My first two years on the National autocross circuit

I’ve just returned from the 2014 SCCA Tire Rack Solo Nationals, the premier autocross championship event in the United States. This trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, was my second trip out ever. This year, I placed 15th out of 41 drivers, solidly midpack, far exceeding my expectations. Getting to this point, however, has been two years of blissful highs and painful lows, and has been one of the most difficult yet rewarding learning experiences I’ve ever had.

As is typical of real life, my experience over the past two years follows a familiar path, enshrined in things such as the Stages of a Photographer’s Life and the Gartner Hype Cycle. As Gartner so eloquently puts it, first comes the build up to the “Peak of Inflated Expectations,” followed soon after by the “Trough of Disillusionment,” and finally, the “Slope of Enlightenment.” Yeah, if you’re looking for a “TL;DR” statement, that is it, right there.

What is Nationals?

For the friends who are not autocrossers, here’s the quick and dirty on what it’s all about.

The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) is the primary group that runs autocrosses, also known as “Solo,” in the US. They publish a rule book that all their regional chapters abide by, establishing standards for how events are run, what modifications are allowed in each class, and how cars are classed. Many independent clubs, while perhaps not following this rulebook to the letter for running events, will typically follow the rules about modifications and car classing to some degree.

There are different tiers of autocross competition. There’s local events, which cater to local drivers, who can include everyone from aspiring championship drivers to local participants looking just to have fun with his or her car. The local events are typically low key, thanks to the demands of the numerous drivers who are in it for the fun and joy of driving their car on an occasional weekend or two. Up one tier is regional events, in which drivers from around a region will come together and compete. In theory, regional competition would be a tougher stage to compete in than local events, but in practice, I’ve found that most “regional” autocross events turn out to be little more than slightly bigger local events.

The top tier of autocross competition is the National stage. Whereas local and regional events are run by local, or teams of local, chapters, the National events are run by the National SCCA office in conjunction with a host SCCA chapter. There are only several of these events held every year, held at premier autocross sites around the United States, and autocrossers travel far and wide to make it to these events, not only to autocross on these great sites, but also to compete against the best drivers around.

The climax of National competition is the SCCA Tire Rack Solo Nationals, known simply as “Nationals” or “Nats.” At Nationals, over 1100 drivers from around the nation converge on Lincoln, Nebraska, to compete over four days to determine the National Champions of each autocross class. It’s one part intense competition, one part reunion party. Those who manage to make it to the top of their class get a coveted National Champion jacket and their name enshrined in the rulebook.

Yes, the driving element of Nationals is important, but so is all of the silly stuff, like Detroit Region’s super classy pool-on-a-trailer.

Since most of my non-car friends are swing dancers, I’ll make this easy to understand by linking this all back to the Lindy Hop scene. Local autocross events are the equivalent of your local social swing dances. National autocross events are the equivalent of dance exchanges and workshop weekends (Cincy Lindy Exchange <> Wilmington Champ Tour; DC Lindy Exchange <> DC Pro Solo). Solo Nationals is the equivalent of the International Lindy Hop Championships (ILHC), and gets similar attention, with live timing and results, and webcasts of all of the action.

And just like in Lindy Hop, the autocrossers that travel tend to be very good, and once you start traveling about, you begin seeing the same people over and over again at National events. The National autocross family is just that — a family consisting of the small subset of autocrossers who want to be the best they can be, and celebrate and commiserate with other like-minded folks who have this crippling desire to light their money on fire all for the ability to shave tenths of a second off the timer.

My first year of National competition

Up until 2013, I had only run an occasional National event. My very first National event was the Peru Tour in 2010, where I and fellow codriver Emanuel ran my Miata in C-Stock, and we placed 6th and 7th out of 9 drivers. It would be another two years before I went back to a National event, getting myself hooked on Pro Solo at the Toledo Pro Solo and going back to Peru for a Tour in 2012.

But in 2013, I was determined to run as many National autocross events as I possibly could. I would end up missing Peru, but I did manage to make the Washington DC and Toledo Pro Solos, as well as the Milwaukee Match Tour and the Wilmington Champ Tour.

The year started off with the DC Pro Solo, in which I managed to land Mike “Junior” Johnson and his wife Kandy as my codrivers. Most of the toughest competition in my class, Street Touring Roadster (STR), in this half of the US is on the East Coast, and against these folks, I didn’t fare well at all. Junior did just fine though, missing the top spot in the event by just half a second across both courses. That meant that I couldn’t blame my car for my poor result — I simply had a lot of work to do as a driver.

Junior and Kandy prepare my car for competition at the 2013 DC Pro Solo.

After a pretty poor finish at Milwaukee, I thought things were on the upswing once I finished the Toledo Pro Solo. For the first time ever, I had trophied at a National event! In hindsight, I managed to trophy not because I was blazing fast and driving on the edge, but because I had chosen an unpopular line through the course that helped keep my momentum up and my speed up. But a trophy’s a trophy, and I thought that I was in a good position heading into Wilmington. Finally, I thought to myself, I’m finally a good driver!

The dominoes would begin to fall once I arrived at Wilmington. Wilmington, a brand new site procured by the hard efforts of the Cincinnati Region of the SCCA, was a one hell of a large concrete airport pad that should have driven similarly to Toledo and the surface at Lincoln. I did horribly at Wilmington, off the pace to the tune of about a second to the top drivers in the class on each day. That was a particularly deflating experience, as I thought that my trophy at Toledo was the start of a trend, not just a momentary blip.

Shane Chinonn and Noel Leslie talk racing lines at the 2013 Wilmington Champ Tour. Noel would go on the place 3rd in class, while Shane would join STR for 2014.

I still held on to some hope that I had improved on the year, until I got to the big stage that year: my first Nationals ever. I had set what I thought were reasonable expectations for myself — my goal was to finish in the 25th percentile.

I couldn’t achieve that. I finished 47th out of 50 drivers. My impromptu codriver for Nationals, fellow Ford colleague Nick Sullivan, managed to place 38th in my car. My informal benchmarks for the year, Noel Leslie of the DC Region and Joe Calder of the Milwaukee Region, placed 29th and 34th, respectively.

The most obvious reason for the poor showing was the fact that you have three runs on each Nationals course, East and West, for a total of six, and at a minimum, you need at least one clean run on each course for a decent showing. Well, I coned away five of my six runs, with three dirty runs on the first day of competition and two more on the second day.

Driving to a poor finish at the 2013 Nationals. At least I look fast in pictures…

Looking back now, I realize that the primary factor in my poor driving was not Nationals stomach butterflies (I really didn’t have any) or any issues with the car (though I’ll admit that the car is set up better now than it was last year), but that I was chasing the class leaders and not focusing on my own driving. “If the top drivers are getting this time, then I should obviously be somewhat close to what they can do,” I thought. “If they’re hitting the rev limiter here, then I should be too…” Target fixation on the top drivers of the class caused me to blow my driving lines and generally overdrive the car pretty much everywhere. And in the end, I was still nowhere close to the scratch times of the top drivers in the class.

In the year that has passed, I have never bothered to even look at my GoPro footage from that Nationals. However, my terrible driving is very well showcased in the Nationals music video for that year, starting at about the 4 minute mark.

After Nationals, I was wallowing in discouragement. It seemed like I had so far to go. Was there any point in trying to throw effort after wasted effort towards something I couldn’t achieve?

Making major changes to the Miata

I kept with it and stepped things up a bunch for 2014. It was obvious that the effort that I had put into my season the year prior was simply not enough.

Making changes at the 2014 July Oscoda Test and Tune.

The first thing I did was do some experimentation on car setup. My Miata is pretty much an amalgamation of different parts from other STR cars, starting first and foremost with the suspension, which I had bought used off a parted STR car. I hadn’t touched the suspension settings since I had gotten the coilovers, and in fact, didn’t know how to even adjust them. At the beginning of the year, I started playing around with the spring rates and the shock settings, eventually expanding the scope to experimenting with different sway bars front and rear.

Also important was that this time, I was setting the car up myself and to my own liking. Put simply, I learned that I can’t be lazy when it comes to car setup, and that I had better understand and be capable of making changes to the car to account for driving style and site peculiarities. The previous year, the car had been set up to be very loose, which suited Junior just fine, but I couldn’t drive it as well. The car got better when I handed it off to Brandon Hagaman, who took the car out to Oscoda last year for the Test and Tune and did some work on it with the help of Kenneth Tsang — but the fact of the matter is, handing the car off to someone else to tune it for me was a pretty stupid idea, as it meant getting back a setup that I didn’t have any involvement in putting together and that I’d end up second-guessing for the rest of the year.

Bumper comes off to install a shiny metal tube.

I ended up softening the car a whole bunch. Before the start of the 2014 season, I dropped the rear spring rate by 50 lbs to 400 lbs/in springs. I dialed in the rebound and compression on my shocks at the Champaign County Sports Car Club (CCSCC) Test and Tune at Rantoul, Illinois at the beginning of the year, finally learning how to actually make rebound and compression adjustments and learning (and driving so I could get a seat-of-the-pants impression of) how the car responded to changes in compression damping. At the first Detroit Region SCCA Oscoda Test and Tune, I played around with my sway bars, eventually removing my huge aftermarket adjustable front sway bar and going back to the stock MX5 Miata front sway, and completely removing the large adjustable rear sway bar from the car. So yeah, the car is much softer all around.

This year, I also had a codriver for most of my events. Fellow also-from-Illinois-and-now-in-Michigan local autocrosser Josh McDonough was my codriver for all the entire season with the exception of Peru and Nationals. His help would be invaluable, as he’s a data geek at heart, and helped me get a good tune for the Miata and did data analysis on our driving at several events.

At the beginning of the season, I decided that I was going to stop being lazy and pull the front bumper off of the Miata so I could install a cold air intake, the flimsiest of excuses for why I didn’t have a tune on the Miata. (Like I said, not enough effort for a National campaign last year.) With the intake now in the car, I had Mike at Moto-East create an EcuTek tune for the Miata, and I bought the EcuTek hardware cable and a cheap, refurbished laptop off the internet so I could flash the ECU in the Miata and do some data-logging.

Josh dynos the Miata. We quickly discover that the idea of getting a tune right on the first go is a naively optimistic expectation.

It took me far longer than I had ever anticipated to get the tune for the Miata right. I’m very lucky in how things turned out this season in regards to the tune, as I got to witness a couple other fellow STR drivers who were not nearly in as good a position as Josh and I were when (the surprisingly common) tune issues came to a head. Josh took the Miata down to his father’s shop in Central Illinois where they had a dyno. With the EcuTeck tune provided by Moto-East and an Open Flash Tablet (a new tuning option for the NC Miata currently being developed), he did a bunch of dyno runs to see what differences there were between the aftermarket tunes and the stock tunes.

In the process of doing this, he made sure to get the stock tune for my car as a flashable EcuTek tune file. I would later learn that not everyone who has had their car tuned has the ability to go back to the stock tune.

Initial dyno tests showed that the EcuTek tune was actually giving us a significant drop in midrange power due to some tuning wonkiness. If it was just me tuning my car, I would have flashed the first provided tune into the Miata and taken for granted that the tune produced power. But the dyno numbers don’t lie…

Some back-and-forth with Mike at Moto-East yielded a tune that seemed to solve the midrange power issue and also gave us a little bit of power up top. Testing the Open Flash Tablet tune didn’t yield very good results, so we stuck with the Moto-East EcuTek tune.

The road to Nationals, Part One

I again squeezed in as many National events as I could this year. With the Wilmington, Ohio site now the location of a Pro Solo, a Match Tour, and a Champ Tour, my National autocross schedule this year was pretty packed. In addition to the aforementioned Wilmington events, I also attended the DC Pro Solo, the Toledo Pro Solo, and the Peru Match Tour. The Milwaukee Match Tour was on my calendar as well, but was unfortunately canceled.

The first National event of the year was the Wilmington Match Tour, which took place so early in the year, that it took place weeks before the Detroit Region’s first autocross of the season. As noted earlier, Josh and I took the car to Central Illinois for some dyno tuning and then a local autocross, because CCSCC is full of crazy nutters who start their season in March, under the threat of cold and snow, and finish their season in November, under the threat of cold and snow. The following weekend, I came back with the Miata, taught at the local autocross school, and then partook in the Test and Tune, because CCSCC is full of crazy nutters who will work to hold double-event weekends on back-to-back weekends.

I had the car mostly set up to my liking by the time the Wilmington Match Tour rolled around, so I was cautiously optimistic. For the most part, the event went well. However, there were several embarrassing moments when I would take off from the start line and the car seemed like it was ready to stall. Josh didn’t experience any weirdness from the start, so I chalked it up to me being stupid with the clutch, having adjusted the clutch engagement point at the beginning of the season. Little did I know that this was the start of a long, arduous troubleshooting journey that would have me tearing my hair out at different points of the year.

Despite all that, I did okay. I placed 2nd out of 6 cars, 1.5 seconds behind class winner and unofficial arch nemesis Tim Viars. I met him back at my first Pro Solo at Toledo, and we’ve been going back and forth in competition ever since. He’s also got a 6-speed Miata that is similarly prepped to my own. It was enough for a trophy, but being that far behind Tim didn’t give me any good vibes, so I didn’t celebrate my accomplishment that weekend all that much.

The STR grid at the 2014 Wilmington Match Tour. Tim Viars, driving the silver MX5 Miata, would place first while I placed second.

Funny side note: I have Tim to thank for my even getting a trophy. I looked at his Solostorm data, and adopted parts of his line to put me ahead of the rest of the drivers. I have a DL1 in my Miata, but it’s extremely difficult to analyze data in grid, making it useful only for postmortem analysis, not real-time analysis that could effect the final results. I’ve been meaning to get Solostorm this year to augment the DL1, but I haven’t gotten it yet…

The next event on the calendar was the DC Pro Solo, the event outside of Nationals that I consider the toughest competition in STR. Josh and I took off on Friday morning in an attempt to make it to FedEx Field for the Washington DC Region Karaoke party, which due to rain was then postponed to Saturday evening. (I’d stay on site to sing karaoke on Saturday evening, sadly missing out on my opportunity to sneak away to do some dancing at the DC Lindy Exchange, which was the exact same weekend as the DC Pro Solo.) There were 30 cars in the class, the largest group of STR cars I’d see in one place this year until I arrived in Lincoln.

The big huge STR grid at the 2014 DC Pro Solo.

It was at this event that my frustration with the Miata’s tune was really starting to build. For the uninitiated, Pro Solo events have drag strip style starts, with a Christmas tree counting you down to a green start light. Launching the car quickly and accurately is hugely important to getting a good run here.

I had one problem: I couldn’t launch the car for shit during my first set of runs. I’d bring the revs up to 3500 rpm, rapidly release the clutch, and watch the car bog down to 1100 or so rpms before the car finally gave it the beans and accelerated. It did this whether or not I was manually holding the revs with my right foot, or if I was engaging the launch control programmed into the ECU with the EcuTek RaceRom. What was particularly baffling was that Josh didn’t seem to have the same issues with launching the car that I had.

Still, as the owner of the car, I decided that I didn’t want to learn how to launch the car Josh-style, and we flashed the stock tune back into the ECU. Thank goodness we had the stock tune available, and that we purchased and owned the EcuTek hardware instead of renting it from someone. Once the stock tune was back in the car, I could once again launch the car the same way I’ve always launched the car without bogging, and I could do burnouts again. The downside is that flashing back to the stock tune meant losing the raised rev limiter in the Moto-East tune, which meant I could no longer exceed 60mph in second gear. (For the non-autocrossers, for simplicity’s sake, let’s just say that having a higher top speed in 2nd gear is a huge advantage.)

Of course, it would turn out to be that I was the only Miata to have this problem. Mark Dudek, who also has a 2009 Miata tuned with EcuTek, wasn’t experiencing the same issue that I was having in my car. And the other Miatas in the class weren’t running EcuTek tunes. A quick Google search yielded very little information, and emails exchanged with Mike at Moto-East showed that they were just as puzzled about this problem as we were.

I would end up in 14th place, while Josh ended up in 21st. Having come from a front wheel drive Mini Cooper, he had a learning curve ahead of him for driving rear wheel drive. (It also didn’t help that the car was still set up to be slightly on the loose side at this point in time.) The class was handily won by Nick Barbato; I was about 1.9 seconds off his pace.

Nick was codriving Noel Leslie’s Honda S2000 for the year. Noel, being car number 91, meant that he was always parked next to me, car number 90, in grid, and he was the first friend I made in the National STR group when I first started traveling. While Noel is good enough to reliably contend for trophies, it was a revelation to see just what a championship-capable top-shelf driver could do in the car as a point of comparison, and I’d eventually come to understand just what it was that separated really, really good drivers like Nick Barbato from the slow riffraff like myself.

The next event on the schedule was the Toledo Pro Solo. We got another tune from Mike at Moto-East and flashed it into the car. No dice — the car was still bogging badly when I launched the car, and to make matters worse, now Josh was experiencing bogging as well, no matter what he tried to do.

I made the executive decision to flash the damn Miata back to its stock tune. That meant that we could launch the car consistently from the start line again, but it also meant that we lost our raised rev limiter; on the very fast Toledo Pro Solo course, we were on the rev limiter for a significant amount of time (over 5 seconds on a ~30 second course!). Josh’s data analysis after the event suggested that we probably would have been better off suffering on the launch rather than giving up our top end speed.

We were not alone in having tune issues. Mark was finally experiencing the bog on launch in his own Miata. Why it started bogging at Toledo but was fine at DC, I don’t know. But at this point in time, no one had an answer for what was fucking up. And while Josh and I were fortunate to have the ability to flash our ECU back to stock, Mark didn’t have a stock tune file for his car, so he was SOL.

Out of 21 cars, I placed 14th and Josh placed 16th. Very much a “meh” result. Once again, Nick Barbato took the class win. Damn.

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