Autocross for Beginners
by Randy Walters

There are two organizations you can run with - the SCCA and your local chapter of the BMW CCA. The best one for you as a BMW owner and beginner autocrosser would be the BMW club as they're more relaxed and better geared for the beginner.

The SCCA events are mostly for the serious competitors and while most regions do have good Novice Programs, the majority of entrants are there to compete and get points and trophies. SCCA events usually only give you 3 runs on the course and that's it. BMW Club events often give you a lot more runs than SCCA events.

The BMW CCA events tend to cater to the average BMW owner who wants to learn how to better drive his (or her) Bimmer. BMW events usually have a lot of instructors on hand to ride with you and help you learn the fine art of reading the course and handling your car at speed. My two local chapters (L.A. and San Diego) both hold autocross/driving schools and we give the guys two practice/instructional sessions with 5-10 runs per session, then we give them 3 official timed runs at the end of the day (for trophies). Some chapters only give you 3 or 4 runs total with no practice sessions, but it depends on your particular BMW CCA chapter (wherever that may be).

Aside from the different ways these organizations format their events, your basic car preparation procedures are the same (car in good running condition, approved helmet, loose items removed from trunk and passenger compartment, battery securely bolted down, tire pressures pumped up much higher than normal street pressures, etc etc).

Here's a little write-up I made up a while back including a few websites with good information on getting started in autocrossing. I'd strongly suggest contacting your local BMW CCA chapter and see if they hold autocrosses (you probably have to be a member of the BMW CCA to enter, most require it).

Autocross for Beginners

The SCCA events are organized differently than BMW CCA events, but a lot of the basics are the same. BMW events usually have several instructors at your disposal throughout the day, where the SCCA events usually have a Novice Meeting before the event, and sometimes offers a Novice Course Walk led by experience autocrossers. BMW events often have practice sessions throughout the morning and early afternoon, with timed runs occurring in the late afternoon. SCCA events usually have 4 to 6 rungroups and you'll run in one group, and work during another. BMW events usually give you a lot of runs, but SCCA events only give you 3 or 4 runs. You'll get a lot more runs for your money at a BMW event, but the competition at the SCCA events will be a lot more intense, with no practice runs beforehand.

Get there early and make sure the folks at the registration table know it's your first time and they'll help you get signed up. Getting there early gives you time to get your car and stuff situated, get registered, have your car "Tech'd", and walk the course all before the first car goes out at the scheduled time (usually 9:00 am around here). If the club has a Novice Program then they'll probably have a Novice Meeting around 8:00 where the instructor goes over the basics of autocrossing and working the course and other newbie issues, then you'll all walk the course together with the instructor who'll be telling you about the line and braking and cornering and other instructor stuff and the various sections of the course. You'll almost certainly be required to work the course during a session, which is a good way to get a close look at what other drivers are doing on course.

Don't be afraid to ask questions - everybody is friendly and willing to help the newbies so don't be shy - Ask !

Your car must be in good condition, with no bad leaks. The battery must be bolted down securely, and all loose articles must be removed from the car. Most folks will also remove their spare tire to save weight. You'll definitely need to pump your tires way up above normal street pressures, probably in the 40-45 lb range for most street tires (most race tires too). Tire pressures are very important in autocross !

Most clubs require the helmets to have a Snell rating so get one with the current Snell M95 or SA95 rating. You can get an inexpensive open-face G-Force or HJC helmet with a Snell 95 rating for under $100 at many motorcycle shops or via mailorder from several sources. If you can spend more money, you can get a Bell Mag 4 or Simpson LX series for under $200. I bought my Mag 4 directly from Bell and they beat the price of their dealers. I prefer an open-face helmet for autocross cause I can see and hear and breathe better, although it's harder to hide your facial expressions from the corner workers if they can see your whole face :-) You're only wearing it for a minute or two at a time so if you're not claustrophobic, a full-face helmet is an option.

Things to bring

  • Valid drivers license
  • Money or checkbook
  • Snell 95 helmet (M95 or SA95 rating, I prefer open-face)
  • Air pressure gauge (get a good one)
  • Portable air compressor (cig lighter type capable of 45+ lbs psi)
  • Layers of warm clothing in case the weather turns cold
  • Plenty of drinking water, and food if none will be available locally
  • Tools and floorjack just in case, maybe some hand cleaner
  • Sunscreen, and maybe a hat if need be
  • And anything else you think you'd need for a day outside

I keep a spare Bentley Manual in the trunk at all times :-)

Tire Pressure Info

Tire pressure ranges will vary, but on a 3 series BMW they're usually in the 40-44 lb range on street tires. It will take several runs or events to determine the best pressures front and rear, but as a starting point I'd recommend setting them on the high side so you can bleed them down a little before your next run if need be. I check and/or reset my pressures before every run since the pressures grow as the tires get hotter. They'll grow the most during the first run (by 2-5 lbs in front), then will grow less on subsequent runs. A quality cig-lighter plug-in air compressor is good to have around. Also, if you plan on running again later in the day you'll find your previously set pressures have dropped while the car was sitting so you'll need to pump them back up before going out again.

The trick with tire pressures is to run them as low as you can get away with without allowing the front tires to roll over onto their sidewalls. Most BMWs seem to need about 40-44 lbs in front, and a few pounds less in the rear. Once you find the right settings up front, you then balance the handling by adjusting the rear pressures depending on if the car is over or understeering. It'll take time to find the right pressures for you and your car. If the fronts start rolling over, pump them up till they don't, and adjust the rears up or down a little to get the car to turn the way you need it to. It all revolves around the front settings though. You may find that pumping the rears a little higher than the front makes the car turn better which reduces the chance of the car pushing the front tires over onto their sidewalls. An understeering car will roll the front tires over so you have to get the car to handle neutral. Take notes of your changes as you experiment, then when you finally find the right pressures write them down and use them as your baseline from then on. I use different settings depending on the course design and pavement surface, so you really never stop fiddling with pressures.

Any decent air pressure gauge will work as long as you stick with it. If you try 5 different quality gauges you'll get 5 slightly different readings, so just get one that fits your needs. I'm starting to like the digital types, but I use a nice little compact VDO dial type gauge.

Basic things to do on course

  • Drive smoothly
  • Look way ahead
  • Drive smoothly
  • Use the whole width of the course
  • Drive smoothly
  • Brake in a straight line
  • Drive smoothly
  • Turn-In gently, slow hands
  • Drive smoothly
  • Generally, you'll late apex
  • Concentrate on driving smoothly
  • Drive smoothly
  • Be careful with your throttle foot
  • Drive smoothly
  • Keep wheelspin to an absolute minimum
  • Drive smoothly
  • Drive smoothly
  • Drive smoothly

Here's a few websites with lots of newbie information:


And above all, have FUN!

Randy Walters 


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