Punting Cones at Fort Devens

by Lew Surdam


Unlike DE, time is what Autocross is all about, and there is precious little of it during the event. You are either in your car waiting to be released onto the course, or working at a "station" somewhere on the course monitoring and reporting the progress of the competitors. Forget about a sandwich, no time. But what a blast! Very safe, very fast and those cones take a pasting. Toni and I arrived as first timers and were warmly greeted by familiar faces we love.

Earlier this summer in Loudon, I was speaking with Joe Kraetsch and remembered something he said, "Autocross will improve your performance on any track, especially unfamiliar ones". With this dependable recommendation, we immediately signed up for the August 7th AX outing at Fort Devens, a 4800 acre retired Army Base less than 90 minutes NW of Boston.

In the grand scheme of things it seems one should experience autocross first before moving up to Driver Education, much the same way rock climbers hone their skills on large boulders before they move up to huge cliffs. The AX course is very technical and can be taken at high speeds with experience. In my case I found it challenging to look ahead a few gates in order to set up for the next few maneuvers and at the same time drive fast and stay within the defined course. By the time I slowed down enough to see where to aim the car I might as well have been coasting down a street looking for a particular house number. Toni found this amusing as she had no such difficulty (in general she has superior navigational skills) and immensely enjoyed her first AX outing, as I did.

The people at the event were also a delight and we made many new friends in the short span of eight hours. Jack Saunders showed up in his new ultra sharp black C4 with polished chrome wheels. What an example he sets for us guys in our mid sixties! From my work station in the final slalom to the finish, Jack looked very good all day. From that same vantage point where some drivers pushed hard (too hard in some cases) to scrape a half a second off their best time, I was able to study what happens when you exceed that sweet edge of adhesion to the asphalt. Wild, noisy spinouts that were harmless to both car and driver was the usual result. But I quickly learned not to be too distracted by the action and pay attention to the job of quickly resetting the cones and calling in the car number and how many cones were disturbed.

Our neighbor in the paddock drove a Cayman and after we had chatted for a while he offered me a ride on the course. The car was stock with street seats and 3 point harness, and the driver, Jeremy, drove the course brilliantly at insane speed. It was big fun, but holding on in the passenger seat with limited restraints was a struggle.

I can’t say that I had fun all day, out of nine runs I think I drove off course a discouraging six times. Like DE, it is all about seat time and beginners should be aware of that. The parts of the course I was comfortable on were very exhilarating and lots of fun. At the end of the day we all convened at nearby JP O’Hanlon’s where the draught beer flowed and the fun continued. I shared a plate of food with my buddy, Lisa Roche, who really excels at this sport. We were running in the same grid so unfortunately I could not get a ride with her as an instructor. But maybe next time in October.

Lisa and Joe orchestrated this mind boggling event smoothly and professionally. Complex groups, subgroups, class, grids, two driver cars, novices and more need to be arranged into a smooth flow onto the course while recording the details of each car’s run. And best of all this day, we drove in T shirts and shorts on one of the nicest summer days I remember. I hope everyone who reads this and has never sampled Autocross will give it a try at least once, it’s great training and a legitimate end in itself.