This episode go to an autocross event to get behind the wheel and floor it through cones trying to not spin out. I talk about my history with used, German cars, learning to repair them on a shoestring budget.
My family and used cars
I was never a car guy growing up. We had cars but they were never new or “certified pre-owned”. They were used. Many times.
With used cars come used car problems. The reason you have a used car is because you typically can’t afford anything better. Because you can’t afford anything better, you typically have to DIY fixes.
I remember seeing the entire steering rack for our 1985 Pontiac 6000 in our living room, which had driven us across country from Saskatchewan to Ottawa.
Couple repairing very used cars with my families very passionate arguments about who the better driver was, you can see a recipe for where this episode is heading.
My First Car
When I moved out at 23, I bought my first car, obviously a very used car: a 2000 Nissan Altima 4 door sedan in an off-blue colour. It was the most expensive car I could afford at $3000.
It must have been sitting for years because it smelled of wet and had all sorts of rust. One of the windows didn’t work.
As time went on and things started to break, out of necessity I had to learn how to fix things. If this was on video, I’d put air quotes around fix.
When the window wouldn’t come back up, I taped a tarp over it.
When the exhaust broke in two, I got a baby corn can and plumbing clamps to hold them together. That one I’m still proud of till this day.
When the floor boards were rusting through, I got JB weld, a liquid welder, and metal and patched the whole.
That car served me well and ended up serving the fire department well when we donated it for their training. I like to think that it wasn’t set on fire and was used for other training.
This episode is not about repairing cars, it’s about racing them. I don’t think you can race cars without having a connection with them beyond seeing them as the most expensive appliance.
Through fixing that Altima, I grew to appreciate cars like I hadn’t before. It also gave me the confidence to fix things I never thought I could.
The Mercedes that changed it all
My next car was a 2000 Mercedes 230. It was a giant step up in every way: it had heated leather seats, a fancy audio system, and most importantly a supercharger.
It was the fastest car I’d ever been in. I had never experienced the rush of flooring it on the highway on ramp and continuing to floor it while I well exceeded the speed limit to the point where it didn’t feel the car would ever stop accelerating.
I was addicted to the feeling of speed.
I was and still am a very cautious person so I only got to experience that a handful of times in that car.
10 months later and after replacing a bunch of parts and learning to do body work on it, that very used car gave up on me, I replaced it with my third car in 3 years: a 2000 BMW 323.
BTW, the reason all the cars were 2000 models was because it was the latest model year I could afford.
To this day, this was my favourite all around car: it had the looks, comfort, and just enough performance for me. I would still have this car till today if it didn’t leave me stranded several times overheating and if it’s dash wasn’t lit up like a Christmas tree with warning lights. But that’s a different story.
This is a story about racing and at this point I had the right car and needed a way to race it…without killing myself.
What is Autocross
Racing cars falls into the category of sport called “motorsport”. There are many forms from Formula1 to Nascar to dune buggy races to go-kart racing.
They range from professional drives to amateur hobbies. That’s me.
The motorsport that is the gateway drug and the perfect intro to racing for most is called autocross.
Autocross is the perfect combination of safe, competitive, and accessible:
- You drive your own car.
- There are clubs in most major cities so it’s easy to get to.
- It’s affordable, about $40 a race day.
- You race in a big parking lot.
- You are only racing yourself in that you try to get the best time on the track.
- One person races at a time.
- The track is a 2km long, twisty path created with pylons.
- As a racer, you also help run the day with different roles.
- Spectators are allowed to join you in the car and you’re allowed to join other racers.
That’s it. To sign up, you fill out some forms about safety, rules, and that your car is mechanically fit. That one made me nervous. Oh and you need a helmet.
I went on reddit to ask the Autocross community about their experiences – I wanted to know if my path to the hobby was the same and if we got the same things out of it.
First, I was blown away by the response. I got 39 replies in a few hours and some of the replies were paragraphs long.
Some had discovered it recently through friends and some had watched their parents do it and started in the 80s.
Some, like me, enjoyed getting to push their cars and themselves to the limit in a safe environment.
What surprised me was how important the community and social aspect is to a lot of the people who replied going as far as to say “Total opposite of any other automotive event I had been a part of previously.”
There is also a lack of ego, said one reply “I remember people with nice cars coming up to me and asking about my Tercel. I don’t have too many ‘car friends’, so it was nice to find so many people so interested in their cars and in everyone else’s cars.”
I remember that the best times at the events I went to were always a front-wheel drive Honda Civic sport, a car that most quote “car communities” online would not classify as good racing car.
And one of the last replies summed it up “I met a group of 10 or so guys that ended up becoming some of my best friends for the next 20 years.”
I watched a few YouTube videos to get prepared and showed up to my first autocross day.
There were a variety of cars, from typical fast & furious style, Japanese race cars, to classics, to muscle cars, and a whole lot of Miatas.
There is course walk where you walk the course and experienced drivers give you tips and warnings.
There is a mandatory meeting about safety and guidelines.
And then you get your cars ready in line to race.
As I watched the other racers run the course, I got knots in my stomach with anxiety. I’m not an anxious person but I rarely get this high a dose of adrenaline.
The cars screeched and twisted around the pylons. Some of them spun out and crashed through cones. The fastest drivers made it looks easy, which calmed me a bit.
At this point a few years removed, the experience is even more of a blur.
What is still clear to this day is the excitement and anxiety of getting up to the starting line and flooring it.
I remember chaotic breaking and steering.
I remember forgetting to breath.
I remember that feeling of the car losing grip, starting to spin in one direction, and quickly spin in the opposite direction.
I remember the car coming to a stop and the wipers being on because I had knocked them in a frantic effort to regain control.
I remember finishing the run, parking my car, and feeling wobbly legs and shaking hands for the first time.
I remember trying to walk normally like I was drunk and trying to hide it.
That’s my wife you heard as we spun out in another run.
After the first run, I was glad it was over and couldn’t wait to try it again. It felt like a real life video game where I knew where I could do better on the track. Here’s video a run where I forgot to brake.
I had either the worst time or the second worst time of cars in my category that day but it didn’t matter. It was only about doing better.
Autocross is a full day event. By the end of the day, I was completely drained.
That summer, I attended 6 or 7 autocross events. In between them, I researched driving technique, researched which parts could give me the edge I needed, and the perfect racing wardrobe. The Stig’s all white outfit from Top Gear UK was in my eBay wish list that entire summer.
My Mini Cooper
The last event of the season, I spotted a bright yellow, 2 door Mini Cooper with checkered doors that consistently drove at half my lap times. I couldn’t understand how the car could be that fast and the driver’s reaction time that fast.
I asked to ride along for one of his runs and felt like someone pushed the warp speed button. The run was about 48 seconds where mine were at least a minute and a half. I could barely keep track of the pylons. I held the “holy shit bar” the entire time.
When I got out of that car, I knew I had to get a Mini Cooper.
And I did, making it the 4th car I got in 5 years.
I have yet to drive a car I enjoyed as much as the Mini. It was stick shift, which I didn’t know how to drive. I got one lesson and drove it home…in rush hour. I think my hand imprints are still on the steering wheel from gripping it so tight all these years later.
Ultimately, I never got to race the Mini. Like all my other very used German cars, the Mini was rife with mechanical issues which drained my wallet. I kept putting it off till I got one more thing repaired and then life happened and kids came along.
I did manage to get a car seat in there but had to go through the hatchback with the seat down to get my daughter out. In a busy parking lot, it’s not a good look to get a baby from the trunk.
I eventually got rid of the Mini to get an Acura sedan, a sensible, 4 door grown up, adult man with family car.
Nothing has given me a shot of adrenaline as much as autocross. It is an experience where you have to unlearn what you know about driving and purposefully drive as fast as you can and continually try to drive faster.
The wobbly leg feeling didn’t go away – I felt it every time. Even the Spartan Race didn’t raise my heart rate as high.
Ultimately, it is a hobby that is expensive. It takes a lot of discipline to enjoy what you have and not be constantly trying to improve or replace it for just a little more, whether it’s the car itself or parts.
The Mini Cooper and all the cars before it were not a smart financial decisions. They were dumb. But sometimes dumb financial decisions lead to joy that you can’t possibly get otherwise.
I haven’t given up on this hobby – I’ve put it in a metaphorical storage room with all my other pre-adult, family man things that I enjoyed and can’t wait to dust off autocross again.