Authored by David Lane
(David Lane ran his first autocross in 1968 with a Lotus Elan. He is currently the Director of Admissions at Peabody Conservatory of Music of The Johns Hopkins University.)
Getting lost on course is a horrible experience, whether you are unexpectedly faced with an indecipherable sea of cones, or you get a sudden realization that something is not right, then notice your car is whipping past the gate you were looking for. Maybe the worst is hearing the announcer call you off course when you thought the run was clean. Not only have you sinned against the autocross gods, but you must confess your ignorance to others in hopes of at least finding out where you were on the course when the call came in.
As much as we love to talk about apexes, braking points, and tire pressures, there is far less chatter about techniques for staying on course. You just walk through it, and then you know where it goes. Right? If that was a universal truth, no one would ever miss a gate, or have what we older cone crushers might call a "senior moment." It would be nice if I had a trick to share that would guarantee such things would never happen.
But I do have a tip or two that will make it less likely.
No one would argue that walking the course is a key element to effective autocrossing. Figuring out how to get the most from the activity comes with time. The idea behind this article is to shorten the learning curve, to give beginners a technique for staying on course at their first events, and to give those with more experience a course-walking tool to add to their repertoire.
While researching this article I spoke with a number of advanced drivers. Each had their own idea of what to look for during a course walk. All were dead positive that their method was the best way to go about it. Yet, I came away convinced that my peculiar background had led me to an approach that could be helpful to others.
You would want to get advice about course-walking from the best autocrossers in your region--the ones teaching at the schools and going to Nationals. For what it's worth I am none of those--just a clarinet player who has always had trouble memorizing stuff. What qualifies me to give this sort of advice is a bunch of decades in the sport, and a life-long fascination with how people learn. We will get to the techniques later, but the suggestions will make more sense (and be more effective) if first we explore the various approaches taken to becoming familiar with the course, and then look at the rationale behind the suggested technique. If nothing else, the discussion will prod the more experienced crowd to work toward polishing their already refined methods.
It starts with recognizing your individual style of learning.
You can see various learning styles at work as you tread your way through the cones. Some walkers covet printed course maps, making notes as they go along. They are visual learners--possibly with some level of photographic memories. Other visual types might be crouching down (and would probably duck-walk if their knees could take it) to see the course as it will appear from their driving height. I have seen people walking the course with a video camera at waist level, trying to accomplish something similar.
Some competitors walk in groups, chatting about life, and pointing out issues with the course. Others are solitary, preferring to put their heads in some sort of zen space, communing with the asphalt or concrete. (Think, "ooooommm," but it's probably more about "zoooommm.")
One or two energetic types will jog through the course (fast learners?). You will see an individual or two walking backwards, people shuffling their feet on the surface, and people counting steps in slaloms. There is a purpose to all of it, albeit beyond the scope of this article.
Beginners quickly learn that the ideal path through the course is called the "line," but there is always discussion about the best line. Some walk the line as it might be drawn on the course map. Others try to see the course as they will from the driver's position in the car. You might even see someone with an invisible steering wheel in their hands, leaning to the left and right in concert with the steering. I suppose they are kinetic learners. They want to "pre-feel" what the course will be like. Then (I hear tell) there are the real pros who purposefully do NOT walk the line they intend to drive--not wanting to give up their secrets to others.
Always of great value (when offered) are novice walk-throughs, but they can be confusing for the newest drivers who are just trying to stay on course at their first few events. Unless a fledgling autocrosser has been involved with other forms of motorsports, there will be no frame of reference for discussions about apexes, braking zones, or the camber of the lot. Not to mention which patches of pavement have the most traction, and how the line might be different depending on all the possible engine locations and drive wheel configurations. Novice walk-throughs are of immense value for drivers at all levels of experience. But they tend to leave a true novice with too much to think about. The basic message of how to stay on course can get lost, as evidenced by the number of novices who get dangerously confused during their first events--something not likely to bolster their initial enthusiasm for the sport. That basic task--to stay on course--can elude even the most experienced drivers over time. It is even possible to argue that the nature of a novice walk-though (start, stop, point, advise) is not the best way to help a true novice stay on course. Even the best advice makes for a lot to remember--not to mention to execute in real time while hopefully nudging the car toward the edge of performance.
With all this going on, it's hard to back off to a point where we are talking about the core learning elements that help all of us stay on course--much less suggest something to make it simple. The principles, though, apply to many other aspects of life, which makes the discussion worth the time. Oddly, the process of learning to be an effective course walker is more easily illustrated with a golf club.
When I was a kid, my folks took me to a golf course, handed me a club, and told me to hit the ball toward the green. I had seen them play, so I did what they did, and the ball went in the general direction of the pin. My parents grinned, hoping I would turn out to be the next Arnold Palmer (note the era-correct reference). They had me take a lesson with the club "Pro," who taught me there were many elements to a proper swing--holding the club, approaching the ball, the body mechanics of the swing, follow through, and praying. I was told to be aware of what to do with my head, my feet, my hands, and my eyes. Lots of stuff to remember in a short, highly kinetic period of time.
After taking the lesson I could not hit the ball at all.
What had happened was that my brain was hijacked from the essential task of smacking a ball with a club. Instead, it was redirected to trying to recall instructions. The same paradigm of trying to sandwich too many instructions into too little time is in play for novices learning the skills of autocrossing.
And therein lies the problem.
Our thoughts come to us in language, occurring roughly at the rate of speech. Thus our body's effective ability to follow our thoughts at the early stages of skill-building is limited to how fast we can express the instructions in words. The object is to get around that limitation. Experienced golfers have spent hours, days, and years hacking away at balls, refining their swing, and getting to the point where they no longer have to think of all the separate elements each time they address the ball (except, maybe praying).
If you have ever studied a musical instrument, you will recognize a similar process. In the beginning, each note is a challenge--a memorized fingering, or a key to press. In time, though, musicians see a note and play it without having to think of its name and fingering. With extended experience, the patterns link together, and we become concerned mostly with what is unusual--making expressive music of the notes, or (switching back to golf) using a subtle shift in position that will cause the ball to clear an obstacle and land on the fairway.
A third example is our daily street driving. Experience removes mental processes like finding the turn signal or figuring out which is the brake pedal and which is the accelerator pedal (unless, apparently, you are driving an Audi). You just do it. Some drivers are so confident in their ability to handle a car without paying attention they believe they can also send text messages while driving without endangering themselves and others.
They would be wrong.
A formal description of this learning process was developed by a guy named Abraham Maslow in the 1940's. You can Google "conscious incompetence" if you are interested. The upshot is that we begin learning a new skill by thinking about each step of the process, and if we persist we get to a point where we can do most of it on auto-pilot. The lay term is "muscle memory," but more likely the brain simply becomes attuned to a pattern and can execute it with only a conscious trigger to "go."
The brain can get us through amazingly complex tasks without a conscious thought process. Language and speech come to mind. People tend to speak without any thought at all. I'm thinking about 3 year-old children and cable political pundits.
But I digress.
Applied to autocrossing, it boils down to this: For beginners, how do you go from thinking about where the course goes to being able to drive it (without much time to think at all) in the half-hour or so allotted for walking the course? For more experienced drivers, how do you get the course into your head quickly, so you can worry less about staying on course, and concentrate more on all the nuances that shave time off your run?
For the answer we can put two facts together. The first is that to memorize something most of us need to repeat it--familiar stuff in the golf and music worlds. The other fact is new to the discussion--that certain base elements of your mind and body cannot tell reality from fantasy.
Well, yes. Dreams fall into that category, if you've ever awakened in a cold sweat. That's why we read books, and go to movies--to "experience" something that is not really happening. (I've deleted a totally engaging sentence about the X-rated movie industry, but clearly some of those folks understand the power of visual imagery.)
So, let's see how we can apply this stuff to walking the course. To repeat: You want to make one walk-through have the effect of many, and you want to come away with the course imprinted on your brain well enough that (for novices) you will stay on course, and (for more experienced types) you can put all of your concentration on the intricacies of the art.
It's a simple technique, really. Stand at the starting line, and sweep your eyes forward through, say, the first three course elements. Repeat the sweep four or five times before you take your first step. Continue sweeping as you walk toward the first cones, extending the range to include the fourth element. It is not important how far ahead you sweep--only that you keep your eyes moving from where you are through the next few elements coming up. Your brain will act as a camera, recording the path of the course with each sweep. By the time you actually walk past a course element, your eyes will have swept through that path many times, giving your brain the benefit of many walk-throughs for each time your feet carry you through the course.
Beginners need not worry about "the line"--just staying on course. More advanced drivers will be trying different lines as they sweep with their eyes--trying to connect the problems and to become aware of those tricky situations where maniacal course designers (gotta love 'em) have tried to lead drivers into one of those "gotcha" situations--where a course looks fast one way, but drives faster with another approach. If, as you progress through the course, you discover you have been sweeping a bad line you can correct it during a second walk-through.
Start your walk-throughs as soon as the course is open. If you can navigate the course three times this way, you will discover that each walk-through yields better information. Your mind (the wonderful parts that confuse fantasy with reality) will allow each sweep of the eyes to register as if you had actually walked that section. Sections will start to come together in your mind, and as experience builds you will see paths through problems that simply didn't occur to you the first time around.
I mentioned earlier that the experienced autocrossers I spoke with each had their own wisdom to share on the subject of course-walking. While the terminology varied widely, most agreed that some element of "looking ahead" was critical to a successful run. I heard about attacking the course, staying ahead of the course, late apexes, and getting on the backside of the cones. Many quipped that they distill the entire course down to maybe three critical elements to remember. You can't do any of that if your brain's primary concern is to avoid getting lost. For those sweeping the course with their eyes as they walk, their brains automatically associate where they are with what comes next. Thus, from a learning perspective "sweep walking" sets you up not only to stay on course as you are learning, but also for quickly developing confidence and more advanced skills as time goes on.
Mostly, though, sweep-walking should make those first few scary events a positive and exciting experience. When you drive up to the start line, you will be on edge. Sweep forward with your eyes a few times like you did on your walk-throughs. That will put your mental recording in "play." Then go out and have a blast.