That’s the message you get when Mary Pozzi doesn’t answer your call right away, and it’s a good indication of her passion for fast cars and especially her ’73 Camaro autocross killer. Anybody familiar with competitive autocrossing or today’s burgeoning pro touring scene knows her name. Not only is she an 11-time national SCCA Solo champion (which by itself is a huge accomplishment) but she’s also the poster girl for events like the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational and related events. No really, it’s her mug and Camaro in some of Optima’s magazine ads.
I’ve always been a gearhead. I was never one to play with Barbies and things like that.
TO: First off, tell us your background with cars and racing. Were you always a gearhead, and how did you get into this whole deal?
MP: “I’ve always been a gearhead. I was never one to play with Barbies and things like that. I was more making forts, hanging out in trees and you know, doing boy stuff. When I got my driver’s license in 1973 I got a Capri and drove it for a few years. When I moved up to northern California, I started dating this guy and he suggested I try autocrossing. I didn’t know what it was but it sounded like a lot of fun, and that kind of started the whole thing. This was back in ’75 I think.
I ended up selling the Capri and getting a 240Z. About that time we had BRE and other road race stuff available for us, so we modified the suspension, changed to lowering springs, sway bars, wider wheels and tires, that sort of thing. Back then of course there wasn’t anything like what we have now, but I did what I could and worked on the engine a little bit, and started autocrossing that car.
The fastest autocrossers look about as exciting as watching paint dry. They’re so smooth they leave nothing on the table, they’re always going forward
I had some very good mentors that helped me, because in the beginning I made all the rookie mistakes—overdriving corners, spinning out, taking out rows of cones, doing anything I could to prevent myself from going forward. But it sure looked spectacular! People I work with now, I tell them that the fastest autocrossers look about as exciting as watching paint dry. They’re so smooth they leave nothing on the table, they’re always going forward not sideways and boiling the hides.
It was very rewarding but the problem with that is when a horse goes lame you can’t just throw it in the garage and deal with it when you feel like it, like you can with a car. About that time we had bought my Camaro, in 2002, and immediately started changing the suspension and got a ZZ3 crate motor and started getting this car into what pro touring was about 10 years ago or so.
We went to a couple track days and decided to sell the horses and get back into the cars. I started running some local autocrosses and unfortunately I was forced to run in C/Prepared, which is for tube-framed musclecars. My car obviously wasn’t competitive, but I ran a few local events and decided that it would be neat to make one more shot at nationals so I got a Mustang, went back to nationals and got an eleventh championship.
Those titles came in various classes, in cars with FWD, RWD, low-hp, high-hp…most every different category that Solo had at that time. I was given the opportunity to drive some really cool stuff and did very well with it. I also won the Driver of Eminence Award back in the ‘80s. It was basically for the Solo driver of the year that showed the most versatility competing in Solo events, and for that I’m pretty proud because it did show the versatility. Street tires, race tires, it really didn’t matter.”
TO: You’re known for autocrossing, but do you enjoy the bigger road courses?
MP: “Very much so. In the pro touring-style events we do, you have a braking challenge – I call it the flat-spot challenge and I’m not real fond of it, but we have to compete in it. Then you have to do your track lap and the autocross, and I’m more successful on the autocross than on the other two. I can hold my own on the track lap and I positively suck at the braking challenge.”
TO: What are the main differences in driving the autocross and the road course?
MP: “With autocrossing it’s all about time, speed, and distance and you have to drive it completely different than you drive a road course. A road course is all about speed maintenance and capturing the fastest speed you can on any given part of the track. With autocrossing it’s more trying to limit the distance you drive and not waste real estate. Don’t drive any further out or wider on the turn than you have to. They’re very different. I always say that a good autocrosser will be a very good road racer or track driver, whereas a good track driver doesn’t necessarily make a good autocross.”
TO: Which is more fun?
You can autocross a full season if nothing goes wrong for what it will take you to run one or two track days, as far as wear and tear on the car, tires, consumables, and fuel especially.
If you’re going to go road racing, one major event where you have practice, qualifying, and one or two races within a weekend, you have to get new tires, fuel, and then just getting there … you can do two years of autocrossing for the same amount of money if you manage the money right.
So you can get a lot more bang for your buck [with autocrossing] and it’s more feasible financially. I tell people if you want to go road racing, that’s awesome, do it. But we’ve had a lot of people that started off autocrossing and then went road racing, but they came back because they realized that the money was kind of like with horses. To make a million bucks, start out with two.”
MP: “I’m kind of backing away from doing track days because of the expense and I kind of like my car a lot. I’m always out there thinking about what can go wrong. If I’m headed into a corner and I’m laying that thing down, my mind unfortunately doesn’t think about getting it to track out, it’s thinking, ‘I hope nothing breaks. If it does it’s going to be really ugly.’ There are trees, there’s a wall, a ditch, there’s plenty of stuff to cause massive carnage to an orange Camaro. Autocrossing is much safer for me, the car, for everybody in general. It’s been years since I’ve heard of anybody having a death or injury from auto crossing.”
TO: Have you done any wheel to wheel racing?
MP: “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but I never have, I never got around to it. Back when I was younger that was a huge goal. Back when I was an armchair wannabe driver, I just knew I had all the talent in the world and I’d be really successful at this, but it’s one of those things that just never happened.”
TO: What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into autocrossing?
MP: “The cool thing about autocrossing is that everybody is newbie-friendly. The first thing to do, no matter where you live, is check with your local SCCA group or just Google ‘local autocross events’ and there may be some local clubs that hold events. I would recommend contacting the event organizer and asking them, ‘Do I just show up? Do I have to show up at a certain time? Is there somebody there that can maybe ride with me and help me, and take me throughout that day so I have a better idea when I leave than when I got there?’ Oftentimes throughout the year they’ll have autocross-specific schools and you can sign up for an instructor for your kind of car.
Get yourself to the event with enough time so you’re not stressed or hurried. Sometimes the event will have dedicated run group sessions and work group sessions so you need to know what those are. They will open the course to be able to walk it in the morning and at lunchtime, so take advantage of that. When I walk a course I always do it from the position of where I’ll be from the drivers seat.
So if I’m taking a right hand turn I’m going to be walking maybe 16 feet to the left of that apex cone. If it’s a left turn I’m going to be walking right on top of that apex cone. I pace out distances for slalom cones, because oftentimes course designers, the sneaky little shits that they are, will not make them even. If one cone is spaced three or six feet different than the remaining five, you need to know which cone that’s going to be so you can maybe alter your speed or lift, or whatever. Know where the start and finish are. Know what the cone penalties are—are they one second or two seconds, because that can vary.
You need to bring everything you need to the event. Be self-sufficient. Bring an air tank or at least a bicycle pump for the tires. As for car prep, you want to clear the loose stuff out of the car. Make sure the belts are tight. Make sure the battery is held down tight. Make sure all the fluids are good. You want to run a little higher tire pressure than you would on the street, but that’s a personal thing.”
TO: Any driving tips?
MP: “The ideal thing is to ramp up that learning curve a fast as possible. You get these folks that throw dollars at the car, but the best way you can spend your money is on you, learning how to drive.
The first run is a ‘get to know you run’ to learn the car. Then on the second run I take what I learned on the first run, and now we’re gonna back up braking distances, I can go deeper into the corner, kind of take a look at it that way. And usually I’ll set my fastest time on my second or third run.”
TO: What are common mistakes you see beginners make?
MP: “The biggest mistake I’ve seen newbies make, and even some experienced drivers, is they hold the wheel in a set position too long or they try to do two things at the same time. You have to brake in a straight line, pretty much.
If you’re cranking the wheel to the right to get around a turn and you’re jamming on the brakes…the tires have to be able to roll.
Or they’ll hold the wheel in a set too long when the car starts to push and you need to start unwinding the wheel, get ‘em to roll again. The sooner you start making these minute corrections the faster you’re going to get around that corner and you’re going to stop the push.
With oversteer, it means you have to really slow down your corner entry. A classic phrase is ‘slow in out fast, fast in out backwards.’ That is so true in autocross.”
MP: “Look ahead. Look where you want to go. Once you pass that spot it’s a moment in time, it’s done and you can’t recapture it, but you can control what’s coming up next.
The second thing is to identify the key cones on the course. Most of the cones on the course are simply there for decoration but there are a handful of cones that really need to be paid attention to.
The third thing is to know the course. When you’re sitting in the staging line, study your course map then put it away and sit and think as you get closer to go, and mentally go over the course and know it before you start.
The fourth thing is, always have that mantra of ‘what’s next?’ if you think that, you’re looking ahead and you’re looking for what’s next. It becomes automatic. That right there should help a lot of folks get over the intimidation and the worries they have about ‘Oh I’m going to be really slow, people are going to laugh at me.’ They’re not going to laugh at you. They’re going to be so supportive of the fact that you’re out there. It’s going to make you a safer driver on the street, it’s going to build your confidence of what your car can do and what it can’t do or shouldn’t do, you’re gonna have a whole bunch of fun, and you’re probably going wear out a lot of tires.”
TO: So what’s next?
A classic phrase is ‘slow in out fast, fast in out backwards