The Honest Experience of a Rookie Autocrosser
My shaking hands gripped the steering wheel of my bright blue, base model, 2011 Ford Fiesta. Of all the emotions circulating through my mind, none of them contained any form of confidence. My natural predisposition to competitiveness was nowhere to be found.
Am I really doing this?
My eyes hesitantly steered towards the cars surrounding my meek blue econobox. Rumbling WRX STIs and Lancer Evolutions, angry Corvettes and Mustangs, even the Miatas were sporting superchargers and turbos. Was that a Noble?! Yet there I sat in my base model Fiesta. A small sedan pushing 120 BHP. High off the ground, all-season Continental DWS tires, and an intimidated rookie behind the wheel.
I’m way out of my league.
I shakily released the clutch to replace the cars that had moved in line ahead of me. The starting line loomed closer. A dozen other novices were on the course, most with much more performance oriented cars. Were they feeling the same way? Was I just going to make a fool of myself? I quickly looked up to see the cars just ahead had already begun to move forward again. I tapped the gas and rolled upwards another few spots. Cars roared through the course, replaying their echoes over the Atlantic City bay. Loud, fast, and clearly meant to be there. Despite my attempts to focus on their movements, my nerves continued to take over; taunting me; forcing me to face my insecurities. I was just a girl in a bright blue, ill-prepared, base model Fiesta.
You’ll be fine. Just stay on the course. Don’t hit any cones. Just learn to read the course.
There were now only a few cars to go before my own tires would hit the starting line. My heart was racing faster than any car on course. I tried to study the moves of the more experienced drivers...but would it even matter? My poor attempts to focus were broken when a man with a bright orange shirt hopped into my passenger seat, an instructor. Would I be mocked for needing an instructor? I couldn’t tell if the other novices had requested one. I uttered a few words, but my nerves quickly took over again.
You’re a new, female driver in a bright blue Fiesta. You’re expected to be slow. Prove them wrong. Just don’t screw up.
In what seemed like less than an instant, I was next. My mind was virtually uncontrollable. I had to get it together.
Relax. Focus. Drive.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and wrapped my hands around the steering wheel. My eyes found their focus, and it was straight ahead. I was ready.
I waited for the tachometer to reach 3000, let go of the clutch, and let my car fly. The tires screeched until they found traction, and off I went through the cones. The instructor’s words were completely drowned out by my racing heart. I read the course and hit the gas. My eyes were faster than my thoughts. Two moves ahead; left, right, right, slalom, brake, gas.
Stay close to the cones. More gas. Brake!! Are those my tires sliding!? THIS IS AMAZING!!!
My pedal was floored through the finish line. Something I would learn later was actually a benefit of driving my Fiesta. The timer read 98.040, clean. It was actually faster than some of the other times I had seen. The instructor’s voice came back to me. With an approving nod, I heard the words, “Wow, you did a great job!”
What I did know, was that I had just had the time of my life...and I was good at it. My confidence blossomed throughout the day. I learned the course and started to discover what my car and I could (and couldn’t) handle. My times dropped more and more each time I ran. At one point during the day, a fellow novice sought me out. He assertively asked, “Are you Jessica Horner?” I nodded. “You know...you’re winning Novice class right now.” He didn’t say it with a smile. There was a harsh tone in his voice that I couldn’t quite read. Was he happy for me? No, that wasn’t it. Was he possibly impressed? No, he was upset. He was angry. He viewed me as genuine competition.
I went on to take first place in Novice class that day, and would have taken first in my SCCA Solo class (HS) had I competed outside of Novice. By the last run, I had shaved off 10 seconds from my first time, finishing out with an 88.292. I was still 15 seconds from the overall fastest time of the day, but I wasn’t complaining. I was absolutely hooked.
On the Course
The remainder of the season was an incredible experience. I learned to fully appreciate my Fiesta, “Little Blue”, and all it had to teach me. Between my own driving experience and the helping nature the members of South Jersey SCCA, I learned an incredible amount in only a few short months. I never once encountered any stigmas against asking for help or advice. In fact, asking for advice was highly encouraged by every member, experienced or new, young or old, male or female. Of course, “smack talking” occurred, but the same people you “smack talked” with would help you out in an instant, at times before you even needed to ask. My initial insecurities had been erased by the end of just the first event and replaced with a strong desire to learn, improve, and of course, to go faster.
Despite my original anxiousness and doubt, my 2011 Ford Fiesta turned out to be the perfect car for a rookie autocrosser. Its small size and low power was actually an advantage. I quickly learned the meaning of the saying, “It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.” You see, success in autocross isn't determined by having the fastest or most impressive car. Due to its nature of having a focus on handling and the quick navigation of a highly technical course, faster isn’t always better. In the Fiesta, I never had to worry about whether or not I was pushing too much power through the course. Every move was predictable and that predictability allowed me to plan out where I wanted to put the car next. If there was a time I came into a corner too fast, the Fiesta let me down easy. I escaped with only a little less tread on my tires and a maybe a missed gate instead of spinning out into the surrounding field. Since I had less to worry about, I had more room to make mistakes and learn.
Those all season Continental DWS’s really took a beating. All season tires and a grated airport runway combined with my lack of experience resulted in pretty shredded tires. I decided to invest in a set of dedicated “track tires”. For a rookie on a budget, this consisted of stock steel wheels and a cheap set of all season Nitto NeoGens. I quickly Plasti-Dipped the steel wheels for extra horsepower and took them to the track.
Well, they performed about as well as one would expect...not very well. However, just like my Fiesta, they were a great stepping stone towards learning about how tires and air pressure can greatly affect your times on the course. Car’s sliding around the corner too much? Try letting out a few pounds before the next run. The best part was not having to worry about ruining a set of tires I also use for daily driving. I may not have had anywhere near the perfect or ideal setup for a successful autocross car, but I had what I would consider the perfect setup for learning and improving.
The Finish Line
The final results of the 2014 South Jersey SCCA Solo season showed my name at the top of the leaderboard for the Novice class. To top it off, I was presented with the award for Rookie of the Year. If you’d have told me at that first event that I’d be standing in front of the SJ SCCA region holding two awards, I would have laughed...nervously.
By the end of the season, I reluctantly came to the realization that I had discovered the limits of the Fiesta. Each event I grew more as a driver, and each event I began to outgrow my Fiesta. I had pushed myself and my car hard enough that my willingness and ability began to exceed what my trusty steed could do. My nerves had finally subsided enough to where I noticed how slowly I was building up speed. I would take corners at the maximum speed before I would lose traction and began to predict the limits of my car in each area. I was at the point where I knew I could go faster, but the Fiesta couldn’t keep up. It needed a more performance oriented suspension set up, better tires, more torque….
So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. In June 2015, we will be introducing the GE3KSPD Motorsport’s 2015 Ford Fiesta ST. The Fiesta ST is a lightweight, turbo-charged 1.6 litre pocket rocket with handling that is highly praised by even the best drivers. We have no doubt it will shine on any autocross course.
Though I am excited beyond words to unleash the Fiesta ST onto the track, can’t help but to look back in awe. I began with a car I had no faith in, and was even embarrassed of, and ended with a car that I had the opportunity to grow with rather than try to catch up to. If you find yourself hesitant to take the step to become involved with motorsports with nothing holding you back but your own insecurities, I encourage you to think about this rookie girl in her bright blue, base model, 2011 Ford Fiesta.
Take the plunge. You won’t regret it.
Jessica is an official team member of GE3KSPD Motorsports. Follow her Fiesta ST progress by following the official GE3KSPD blog!
To learn about the South Jersey SCCA region, click here: http://www.sjr-scca.org/.
For video footage of events: https://vimeo.com/111273261
Thanks to Scott Terrace for the action shots!