Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

Welcome to another article written by a semi-novice auto-crosser as he re-enters the world of cone-carving and time-attack driving. Credits for the pictures go to Google Maps, Michael Hoatson Photography, Brian Nixon at Nixon Motor Sports, and me, Ender.

What is your definition of happiness? What keeps you driving in the early morning, so early the sun has yet to rise, on a Sunday you could spend sleeping in after a busy and stressful week or studying for finals? Why do you keep coming back every month to beat on your car in competition even though you stand little chance of taking first? Are you having fun yet?

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

This is my third year of auto-crossing; one year spent wheeling an HHR to an unexpected class championship and another wheeling a faulty Miata hard enough to inch out a close second place over an FR-S. Last year was my worst one thus far, encountering mechanical issues with my car that forced it into nearly 3 straight months of downtime and having to borrow my friend's Miata to keep my championship podium hopes alive.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

However, that's last year's drama. It's a new season; the classes have been rearranged, the rules on modifications adjusted, and, most of all, my car's finally fixed. Some new sensors, cleaned-out injectors, and replacing the differential fluid has finally returned my gremlin-plagued Miata back to normalcy. However, I'd be lying if I said I stopped at just having it fixed, because I've started down the endless road of modifications and upgrades. As per Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) rules for stock class (now called street class since we all know no racer leaves their car alone), I'm allowed one aftermarket sway bar.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

Last week I was able to install a Racing Beat '99 to '00 front sway bar kit from an unfortunate Miata owner who was t-boned by a reversing cargo truck. This meant the bar, end-links, and bracing blocks to help balance the car and keep the rear tires planted. In theory this should make the car more predictable in corners and over-steer less, saving precious fractions of a second I would waste sliding the car around Ken Block-style. Now there's a question, was it worth the purchase? I'd have to find out in a safe and affordable environment: the chalk-lined asphalt of the Michelin Tires Proving Grounds in Laurens, South Carolina.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

Known as the "Black Lake" this gigantic rectangular patch of asphalt is South Carolina Region's favorite venue, home to some of the fastest speeds and longest run times due to the ample amounts room for both the course and emergency run-off space. It's probably the priciest one to attend but it's immediately worth it when you're driving on a dedicated asphalt surface rather than just another old parking lot, especially when Michelin repaved it last year.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

So, what is my happiness? Why did I spend $40 to wake up at 4:30 (5:00, the alarm didn't go off) am to drive seventy-eight miles out to the Middle of Nowhere, South Carolina? Why did I enter knowing at least two of my rivals boasted far superior and brand-new Dunlop Z2's versus my cheap two year-old Chinese-knockoff Michelins? Maybe I should find out why other drivers come to these events.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

First, there are those who are solely in it to win it; you'll mostly find these individuals in the Pro Class. Many who've spent time, money, and effort building all-out to-the-rules race cars, some of going far as far as sacrificing all street ability, comfort, and reliability purely for raw acceleration and handling in order to dominate.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

Some, like the #65 Impreza, are here in preparation for attending and competing at top-tier events including the SCCA Solo Nationals held at Lincoln Airpark in Nebraska. The car is the beautiful result of nearly ten years of hard work to try and take home first place in Street Modified (SM) for this year's nationals in September.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

They are the ones fighting tooth and nail to shave every tenth of a second off their times, racing against the clock and the handicap-helping calculator for top PAX time in class. They'll crowd around the TV screen to see their latest run-times and their position; smiling as they climb toward to the top or frowning in disappointment if someone edges them out on their final run.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

There's a few who will just pack up and leave early without doing their fair share of cleaning up the place if they didn't finish as high as they wanted to…or they'll murder a few cones if their run goes sour. However, that's only a very, very, very small minority. Most people run Pro Class for sake of competition, being able to go up against thirty other skilled drivers to see where they place, and if they win then it's just a by-product of friendly rivalries.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

Then there are people who attend the sake of being able to drive fast, allowing their car to stretch its legs out for once without worrying about getting a ticket for speeding or reckless endangerment. They couldn't care less if they're beaten by whole seconds because they're too busy smiling after wheeling their car so hard around the course they're drifting faintly through some of the gates.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

Expect any allowed vehicle with these folks; I've seen stock sedans like Andrew's Toyota Corolla S...

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

To modified Mustangs like Phillip's M112'd-V6 Mustang...

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

To old-school sports cars like this 280Z. Many don't care if their modded or stock vehicle puts them up against superior cars; they're just there to have fun. Are they the fastest in their class? No. Are they smiling after each run? Oh yeah!

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

Speaking of classics, two men brought out these beautiful C2-generation Corvette convertibles. One of the owners told me he could have just bought the car, let it sit in his garage like a museum piece, and stare at it all day but where's the fun in owning that?

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

He was out there, owning a Corvette, to have some fun.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

There are many people, both pro and casual drivers, that'll stay around for the entire event, helping put away the cones and picking up trash to make sure we'll in good standing with the hosts for our return later on in the year. They'll politely ask for and gives rides, for laughs or advice, and cheer drivers on from the sidelines. These guys keep the region going strong.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

So where do I fit? I'm in the middle group with a majority of people. We're there not only to have fun driving our cars but also there for some competition. While I love driving the winding mountain roads, auto-crossing is a far safer alternative to that and I get the rush of competing against rivals in similar cars.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

Due to the rules for standard Street class prohibiting most modifications that increase speed and handling, the cars are usually close in showroom-style performance and it's up to the drivers to set themselves apart. This meant last year's rival, a NB Miata on racing slicks, was no longer legal! The times are could also be close, adding to the thrill of racing tooth and nail for that extra tenth of a second. At the same time, if we lose it's not a big deal because we're driving regular street cars and not purpose-built machines.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

I'm in E Street, thanks to SCCA for bumping down all second-generation Miatas after having them improperly classed in C Stock (now C Street) against far superior vehicles like the 370Z and FR-S. A lot of cars will fit into my class but today's field was made up entire of Jalopnik's best answer, the Mazda Miata. There were no less than 6 Miatas entered, not including mine; I knew a majority of the owners and what's been done to their cars.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

There's Big Kyle, Mr. Polar Bear in Disguise, one of the main reasons I'm driving a Miata and a great friend, and his '01 with a similar Racing Beat front sway bar and fresh sticky Dunlop Z2 tires.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

Next was Tyson and his '95 M Edition also running on a brand-new set of Z2's on his rare and lightweight factory BBS wheels.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

Then there's Brian and his red Miataspeed, he was a close rival last year and part of the reason I was able to re-clinch second place by holding off an up and coming FR-S near the end of the year. He attended a high-performance driving school a month ago and I had a strong feeling he was going to wheel that car a lot faster this year.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

Last was Schuyler, he's the president of the SCCA college chapter that I happen to be vice-president in, and his stock '00. We joke and brag back and forth over whose Miata is better in terms of weight, balance, performance, etc. and it's become a rivalry of sorts.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

Walking around the grid, I was able to find the two other Miatas in my class and both of them were also running brand-spanking-new Dunlop Z2's.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me if I wanted to stay competitive but that's why I'm having fun. Some people get their kicks close to death; skydiving, extreme parkour, taking selfies right in front of passing trains, and other crazy deals. I just prefer to have my adrenaline running as I'm driving, no racing my car against the odds.

However, things don't always go the way you expect them to go. It's been a solid half-year since my last auto-cross and I'm horribly rusty. My first run was a 50.6 second DNF because I missed a gate due to not memorizing the course on only one walkthrough. Here's a video of a tired Phillip struggling through the course on his first run after helping volunteer for over six hours in the blazing sun. My run wasn't that far off from his except I didn't kill cones.

Now here's the course done correctly by the #65 super Impreza Sti, driven so hard that he broke the tie rod at the very end of one of his runs.

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

I immediately hopped into the passenger seat of an Abarth 500 (thanks Robert Nixon!) and I was finally able to have a clear idea of the correct line through the sea of asphalt and cones. Second and third runs were now in the 48.6 second range but I had been bumped down to last place.

By now I was getting a bit ticked, my tires were squealing and sliding whiles everyone else on Z2's were clocking times three seconds faster than mine. Fourth run I decided I'm going to let my anger out through the gas pedal…that was a mistake. Over-cooking a series of fast turns, I upset the Miata's balance and next thing I know I'm replicating my first story minus coming close to a curb.

I'm laughing afterwards but I'm still jaded from my abysmal performance. Big Kyle offers his guidance on my fifth run after taking my grumpy butt along for his fifth run. I take the corners at a smoother, less aggressive pace and it pays off, 48.3! However I'm still behind Schuyler and I'm not going to let that front sway bar upgrade go waste.

I find myself in familiar territory; I'm losing, I have my targets set on someone just slightly faster than me, and it's my last run. I couldn't want it any other way; this was my element where I can do my best to pull some sort of comeback. I calm down, focus, and repeat the same maneuvers as my previous run without the extra weight of a passenger! I also managed to get the rear end loose again in the exact same spot as my fourth run but this time my brain was wired to put in just enough 'oppo and hold the throttle steady to prevent another spin. Final time 47.7 and some change. If I remember correctly, then I think it was no more than a tenth of second enough to beat Schuyler for 2nd-to-last place!

Auto-crossing with Ender: Happiness

So what has Ender learned today? Well, one, I need to practice again because I'm out of shape in terms of performance driving. I entered the slaloms too late, I spun out of control, and I wasted precious time sliding my car through corners. Two, I need 15x6.5 wheels and some super high-performance tires whenever I'm not poor because those really made a difference. Three, I need to remember to keep a calm head and enjoy the time I'm spending out there because I've paid $40 to be there. You know, have fun with the progress and all, a good time driving cars fast with friends.

Oh, and four, I should have brought short-pants because wearing long black gym pants in super-sunny eighty-degree weather was not a genius idea.