Project Golf GTI: 5 Reasons Why Everyone Should Take Their Daily Driver Autocrossing
It’s been quite some time since I last published an update on my daily driver/project car 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI. Since buying the car in April of last year I’ve put a little over 7,000 miles on it—most of them on road trips to photograph events or hauling the family around town and other stuff one might do with a hatchback.
As a daily driver, the GTI has so far delivered on its promise of being a true jack of all trades. It’s a nice place to be for road trips or errands around town, has had room for my son and the baby gear that goes along with him and can usually get around 35 miles to the gallon on a highway trip.
But you don’t just buy a Golf GTI because it’s practical. You buy it because it’s also a lot fun! For 2018 one of my resolutions was to start having some fun with my everyday car—and what better way to do that than at the local autocross. Last weekend, the Fresno chapter of the San Francisco Region SCCA held its first event of the year at the Fresno Fairgrounds, and I decided to join in on the action in my still bone-stock VW.
Not only would the event include a normal autocross event, there was also an “autocross school” the day before that helped show the ropes to newcomers. The last time I’d driven in autocross was over 10 years ago, so I figured the school would be the perfect place for a refresher.
After two full days of driving, I came away pretty hooked on autocross and have come up with five reasons why everyone should try autocrossing their daily driver at least once.
1. It’s cheap and accessible.
When it comes to jumping into motorsports, it doesn’t get much easier or more affordable than autocross. Yes, track days are great, but they also require a larger outlay in terms of money and time. In my case, the two days of driving cost just 80 dollars, and chances are your local autocross will be closer than the nearest track. And when you factor in the wear and tear and your vehicle, autocross is also quite affordable when compared to serious track days.
2. Horsepower and budget don’t really matter
While it’s true that some racers take the sport very seriously, building cars from the ground up to compete, autocross is also very suited to your daily driver, even if it's completely stock. Just because your car has a lot of horsepower or a ton of grip doesn’t mean you are going to dominate.
With speeds being modest and lots of tight, technical corners to navigate, the gap between machinery is tightened up significantly. For example, my times in the stock Golf GTI were quicker than some of the powerful Mustangs and Camaros. But on the same note, I shouldn’t pat myself on the back because there were also "slower" naturally aspirated Civics and Sentras leaving my lap times in the dust.
3. It can be very competitive—but only if you want it to be
Depending on your motivations, autocross can either be about learning your car and bettering yourself as a driver—or it can be very competitive. With a huge variety of classes based on vehicle type and degree of modification, no matter what you are driving there will be a way you can compete. Think of it as a micro-sized version of time attack and you’ll realize how rewarding it can be.
4. The skill set is unique
After two days of driving and getting plenty of tips from the veteran instructors, I began to realize that in autocross memorization and visualization skills are just as important as raw driving ability. The fastest people aren't necessarily the ones with the most driving talent; they are the ones that can walk a course and figure out exactly where they want to place their car for each corner or section.
Unlike traditional road racing where you are constantly trying to go faster around an constant race circuit, autocross courses change for every event. And with a limited number of "laps" to put down a good time, getting the course memorized and picking up the rhythm is the most important thing you can do.
On Saturday's course, my first lap was in the 59 second range. Early on, I would misjudge or forget where certain apex or slalom locations were, braking when I didn't need to or turning in too early. A couple runs later I got the course down without any big mistakes and dropped my time to a much-improved 49 seconds. On my last couple of runs I could focus on trying to get through even quicker, eventually putting in a low 47 second time.
On the second day the course had been changed up, but I had a much better idea of what to look for out of the gate. Each driver was given four runs, and I began with a 48.9 second time that got progressively quicker on the next runs, finishing with a best of 46.8. The key is quickly getting the course layout down so you can start working on getting quicker. And don’t forget that hitting cones will add precious seconds to your time, or even worse, blowing a corner will give you a DNF for that lap.
5. You’ll learn a whole lot about your car
Even if you aren’t planning on competing seriously, a day at the autocross will help you learn a lot about your car. In my case, I quickly learned that my GTI’s stock all-season tires were not really up to task. Whether it was braking into a corner or trying to get the power down coming out, it was quickly apparent that the tires were one of the biggest limiting factors, and a wheel and tire upgrade is high on my to-do list.
And while the GTI Sport’s VAQ limited slip differential is a massive help when it comes to traction coming out of corners, it was also very easy to see how a larger rear sway bar would help quell the understeer that so often comes with front-drive performance cars. It's something other Mk7 owners swear by, and I can definitely see why.
Fortunately that is something will be addressed when I install the first round of upgrades on the GTI in the coming weeks. Not only will I be fitting a set of ST sway bars, I’ll also be adding a set of ST XTA coilovers to help tighten up the handling and improve the stance all while keeping the car daily driver friendly.
I’m very much looking forward to moving along with the project and documenting my findings, but in the meantime I absolutely recommend that everyone get out and have some fun at their local autocross—regardless of what you drive.
Not only will you learn a ton about your car and your driving skills as I did, I can also guarantee you’ll have a great big grin on your face while doing so.