BROOKSVILLE — They arrive at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport just after dawn, ready to race.
Some are mere novices when it comes to autocross. They simply pay their fee, don a helmet and line up to take a turn at maneuvering the family grocery-getter through a twisting, half-mile obstacle course marked by orange traffic cones.
Then there are the more serious efforts of drivers such as Darren Seltzer, who runs a sleek, highly modified Formula 500 car powered by a motorcycle engine, expressly built for autocross. Recently crowned as the Sports Car Club of America's F Modified National Solo Champion, Seltzer is considered to be one of the country's top autocross drivers.
But no matter what people drive or how they drive it, in the end, autocross is all about having fun, said Dave Welsh, coordinator of autocross competition for the Central Florida chapter of the SCCA.
On a recent Sunday at the Hernando airport, Welsh beamed as he looked over the paddock area, filled with 60 participants from all levels of the sport. With the sport's reputation for safe and affordable thrill rides, Welsh has seen an ever-widening interest in autocross, especially among owners of performance-oriented cars such as Miatas, Mini Coopers, Corvettes and Mustangs.
"People like it because it's racing, but you're not having to compete with anyone except yourself," said Welsh, an autocross enthusiast for more than three decades. "It gives you a feel of going really fast when you're not. And the nice thing is, just about anyone with a car can do it."
Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport has been home to regular autocross events sanctioned by the SCCA and other Tampa Bay-area car clubs since the 1970s. Utilizing a seldom-used runway near the north end of the property, car groups have the luxury of lots of space with plenty of room for error when things don't go right.
While autocrossing may not emphasize speed — speeds rarely reach more than 50 mph — it does put a premium on the driver's ability to think ahead.
Seltzer, 28, who works as a mechanical engineer in Orlando, spends many of his weekends as a competitor and instructor in SCCA events. Although he started out driving go-carts, he credits four years of autocross as key to honing his driving skills.
"I think autocross is essential for anyone who wants to go into road racing," Seltzer said. "This is where you learn the basics of car control and how to determine the limits of your car."
Chuck Lutz, chairman of the Central Florida SCCA Solo Board, said the growing popularity of mid-level performance cars from manufacturers such as BMW, Toyota, Honda and Audi has resulted in an explosion of interest in autocrossing from people who had never shown much interest before.
"Autocross allows you to learn what to do and what not to do," Lutz said. "It can make you a safer, more well-aware driver."
Frank Stevens, 59, a winter resident from Indianapolis, said he became curious about autocross after a friend encouraged him last summer to attend an event organized by his local BMW club. A few weeks later, he decided to try his own hand at it.
"I've always loved racing, but I never thought I had any talent for it," Stevens said. "The more you do it, the more you want to come back and do it again. Before you know it, you're hooked."
Staff photojournalist Octavio Jones contributed to this report. Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.