Saturday, August 13, 2011

Autocross, Track, or Karting: What's Most Bang for Your Buck?

Asking me if I like autocrossing, track driving or karting better would be like asking Charlie Sheen if he prefers brunettes, blondes or redheads. Maybe a driving enthusiast's nirvana would be an event that combines all 3 types of driving. Something like zipping around cones in a fast go-kart at a racetrack like Watkins Glen. Just imagine a few cones strategically placed in the middle of the esses to spice it up a bit; or going flat out side-by-side through the Bus Stop.

Which One Is Really Best?
Recently I had an opportunity to sample autocrossing, track driving and outdoor karting back to back over a 10-day span. I’ve been involved with performance driving for ten years, but I had never combined the three so close together. Truth is, I still can’t make up my mind about which one I like best. And why should performance driving be limited to one type? After all, there are different types of music for different moods. Sometimes when I am pumped up I’ll crank up Led Zeppelin. Or I’ll listen to Lady Gaga if I catch one of her songs on Kiss 108. Or I’ll play Miles Davis if I am driving late at night.

The Case for Autocrossing
Autocrossing is highly technical in nature. You do a ton of transitions in one 80-second run. It teaches you to look ahead. You learn car control at the limit of adhesion in your own vehicle at safe speeds, and there is nothing you can hit if you lose the car. No other type of driving offers this opportunity. Autocrossing probably has the best application to real life driving. It is also a great opportunity for socializing and learning everything car-related from tire pressure through suspension set-up to mental attitude for performance driving – all while having fun. You also get a chance to find out how fast you really are and how much you can improve in one day. I also like the fact that we wrap up the events by 4 p.m., and a good size group gets together for a cold beverage and more socializing after the event.

The Case for Track Events
Track events, also called high performance driving schools, offer the most seat time. If everything runs smooth, you can get 100+ minutes of net driving time in one typical day of driving at the track. Of the three types of performance driving, this is the one that allows you to go by far the fastest. It lets you get a feel for the driving dynamics and overall capabilities of your car at high speed in a controlled environment. To me at least, driving at the track feels safer than driving on busy Route 128. I know that everyone has 100% of their attention on driving and that they are not checking text messages while going through the Fish Bowl turn at NHMS.

The Case for Karting
What I like best about karting is that you get a lot of seat time and the event takes less than 2 hours. Many outdoor karting event offers 30-40 one-minute hot laps in addition to a few warm-up and cool-down laps. This is also the only opportunity of the three types of driving for real wheel-to-wheel racing in nearly identical cars. Many outdoor karts available to the clubs and the public go up to 55 mph, which is plenty fast in a little vehicle not much bigger than a lawn mower. It even has a very similar engine slapped in the back. In addition, $70-80 cover all event costs and expenses. Based on “cost per seat time and thrill,” karting cannot be beat.

You can read all my thoughts on this comparison in my monthly column on page 22 of Boston Bimmer's July/August issue. I'd love to get your thoughts on this as well.


  1. Firsties!

    Can you tell that I am going for first to post AND first to get banned?

    As far as bang for your driving buck, I would say that our autocross schools fit that bill, with anywhere between 25 and 35 runs on three courses- for eighty bucks.

  2. I typically get banned from most forums. Grand Am's is my crowning moment. Odd thing is I never know why and most forum admins can't explain it, either.

    We always have this argument about biggest bang for the buck. There's the track side and the autocross side - I have no one locally arguing for karts, but that's probably because decent karting is at least an hour and a half away.

    Track guys look at the cost per minute and the sheer joy that a good session on the track provides. The autocross guys usually focus on LOCAL events, the ease and low cost of attending, and the fun of competition and hanging out with like-minded friends. I see both sides and thus do both. Can't argue with the track guys when the point out the nuttiness of attending divisional and national events. So, I'm leaving 8/26 to tow a Miata to Lincoln Nebraska where I'll co-drive it for a total of around 6 mins and then tow it all the way back. Yep, that definitely sounds like a dumb thing to do.

  3. EJ, make sure to take I-90 W to I-80 W to Nebraska - that's 30 miles shorter than Rt 34, which brings the total down to ONLY 1,324 mi in 21 hours 45 mins. That's less than 8 hours of towing per minute of driving, assuming you have a large enough gas tank, sufficient beef jerky and Mountain Dew and a built in port-a-potty!

  4. I also love going to the track, autocrossing and karting. Somehow I rarely kart but love it every time I do. Used to autocross a lot but for various reasons (return on time invested vs. seat time, etc.) don't do it much anymore. However, I have become an official track junkie and do about 10/12 track days a year.
    Sadly, I am finding that the faster I go, the more expensive it gets. Track tires and pads used to last me a season. They don't anymore...

  5. Nicolas, it's good to hear that the official threshold for "track junkies" is set to only 10 track days a year. I know I'll see many familiar faces when I go in for "track junkie" therapy.

    The Car Show had a story on the Indy 500 recently. The tires for those cars are 3k a pop and they use 8 sets over a race weekend for a total bill of 100k. That's the bill for TIRES ALONE. I suspect it's a lot easier for Penske and Ganassi to cover that bill, though...

  6. Well guys this is my first year both autox and the track. I agree with Larry you cannot beat the bang for the buck at the autox school and the events. Although it is more expensive I am an addicted track junkie I have 7 track days in so far all at NHMS and I think that it is worth the money. I can see though the better I get the more expensive it is going to be. I just hope my wife will be a good sport next season because there will be a lot more track days.

  7. Chris, she would be a great sport if you take her up to Tremblant. The track is 10 minutes from the village and all the entertainment, so I meet the family for lunch and then go biking/hiking/zip lining with them when we wrap up the track day by 5 pm. You are in even better position: you CAN take your kids to the track and sign them up to drive :o) Along the same lines, Watkins Glen national park is awesome, as are the wineries and boat cruises in the region.

  8. One day when I'm a multi trillionaire, I am going to build an indoor track where the starting grid is a 1/4 mile drag strip that leads to huge open track with changes in elevation (hill climb and downhill courses implemented) and banking as well as a few slow sections with hard compacted dirt. Cones will be strategically placed in a few sections of the track and certain days will be designated for karts. At least one weekend a year will host a tournament for professional drivers from all forms of auto racing to compete in what is basically the Olympics of motorsport on the karts that are available for rental to the general public. Go ahead and dream.