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Tight turns, better drivers

Dan Kraus scans a bar code on the next competing car, which a computer will use to track the driver’s elapsed time and other stats while on the course. (Mary Davidson)

Woodbridge, Va. – Autocross is how some people wish Drivers Education was taught in schools.

The sport dates back to the 1970s and beyond, participants say. And at C.D. Hylton High School in Woodbridge on Saturday about 50 drivers signed up to take a spin around a track designed to test their driving skills, turning ability and control, and to see how well they could avoid hitting orange cones.

“When they come out here, this track can make them think twice about eating a hot pocket while driving on their way to work. Anything can happen on the road, and when they drive the sharp turns on this track, in this controlled environment, they see there’s no way you can eat a hot pocket and do this,” said Ed Chan, founder of Capital Driving Club.

The Autocross club, which hosted the day’s event, was formed by enthusiasts from Virginia, Maryland and Washington  – all of whom like to drive for fun and improve their driving skills.

Saturday’s event was one of 20 the club will hold this year between March and November. They’re open to any legal driver, any skill level and any type of car.

The club categorizes cars by their horsepower, type of tires and weight.

John Netzel maneuvers around the track in his 2008 Mazda Miata. (Mary Davidson)

Before registration began at 8:30 a.m., orange cones were set out in the parking lot to form a course which the drivers must maneuver. When drivers compete, one at a time, they’re measured not only speed but how well they stay on course.

So they walk and then slowly drive the length of the track to get a feel for it before the event begins.

When ready, the driver pulls the car to the track entrance, the driver and passenger put on their helmets and seatbelts, and then a barcode taped to the car is scanned into a computer which will track time and other driver stats during the run.

Then it’s on your mark, get set, go, and the car is off at speeds of about 40 mph, quickly maneuvering tight turns, while the driver aims to stay on course without knocking over the orange cones.

“It’s a lot of fun, but this can really teach you defensive driving, because being on this kind of a track will show you how your car handles and how it will respond when asked to make a tight turn,” said Ben Lambiotte, of Tacoma Park, Md.

Lambiontte drives a replica 1964 Ford Cobra Daytona Coupe, one of the most impressive cars on the track. But Autocross is not a car show, as many who showed up drove small coupes or smaller, older model sedans.

Franklin Dam, of Washington, mounted cameras to his car to capture video of his run on the track. After the event, the video will then be uploaded to the Web, he said. (Mary Davidson)

Many drivers said using everyday cars helps to improve driving skills.

“I would rather have a teen come out to the track to find out what can go wrong in a tight turn than find out on a dark rainy night,” said Capital Driving Club organizer Joe Seward.

New drivers need to participate in about three events before they get the hang of it, but then it can come naturally, said Seward.

Autocross participants collect points doled out by the club. One hundred points goes to the winner of the event, and points are evaluated by elapsed time on the course, car weight, type of tires and horsepower.

At the end of the season, the winner with the most points receives a trophy and free passes to participate in some of the next year’s events.

Club members pay $25 to drive, non-members $35. The money goes to purchase materials and equipment for the club, and the hot dogs the drivers and fans ate at lunchtime.

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