All hands on deck

Last weekend was the Detroit Region Solo Planning meeting. Attendance was, quite frankly, pathetic. Whereas the year before, we had a smaller room at JD Karting and it was full to the point where we needed to bring in more chairs, this year, we had the bigger lounge and had less than, by my estimate, half the number of club members as did the year before.

I remember rushing into the planning meeting this year 30 minutes late thinking that I wouldn’t be able to find a seat. Upon entering the room, I was surprised to see that there was still a comfy leather seat in the back corner, and that less than a dozen of us volunteers had shown up. I wound up volunteering to chair one of the events, but after the meeting, there were still vacancies in several important positions that were left unfilled. No surprise there — there simply weren’t enough people present to take up all the roles.

I went back home and did some thinking. Over the past few days, I’ve expanded upon my thoughts as to why Detroit’s autocross-running volunteer group has become so thin, and about the ways Detroit Region runs their autocross events.

Volunteer drain

This year’s Solo Planning meeting had a particularly urgent tinge to it. Shawn, one of the key people that you could find helping out at every single event, was taking the year off in order to spend more time with his young children. The end result was something akin to taking out the wrong Jenga piece in a tower; suddenly, we had holes in the autocross event volunteer roster that Jeremiah, the Solo Director, had to scramble to fill. When I arrived at the Solo Planning meeting, nearly half of the events we had on the 2017 schedule still didn’t have Event Chairs, and the lists of Event Chiefs for each event still had vacancies, preventing Jeremiah from sending in the event sanction forms before the start of the season.

How can one of the biggest SCCA regions with one of the biggest member bases struggle to find enough volunteers to run events? Like most groups, running autocross events is a thankless job taken up by a small group of hardcore members, yet I wonder if neighboring region NWOR has the same trouble rounding up help like we in Detroit Region do. Hell, it seems like my tiny hometown car club, Champaign County Sports Car Club (CCSCC) has a larger pool of available autocross volunteer help than Detroit does. For its size, CCSCC puts on an absolutely ridiculous number of autocross events every year.

I have my theories, and I suspect that Frank, another one of the hardcore autocross event volunteers, shares the same thoughts. In the planning meeting, Frank talked about the event running “clique” that perhaps discourages others from attempting to volunteer, or assume that everything is all fine and dandy as requests for assistance rarely go outside a certain circle of people. Frank brought it up during the planning meeting as a function of how worker points are distributed and how someone might see that as a bit of “paying one’s own kind.”

That’s one way to look at it, but I’d argue that most of us don’t volunteer because we want worker points. I think, at the heart of the problem, is the fact that the autocross volunteer core group simply isn’t very good at inviting people to join us, despite our constant efforts to get new bodies.

For anyone outside of the core group, there’s a distinct feeling of “why bother when I can’t make a difference?” Hell, even inside the core group, that feeling persists. Frank and I both brought up at a Board of Directors meeting the frustration that there was no input into the upcoming autocross season before the Solo Planning meeting — especially in terms of the types of events that we run. Frank and I are willing to pull together the hard work of putting on a local Solo school outside of (and additional to, I might add) the Starting Line school we hold year after year now. Now we come to the Solo Planning meeting and everything in the schedule has already been decided by a small group of people, and while Jeremiah is willing to let Frank form a Solo School committee, it’s much too late now to pull a local school together for the 2017 season and we must wait until next year.

Among the group of autocross friends I hang out with a lot, the sentiment of “why bother” is especially strong. The sad part is that a lot of these folks were the folks that sat in last year’s meeting but decided not to go to this year’s planning meeting. “We didn’t do anything in last year’s meeting,” was the common refrain. “Why should we bother going to this year’s meeting?”

In the end, they were right. Called a Solo Planning meeting, it is anything but. Members can provide token input on event procedures, but the schedule is already set, with the event chairs taking the events they typically chair already penciled into event sanctions. There really isn’t any “planning” at these meetings, just sign-ups for work that no one wants to do. Where’s the fun in that?

Perhaps if we had a stronger voice to influence what we want to see in the autocross space, people would be more interested in coming out and sharing their opinions. We talk a lot about social bubbles when it comes to social media and politics, but hell, we’ve have that little bubble effect when it comes to autocross planning for years now.

Quite frankly, it’s discouraging. It’s hard for me to stay enthusiastic about supporting Detroit Region autocross events, and this coming from someone who was super gung-ho about making Detroit events run better and faster 4-odd years ago. I’m more resilient than most other Detroit Region volunteer members; the vast majority of my autocross circle did an admirable job of fulfilling duties last year, but aren’t stepping up to volunteer in more involved ways because, once again, why bother if nothing changes?

The way we run events

Progress in how we run events has been slow. Improvements have been very incremental, which is better than no progress at all, but I yearn for more drastic changes, and most importantly, for improvements to stick around.

By the nature of how we run events, every autocross event is run differently according to the wishes of its event chair, and as a group, the event chairs can’t agree on single standard process by which we run events. I get it, Detroit Region is handicapped with the fact that it has a lot of sites, many of them far away from the Detroit Metro area, which makes it a challenge to get out there and set up events in a timely fashion, and therefore affording the event chairs a degree of flexibility helps makes things work.

But a common pet peeve of mine that exemplifies the event-to-event variation is: how do you run junior karts? For a region that has been a bastion of autocross karting, you’d think we’d have this figured out down pat, but we don’t. How karts fit in the run order is always a mystery from event to event. Sometimes we run the karts in line with all of the other cars, sometimes we run the karts all together in one shot, sometimes we run them first while waiting for first heat workers to make it to the corner stations, sometimes we run them during worker changeovers between heats. There is no standard procedure for dealing with karts.

Expand this to other aspects of the event, and you can see how a lot of an event chair’s time (and volunteer effort) is spent on just reinventing the wheel every single time we have an event. Maybe one event chair will attempt to assign worker assignments while people are trapped in grid, then the next event chair will have everyone meet up at the timing truck after they’ve parked their cars after their runs. Worker changeovers change from event to event, and as a result, creates a lot of frustration in not just the people running the event, but the people driving the event.

I would argue that it would be in Detroit’s best interests to standardize how we do everything. Event chairs are crippled with the Paradox of Choice. We let them determine event schedules and write the event flyers, we let them decide how run/work orders are managed, we let them decide how best to do the drivers meeting. I’d argue in favor of simply locking everything down — one event schedule defined for each type of site we run (local, MIS, and Oscoda), only one way to determine run/work order, a strict script to follow for drivers meetings with no deviations except to point out site-specific hazards, and just one agreed upon procedure for switching over corner workers.

Having sat on more Board of Directors meeting than perhaps any non-Board member of the past few years, I would also push for way more investment into Detroit Solo. We come back year after year with massive surpluses and hoard it away. I get it, it’s nice to have cash in the bank for when another economic shock happens and we need the cash to help carry our autocross and other Detroit Region programs through tough times. But frequently, I see discussions around spending money revolve around “that’s a lot of money” instead of what I think discussions really should revolve around: “how will this investment make it easier/faster to run our events?”

If you ask me, I’d much rather that we spend money and effort on a helmet scanner for autocross than taking our surplus for the year and subsidizing the awards banquet.

I would go even further and argue that Detroit Region has the resources to hold a couple of region-defining premier events if we would get our heads out of the idea that every single event has to finish well into the black. Sure, the Palace of Auburn Hills (or DTE whatever-that-place-is, I don’t know my local big autocross sites as I’ve never competed there) is a really expensive site, but it’s big and a lot of people know about it and wish we were still autocrossing there. What if we just aimed to break even? Perhaps we can work the budget such that 150 cars breaks us even on such a site. Such an event would address a couple of common complaints: Detroit Region doesn’t actually have “local” events; Detroit Region doesn’t have “big” sites close by; Detroit Region doesn’t have events that make it possible for tentatively interested drivers to dip their toes in autocross without driving hours away from home or abandoning their families for a weekend.

And who knows? Perhaps a site like the Palace could become profitable if we get enough people excited enough about coming out. Perhaps we budget to break even at 150 drivers but get 170 drivers. Not a terribly huge profit, but it would justify the event in the eyes of the Board. I’d be willing to chair such an experiment and take full responsibility for everything if the event goes down in flames.

Too bad there’s no avenue for me to bring this kind of idea up, say, like a Solo Planning meeting that looked for such input.

If you worked as an event chair and ran the event the way you liked it, and then you worked the next event run by someone else who completely eschewed your ideas (both good and bad), how would that make you feel? Perhaps like all your good ideas and input was for naught…

How other regions run events

Whenever I bring up how CCSCC and Chicago Region run their events around Kenneth, he rolls his eyes and sarcastically asks me to espouse how “everything is way better in Illinois.”

Last night, while in the shower, I had the idea to do some actual number crunching to see if my assertion that Chicago and Milwaukee Regions ran their events way better than Detroit and NWOR held any water. The results, while imperfect, were a bit of an eye opener.


Based on 2016 event results, Chicago Region pulled off 9 events with an average of 140 drivers per event and an average 6.4 runs per entrant per event. For Milwaukee Region, those figures were 10 events with averages of 163 drivers and 5.9 runs per event.

Excluding the Oscoda one-day “Pro” (for which I don’t have discrete run data), Detroit Region had 8 events with averages of 136 drivers and 4.5 runs per event. NWOR had 11 events with averages of 127 drivers and 4.2 runs per event.

So it does indeed look like Chicago and Milwaukee are able to consistently pull off 6-run days for their events while Detroit and NWOR frequently struggle to get more than 4 runs per event. How much of that is due to the fact that Chicago and Milwaukee aim to have their first cars off at 9:15am vs. event-in-progress efficiency, I’m not sure.

Also, if I’m reading the event results correctly, Milwaukee is to be commended for having three events with 221, 187, and 186 drivers and pulling off 6-run days for all of them. Detroit had an event with 197 drivers and could only muster 3 runs per driver, while NWOR had three events with 192, 189, and 184 drivers and 4, 3, and 4 runs per driver per event, respectively.

How do Chicago and Milwaukee Region do it? For sure, a lot of it is attributable to their event schedules. Registration and tech open and close earlier than they do for Detroit and NWOR, with the goal of having the first car off at 9:15am, compared to 10:00am or later for Detroit and NWOR. They also run A/B A/B style heats, in which you run 3 runs in the morning and 3 runs in the afternoon, the heats split up this way so corner workers only have to work for 3 runs instead of working the full 6 for each class.

But I suspect, ultimately, the reason that they are able to pull it off comes down to three things: 1) a system that runs each event exactly the same, with the roles defined as necessary to operate within the context of the event, 2) a sense of urgency in that it’s expected that 6 runs will be provided and that any fewer runs would be considered poor form, and 3) a large pool of people that can slot into roles as needed to make these insane event schedules work event after event after event.

Those three factors are why Detroit, even if it wanted to, couldn’t pull of a Chicago or Milwaukee style event schedule. Even the independent club in the region, TriState Sports Car Club (TSCC), is able to regularly pull off 6+ run events (many with 8 runs!), something that the independents here in Detroit struggle to do.

I shared the numbers on my Facebook wall before I went to bed. I woke up in the morning to a hearty discussion about the differences in way different regions run events. That’s awesome, to hear other people’s takes on how their groups run events, and the frustrations that other folks have with their local events.

Brian, former Detroiter now living in Chicago, made the point that there’s a bit of a competition going on between Chicago Region and Milwaukee Regions to see who can provide the most runs in the least amount of time. (And that competition seems to have rubbed off on TSCC, which looks to me to be even more efficient than my beloved hometown car club, CCSCC.) I think it’s something that merits further consideration.

Detroit and NWOR have been running their autocross events for pretty much the same way for years. Improvements are slow, whether that’s due to a lack of manpower to effect change or the “not invented here” syndrome that typically stereotypes the SCCA graying-hair member. It would do both regions good, I think, to start considering how to change their events and compete — and share ideas! — about how to improve how we run events around here.

The final word

At the end of the day, we all autocross for fun. That’s true, yet…

There are a lot of demands these days for our time. We have families that demand attention, work frequently spills over into the weekends, and other forms of entertainment beckon.

It’s getting harder and harder for me to bring new people to autocross because the barrier to entry in terms of time and effort is so high. It’s hard for me to convince people to give autocross a shot when they have to fork over $50 for four runs and 9 hours of their time. Those who run events have to acknowledge that, for events to be viable, they have to increase the amount of seat time such that it becomes worth it to go to an event for $50 and 9 hours of time, or else risk losing potential entrants to other forms of motorsports like rallycross and track days.

Hell, the balance of the equation for one of the most important volunteers in the Detroit Region shifted to the point where even he couldn’t justify running Detroit Region autocross events. What does that say for the value of the events that we run?

There are a lot of comments on my Facebook wall about how if there were 6 runs, they’d consider it worth their while to come out. After seeing how a lot of regions run their events, 6 runs a day seems to be the sweet spot. It’s what Detroit and NWOR should strive for.

If you can get 6 runs per day, I bet you’d get a lot more participation at today’s entry prices. And you’d get more people that would be willing to help run these events. But that would also mean acknowledging that things need improvement, the courage to make rules and stick to them, and the openness to new volunteers and their ideas.

Sounds like a great agenda for a Solo Planning meeting.