A woman's perspective of living with and loving a Mercedes-Benz Maniac
Authored by our own Bonnie Fancy.
Reprinted with permission from The Star Magazine. January/February 2008 Issue.
The Autocross brings out the inner Mario Andretti in your Mercedes Maniac. It is a chance for him to drive very fast and see what his Benz can actually do. Autocrosses, also called gymkhanas, are generally done at race tracks but may be done in parking lots assuming they are not in use at the time. Old airports are good too, provided the tarmac isn't all torn up. Some places in the north put these events on ice. That's right; they find a frozen lake and have at it.
At the autocross a course is marked out with cones, unless you are already at a track. The cars are divided into classes. Diesels compete against diesels, souped up 300's compete with other souped up 300's. This makes the competition fair.
There are several different kinds of driving contests. In the regularity run, each car gets two or three timed runs depending on who is running the event. The driver whose runs are closest to being the same wins.
There are two schools of thought on how to do this. The first is to sing a song or count as you do the run. If you end up at the same point in the song or with the same number, then your times should be very close. However, the driver may not sing or count at the same rate of speed for both runs, which will throw the time off.
The second school of thought it to do both runs as fast as you can without spinning out. Theoretically at least, your times should be close to identical. This is the preferred technique for most drivers. As a spectator, I'm not thrilled, especially if Ernie is the one out on the track. If Ernie spins out and hits something, it's coronary time.
Another contest is the high speed autocross where the drivers compete to see who can get around the course at the highest speed without any problems. Usually the cars have three tries and their fastest time is recorded. What the drivers aim for is a fast, quiet run. While it may seem to spectators that the squealing tires indicate speed, what the noise indicates is locked brakes or a sideways slide, both of which will slow the car. These noises usually occur when the driver is going too fast for the course.
The acceleration run is a drag race with one car at a time on the track. The drivers try to see who can be fastest over a quarter mile distance. At a regulation drag race, the drivers spin their tires before leaving the start line in order to warm their tires and get better grip. This is probably not the best thing to do at an autocross. After all, this is the car you are driving home and scuffing the tread off the tires could have serious consequences.
There are other events, including one that reminds me of a canine agility run only without the hurdles. The cars go around a course which includes tight corners, backing up into a designated space that is not much bigger than the car, slalom turns through a row of cones, and other maneuvers designed to test the drivers reflexes and the show of the car's mobility.
I once saw an event at an autocross that can only be described as a potato run. This required a passenger as well as a driver. While the driver ran the course that had buckets along the way, the passenger had to get a potato in each bucket. The car who got through the course the fastest without missing a bucket won. Potatoes that missed the bucket were apt to be mashed by the next car.
Back seat driving events are sure to be a hit. The driver is blindfolded and the passenger tells him which way to go. Like I said, this event is a sure hit. At least one cone is going to get it.
I personally do not compete in any of these events. My idea of a fast ride is a merry-go-round or carousel. Ernie does compete and my manicure suffers for it, even though there is only one car on the course at a time.
However, none of this is as dangerous as it seems. All the drivers are required to wear helmets and seat belts with shoulder harnesses. At national autocross events the cars must pass a safety inspection before they are allowed to compete. The inspection includes checking tire wear, running the car up on a lift and checking the suspension and other parts of the under carriage. If your tires don't pass muster, there is usually a dealer on site more than happy to sell you his best. No amount of bribery, cajoling or anything else will convince the people running the event to allow a failed car to participate. The drivers do not have to pass any inspections; not even a sanity test is required.
If watching your Mercedes Maniac drive like a maniac is not your idea of a good time, there are other things you can do at an autocross. I have helped run timing equipment, but not when Ernie or Mark (Yep, the kid is a chip of the old engine block) is on the track. Taking pictures is a good idea, too. I find I get so busy concentrating on getting the perfect shot that I forget what is actually happening. There is always a need for people to go out after each run and set up any cones that have been knocked over. This is best done after the car that knocked the cone over is done. First it is easier to count the downed cones then, and the person in charge of straightening the cones has a better chance of not becoming as mashed as the potatoes in the Potato Run.
Talking to other spectators is a good diversion. This is best done in the shade, away from the course, so you can hear each other.
When it is all over, winners are announced and prizes awarded. With a little luck, this part will drag on long enough for the drivers' adrenalin levels to get back to normal before heading home. The state troopers are not going to be very sympathetic to a speeding Mercedes.