Autograss – a true grassroots racing experience

Autograss – a true grassroots racing experience
Autograss – a true grassroots racing experience

Think motorsport and images of unobtainable glamour – F1 cars weaving through Monaco’s streets, the rarified air of the Le Mans pits – spring to mind.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, for all the big-money, out-of-reach superstardom at the top of the sport, there’s plenty of accessible, thrilling action at the other end of the spectrum.

To find out just how accessible and thrilling it can be I signed up for a taste of autograss driving.

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Autograss is as grassroots as motorsports gets, literally. The track starts out at the beginning of the season as a grass-covered oval, although a few sessions in there’s very little of the green stuff left.

By the time I rock up to Central Scotland Autograss’s base at Avonbridge, near Falkirk, the track is 100 per cent dirt. The previous few days have been so dry that it resembles a dust bowl and has to be damped down between races to improve visibility.

My car for the day is a 20-year-old Nissan Micra which, when new, had about 60bhp. It’s hardly a thoroughbred racer but, then, neither am I. What I am is too big for the car. Squeezing in through the window, past the roll cage and into the fixed bucket seat I’m less Lewis Hamilton, more Indycar-era Nigel Mansell. Once I buckle up and slot on the removable steering wheel I’m pretty sure I’m not getting out again.

Autograss
60bhp of raw racing power

Still, a flick of the ignition switch and I head off to the start line.

Lining up against a motley grid – there’s an ancient Yaris, a Austin Mini and a Peugeot 106 among my class – it looks faintly comical but sitting on the start line looking out at the quarter-mile oval I can feel my nerves building. It’s not about winning, it’s about not making a complete idiot of myself. As the starter’s flag waves I take the advice given in the pits – bury the throttle and dump the clutch – and take off in a cloud of grit and dust.

The run from the start line is a bumpy, cloudy, noisy affair as six one-litre superminis are thrashed to within an inch of their lives. It feels like driving across a field because that’s essentially what it is. The car bounces and rocks and squirms around. The bumpy, slippy surface makes keeping control of even a puny little hatchback a challenge but with every second of grappling and wrestling it around the grin on my face gets wider.

Autograss
Credit: Peter Greenwood

Six laps fly by in what feels like an instant. It may look pedestrian from the outside but inside the car there’s a real buzz from trying to push it and myself harder each lap without ending up facing backwards.

My performance on track reflects my rookie status – I’m dead last every single race – but it’s not disheartening, it’s addictive. I want to get back in the car and try again to get better and, for a few hundred quid, I can.

Besides the simple rush of any motorsport, one of the biggest draws of autograss racing is the accessibility. At the entry level you can pick up a car like the one I borrowed for a few hundred pounds and realistically expect to spend less than £1,000 on a whole season, including the car. To put that in perspective, a single set of tyres in the Britcar Endurance series will set a team back more than £1,100.

Autograss

But it’s not just about £1,000 bangers. Autograss is a sport that you can take as seriously as you like. There are 12 classes of racers plus two junior categories. From the entry level Class Ones like our Micra, you work your way up through various engine capacities and levels of modification to Class 10 where twin Hayabusa motorbike engines or V8 motors are strapped in purpose-built buggies with bespoke space-frame chassis.

At the top end drivers spend tens of thousands on their cars and they take their racing seriously. But even within that focus and determination, the one word that comes up whoever you speak to is “fun”.

Autograss
The top buggies can cost tens of thousands of pounds. Credit: Peter Greenwood

Whether they’re driving a scrappy Toyota Yaris or a custom-made buggy with 200bhp+, these drivers are here to win but also to enjoy themselves. There’s trash talk and wind-ups but it’s all done with tongues in cheeks and the rivalries are friendly. And, of course, there’s the driving.

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Watching the faster, modified classes is as exciting as any other motorsport. There’s noise, a few shunts and breathtakingly close racing, all on a slippery, ever-changing surface. The higher up the grades the faster and more sideways the action gets. Some of the top class buggies spend the whole race locked in tail-out, nose-up poses with only two or three wheels touching the ground.

Autograss
The bodyshells are about the only original parts of these heavily modified racers. Credit: Peter Greenwood

As well as being accessible and exciting, the big aim of autograss is to be inclusive. At Central Scotland Autograss everyone is welcoming, from club chairman Andy Hamilton to other drivers, Tony the recovery man and Scott Pryde, who’s lent me his car for the day. Their aim across the board is to foster a friendly environment where new drivers are encouraged to give the sport a try.

It’s marketed as a family sport – and not just for spectating. Whole families can get involved in racing, sharing the same car to compete in different categories, and around the pits there are parents, grandparents and kids all mucking in to prepare cars. And as well as categories based on the cars, there are juniors and ladies championships which are as hotly contested as the top classes.

 

Autograss
Credit: Peter Greenwood

Avonbridge is currently Scotland’s only permanent autograss venue but across the UK there are more than 50 clubs running meetings throughout the year. They vary from single-day events with a few dozen cars to full championship weekends where more than 200 racers do battle around the oval. Many of the clubs even offer hire cars, making it easy for new drivers to give the sport a try for minimal outlay.

While it might lack the glamour of the big televised motorsports, autograss makes up for it by being accessible, welcoming and inclusive. If you’ve ever dreamt of giving racing driving a go there are fewer easier, cheaper ways of doing it.

Autograss

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