The excitement of autocross comes to Thompson

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Thompson - posted Tue., Jul. 12, 2011
John and Valerie Santos both drive autocross in their 1965 AC Cobra. Photos by Denise Coffey.
John and Valerie Santos both drive autocross in their 1965 AC Cobra. Photos by Denise Coffey.

Kevin FitzMaurice strapped himself into the driver's seat of his red 1995 Mazda Miata and drove to a starting line in a lot adjacent to the Thompson Speedway. When he got the nod, he punched the pedal, reaching almost 60 mph in a few hundred feet. At the top of a hill, he took a hard left into a series of cones set up for the slalom course. After a hairpin turn, more slaloms and offsets, he was finished with the .6-mile course.

FitzMaurice is an admitted car freak. He is also the treasurer for the Connecticut Autocross and Race Team, the group that sponsored the autocross event in Thompson on July 10.

CART Membership Chair Jim Duphiney said anyone is welcome to try the course. “You can use any normal street car,” he said, “except SUVs.” People new to the sport can have an instructor ride with them as they maneuver through the timed event.

Autocross is more about driving skills than speed, though the lowest time wins the event. One driver in one car at a time tests himself (or herself - there are quite a few women who compete) against a series of cones set out to simulate slaloms, offsets and hairpin turns. Sometimes the course will include figure-eights.

Every event is different, according to Duphiney, who set up Sunday's course. “We take into consideration the pavement and length and width of the lot. It's unlike a fixed racecourse,” he said.

Because each event is different, contestants are allowed a walk-through of the course before they take their cars on it. It is part of the challenge of autocross to translate walking the course into driving the course as fast and mistake-free as possible.

John Williamson's rule is to walk the course at least three times. “It comes at you so fast in the car,” he said. “While I'm waiting for the line to move, I can visualize where I start, where the gates are, when I'll have to shift. I can picture myself all the way through the course like that.”

Bob Nogiec, with his bad knee, only walks the course once. “I hope I get it,” he said, laughing. “The perspective changes. When you sit in your car, all you see is orange cones.” Nogiec and his son, Adam, drive a Porsche in the events. Williamson drives a Subaru Impreza WRX STI - a pretty quick car, he admits.

There were all makes and models in the race, and the drivers ranged in age from 20 to 70. The Miata was well represented. “It's perfectly suited for this kind of thing,” said Paul Omichinski, who sits on CART's board of directors. “They're small and light. They don't have a lot of power, but the light and nimble counts for a lot. And they're affordable.”

John and Valerie Santos drove all the way from Keene, N.H., in their replica 1965 AC Cobra. Santos built the car from a kit. He and his wife started driving autocross events about seven years ago. The event is all about driving a high-performance car in a safe environment, he said. It's about skill more than speed.

Duphiney agreed. “You're probably safer here than on the streets,” he said. “The worst thing we've had is someone spin out, and that happens all the time.” Only one car at a time is allowed on the course, for safety’s sake.

And in spite of autocross being a timed activity, cars usually don't get out of second gear. The Thompson venue is a high-speed venue, according to Williamson. “We can get it into third gear because of the expanse,” he said.

The event allowed drivers five runs through the course. The cars were divided into different classes, according to the potential of the vehicle. The leader had posted a flat minute on the course, but there would be trophies for drivers in the different classes.

Helmeted drivers drove into the course area and lined up. One man took the bike rack from his Mini Cooper and laid it on the ground, as he prepared to drive the course.

“It's an excellent activity,” Williamson said. “It's a skill that's translatable to driving on the streets.” When the event is over, he peels the magnetic autocross signs from the side panels of his car and puts them in the footwell and drives home. “I'm just another Subaru going down the road,” he said.

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