Having recently been the Event Marshall for one of our autocrosses, course design a subject that has been on my mind lately.
If you have ever designed an autocross course, I’m sure you have noticed that, no matter how proud you are of your design, there will be event participants who aren’t as fond of the course as you are. I learned pretty quickly that it’s best to leave your ego at the front gate and to be prepared for some criticism.
When I lay out a course at Lawrenceville, I typically receive the most “suggestions” about how the course should be defined by pylons. We have a fairly unique site in Lawrenceville so we have to break a few layout rules in order to keep drivers off of the bad pavement. That means we usually have more pylons on the course than would be required if the site was a solid block of good pavement. But…
Though I’m likely in the minority on this topic, I think we could get away with using fewer pylons at Lawrenceville. I prefer a layout with fewer pylon “walls” and more pointers. Maybe that’s because I’m still relatively new to the sport and the pointers give me more visual cues for turn-in and apex points. A good example of this course layout philosophy was on display at last week’s autocross. Even though the course, designed by Kevin Smalley, was long and complex, Kevin managed to mark the course with a relatively small number of pylons. The pointer placement was great, and I found the course quite easy to follow. Kevin’s course proved my point(er)! (sorry, couldn’t resist making that point…er)
Speaking of pointer pylons, a good rule to remember is to always leave some space between the upright pylon and its pointer. That layout will prevent the pointer from moving when the upright pylon is hit. Course workers will, therefore, have fewer pylons to reset when a driver goes off course.
There are a couple of other layout problems I’ve encountered that I would also like to address. The first is the pylon spacing for the pylons that define the edge of the course. In my recent course, I made the mistake of spacing some of the edge pylons at a distance commonly used for gates. When a driver is running the course at speed, those “walls” look like gates. That mistake caused some DNF’s at my event (Sorry, Dave). To prevent what I call a “gate mirage”, pylons at the edge of the course either need to be spaced at less than the common gate width or they should be so far apart that they don’t appear to be paired with another edge pylon.
The second design element I try to avoid is the “look at me” gate. I don’t think a gate should have pointer pylons pointing at each of the upright gate pylons. In most cases, no pointer pylons are required. If, however, the gate is considerably offset from the previous element, a pointer on the “inside” gate pylon is a good idea. Usually, these decisions can’t be made when you are drawing the design on paper. They have to be analysed once the course is laid out at the site and you get a chance to see the gate or element from the driver’s perspective.
Course design is a huge subject and too much to cover here. If you are interested in a real discussion of course design, I suggest that you download a copy of Roger “The Real” Johnson’s document on the subject. You can find it via Google (search “Roger ‘The Real’ Johnson course design”) or from this link:
(Note: Even though the filename infers version 4.1.2, the document is actually version 5.1)
Roger is a well known autocross course designer from the Houston, TX area and has designed several courses for national events. The document covers many topics including how to design a safe course, how to equalize a course for high horsepower and light, nimble cars, and how to present common course elements in a variety of ways. Read his great document and then volunteer to be an event marshall for one of our autocrosses!