PITL Autocross: Lost in a Sea of Cones
Attempting a new motorsport discipline is rarely easy. Some racing skills are transferable. Like stepping up from 4-stroke karts to Formula 1200; they’re both momentum racing. And while autocross seems similar to road racing, in reality that sea of cones is nothing like a road course.
Demaras Racing entered the final round of the 2022 Push It To The Limit autoslalom series, organized by CASC affiliated Mazda Sportscar Owners Club. The event was held on a sunny autumn day in the parking lot of the Church on the Queensway in Toronto’s west-end Etobicoke neighborhood.
For autocross newbie Chris Demaras piloting the No. 16 Mazda Miata, the learning curve would be steep. Rather than speeding around a known course like Shannonville or Cayuga, Demaras was faced with a temporary circuit made of up of traffic cones. The narrow, twisty course was laid out by series officials that morning, preventing anyone from having a ‘home track’ advantage. Racers were given time to walk the course, make notes, and attempt to memorize the track.
One of the idiosyncrasies Demaras learned about autocross is that every competitor must also serve as a track worker. With 110 vehicles competing in the October 22nd event, the field was split into 5 groups, based on race number. Before actually getting to drive, Chris was drafted into track duty. He put on a fluorescent vest and was assigned a post on the circuit where he’s be responsible to pick up cones that competitors cars ran over (there’s a 2-second penalty for hitting a cone). The brisk October wind chilled Chris, and after a little over an hour, he had grown very tired of the volunteer position. It was already 10:30 am, and having been at the track since 8:00 am, Demaras had grown impatient at the lack of driving. Maybe autocross was not for him after all.
But the track-side position did give Demaras a great vantage point to see the fast and furious machines. Diverse vehicles from a ’38 Ford to a ’96 Impala SS took turns doing timed laps. To better understand the track, experienced Lucky Dog racer Ian took Chris for a ride in his 2021 Porsche Cayman GT4.
The clear star of the show was the University of Toronto Formula SAE team. The diminutive open wheel car sounded like a chain saw on steroids, and put out so much power, it would spin up its Hoosier slicks even starting in second gear.
The structure of the event allows each competitor to get 5 timed runs in, with their best lap counting towards final standings. Perhaps this is the aspect that appealed the least to the competitor in Chris. There was no rival trying to take away the inside line, no competitor to steal the draft from. Just one car on track at a time. There was no bad guy to fight against. One you. You are the guy you’re trying to beat.
Demaras’ first two runs went horribly. In the three hours leading up to his first run, Demaras completely forgot about the slalom section before the big carousel corner, and was off track almost immediately. Instructor Kevin seemed very frustrated with Chris, imploring him to slow down. But at less than 50 km/h, Demaras just couldn’t believe he was going too fast. Veering off course a second time meant Demaras’ time would not count, and he used the final half of the lap to try and memorize the sequence of corners.
After lunch, Chris asked some new track friends to help remove the hard top from the Miata. With better visibility and unlimited headroom, Chris went out on track for his first ‘solo’ run without instructor. Without trying to impress anyone, or break the track record, Chris completed the course perfectly without touching a single cone.
In the next two runs, the No. 16 Miata went quicker each session, with the driver having finally learned the lefts, right and braking zones/ But just as MSOC President Darryl Dimitroff had expected, a road course background hurt Chris’ times in autocross. You see, pushing it to the limit on a high-speed road course like Mosport can have a much worse impact than hitting a cone. The cautious approach meant the times improved steadily, but were never going to take home the big trophy.
The final verdict of Chris’ first autocross? Not quite what he was expecting. The competitors were all very friendly, and the series officials were laid-back. But only 5 timed laps, and an hour running around picking up cones, just doesn’t compare to driving on a natural-terrain road course. But for 1/10th the cost, and events held only 20 minutes from home, the series does hold some appeal. Chris will very likely return to compete in the 2023 Push It To The Limit autocross series, even if just to try and beat that guy staring angrily back at him in the rearview mirror.
GOOD PHOTOS: Dylan M Huber
OTHER PHOTOS: Chris Demaras
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