How to Set Up Your Car For Autocross
Author: Carly Augustynowicz
April 16, 2021
So, you want to get into autocross racing. Autocross is one of the most thrilling automotive sports that pushes your car and your driving skills to the limits. At first glance, autocross can seem like an intimidating thing to get into, but it's actually very easy to get involved. Unlike how the show-car community can be at times, the autocross community is incredibly supportive and fun despite the competitiveness of the sport.
The good thing is, you don’t need much to start autocross. You also don’t need a high horsepower car which is a big misconception about autocross racing. This type of racing is more about driver skill than it is about power. Let’s break down everything you’ll need to line up on the track for autocross!
Arguably one of the most important upgrades you'll want to start autocross is adjustable coilovers. Most autocross tracks are windy with a lot of tight corners. Some autocross events are held in large open parking lots where others are go-kart tracks with a real road course.
Having adjustable coilovers is extremely important to confidently throw your car into those corners. The ability to adjust damping, which usually is compression and rebound depending on the coilover, is especially important.
Companies like BC Racing offer single adjustable coilovers with 30-clicks of combined compression and rebound adjustments. This will make a difference when you go into the corners.
Now, some people might argue that lowering springs work well too, but lowering springs serve one main purpose of lowering your car not necessarily improving the handling. Since lowering springs lower your center of gravity, it does create less body roll resulting in slightly better handling, but it's nothing compared to what coilovers can achieve.
Coilovers serve two main purposes, each benefiting you and your car during autocross: lowering your car's center of gravity providing better weight distribution into the corners, and reduced body roll through stiff springs. But unlike lowering springs, the stiffness and adjustments make the biggest difference.
When you adjusting damping, you're adjusting the compression and rebound of the coilover, however, some coilover designs have separate adjustment knobs. The simple explanation of a coilover design is a coil spring over a shock absorber. Inside the shock absorber, there's a piston and oil that compresses and rebounds when your car goes over bumps for example.
When you drive over a bump on the road, the tire assembly pushed upwards causing the shock to move up. The piston within the shock has little holes where oil passes through, like a hydraulic system. This is damping.
For autocross, adjusting your damping can simply be done by turning the knob at the top of the coilover in the + direction. Once you're done racing and drive your race car back home, you can turn the knob in the - direction for a more comfortable ride.
Lightweight wheels aren't necessary, but the idea here is that you want maximum weight reduction so you can accelerate quickly out the corners. This is most effectively done by reducing unsprung weight. Unsprung weight is any weight that is NOT carried by the suspension. This includes wheels, tires, wheel hubs, brakes, and bearings for example.
When you reduce your wheel weight, you'll notice a difference in your steering and cornering responsiveness. This is a pretty debated topic and you'll get different answers depending on who you ask, but if you can get your hands on a set of lightweight wheels for autocross, why not? It will make a difference in your steering, even if it's a marginal difference.
You generally want a wheel to weigh around 20lbs-ish or lighter for the track. Now, if your wheels are 25lbs or 30lbs, that doesn't mean they're trash for autocross, but if you decide to really get into autocross racing, lightweight wheels are a worthy investment.
Sticky Performance Tires
Now, this my friends, is by far one of the most important players in autocross. Having a set of sticky performance tires does WONDERS on the track. It affects your braking, steering, traction and grip, and general ride quality.
If you're able to maximize your grip around the corners as well as get a tire that warms up quickly, all you need is good driving skills at that point.
For most autocross classes, you'll need to run a 200 treadwear tire. You'll also want to also pay attention to the tire's dry performance and tread design. Many summer performance tires have an aggressive tread design that not only looks great for the track but also allows for precise cornering responsiveness and braking. Having performance tires that warm up quickly is another plus so you can give it your all in the first corner.
Pro tip: When bombing it into the corners, brake hard in a straight line before the corner (not too hard if you don't have ABS). Don't do all your braking while you're actually in the corner.
This may sound like an obvious tip, but it's pretty common for beginners to continue braking around the corners. I did this myself so I'm speaking from experience when I say this, it makes a world of difference when you brake hard before you go into the corner so you can focus on booking it out of the corner on the gas.
Other Performance Parts to Consider
If you're already setup with a good set of sticky performance tires, adjustable coilovers, and lightweight wheels, you pretty much ready to go. However, you can go further and upgrade brakes (big brake kit, pads, rotors, high temp brake fluid, etc.), your cooling system, additional suspension components like sway bars and strut bars, aero additions (debatable with autocross due to low speeds, but could make a small difference still), roll cages with harnesses, and much more.
The list goes on and on, but for those who are just getting into autocross, it's important to get out on the track and feel out your driving abilities and your car's capabilities. Once you understand what your car can and cannot handle, you'll know what type of upgrades you need so you can give yourself the best opportunity to perform better.
Autocross is such a fun sport that will truly test your skills as a driver as well as your car's capability on the road. Unlike some other racing sports, autocross is not about how much horsepower and torque your car makes. Is it helpful? Yes. It is necessary to do well in autocross? Absolutely not. Again, I'm speaking from experience. Some of the best autocross cars are veryyy slow in a straight line. It's 100% about driver skill and your car's weight.
The biggest factors that will affect your performance in autocross are lightweight wheels, adjustable coilovers, and sticky tires. That's it. Once you start racing and get a feel of how much you want to participate in autocross, you can start with more modifications that will affect other aspects of performance like horsepower and aerodynamics.
Do you participate in autocross? What else would you add to the list of best first mods for autocross?
Comment down below the best mods that you've made to your car for autocross!