Dan Ennis of Mt. Washington navigates his Mazda Miata around the autocross course set up on a North Park parking lot.     Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette photos

Speed demons

These drivers enjoy the thrill and competition of autocross racing,

as sponsored by the North Hills Sports Car Club.



By Christina Rouvalis

Post Gazette Staff Writer   


Karen Rafferty of Irwin finishes her race in her blue Corvette Grand Sport with the third fastest time of the day for all drivers.


Tire screech.  Souped-up engines rev and growl.  Shiny cars hug stomach wrenching curves, sometimes spinning out of control.

The motorists putting on the show aren't a bunch of hot-dogging teen-agers tearing down a main drag on a Friday night.  They are perfectly respectable men and women playing out their race-car-driving fantasies on an asphalt parking lot in North Park on a recent Sunday.

The sport is called autocross racing, and lots of joggers and passers-by at North Park have done double-takes watching the drivers weave around orange cones in their Volkswagen Rabbits, Mazda Miatas, Corvettes and other cars on the road.

"For people who don't do this, it looks a little strange" said Bill Marlowe, and land surveyor from Allison Park who drives a blue Mazda Miata.

The puzzled stares are a good recruitment tool.  Sometimes the people who gape at this tire squealing spectacle come back to try it themselves.

A recent sunny day drew 112 competitors to the race sponsored by the North Hills Sports Car Club, one of the two autocross groups in the Pittsburgh area that hold races regularly.  Autocross doesn't have the long straightaways or fiery crashes of NASCAR racing.  Instead, drivers line up in a procession and zoom around the windy course solo when their number is called.

"You have a better chance of being in an accident going to work," said Doug Bober, a 34-year-old Shaler driver and president of the North Hills Sports Car Club.

The worst thing that happens is that the car hits a cone or spins to a stop.  On extremely rare occasions, Bober said, a car will roll over.  But such accidents have never happened locally.

An event can last eight hours and involves many time-consuming rituals- safety checks, marking off the course in white chalk, walking around the lot several times to get a feel for the bends in the course.

In fact, each driver may spend only three to five minutes of racing during four timed runs.  But those few minutes…These people live for those few minutes.

"If a woman walked in here with a bathing suit, the guys wouldn't look," said Gerry Ennis, of Mount Washington, one of only a handful of women racing.  "They all have their heads in their engines."

"It's more fun than a roller coaster," said Mike Ancas of McDonald, a psychotherapist and Internet health-care entrepreneur. "it is going 50 mph on curves.  It's the thrill of G-force around the turns."

This white knuckled reporter got to feel all those G-forces when she was belted into the passenger seat of a 1993 Toyota MR2 driven by Glenn Hoffman of Wilkinsburg during a test run.  She screamed for her life as the car accelerated then tore into curves.

"It's seat of the pants driving," Hoffman said as he emerged from his car, his hand shaking.

Motorists compete in four classifications that depend on how much the guts of the car has been altered to enhance performance, although all cars must be street legal.  Each run is timed, and drivers get a one second penalty if the hit a cone.  The fastest time of the day wins, both by class and overall.

But do people who screech around bends in the safety of an empty parking lot go out in the road and try the same stunts?  Au Contraire, autocross drivers insist.

"People who you see racing around on the street don't do this.  We have our own outlet," Ancas said.  Pointing to the autocross drivers, he said, "They have found a healthy outlet for their aggressive driving tendencies, a socially acceptable outlet."

"It makes us better drivers," said Nick Garuccio, a 26 year old form Irwin who drives a royal blue Miata.  "It teaches us how to handle a car."

Judging from the overwhelmingly male crowd, this is definitely a guy sport.  But women such as Karen Rafferty, a 34 year old form Irwin, can't wait to get behind the wheel and round the bends like a demon.  Rafferty, who drives a blue Corvette Grand Sport with a racy white stripe is ranked nationally in women's events, placing second in some recent competitions.  In that Sunday's race, she clocked a time of 28.682, the third fastest of all drivers, men and women.  Her husband, Kent had the fastest time 27.828.

Karen Rafferty adores cars, working as the market area manager of General Motors during the week and participating in local and out of state autocross races during the weekends.

"I live it and breath it," she said.  "This is a way to work out the weeks frustrations.  I can't wait until Sunday so I can thrash my car around."

Brian Bender, a 32 year old software engineer from Greensburg, was beaming after his first run in his Mustang.  "I get a rush.  You get to flog the car and they can't arrest you for it."

For information on races sponsored by the North Hills and Steel Cities sports car clubs, call 412-221-6692

From the Pittsburgh Post Gazette May 10, 2000.