Competing in Autocross, Road Racing, Track Days & Now Time Trials

Mazda Motorsports autocrosser, Ron Bauer, attended the first event of its kind for SCCA, the Time Trial National Tour, at Thunderhill’s West track this past weekend.

Bauer’s background across multiple racing verticals
I’ve been a hardcore autocrosser since 1994 when I brought out my 1992 GTI to a local event.  A buddy had met someone at a track day event who encouraged him to come out to the next autocross.  My buddy then told me about it. We took my car to the event, bike rack and all.  By the end of the day, I was competing, and have been ever since.

I drove my first Miata in 1996, and got hooked on those. Most recently, I built a 2016 Miata for the BSP class and ran it quite successfully last year. (Editor’s note: Ron won the Solo National Championships, again.) I’ve driven almost everything under the sun, but it’s hard to beat the fun per dollar that a Miata offers.

In the early 2000s, for about three years, I competed in Spec Miata locally, including an endurance race at Thunderhill.

Aside from a couple track days since, I haven’t spent time on a full-on race track. I have spent my time autocrossing due to the lower expense and the great people I had met from all over the country.

Bauer’s entry into SCCA Time Trials
Within motorsport, Time Trials competition isn’t new. But SCCA is doing it differently. It’s a blend of SCCA’s Track Night in America, where people are invited to bring out their daily driver for a low cost to play at local tracks, with an added element of competition. SCCA felt the Time Trial program was a great next step to add some competition to the play time, which I agree with, and so participated.

The first event that SCCA would be putting on is the one this past weekend at Thunderhill.  Having run Spec Miata there, and remembering how cool all the rolling hills were, I thought this would be a great place to start.  It was going to make a busy five weeks though, as I would also be attending the Crows Landing and Fontana Pro Solos, and the Crows Landing National Tour in the same time frame.

With it being my first event, everything was new for me – new rules, new format…. New new new. But that was interesting.

First up was classing my Miata.  It fits very well in BSP for autocross, but the Time Trials have completely different classing, with most of it being somewhat biased towards daily drivers up to Street Touring cars.  All but the “Ultimate” classes require 200 treadwear or higher tires.  Since I normally run Hoosiers, this was a problem, as I didn’t want to be paired against cars with monster power, just because of my tires.  I also run E85 fuel and have flares, so those would dictate where I could run also.  Fortunately, I still had a really good set of BFG Rival S 1.5 tires from my STR days (245/40/17s on 17×9 wheels.)  By running these, I would be in the Max 3 class.  I have heard from several people that they don’t like where their car falls in the classing structure.  All I can say is don’t worry about it.  Run the car where it falls. You’ll still have a great experience.

Tech and registration are required, as with every event. Tech was something I hadn’t really thought about until a couple days before the event.  Autocross tech checks for obvious safety issues, while road racing is way more in depth.  Suddenly I was concerned about a couple of issues that I saw in the rules and on the self tech sheet we had to fill out.  At least at this first event, my fears were unfounded, as tech was much more like a National autocross event, where a lot of what is being done is making sure you have the right stickers on the car. If you are the kind of person that doesn’t work on your own car, though, you might want to take your car to an actual race shop for prep.  You don’t want a failure on your car at a race track.

Learning the track was next. I set out on my bicycle to ride at slow speed around the track to figure out where I’d be going.  Unlike my SM race at Thunderhill, the Time Trial would be on their newer track, the West track.  It’s about two miles long with two straightaways.  By the end of the weekend though, I found that the fastest section on track was not one of those two straights!  I looked online and found a track map with supposed optimal lines and compared those to the actual track.  That would speed up my learning quite a bit.

Saturday morning we started with a mandatory drivers meeting. The focus was on the schedule, some references to the sponsors that help give us this opportunity in motorsport (Tire Rack, Hagerty Insurance, and Koni), and where and when to be at our given times.

Run groups were broken down primarily by experience level. They are novice, intermediate, and advanced groups.  All groups had coaches to support the drivers, with the novice drivers receiving the most attention. Each group also had different passing opportunities.  Novices were only allowed to pass on the two straights with a point by, while intermediate could pass anywhere, but always needed a point by; advanced participants only required point bys in the corners.

When I signed up for the event, I wasn’t sure where to place myself, so signed up in intermediate.  However, when I requested my Time Trials license from SCCA’s national office, it assigned me an advanced license due to my road racing history.

In the end, I was put in one of the intermediate groups, but this ended up okay as we only had five cars in this group for the weekend, affording me tons of open track.

The schedule provided ample track time.  The weekend included two 20-minute practice sessions on Saturday to learn the track, along with a Track Sprint. Then, there were two 20-minute competition sessions on Sunday with a second Track Sprint to finish.

Our overall scoring for the weekend was a combination of sessions. This included the fastest run at each Track Sprint, added to the fastest lap during Sunday’s two 20-minute competition sessions.

During the practice sessions on Saturday, I did my best to learn the track.   First session out, I was fastest in our group at a 1:27.2.  I then went back and relooked at the track map I had and compared the lines to what I had been doing.  I also spoke with a couple of other drivers that had run here before to understand where to pick up time.  This resulted in a fastest lap of a 1:25.8 in the second session.

The Track Sprint is ultimately an autocross on a track. You get three timed runs with a start and finish to get your best time.  The Saturday Sprint started between Turns 2 and 3, and ended after Turn 7.  This seemed easy enough, as we already had 40 minutes of track time; however, the finish was in a spot we hadn’t run on – it was the section of track that bypasses Turns 7 through 10.  By the end, I had the fourth fastest time of the 50 competitors.

Sunday morning brought the final two 20-minute competition sessions. I set a fast lap of 1:25.6, but figured I’d do better in the second session. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, as the temperature was much higher. I was, however, much more consistent on my lap times.  My time was a few spots lower – 7th quickest.

Where it really got entertaining was the final Track Sprint. Again, three runs from a standing start (think ProSolo start.)  This time, however, we ran the track backwards starting between Turns 10 and 9, and ending between 3 and 2.  This was super thrilling as we hadn’t done this direction prior!  I ended up with a 55.7 on my final run – 5th quickest overall.

In the end, once the times were all added together, I ended up fourth overall, and first in class. The class standing didn’t matter, as I was the only person in my class!  I still ended up with a nice trophy at the Koni Podium at the end, though.

I’d be remiss talking about this event without talking about the people and camaraderie. The event was very well run by SCCA, with just a couple first event hiccups.  I also knew ten or so of the people either competing or coaching.  Each session ended with an “impound” session, but this was not what most of us think of.   It was an opportunity to talk to the other people in our group about how things went.  A great way to force you to meet new people.

Hagerty threw a great party Friday and Saturday nights, and a few of us had a great time hanging out on Saturday, afterward, as well!

Things can happen way faster there than on an autocross course, which makes Hagerty’s offer of event insurance for a reasonable price a wise investment in order to protect your investment. I took advantage of this, adding to peace of mind, even though I did not need to use it. I’ve put a lot of time and money in this car, and would have been very uncomfortable worrying about balling it up with no recourse.

Whether you’re an autocrosser, a road racer, or even an enthusiast who has not been on track before, you should really consider Time Trials for its blend of competition and having fun with your car. It has components for everyone with all skill levels, from first timers to pro racers (the guy that won is a pro racer!)

Results from this event can be found here.

Photo credit: Andrew Howe