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Autocross returns to county for first time in 40 years

Family-friendly event held at Jaffa Shrine free to spectators

Bryan Smith races his black and yellow 1991 Camaro Z28 through an autocross course. Smith’s Camaro will unfortunately be out of this weekend’s competition as it is in the shop. Courtesy photo

In the 1960s, hundreds of spectators turned out to watch Altoona Sports Car Club members and others test their driving skills in autocross events. The point was never to drag race, said Hollidaysburg resident Tony Rogers. Instead, drivers tested their mettle by navigating an obstacle course as fast as they could, without knocking over the cones.

The course was usually set up in empty parking lots, because stores weren’t open on Sundays, and the events were sponsored by area car dealerships.

“It was nice,” Rogers said. “We had crowds. … Articles in the Mirror said there were thousands” in attendance, he said.

This weekend, autocross will return to Blair County for an event organizers said is the first for the county in at least 40 years.

Autocross basics

Road rallies and autocross events continue to be a mainstay of many car clubs, but members of the Allegheny Highlands Region – Sports Car Club of America said today’s autocross events are usually held on airport runways — often locally at Ebensburg — and other wide open spaces.

This weekend’s event will be special because it’s being held in the big parking lot at the Jaffa Shrine Center, easily accessible to residents looking for a unique, family-friendly outing. It’s free to watch, organizers said.

Any drivers wanting to show off their skills are invited to try their hand, club secretary and Duncansville resident Chris Rogers said.

There are several classes — so Volkswagen Beetles aren’t in the same class as Lamborghinis — and all vehicles will need to undergo a basic safety check. (See If you go)

Initial setup of the course is 6:30 a.m. both Saturday and Sunday, with registration open at 9 a.m. Drivers will be allowed to walk through the course before the day’s events begin. A drivers’ meeting is slated for 10:15 a.m., and the first cars are expected to be on the course about 10:30 a.m.

“Then we run until it’s over,” club president Bryan Smith said. “Everyone gets an equal amount of runs.”

What to expect

Organizers expect between 60 and 80 participants, including members of the Altoona Corvette Club and Blair County Antique Auto Club.

Granted, a Model T probably wouldn’t be the best choice in which to run the course, but some of the newer, fancier, faster cars can easily be beat by some older, more nimble cars. It’s that competition that makes the outings fun, Tony Rogers said.

The weekend races will be a family affair for the Rogers family, with Tony, 77, driving in his first autocross in more than 40 years seated behind the wheel of his dark blue 2018 Fiat 124 Spider Arbarth — a sports car that can reach a top speed of 144 mph and can accelerate from zero to 62 mph in 6.8 seconds, according to online specs.

Son Chris will be racing a Mazda Miata with his son, Jacob, 14, riding shotgun.

There was some speculation that Tony would bring his kit-built Viking blue 1965 Cobra, a replica of the car before designer Carroll Shelby got involved with the Ford Motor Co. But, in a phone interview, Tony said he would bring it to show, not to race, unless his son persuades him to give it a try.

“I’m 77 now, my reflexes aren’t what they used to be,” he said. As for taking on the course, though, he said “I’m gonna give it a shot.”

Smith will be out of the competition as his car, a black and yellow 1991 Camaro Z28, is in the shop.

The top speed of the Spider, Miata, Camaro or any sports car won’t come into play in the autocross event, though.

Smith said he expects cars to hit speeds of 60 to 70 mph on the course that he likened to “being on a roller coaster ride without a vertical drop.”

“With autocross, you’re not going straight, you have to know when to turn, how to turn, trim off speed,” he said.

Each participant will be timed and knocking over a cone will add seconds to that time.

“The clock is not your friend,” he said. The aim of the driver is to “keep things short and sweet and as smooth as possible.”

“The competition is pretty tight,” he added. “I’ve seen people be a thousandth of a second apart. … It’s pretty crazy.”

Spectators may see anything from race cars with roll cages to stock Beetles.

“There is a large diversity, that’s what makes it fun,” he said. “Not everyone can afford a race car.”

More than anything, successfully competing in autocross takes driver skill and vehicle preparedness.

“You have to look ahead,” Smith said. “If you’re looking over the hood of your car, you’re not going to do well … It’s like a game of chess, things come up pretty fast.”

Tony Rogers agrees.

Autocross isn’t “so much about the horsepower,” he said, it’s more about how the car handles. It usually comes down to “the driver and the balance of the car.”

Smith figures the course will take between 40 and 50 seconds to complete for the fastest drivers. Depending on how many drivers sign up, each driver could get five runs.

Each day is treated as a separate competition, and each driver’s best run is pitted against other drivers in that class. Awards in each class will be handed out at the end of each day’s events.

There is a novice class, for those new to the sport, and individual classes for stock and modifieds, broken down to how much modification was made, as well as classes — all depending on who shows up to compete.

Some people will even bring go karts. “They’re very small, very nimble and go very fast,” he said. “These will run 80 mph without a problem.”

It really doesn’t matter what anyone drives, he added. “If it’s just a plain car, there is a class for that, too.”

Smith said he, like all the drivers, was a novice at one time.

“I was willing to learn,” he said, issuing an invitation to others to give it a try.

“This is all about having a good time, making friends,” he said.

Not just for men

There is a lot of camaraderie, Smith and both Rogers said, noting men and women are equally capable of running and winning in the event.

“In the ’60s, our wives did it,” Tony Rogers said. “We had a lot of ladies.”

Chris Rogers said he is looking forward to the weekend’s event, not only because it is at the Jaffa, a local venue, and his dad is a Jaffa Shriner, but because it brings autocross back to Altoona.

While it’s been many years since he last competed and he no longer has his Austin Healy Bugeye Sprite, Tony Rogers said he’s looking forward to the weekend.

“I don’t have a very good car, but it will be fun,” he said “That’s what it’s about. … Just have fun. …Test your driving skills.”

“But, if I still had my Bugeyed Sprite, I’d show them,” he said with a laugh.

If you go

What: Autocross hosted by the Allegheny Highlands Region — Sports Car Club of America

Where: Jaffa Shrine Center parking lot, 2200 Broad Ave., Altoona.

When: Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 20-21; Initial setup of the course is 6:30 a.m. both days. Registration opens at 9 a.m. with a drivers’ meeting about 10:15 and the first cars are expected to be on the course about 10:30 a.m.

Admission: Free to watch the contests.

Driver admission: Cost to participate in the autocross is $35 each day for club members. Nonmembers can pay $15 for a weekend club membership and then the $35 admission fee. If racing both days, that weekend-only member would pay $50 the first day and the regular $35 fee on Sunday.

Safety check: There are several classes and all vehicles will need to undergo a basic safety check.

Because navigating through the course requires quick, sharp turns, hubcaps must be removed on any vehicle taking to the course.

Also, vehicles must be wider than they are tall.

The battery has to be securely held down, the tires must be good and the vehicle can’t have any excessive fluid leaks. Seat belts are required, and while drivers can wear shorts, no open-toed shoes are allowed.

In addition, helmets are required, and loaners will be available.

Racers are also workers — for instance, when cones get knocked down, drivers participating in the events are sent out onto the course to set the cones back up again.

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