The Way of The FiST – Part 3: Autocross Tested

With some street driving under our belts and a few passes down the dragstrip, it was time to put our FordNXT project car, a 2019 Ford Fiesta ST, to the real test: autocross. The whole idea behind “The Way of the FiST” is to eventually modify this little hot hatch into an SCCA H-Street autocross racer. We searched online for a local autocross event and found just what we were looking for with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), San Francisco Region, Fresno Chapter, which was running a weekend autocross at the local fairgrounds parking lot. But, before we could go racing, Mrs. Krider had a honey-do list for us to accomplish before we could play. That list included picking up a new desk from IKEA.

Versatility

Before we took our Fiesta ST to a local autocross to see how it zipped between the cones, we needed to test its cargo holding ability. A trip to IKEA and a new desk purchase tested the car’s capacity to haul stuff. With the rear seats folded down, and the front seat moved to its maximum front position and flipped forward, we were able to get two massive IKEA boxes inside and all of the doors closed. (Autocross photos courtesy of Ric Quinonez.)

While standing in IKEA looking at the two boxes I needed to transport, I started to worry that maybe I was asking a lot of the little Fiesta. The good news was the FiST is extremely versatile. With the rear seats folded down and the front seat pushed forward, I was able to fit all of the boxes inside and was still able to get the rear hatch to close. That was important because IKEA was a smooth 150 miles from where I lived. Once I completed my honey-do list for Mrs. Krider, it was time to go racing.

Stickers Add Horsepower

All you need to autocross is a driver’s license, a helmet, $40, and a number and class designation somewhere on your car. We decided to copy the red/silver ST logo for the livery of the FiST, and created a two color sticker for our number, 38, and our class, H-Street, or HS.

My racing team, Double Nickel Nine Motorsports, has its own vinyl cutter for creating stickers for our race cars. For the FiST, I designed a set of stickers that were red with a silver background to mirror the red and silver ST logo on the car, and would match well with the sharp looking red brake calipers. Most autocrossers use magnet numbers to quickly remove the class designation and race digits when the car isn’t being raced. I threw some wax on the doors to protect the paint and directly applied the stickers to the car. Stickers are lighter weight and more aerodynamic than magnets.

Before we headed to the autocross, we washed the Fiesta ST (everyone knows you can’t race a dirty car) and added our red/silver stickers. They looked great with the stock red brake calipers. This car is starting to look racy!

I arrived early to the autocross so I could have a chance to walk the course. Even though I was just baselining the car in bone-stock form on stock tires, the competitor in me still wanted to try to win the event. I walked the course four separate times and tried to eye the quickest line around the track. I didn’t have any experience tracking the FiST, so I wasn’t sure where I would make my gear changes, or where I would need to use some brakes. My plan was simply to drive the car like a maniac. I also took some time to check out the competition in H-Street. In my opinion, my biggest challenge was going to come from a yellow Honda CRX. CRXs have always been excellent autocross cars, light and nimble.

At the autocross, if you don’t show up with your own numbers, simple masking tape works for ensuring timing and scoring knows who is on the track and what class they are in. My competition in the H-Street class, a Honda CRX, rocked the blue masking tape numbers.

First Laps

After a short safety meeting with the folks from the Fresno SCCA, it was time to attack the course. I needed to be fast, I needed to be clean, and (for my own ego) I needed to win. Autocross is just one car on course, you versus the clock. Any orange cones knocked down would add one second to the overall time. When the green flag dropped, I revved the motor, dumped the clutch and drove the Fiesta like somebody else was making the payments on it. The acceleration was good, and the orange cones were flying by me. In the first hard left corner, I fed in some left steering but I was carrying so much speed that the car wanted to go straight. The car was pushing (not turning with the front) more than I wanted it to (but as to be expected for a bone-stock car). I was fighting the grip with the front tires. The car just understeered too much. Some of it could be attributed to the design of the car and some of it was me being too aggressive.

Aggressive driving on stock tires and stock shocks resulted in a lot more understeer than I would have preferred.

I ripped through a very fast slalom, left, right, left, and the car transitioned nicely and handled the weight transfer with ease (thanks to the stiffer springs available only on the ST models of the Fiesta). At the end of the slalom was a very tight left hander. I came in hot, way too hot, hit the brakes late, and mowed down two cones as I drove off track. Total fail.

Attacking an autocross course is all about high visual horizon. To the uninitiated, an autocross course may look like a sea of orange cones. But over time you will start to see the line and carve your way through to a fast time.

I completely screwed up my first run. Two cones hit, and I had to back up to get back onto the course, completely botching a good time. After the first run, the CRX had me beat. Not good. I needed to understand the limitations of the car in stock form, and the limitations of the OEM tires, Michelin Pilot Sports. The good news was I still had a crack at a faster lap. I just needed to be a little more conservative and get a fast lap in the books to win H-Street. I hate losing!

Racing is a very mental game. You have to visualize yourself driving through the course, hitting your marks, rev matching, deep braking, and winning. Concentration before a run is key to success.

I yelled at myself inside my helmet to get my crap together. I know how to autocross. I know how to win races. I was being way too aggressive with an unknown car under my seat. It was time to drive the car to its limits, not the limits I thought the car should have. When the green flag dropped, I took a whole new approach to the lap. I went slower to go faster. I ensured the front tires had grip to make the turns, and then fed in more power to skirt between corners. The lap was feeling good. When I passed the checkered flag, I knew I had a clean run in the books. No cones. I waited for the rest of the H-Street field to finish their laps, and then I knew the Fiesta ST had pulled it off. Even in completely stock form, I was able to win a local SCCA autocross in the H-Street class. The CRX just didn’t have the power to keep up with the Fiesta ST’s turbo. Winning a local event is one thing, but winning a national event is a whole other level. There is certainly work to be done on the little Ford to fix some handling issues.

Chatting With The Champ

If I wanted to improve the Fiesta, I would need to heed the advice of SCCA National Champion Phil Mitchell, who won the 2019 H-Street Championship in Lincoln, Nebraska.

To find out the best route to improving the Fiesta ST for autocross, I chatted it up with the current fastest man in a FiST in the country, Philip Mitchell, the SCCA H-Street 2019 National Champion. Phil is a 27-year-old mechanical engineer who lives in White Lake, Michigan, and works in the automobile industry. He competed in a 2015 Ford Fiesta ST and won the hard fought H-Street class by a little over a tenth of a second. The major modifications to his Fiesta were changing the wheels from a 17-inch diameter to a 16-inch diameter lighter wheel with some sticky 200 treadwear autocross tires. He swapped out the stock shocks for Koni Yellow adjustable shocks. He added a cat-back exhaust system and put in a drop-in K&N air filter. With just those changes, he was able to best ten other Fiestas amongst 34 competitors at the SCCA Nationals for the top spot.

Philip Mitchel gets his 2015 Fiesta ST up on three, and almost two wheels, as he competes at the SCCA Nationals where he won H-Street.

Phil read the first installment of “The Way of The FiST”  and wanted to clarify one thing about the Fiesta’s Limited Slip Differential. “The LSD is electronic, in that it activates the front brakes if the vehicle reads slip,” said Phil. “Mechanically it is an open differential. If you turn off traction control, you are also turning off the electric LSD. If you spin the tires, the vehicle will retard the boost and you will lose horsepower. It is important to be smooth with the throttle so you don’t break the tires loose and you still get full boost.” Phil’s advice is sound. I found the same situation when I ran the Fiesta ST for the first time. You need to go slow to go fast.

After talking with Phil, our first mod for our Fiesta ST will be a set of Yokohama ADVAN A052 sticky 200 treadwear autocross tires. The tread design on this A052 is strategic in that there are no tread blocks left alone (all are connected) which will help make the tire extremely responsive.

I learned a lot talking with Phil, and am super appreciative of the time and advice he provided. We will put his advice to good use as we modify the Ford Fiesta ST, and do our part to win as many H-Street events as possible. With a win in our first autocross, and a win at the drag strip, the little FiST is currently undefeated. Can we keep up the win streak? If we get some sticky Yokohamas on the car and some Koni struts, we will certainly be on our way.

About the author

Rob Krider

Rob Krider will race absolutely anything. He is a multi-national champion racing driver and is also the author of the novel, Cadet Blues.
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