Note: Photos will be hosted on iCloud until I get to work and upload high res versions.
Acting on Matt’s suggestion, I emailed the organizers of the Porsche Club’s autocross. They hold an event once a month for enthusiasts around the Bay Area to drive their (sometimes modified) cars at a retired Navy airfield — the same one that the Mythbusters use.
I arrived early in the morning, a little bit after 7 AM, to watch the setup process. Andrew, the course designer for that month’s meetup, talked me through the steps. He used satellite photos as the base of his drawing. Then, he draws his course design on top of it, using skills from his day job as an architect. (This is the most beautiful engineering drawing I’ve ever seen.)
It takes six people about an hour to set up the 45-second course. They each get a large-format printout of the map. Sometimes they know how to pace out distances accurately, but for the most part, everyone just guesses at where things are. It helps that the runway has lines, handicapped parking symbols, and other random features painted on it. A cone van drives around to make sure that everyone has enough cones.
To ensure accuracy, Andrew and the cone layout people walk the track to make sure nothing feels wrong. Once they’re satisfied, they bring out the chalk and the wheelbarrow thing that baseball fields use to draw lines. One person puts lines on the outside of the cones with flour, while others draw lines around each cone so they know where to put them back. (Other users of the airfield complained that spray-painted lines lasted for too long. With flour, the geese will eat the lines soon after the event is over.)
It takes about 100 pounds of flour to outline a track like this one. That seems like a waste of perfectly good food, so we could just have drivers go through the track with only cones. By forcing them to drive with fewer guides, the competition autocross will be easier to see.
Now that the course is set up, all the drivers walk the course. Some of them do so on scooters and bikes. For the ones on foot, they try to kick off any large rocks. There are also people going around with brooms to push off the goose poop and larger piles of rocks. (Poop is slippery and has caused cars to spin out in the past.)
After a brief drivers’ meeting, in which the Dumbfuck Award was bestowed upon a guy who forgot to bring enough gas to the last event, it was finally time to drive. They split into groups: one to drive, one to rest or work on their cars, and a third to man the safety stations around the track. Each safety station is equipped with a fire extinguisher, a radio, and a stack of extra cones. The goal is to call out drivers who hit cones, and to put the cones back. They’re positioned to minimize the chance of someone getting hit if the driver messes up a turn.
Times are calculated by two infrared trip lines on either end of the course and transmitted wirelessly back to the commentator’s trailer. I am surprised that this works at all — it seems like sunlight hitting the sensor at a shallow angle would cause false positives or negatives — but everyone I talked to seemed pretty confident in its abilities. There is a Wi-Fi network that competitors can connect to if they want to see scores.
I was surprised by the diversity of attendees — there were people of many ethnicities and of all age groups. The oldest (and, incedentally, one of the fastest) of them was 70 years old and retired, but he still showed up at 7 AM to help with setup. The youngest was not much older than me.
Overall, I’m pretty impressed that the Golden Gate Region Porsche Club is willing to go through the effort to run this event every month. Although the actual mechanics of setting up the course is not bad, the logistics and legal considerations of organizing an event with so many people must be huge.