July 09, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story


Danger Isn’t Everything 

This is auto racing for the everyman — and every car. Even a Geo.

This is Autocross, amateur racing that takes place at Cloverleaf Mall and at other locations across the state and country. This group, sanctioned by the Virginia Motor Sport Club, attracts average racers and seasoned veterans, souped-up machines and commuter cars. It is a chance for the everyman to test his wheels, his nerve, his 10-year-old GM brakes.

In his little red 1990 Honda Civic, Jeff Chenery, 45, pulls up to the starting line. There is a subtle scent of gasoline in the air. A green flag waves, and everything outside the car seems to slide backward as he peels out. The car’s muffler pops as Chenery accelerates around the course.

To an average speed of 25 to 30 mph.

Still, all the sharp turning makes it furious, if not fast. Chenery must avoid the pylons. “A pylon costs you a point,” or a second off your time, he explains.

The course keeps things interesting. The turns come in rapid succession, making it difficult for beginners to see where to go. Yet it’s not difficult for a beginner to break into Autocross. There really is only one prerequisite. “It takes a car,” Chenery says. “Whatever car you got at home, bring it down here.”

Chenery, a budgeting and planning manager for SunCom, has been racing for about a year and a half with his wife, Audie. They are Team Jester. His CRX races in the H-Stock class, which means, “You can change very, very little — basically your tires, shocks, muffler and air filter.”

A run is over in about 35 to 50 seconds, depending on how good you are. Drivers always race solo. There are few spectators. And, sorry, no crashing. But danger is not everything. There’s the challenge, the experimentation — the hairpin turns. It’s the opportunity to see what that little Golf in the driveway can do.

“It’s a rush,” says Ellie Venafro, 28, from the driver’s side window of her ’85 Porsche 911 Carrera. “I also enjoy learning about my car.” The fourth time out since her husband introduced her to the sport, and her first in the Porsche (it’s a recent trade-in for the Honda Accord she used to race), Venafro says she’s just getting the feel of the car and needs to add some modifications — some racing tires, maybe — to be competitive.

A white Nissan Sentra with a blue “4” painted on the side pulls up to the back of the line of cars. The driver tugs at the straps of his racing helmet as an announcer’s voice squawks over the P.A. On the course, a tan Civic CRX twists around the asphalt as fast as its driver can take it. Cars of all makes, models and, it must be said, racing qualities, rumble and sputter across the pavement against the clock. There are the highly modified vehicles and stock cars off the street, from tricked-out Mustangs with softball-bat sized, double chrome tailpipes to conservative Altimas with that new car smell.

On a Sunday in late June, a white Corvette rockets down the straightaway of the Cloverleaf course. It makes its turns and tears across the finish line in 36.541 seconds, its backside bearing the calling card “Jax Vette.” (Vanity plates — EGZ, Lugnuts, JKL-Hyde, +1 Cone — are the norm.) “Jax” is Jack McAfee, a bearded, 49-year-old marketing manager. He’s been racing small bikes, motorcycles, go-karts, something, anything, “all my life.”

Autocross can be traced in various forms to the years after the end of the second World War, when GIs all over the country were finding civilian ways to replicate the thrills of wartime. The Virginia Motor Sport Club, the biggest Autocross group in the state, formed in 1949, and has a banquet with an awards presentation every January. The club’s members tend to resemble their president, Charlie Passut, a 58-year-old chemical engineer with Ethyl Corp. who is manning the registration table today.

The nature of racing modified streetcars seems to appeal to the more science-minded, engineers and others who enjoy taking things apart, tinkering with them or just talking about doing it. Gordon Paterson, 59, is a self-described “computer geek” who works at Circuit City. His first Autocross vehicle was a ’71 Pinto, and after 30-odd years sports a 2002 Ford Focus SVT, which stands for Special Vehicle Team, the company’s “in-house hot rod,” Paterson says. “They put it together,” he says. “It’s even under warranty. Being a lazy old coot, I’m perfectly happy.”

Paterson races with his son, Pasha, who’s 24 and just received his computer science degree from the University of Richmond. “My wife said, ‘You’re not going to let him Autocross are you?’” Paterson recalls from many years ago. And laughing, remembers his reply. “No, I’m going to make him Autocross.

“It’s a great way to learn car control,” Paterson says, “and to learn what your car is capable of. Today’s streetcar is just amazing with what it can do.”

The only question is, why do they care? Chenery thinks the reason is universal. “It’s kind of like any other sport of racing,” he says. “You go out and test the limits of anything you’re racing, whether it’s a car or the human body. There aren’t many things which you can actually compete on a level playing field with your son or your daughter or your wife. It’s a very fun type of competition. I mean

The Virginia Motor Sport Club hosts its next Autocross event at the Cloverleaf Mall Sunday, July 13. Visit www.vmsc.org for more details.

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