probably won’t be looking ahead far enough for an autocross course because everything happens at a much faster pace in autocrossing. However, they will understand apexes and smooth inputs. If they’ve had autocross instruction, find out what they know about looking ahead. They may not have been taught to look ahead far enough or only have a vague understanding of it. Let them drive and see what level they’re at before giving them a lot of instruction. Being condescending and heavy-handed is a turn-off. 
  3. Seating position. 
    Sit forward and close to the wheel. Find what works best for them in terms of comfort and accessibility of all the controls.
  4. Steering Technique
    Teach hand position on steering wheel and how to shuffle steer. Keep hands on outside of wheel. No grabbing the inside of the wheel under any circumstance. Have them keep a loose, gentle grip on steering wheel.
  5. Mirrors
    Rear-view and side-view mirror position. Rear-view mirrors are best put up and out of the way. Same with side-view mirrors. Emphasize looking ahead instead of looking behind.
  6. Looking Ahead
    I like telling novices to keep their eyes on the horizon and don’t look below that. Also, don’t lock them on a single element. Keep the eyes scanning: Forward and back; Left and right.
  7. Use the side windows
    Tell them to physically turn their head when looking for the next corner. Just using the eyes isn’t enough. The head should turn first, follow by smooth inputs from the hands and feet. The fastest drivers are all turning their heads to look out the windows down the course while the slow ones are looking at the turn they are in. It’s good to point out that when working course, they should look and see what each of the drivers is doing with their head in each corner.

Starting Line

As you pull up to the starting line, here are a few points to tell a novice.

  1. Lining Up
    Line up in a manner that will allow for a good start. A full drop throttle drag-strip style launch is uneccesary unless it’s either a ProSolo or if the starting line is also where the timing starts.
  2. Wait for the Starter
    Remind the novice to wait for starter to signal before entering the course.
  3. Look Ahead
    While they are sitting at the line, remind them to look as far down the course as possible.
  4. Tell Them to Relax
    While at the line, ask if they are nervous or anxious. They usually are. Get them to take a few deep breaths and relax.
  5. Mental Preparation
    Get them in a good mental zone by having them focus on the course.
  6. When to Go
    Go when the starter gives the go signal.

Practice

  1. Why Practice?
    Practice is a great way to learn ‘looking ahead.’ Where a novice is looking should be the first thing instructors look for on a ride-along with a novice.
  2. Have Them Hit a Cone
    Encourage drivers to hit a cone. At least one. Most novices are too timid when they first start. Getting them to hit a cone takes away that sense of dread that comes with ruining the course or being embarrassed at making mistakes that some novices bring to autocrossing. Also, getting them to hit a cone, especially on the passenger side, helps them figure out how wide their car is.
  3. Have Them Scare Themselves
    Also, try and get them to scare themselves by carrying more speed through the corners with each subsequent run while still getting them to brake or lift off the accelerator early.
  4. Slip Angles
    If they are a more advanced novice, try and get them to slide the car more and to look for ways to exploit slip angles.
  5. Accentuate the Positive
    When done with a ride-along—complement them on at least two things they did right, then tell them one thing they did wrong. Get them to correct that one thing on their next run. Try not to overwhelm them if they’re not ready for it. Some novices crave more info so be prepared to give it.
  6. How to Approach a Practice
    Perfect practice makes perfect driving. Just be quick about it.

Riding with a Novice

Here are some tips for what to do as an instructor in the passenger seat with the novice driving.

  1. Talk
    The less experience a novice has—and you will know how much experience they have because you asked them—the more you have to talk. That includes the following: Where they are looking, when they are braking, when they are getting on the gas, where they are positioning the car, etc.
  2. Project your voice
    It can be difficult for a novice to hear what you're saying—either because of a loud exhaust or their helmet or whatever. Point is, talk as loud as you can so they can hear what you’re saying. If they can’t hear you, they aren’t learning.
  3. Calm Them Down
    Ease their fears about autocrossing by telling them it’s like driving on the street—you brake, you turn, you give it gas, while looking where you’re going the entire time, just like on the street.
  4. Hand Gestures
    Use informative hand gestures to show where they should be driving. Point if you have to. Just remember to keep all limbs inside the car.
  5. Look Ahead
    Remind them to look ahead just like the course walk. Drill students on where to put their eyes:

    In 180s, look across for the ‘exit’;

    In slaloms, look at the last cone in the slalom;

    When nearing the finish line, look for it;

    When going up an incline, look as far up as possible;

    When going down, look as far down the course as possible; same goes with going left or right. 
  6. Smooth out their inputs
    Any jerking of the wheel or jabbing at the pedals is bad because the car’s weight is being thrown around and they are losing traction and creating understeer. So, get the student to smooth it out. This would be a good time to talk about how tires can only do one thing really well at a time in addition to how weight transfer works.
  7. Modulating Throttle
    Make sure the student understands the gas pedal isn’t an on-off switch. Modulating the throttle is very important, especially when in a sweeper or big corner. Make sure they understand any time there is a straight, they should be full-throttle. Also, they should be on the gas or the brake, never coasting.
  8. Throttle Steer
    Tell them to steer with the throttle, not the wheel. In large sweepers, this is really key to maintaining control of the car. When you can hear the tires, the more gas you give the car, the more it will push out from the inside of the corner. Lifting off the gas will tuck in the car’s nose and bring it tighter to the corner.
  9. Windows Down
    Have them roll down the windows and listen to the tires. The more the tires are squealing, the more you are losing grip. You can talk about oversteer/understeer here. 
  10. NO DRIFTING
    Remind them that autocrossing is NOT drifting. The best drivers will slide the car right by the cones without you ever noticing they are using understeer or oversteer. 
  11. Early Turn-In
    For more advanced novices, get them to turn in early to steer less. This is really subtle, but goes back to smooth inputs. You want to turn in like you're going to hit a cone to get close to them, but not overdo it. 
  12. Braking
    Get them to use the brakes. A lot of novices forget the brake pedal exists—or they overdo it, braking at every single apex cone. Get a novice who is braking too much to look farther ahead and to brake less. If a novice isn’t braking enough, get them to brake more by having them push that whoa pedal hard enough so they can either feel the ABS or just start to lock up the brakes.
  13. Braking Early
    Brake early and smoothly. Most novices aren’t going fast enough for this to matter—however, some are. Braking early allows room for mistakes—when they make mistakes, you can either get them back on the gas, in which case they now know they can brake later on their next run, or they can add more brakes. 
  14. Slow In, Fast Out
    Slow in, fast out. Goes hand-in-hand with braking early. Going into a corner too fast yields slow times because you have to wait for the car to settle before getting on the throttle again. It’s important to get the novice to understand the sooner you can get on the throttle, the better your times.
  15. Close to the Cones
    Get them to drive as close to the cones as possible—it should look like they’re hitting them from the driver’s seat.
  16. Don’t Drive Down the Middle
    Tell them to not drive down the middle. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking, you should be on the right to go left and the left to go right. Yes, the faster drivers will cut distance whenever possible, but it’s better to get novices to overexaggerate their lines in the beginning and use the entire course.
  17. Arcs
    Use arcs to go around the course. Driving cone to cone using straight lines is NOT the fastest way around the course. Arcs are good because they allow you to carry a lot of speed into and out of a corner. 
  18. Watch for Empty Areas
    Use the entire course. Some of the most important elements on an autocross course are areas where there are no cones.
  19. Speed vs. distance
    There are trade-offs involved in many corners. Point out where they are losing time as there is no such thing as gaining time.

Getting Novices to Speed Up or Slow Down

  1. Getting timid drivers to go faster
    One of the toughest things for many novices is not being aggressive enough. Get them to hit a cone. At least one. Most novice drivers are too scared to hit cones. Once they realize that hitting a cone isn’t a big deal, they gain more confidence in throwing the car around more. Another approach is to get them to see the course as an obstacle to be overcome for going fast instead of an inhibitor.
  2. Drive the car like you stole it and drive the course like you own it
    This is more applied to more advanced novices who are looking to go faster, but are too scared to do it, either because of the car, the course, or their own confidence. Driving the car like you stole means drive it as fast as you can with few mistakes. Driving the course like you own it means the driver is the one who dictates the speed through the course, not the other way around. Getting novices to approach autocrossing with swagger is a great way to build their confidence.
  3. Find out what motivates them to drive fast 
    This involves talking a lot to the novice and mainly comes from building confidence and/or lighting a fire under their belly. 
  4. How to Have Fun Autocrossing
    Tell them the amount of fun they have in autocrossing is directly related to how heavy their right foot is—the heavier the right foot on the go pedal, the more fun they are having. Autocrossing, when done right, is like riding an amusement park ride except the driver is the one in control of the ride, not the other way around.
  5. Getting overaggressive drivers to slow down
    Teaching controlled aggression is key here and getting them to understand that ‘slow is fast.’ Easiest way is to show by driving an instructor run. Just don’t overdo it yourself.
  6. Mental Approach
    Tell them to treat every run like it’s their last. That means drive the car as fast as you can whether it’s the first run or the last run.

Driving a Novice’s Car

At some point, you may have to drive the novice’s car to show them what to do. Here are a few points to remember when driving as an instructor:

  1. It’s Not Your Car
    Don't abuse it and definitely do NOT break it.
  2. Adjust the Seat and Steering Wheel
    Get comfortable and make sure you have enough room for your feet on the pedals and hands on the wheel. Also, make sure you have elbow room for turning.
  3. Make sure the seatbelt is fastened
  4. Rear View Mirror
    Move the rear view mirror out of the way if it hasn’t been moved already.
  5. Talk About the Car
    Ask what modifications have been done to the car, including any aftermarket hardware or alignment.
  6. ABS?
    Ask if the car has ABS or not. Most modern cars have ABS. Some don’t.
  7. Power Steering?
    Ask if the car has power steering or not.
  8. Traction and Stability Control
    Ask if the car has traction control or any other electronic nannies. Turn them off because they WILL interfere with your driving.
  9. Tires
    Ask what kind of tires are on the car.
  10. Car Differences
    I sometimes like to talk about the difference between my car and whatever car I’m driving to the novice that way they have some understanding of where I'm coming from in terms of driving. Most, if not all, novices understand you're driving an unfamiliar car.
  11. Keep It Smooth
    Keep all of your driving inputs smooth.
  12. Launching
    No hard launches from a standstill. If you rode with them first, you should have a pretty good idea how fast to drive their car to teach them what they need to learn.
  13. Look ahead
    Don’t just look ahead. Tell the novice where you’re looking.
  14. Talk
    The less experience a novice has—and you will know how much experience they have because you asked them—the more you have to talk. That includes the following: Where you are looking, when you are braking, when you are getting on the gas, where you are positioning the car, etc.
  15. Project your voice
    It can be difficult for a novice to hear what you're saying—either because of a loud exhaust or their helmet or whatever. Point is, talk as loud as you can so they can hear what you’re saying. If they can’t hear you, they aren’t learning.
  16. Don’t drive their car at 100%
    Idea is to teach them something, not scare the living daylights out of them. Some novices are faster than others—ride with them first and adjust your instructor run driving accordingly as some novices are faster learners than others.

Coaching from the Sidelines

Watching a novice drive on their own is helpful in a final evaluation of the novice’s skills and how much they have learned from your instruction in addition to any suggestions for future runs or events.

  1. Observe
    Watch the run from start to finish. Pay attention to where they are turning, smoothness, and when they are on the gas or brakes.
  2. Take Mental Notes
    Look to see where they are having trouble and see if you can pick up what they did by watching them. You can ask them why they had problems after the run and make comments based on your observations. Try to keep in mind any compliments and suggestions for a post-run/event chat.

After the Run is Over

Once the run in finished, it is important to follow up with the novice to see what they learned. Also, it’s a good idea to chat with them once they are done with all their runs as it makes them feel important.

  1. If it was their first run, congratulate them
    This make them feel a sense of accomplishment. Also, congratulate them on successful completion of the championship or practice after they have completed all their runs.
  2. Compliment
    Say at least one good thing about their run.
  3. How Did They Feel About the Run?
    Ask them how they felt about the run they just did. Ask what they feel they can or want to improve for their next run or event. Try and get them to work on just fixing ONE thing for their next run.
  4. Did They Get Lost?
    If they talk about getting lost on course or going slower in some sections than others, tell them to look farther ahead. More importantly, tell them where they should put their eyes to get through that corner faster.
  5. Get Them to Think About Their Driving
    If you drove the car, ask them what you did differently from what they did and vice versa if they drove after you drove.
  6. Visualizing vs. Memorizing
    Get them to visualize, NOT memorize, the course in their head. Have them go over the course several times, each time going through it faster and faster. If they have a tough time remembering something, tell them that's where they need to look ahead when they get out on course. The more you get the novice mentally involved with the course, the more rewarding they will find their runs.
  7. How to Teach a Slalom
    The best time to go over a slalom is after they’ve driven a lap or in between laps—you’re simply not going to be able to explain how to do it while driving or riding through one. My method for explaining a slalom: 

    Find a line of cones—grid works pretty well, just be careful of approaching cars. 

    Get them to look at the last cone and tell them to not their eyes drop from that last cone. 

    Have them draw an imaginary line connecting the cones together. 

    The most critical cone is the first cone—have them set up a little wide (usually about 6-12 inches), then turn in to get the car as close to the back-side of that cone as possible. You know you messed up the first cone setup when you 1) slow down at the third cone when you don't have to, 2) hit the third cone, or 3) spin at the third cone.

    Then have them walk through the cones with their hands up like they’re holding a steering wheel while keeping their eyes on the last cone in the slalom.

    As you cross the line of slalom cones, turn the “steering wheel” in the opposite direction from the last cone you just crossed.

    Tell them to try and find the rhythm of the slalom (“dancing with the car”) and use steady to increasing throttle. They should be full throttle on the last two cones at the minimum, if not earlier, and they should already be looking ahead to the next course element.

Practicing on the Street

Remind the student that some of what he learned at autocross can be applied to regular driving on the street. Much has been made of how autocrossing helps someone learn what their car can do on the street, but not much of how to actually apply it. This does NOT mean driving aggressively on the street or showing off in public. Here are some suggestions you make to novices to apply what they’sve learned.

  1. Look ahead
    While this sounds obvious, it’s not always obvious as to how a novice is supposed to apply looking ahead to regular driving. One way is to keep looking for road signs and street signs as soon as you can. These are perfect for practicing looking ahead because they are right where your eyes need to be for autocrossing. Also, another trick is to look for the exit of whatever corner they are in and several car lengths ahead. Keeping the eyes scanning is more helpful in tight city driving while putting your eyes on the horizon works well with long-distance highway driving.
  2. Smooth inputs
    Great for fuel economy and not upsetting the car when in a turn, braking, or accelerating.
  3. Braking
    Brake in a straight line and get all the braking done before a turn, then easing on the gas to accelerate out. Brake early. This is great for giving yourself a margin of error on public roads.
  4. Late or normal apexes
    Have them watch for ways to use normal or late apexes for turns instead of early apexes—most street drivers will drive an early apex and brake at the end of a corner. Braking earlier and using the normal or late apex allows you to keep accelerating out of a corner, which, for example, can be pretty handy when trying to avoid the early apexer who crosses into your lane on a double left- or right-turn lane.