The enthusiast community surrounding the Mercedes W126 S-Class is a remarkable one. These old Mercedes’ were sold all over the world and as such, the owners come from all over the world. The various enthusiast forums have a wealth of knowledge for those just joining the community, this advice usually regards restoration, maintenance, and occasionally a long road trip. One thing W126 drivers don’t usually do is race… After all, these cars aren’t particularly powerful; they are heavy, and they have plush suspensions. However, when these old S-classes were new they were built to blast down the Autobahn. So, a Mercedes W126 is designed for comfort, but it can go fast if necessary. One day I decided to test the handling capabilities of my S-class on an autocross course.
7:30 AM Fontana, California
A $35 online entry fee and a 30 minute drive later, my GPS led me to a horse racing track. Thankfully this isn’t a story about losing money on horse racing. The track’s massive parking lot was where I got my first lesson in performance driving. From the sidelines an autocross course looks like a nonsensical mess of cones randomly strewn across a parking lot. The course and the sport of autocross only start to make sense on the track walk. The courses are always small, full of corners, slaloms, and no true straightaways. This particular course even included an elevation change and some loose gravel.
With the course walk over, it was time for tech inspection and the first surprise of the day. I registered for this event with the knowledge that I have never had a lesson in performance driving and that my Mercedes was likely to be the slowest car on the track. Thankfully Cal Club Solo, the organization that hosted this autocross, provides instructors to teach novices the fundamentals of performance driving.
Better still, the tech inspectors were completely supportive of me and happy to see a car like my big S-Class at the autocross. In the grid, the Mercedes continued to draw attention from my fellow racers. The love only continued as I pulled up to the start line to the sound of the announcer hilariously roasting my “dictators car.” The announcer was so funny that I missed the start flag. Thankfully for the first run, I decided to let an instructor drive my car so I could learn the correct route around the course. There are two types of turns in autocross, those with wide entrances, and those with narrow gated entrances.
The Mercedes negotiated the first slalom and the first corner with surprising speed, but as we approached the first gated corner, I recall thinking “there is no way this car is going to fit through that gap at this speed.” Much to my amazement, the Mercedes blasted through that corner faster than it had any right to. Better still, the Mercedes handled the rest of the track remarkably well considering its weight and plush suspension. Randy, the instructor, even said my car was a blast to drive. The most satisfying part of autocross racing is the first time dramatic improvement. On my first lap, I took 90 seconds to complete the course, by my final competition run, I was clocking times around 80 seconds. Cal Club Solo’s autocross events run over two days, unlimited test-n-tune runs on Saturday and racing on Sunday. Even though my competition runs were over, the fun was only just beginning.
The cars competing at an autocross are always diverse. At this autocross, there were Miatas, a beautiful Corvair, several generations of Corvettes, a lovely Morgan and a Porsche 911 GT3. The best part is that, provided the owners are not seriously competing, everyone is happy to give ride-alongs.
Without a doubt, the pinnacle of the day came when my friend Tom gave me a ride in his friend’s 911 GT3. Up to this point, my only experience with supercars was posting pictures of them on Instagram. To say this 911 was amazing is an understatement. First, I fit; at 6’6″ I didn’t even fit properly in my Mercedes with my loaner helmet, but this wasn’t a problem in the Porsche. The GT3 launches with a savagery I had only read about in car magazines; it changes directions with astonishing speed and the seats held me in perfectly. However, this was a hot day and the GT3’s tires were not gripping as well as they should have. Nevertheless, Tom, a regular at Cal Club events, was great; he took me on two runs that day, in addition to giving me lunch, and some tips on how to improve my driving.
Despite the relentless heat, the fun was not over after my 4th run. Cal Club Solo has a “Fun Run” program, where if enough people sign up, the track is kept open for free for participants. The Fun Runs were the most instructive part of the day, I was able to immediately apply all of the instructors’ lessons. More importantly, the Mercedes took the hard-driving in stride, never overheating. This particular S-Class is a SE short wheelbase, it is 6 inches shorter than the SEL long-wheelbase model. Six inches may not sound like much, but it definitely improves this car’s handling. Unfortunately, my car wasn’t handling as good as it could have been, this old Mercedes is so heavy that the front tires folded over and were running on the sidewalls during the first two runs. I aired up the front tires, and this fixed the folding-over problem. However, I didn’t think to air up the rear tires, this meant that the Mercedes was understeering terribly, and plowing into every corner.
As is the case with most performance driving, I (the driver) was the limiting factor in reaching my car’s full potential. More importantly, everyone at the race was friendly and welcoming. This was an amazing day; auto crossing is the most fun a car enthusiast can have for the least amount of money. Needless to say, it only took me a week to rejoin Cal Club Solo again for another day tearing up the tarmac. Thank you to Cal Club Solo, some of the pictures are from their Facebook page.
This is joyously insane. I hope you’ll post a video of your next run in the w126!
I’m glad I’m not the only one who shamelessly took his non-performance car to a public race day. I had a 5-cylinder Jetta wagon that I rounded off the tire shoulders on the Miller Motorsports raceway. My driving instructor picked me out of the lineup of more capable cars, saying he stays the hell away from random Joes in high-power sports cars out of self-preservation. Apparently it’s no fun riding shotgun as an overconfident newbie snap-oversteers across the gravel. Anyway, that Jetta felt pretty sharp and lively on the public roads and rock-solid at high interstate speeds compared to a lot of FWD econoboxes, but the limits show up very quickly on the track when it’s asked to turn sharply at speed. It was an enjoyable and instructive experience.
I had to chuckle at the suggestion at the thought of your Autobahn-bred S-Class trying to flit through sharp turns on an autocross course. Kind of like a Fiesta ST on the Autobahn.
I autocrossed my Volvo 122S a few times. After I lowered it, the corners of front mud flaps dragged on the ground and got sporty chamfers, just like motorcycle foot pegs in those days of poor ground clearance on street bikes. I also auto-x’ed my Fiesta, Vega, Civic, and TransAm. I’ve seen a 16V 190 Cosworth on the track but never an S Class. Good for you!
This takes me back to my autocross experience in the Des Moines Valley Region of the SCCA some years back. I had bought a ’98 Mazda Protege 5 speed for my boys’ first car. Since it was my money I decided to have some fun with it as well. Let me put it right here in all caps: I RECOMMEND TO DRIVERS OF ANY EXPERIENCE LEVEL TO PARTICIPATE IN AN AUTOCROSS! The folks at the events are incredibly supportive to any newcomer. Some one will give you a ride-along and in my case I had one in a Lancer Evo driven by one of the fastest guys in the field. Another time an experienced autorosser was riding shotgun with me to guide me through the maze of cones. I did not come anywhere close to the capability of the car. But the experience made me a better driver overall, also in traffic. Experiencing the rush of the competition was great and experiencing the camaraderie even among people I hadn’t met before was absolutely worth it. So go to this site: https://www.scca.com/pages/autocross
and find your nearest autocross event. I guarantee you a great time!
Yes I agree, autocrossing your car is a very good idea. It’s a great way to sample the capabilities of your car at non racing speeds. The SCCA has a rulebook that separates different cars into distinct classes. Almost any common modification, such as lowering, wider tires and wheels, or a performance exhaust will bump you out of stock up into a higher class. You might find yourself included with a group of highly modified vehicles driven by very skilled and experienced drivers. But since each vehicle runs individually it really doesn’t make any difference. Until you develop into a serious competitor, you are only really competing with yourself. The important thing is self improvement. I also found that the other competitors were very welcoming and friendly.
It wasn’t me, but someone has already autox’d a Buick Regal TourX. They said it did “better than expected.”
Regardless what you drive, if it’s allowed on the track (e.g. no 18 passenger church vans), you should try it once. You’ll get to see how your vehicle handles at (or past) the limits, which can be helpful in a real-world emergency. Plus, it’s fun!
I wish I had my 77 New Yorker back – the one that had been built with HD suspension and was running 70 series tires. THAT would have been a fun autocross car. If only I could have licked the 440s persistent Lean Burn issues.
JPC: live in the present! Don’t you have something that isn’t high off the ground to take auto crossing?
The Fit should be a perfect AutoX car! But the Sedona could be even more fun if you bring your six closest friends along for the ride.
I’ve done two AutoX’s – the first was in my 1979 Mazda 626 Coupe while in my first year at college, held in the dorm parking lot. Lots of fun and deluding myself that adding air to the Montgomery Ward tires made a real difference.
The second time was with the 911 on the ice of Georgetown Lake. THAT was a different experience but somehow with around a hundred vehicles there I placed second among all the classes despite just RWD and a set of non-studded Blizzaks. I must have just spun through the cones at the proper rate I suppose, not sure if I crossed the finish line going forward or backward.
Great story! Autocross is a gateway drug. Beware! 😉