COAL: Motorsports With a Sedan

My 1998 Audi A4, ready to dodge cones at Coles County Airport in 2007.


(this revised version replaces the one that was posted earlier)   Despite the mechanical maladies I had with my 1998 Audi A4, I am thankful that the Audi was my ride when I first started my motorsports journey. The car ended up being the perfect car for learning performance driving.

Discovering autocross

Back when Facebook was still only open to college students, back when you could flirt with someone by “poking” them, and (way) back before it became a cesspool of political screaming matches, endless baby pictures, and people trying to sell seemingly everything under the moon, there were Facebook profiles, Facebook groups, and Facebook events.

At the time, all the Facebook groups represented real groups of people on campus that would regularly meet up in real life. I joined a Facebook group called “Fast Cars R Us.”

I wrote on Blogger at the time:

It all started with the makeshift Facebook group Fast Cars R Us meeting at the wrecked car wash on University Avenue, where I saw some seriously tricked out cars – a seriously tricked out Camry, a slew of boosted VTEC engines, and two Vettes. But after talking with some of the people there, I learned that almost no one actually raced their vehicle. What’s the point of a fast car if you don’t do anything with it?

Only younger me would call out the “tricked out Camry” and not the boosted Honda CRX or the C4 Corvettes by name.

I decided that if I couldn’t have a fast car, I’d learn how to drive my car fast. Once again, Google came to the rescue, and I discovered that there was a local car club doing this thing called “autocross.” I had never heard of it before, but I decided that I would bring my Audi to the autocross, and invited my friend Mike along to codrive.

The autocross took place in Rantoul, 20 minutes north of campus along I-57. The former Chanute Air Force Base was located there, with a large expanse of pre-WWII concrete parked in front of Hanger 2. It was on this site that the Champaign County Sports Car Club held most of its autocross events, building small race courses out of traffic pylons that I could afford to drive around on a student budget.

I was sure to blow everyone away with my amazing driving skills at the autocross. Mike and I arrived at Rantoul with an abundance of undeserved swagger.

I didn’t blow everyone away with my amazing driving skills at the autocross. In fact, I got lost on course three times until I finally figured out where the course went, and ended up losing to my codriver. Naturally, I had bragged to Mike on the way over to the autocross about how fast I was going to be, and how I was going to kick his butt. Karma’s a bitch.

Interlude: Pete and his 2004 Nissan 350z

One of the first people that I really interacted with at the autocross was Pete Hetman.

A kindly, older gentleman, he was bald on the top of his head, with silver hair on the sides and a thick silvery mustache framing his upper lip, and thin-rimmed glasses framing his eyes. A voice that was slightly gruff but nonetheless melodic, a deep baritone that had an air of authority. In short, he looked and sounded like a teacher, and the kind of teacher that you listened to.

And fortunately for me, without anyone asking, he volunteered to be my right seat instructor for the day.

I was getting lost at certain parts of the course, so Pete invited me to ride along with him in his 350Z. Sure, why not? I went to his car waiting there in grid, and plopped myself in the passenger seat.

I remember looking with amusement that the driver’s seat had a 4-point harness. Ha, why would you ever need one of those things?

Pete strapped himself in the car with the harness, and then showed me a way to lock myself in the seat with a stock 3-point belt. Pssh, it’s a stock Nissan 350Z. How fast could this car possibly be?

Very fast, as the car had two aces up its sleeve: a driver that knew what he was doing, and race tires.

We launched from the line with a ferociousness that I had never experienced in my life at that point. Then we took a corner and I was instantly pinned into the door card. I hastily grabbed the door handle and hung on for dear life.

I tried to pay attention to the course, but truthfully, I couldn’t focus on the course and was merely trying to stay in the seat.

We pulled into grid and Pete was cool as a cat.

Most people in life never approach anywhere near the limits of what their car can do. To be suddenly shown the full potential of a seemingly normal car would be the equivalent of sitting in an airliner and the pilot suddenly announcing that he’s going to do a barrel roll. There was an ad stunt that Nissan pulled off years ago where they’d take normal people, belt them into Nissan Altimas that were dressed up to look like race cars, go out on track and do race car things, and then reveal that — surprise! — these were actually totally stock cars. A lot of people find the premise of the ad incredulous, but I don’t. That was me, back at my first autocross in 2006, in the right seat of Pete’s Z.

Pete’s Nissan 350Z, photographed in STR trim. At the time, the car was still prepped to Stock class rules, it was just wearing aggressive summer street tires instead of DOT-Rs. Photo by the author.


The club’s local autocross school was also headed by Pete, and I got involved, first as a student but later as one of the instructors. Much later, once I had better mastery of my car control skills and car prep, I too delighted in shocking my first-time autocross students with the sheer savagery of forces in even the humblest of street cars. I get that from Pete, I think.

Pete passed away a few years ago, and the autocross school was renamed in his honor. Despite living six hours away from Rantoul, I still make the trek back every year to volunteer at the CCSCC autocross school. When I moved to the Detroit area and discovered that the local Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) chapter no longer ran a local autocross school, I was inspired to bring it back to life, volunteering myself as the Solo School event chairman.

Learning how to spin a car

The reason why the Audi proved to be such a good beginner autocross car was that it was a heavy, front wheel drive car with limited tire grip but with deliberate, predictable handling. It was the first German car I had ever driven in my life, but even in my young, inexperienced state, I knew that it was something different. It was softly sprung, resulting in a lot of body roll, but the suspension provided firm feedback. It felt solid in a way many other cars before — and since — hadn’t felt.

Over the course of a year, I progressed to the point where I could reasonably drive the car at 7/10ths, squealing the tires and generally following whatever (often poorly chosen) racing line I’d decided on that day. I was trying to keep up with my fellow G Stock competitor James, who was running a 2004 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V and was demolishing my times on the course. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how James was so fast, yet when I asked some of the club old-timers about his driving experience, they’d joke that he was “5 years new.”

I wouldn’t realize until I had been autocrossing for five years what they had meant. But I was young at the time, and thought I knew everything, so obviously the solution was some sort of Super Secret Driving Technique that would instantly solve all of my problems.

There was an event at Coles County Airport in 2007 which was very memorable for me.

First, a lowly 2004 Mini Cooper (not even a boosted Cooper S) managed to raw time everyone (i.e. it set the Fastest Time of the Day) on the course. Not even the Corvettes on race tires could keep up with the tiny car.

And second, I managed to spin the Audi, a car I thought unspinnable, during that event.

Dan’s Mini Cooper, prepared to H Stock rules, with my G Stock competitor James’ Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V behind it.


The driver of the Mini Cooper was Dan “Skid” Marx. A lanky fellow with a chiseled face and an “aww shucks” good ol’ boys demeanor, he fits my mental picture of what a southern barnstormer back in the 20s or 30s would have been like. His primary autocross car was that black Mini with the snow white roof, but he also had his “Leaker,” a Renault LeCar prepped to F Street Prepared rules that was infamous for rolling once on an autocross course. He is, in short, my kind of weird.

After watching Dan devastate the competition, I decided that this man must have the Super Secret Driving Technique that I was yearning so much for. So I asked Dan to sit shotgun in the Audi and give me some pointers.

Dan was as enthusiastic inside the car as he was outside the car. His primary means of helping me simply consisted of him goading me to drive the car faster and faster.

We were approaching the slalom in the taxiway when Dan started yelling: “Stay on it, stay on it! Don’t chicken on me now!!” Dutifully, I kept my foot pinned to the floor and desperately tried to keep the car on the course, the car pitching and rolling like I’d never experienced before, all while yelling expletives and nearly soiling myself in the process.

But the car made it through the slalom.

It just goes to show that, sometimes, the answer to the question “how do I go faster” is simply “just drive faster.”

I took that advice to heart, and drove harder for my next few runs.

That’s when I spun the Audi, with the throttle pinned going into the slalom at the taxiway. Okay, so the advice works up to a point.

But it was a good lesson to have.

Yes, you can drive anything

As troubled as the Audi was maintenance wise, I still look back on my time with the car quite fondly. It turned out to be the perfect starting autocross car for me.

There are plenty of folks who think that they need to have a souped up sports car before they dip their toes into autocross or track days, but the truth of the matter is, you really don’t. In some ways, it’s a disadvantage to start with a very powerful, razor-sharp handling car. Much in the same way that it’s best to learn tightrope walking on a rope tied between two trees and not on a rope crossing a canyon, if your goal is car control skills, the pedestrian cars give you far more margin to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes.

My advice to friends that want to start autocrossing is to start with a front wheel drive car first. You learn tire management very quickly, and you don’t suffer to the same frequency the negative consequences of wide open throttle. Skip the Miata, and run your hatchback, I say.

That said, when the maintenance on the Audi became onerous, I decided to move on to a rear wheel drive sports car. In some respects, that was the wrong choice…