Mar 052012
 

For some people, warm air reminds them that trips to the beach are just around the corner. For others, it signals the start of burly men swinging large wooden clubs and running around in the dirt. For me, it brings to mind growling exhaust notes, the smell of hot rubber, and the sound of squealing tires. It reminds me that autocross season is not far away.

And so it was in late February of this year. We had a short run of unseasonably warm days and, for that brief moment, racing didn’t seem so distant.

It got me to thinking about the first time I took part in an auto-x and I started to consider some of the advice I would give to someone in my position back then: a novice on a tight budget. This, I thought, was worth sharing with my adoring readers.

So, in honor of impending spring weather, here are five recommendations for gear and apparel that I would give to the first-timer or novice on a tight budget:

Gloves — This one doesn’t occur to a lot of people until they get in to the car for their first run and realize that hands greased with sweat and sun tan lotion don’t really grip the steering wheel very well. This isn’t Formula 1 or NASCAR, though, so why drop tons of money on real driving gloves? Batting gloves do everything you need (provide a consistent grip, keep moisture from interfering) for a lot less change. I picked up a pair of basic UnderArmor gloves for $20 back in 2008 and I have used them every season since.

Shoes — Go to any auto-x and you are likely to see a large proportion of the participants wearing some kind of driving shoe, many of whom change into them prior to their runs and then switch back to normal sneakers when finished. While dedicated driving shoes do provide excellent feel for experienced drivers, they are hardly a necessity, especially for a novice.
In my first season, I found that switching shoes was actually confusing. It changed the feel of the pedals from what I was used to in every day driving. In a sport where consistency is the key to doing well, confusing your feet can make a big difference. Instead, my suggestion is to wear what you usually wear.
I have found that light running shoes without huge supportive soles are comfortable for everyday wear and provide good feedback in spirited driving situations. I am a big fan of Asics’ Gel DS Trainer series (I use the DS Trainer 14, but they are up to the DS Trainer 16 model in stores), but any similar shoe should provide a comparable experience. Using this strategy has the added benefit of only costing you money for one pair of sneakers that you would probably have bought at some point anyway.

Sunglasses — This seems like a “no kidding” addition to this list. Indeed, the sun and glare can make a challenging course even more difficult, so having eye protection is as much a necessity as anything else. My suggestion, though, is to carefully consider what sunglasses you are planning to use. Keep in mind that, during your runs you will be wearing a helmet and not every pair of glasses will fit comfortably. Bulky plastic-framed sport glasses may look cool and feel good when you’re out on the beach or cruising the highway, but when they’re being squeezed against your head by protective helmet foam? Not so much. Likewise, metal frames can distort and create pinching and pressure points when smooshed against your noggin by protective headgear. I have learned that simple, small plastic frames fit comfortably between my head and the helmet. I use a pair of Arnett Slide 4007 sunglasses, but the same effect could easily be achieved with a pair off the $10 rack at CVS.

Helmet — Speaking of helmets, as a newcomer or relative novice, you only really need to remember one thing: they can be very expensive. Organizing bodies understand this, and almost always provide loaner helmets (Note I said almost always. Check with your region to make sure this is the case before attending). Don’t go buying a helmet unless you are sure you will use it, year-in and year-out, for quite a while — i.e. until you know you are serious about the sport and can afford a good one. If you’re worried about sharing a helmet that has been on someone else’s head, use a thin fabric hood or balaclava.

Tire pressure gauge — Even if you’re doing this on a shoestring budget, a reliable pressure gauge is a necessity. If your location doesn’t have an air station available to all participants, chances are good that you will be able to borrow a compressor off a fellow competitor to get your tires pumped up. Guys at these events are always happy to help each other out, especially the newcomers. If you have to borrow a gauge from someone every time you need to adjust your pressures, though, you have become a pain in the ass. And trust me; you will be checking and adjusting your pressures frequently as you figure out a good setup. Since you can get a good gauge for about $10, it just doesn’t make sense to not have one, especially since you can (and should) use it to check your tire pressures when you’re not at the track as well.

That about covers it. I hope my suggestions help someone as this season gets under way. As always, feel free to comment below.

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