Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Cone School - the Full Story

A new season is upon us, what better way to anticipate it than with a post for folks new to the sport.

I've always felt that all web page based attempts to teach the meaning, use and care of cones during an event (that I've seen) have been anywhere from sloppy and misleading to almost good.... but not quite complete. Mostly the authors are a bit lazy and try to compress things too much. I'm going to try to take a systematic approach and give full detail. This will be slightly long winded, but if you absorb what I write you can approach your first (or next) autocross with confidence that you know what to do with a cone.

Please note that this discussion is tailored to match the New England Region SCCA events, other clubs may have variations in interpretation and details. Please be alert in drivers meetings for things that don't sound like what I say here, and respectfully seek clarification so you do it the right way for that club. Do not tell the event staff at another club they are wrong! It's their club, they do it their way. If you feel they aren't conducting a safe event, just tell them so (politely) and leave. Do not expect them to change to suit your demands. If you choose to stay, you also choose to follow their rules.

The Cones

There are several types of cones you will encounter. Failing to explain this baseline information is the most common thing that other authors omit in this type of post. However, I'm a pedantic bastard and I've been doing this for a decade, so I'm here to tell you all the stuff other authors are assuming you know (but you probably don't or you wouldn't be reading this in the first place).
  1. Grid, and Paddock cones: These cones are not very important. You should try to follow the traffic flow they indicate, don't move them of course (until cleanup at the end of the day) and don't sweat it if they move an inch or you accidentally flatten one. So long as they don't go far and get put back within a minute or two nobody cares much. Note that grid cones sometimes have other people's equipment piled against them, and people DO care if you run over their equipment (may folks have tire gauges that cost from $30 to as much as $150 for example).
  2. Staging cones: These are the cones right around the point where you launch at the start of the course. They aren't much different than Grid cones, but are often more carefully placed to ensure a traffic flow that allows Timing and Scoring to read your numbers and keeps safe pathways for instructors, workers and spectators. You should try very hard to respect these. You may see advanced drivers get within an inch or less to one side trying to get the maximum advantage on launch, but until you're within 3-4 seconds of the fastest time of the day, don't even worry about that. Just stay comfortably within the designated area.
  3. Start Area cones: This is a small selection of upright cones starting right at or just past where the starter is standing. THESE CONES ARE PART OF THE COURSE. Do not hit them or you will receive a 2 second penalty to your time. Sometimes there are zero or only 2 "start area cones." Sometimes there are a dozen such cones forcing you too drive a tightly constrained right angle.
  4. Timing Start cones: These are a pair or of upright double cones right at the point where the beam of light detecting cars starts the timed portion of the course. No time is recorded for scoring purposes until you pass between these doubled cones. THESE CONES ARE PART OF THE COURSE. Do not hit them or you will receive a 2 second penalty to your time.
  5. Gate cones: These are pairs of upright cones that you must pass between. If you have both of them standing upright in the original position on one side of your car as you pass them, you are OFF COURSE, and will get a DNF. Your time will not count no matter how good it is. THESE CONES ARE PART OF THE COURSE. Do not hit them or you will receive a 2 second penalty to your time. Note that if you hit/displace one (or both) cones for a gate, you cannot be off course. (The basic idea is if you were close enough to hit it, your path of travel still bears some resemblance to the intended course, and you can keep your time, once a penalty is applied for each cone hit)
  6. Slalom cones: This is potentially confusing when you first start. When you find yourself driving to a row of 3 or more upright cones that are all in a line and such cones are more than 45 feet apart (often much more), this constitutes a special element called a slalom. If there is no pointer cone (I'll tell you about those soon) then you must pick either the right or left side of the first cone in the sequence and then alternate sides until the end of the slalom. Thus, if the first cone passes to the left side of your car, the second should be on the right, third on the left, fourth on the right, etc. THESE CONES ARE PART OF THE COURSE. Do not hit them or you will receive a 2 second penalty to your time.
  7. Wall cones: These are upright cones spaced in sequences much too close to be a slalom or a gate (gates must be a minimum of 15ft wide). Wall cones are meant to constrain your movement through the course. You may not pass between them even if you are in a go-kart and you happen too fit anyway. If on any occasion, two wall cones from the same wall pass on both sides of your vehicle and remain standing in their original position, you are OFF COURSE, and will get a DNF. Your time will not count no matter how good it is. THESE CONES ARE PART OF THE COURSE. Do not hit them or you will receive a 2 second penalty to your time.
  8. Lay Down cones: These are cones that are not upright at the start of competition and have been placed that way on purpose. They may occur on or off course. They are typically placed such that the small (pointy) end of the cone indicates the direction you are supposed to be traveling or turning. These cones are advisory only and are NOT PART OF THE COURSE. There is no penalty for hitting them, but doing so usually means you are way off line, very slow or about to drive off course or into a restricted area. You will find that you (and other drivers) use these cones as visual cues, and so it is very important that workers (and you when you are working) put them back in the same position if they do get hit.
  9. Pointer cones: These are a special type of lay down cone. They are  not upright at the start of competition and have their pointy end pointed within six inches of a gate, slalom or wall cone. These indicate that you must pass on the opposite side of the cone they point at. So if there is a pointer to the right side of the first cone on a slalom, you do not get to choose which way to start, and must start on the left side of the first cone (and therefore MUST drive on the right side of the second cone, left of the third etc.). If you drive on the wrong side of a pointer cone you are OFF COURSE, and will get a DNF. Your time will not count no matter how good it is.
  10. Finish Line cones: These are a pair of upright doubled cones closest to the beam of light that the timing equipment uses to sense your finish at the end of the course. THESE CONES ARE PART OF THE COURSE. Do not hit them or you will receive a 2 second penalty to your time.
  11. Finish Area cones: These are the dense box of upright cones right after the finish line. You may be surprised to learn that THESE CONES ARE PART OF THE COURSE. Do not hit them. You will receive a 2 second penalty to your time FOR EACH ONE if you do. Some clubs are even more strict and impose a DNF if you hit any finish cones. This is because it is very important for you to *safely* bring your vehicle to a stop while maintaining control (not spinning!). Loss of control at the finish can damage the timing equipment which typically costs over $1000. It's also typical for clubs to send you a bill for the replacement of the damaged equipment if you do hit it. You break it you buy it.
So that's the full list of the different types of autocross cones. It may seem like a lot now, but it's very easy to remember after the first event or two. After seeing it in action, everything will make sense. Here are some pictures to help:

Me navigating a slalom, this 3 cone slalom happens to have pointer cones on every cone, but some only have pointers on the start cone, and some have no pointers all.

Jake at the start. The lady in the blue is the starter. The two cones you see would be start area cones. If you knock them over it's a penalty.

Me at the 2016 Solo Nationals in Nebraska. In the background you can see several Grid and paddock cones.

Working the cones

In autocross, everyone is both a worker and a driver. Some folks have positions of responsibility such as tracking times in timing and scoring, safety steward, grid worker or starter. You won't get to do anything of the sort on your first event, because if those people mess up, bad things happen that effect everyone. It's your first time, nobody knows you, and more importantly, you don't know autocross, so 99% of the time you get given the job where you can do the least damage: Course Worker. 

Here's the bad news. Even a single bad course worker can still mess up the event for everyone. The whole event is a team effort. Here's what could go wrong:
  1. You could get hurt. Don't get hurt. This is the worst thing that can happen. If you get hit by a car or pass out from heat stroke or step in a hole and break your ankle it's going to really suck for you, and none of us want that. It's also going to stop the event, and everyone will get fewer runs. Furthermore, the organizers will have lots of reports to fill out, and if your health or disability insurance company is a bunch of jerks, they might sue us just because they think they can get some money to cover the costs of what they have to pay you. If injuries are frequent it could cause enough bad publicity to cause us to loose the rights to use the site, and if that happens autocross in New England would never be the same again. Seriously... Safety first!
  2. You could incorrectly award a penalty to a driver that doesn't deserve it. This might ruin their best run of the day, cost them a trophy or even cost them enough season points to make all their hard efforts to win the season championship fail. Wrong penalties are very bad. Some folks are spending dozens or hundreds of hours on their cars and thousands of dollars. The chance to win is a major source of fun, and it really sucks if it's all taken away by a careless corner worker. This may not be NASCAR/Indy/F1, but it's still real racing and some folks are serious about winning, especially in NER SCCA, which is where local national competitors get most of their practice.
  3. You could fail to award a penalty deserved by a driver that earned it. This could cause the driver to gain an unfair advantage and ruin someone else's day by driving faster than is actually possible for the course. The effect of this is, similar to number 2. 
  4. You could cause a re-run which creates a minor delay by forcing a driver to stop. That driver is then given another opportunity, but this can ruin what was a good run, or unfairly give the driver a second chance if they were having a bad run. If this happens often, drivers get annoyed and it wastes time so the chances that the entire group can't get all 6 runs increases.
Let's take a look at avoiding each of these problems.

Avoiding Getting Hurt

  1. Stay alert. If your head is up you can avoid danger. It's really the most important thing of all. Most of your natural reactions will protect you, but only if you see danger coming. This means:
    2. NO TAKING PICTURES (with cameras or phones)
    3. NO SPECTATORS/FRIENDS/FAMILIES accompanying you.
    4. Minimal talking with other workers. Sure it's okay to communicate occasionally. Laugh and point at the driver who spun, exclaim to your neighbor about the car that just blitzed the course too fast to comprehend (your neighbor will likely in form you that said car has several national level trophies). Have fun, but DON'T stand close to each other or even worse than that, definitely don't stand in in a group, talking while cars are running.
  2. Stay standing. This is a lot more important than most folks realize. I've done this for 10 years, about 20 times a year, probably each event I watch 30-35 cars pass by me 8 times, so roughly 250 cars pass me while i'm working each event, or about 5000 cars a year, which makes roughly 50,000 cars in 10 years. Problems are very rare, but the consequences can be brutal. Of 50,000 cars two of them spun and passed over the location I had been standing while working. One was in the rain, and the driver tried too long and hard to save a lost run, the other was in dry weather just a plain surprise to everyone involved. I was alert and saw it coming both times and I was able to scamper out of the way. In both cases, the car never got within 20 feet of me. If I'd been sitting/squatting or looking at my phone, I might be injured or even dead. Don't let the rarity of the problems lull you. Stay vigilant, stay standing.
  3. Safety comes first. All the horrible things that happen to peoples seasons/runs/etc are a nothing compared to someone getting hurt. If you can't fix a cone that's been knocked down before the next car gets there, just get away from the course and let them stop for a re-run. It's OK, it happens to everyone. It even happens to folks like me with 10+ years. Sometimes it's not your fault. If the starter is sending cars in too quick a succession, that's not your fault (for example).
  4. Run don't walk, but don't panic either. It's important you hustle out to get the cone so that you have ample time to place it accurately and then get out of the way LONG before the car gets close. If you are on the course fixing a cone as the driver approaches, this will be very distracting to the driver. The driver will be worried about hitting you, not driving correctly. This is very unfair to them. Even if you were in no actual risk, if you were close enough to distract the driver they may stop to request a re-run, and good corner captains will always give it to them because worker safety come first. We don't want people trying to slalom workers because they think they won't get a re-run. So hurry but DON'T PANIC. Tripping and falling or moving wildly an hurting your back as you pick up the cone is worse.
  5. Listen to your corner captain. The folks who plan the event make sure to put at least one highly experienced person on every corner. That person is given a radio and a flag, and may not be tasked with fetching cones (in some clubs they do, in NER SCCA and National level events they do not). This person is also supposed to help you find a safe place to work where you can still get to the cones quickly, and make sure you know what you should be doing. Don't be afraid to ask.

Correctly Awarding Penalties

As a corner worker it is your responsibility to identify penalties and communicate this to your corner captain, who will radio them in to the folks in timing and scoring to be recorded. This is the part that most folks who write these sorts of posts focus on. Often they use pictures (it takes up to a dozen to cover all the cases, and the sheer number of pictures becomes confusing IMHO), but the rules are just two and they are really simple if stated precisely. Some sites leave out details here and that just creates confusion. If you follow the following to the letter you will never make the wrong call:

Penalties occur when one (or both) of two things happen to a cone on the course:
  • A cone that was standing when the driver initially approaches it is knocked over and becomes stationary, and not standing after the passage of the racing vehicle.
  • A cone that was standing in a marked box when the driver initially approaches is no longer in and no longer touching it's original box after the passage of the racing vehicle. 

That's it. You don't have to remember anything else. However, these are deceptively simple rules and people get confused because they can't believe it's really THAT simple, so let's examine the consequences of these rules:

  • If the cone was down before the driver got there for any reason, it's never a penalty. It might indicate a penalty should have been awarded to a prior driver, but not for this driver.
  • It does not matter at all, what the cone does while the vehicle is passing. It only matters where the cone comes to rest after the vehicle is gone. If it flips over and lands back in the box (it happens!) it's not a penalty.
  • Likewise it doesn't matter what aspect of the car's passage caused it to leave the box or fall over. It could have been punted 50 yards by the front bumper, brutally flattened and bounced away by a steam roller size tire of sticky rubber leaving it half black and torn, tickled along the base by a tiny go cart tire such that it wobbled and walked it's way out of the box, blown over by the wind from the passing car, splashed over by a puddle the car passed through, or hit by a cone the car was dragging underneath that came free and tumbled into it. (That last one really happens I've seen it several times!). 
Note that only cones standing at the start of a run on course can cause a time penalty! Therefore:

Cones that can cost the driver a penalty:
  1. Start Area cones
  2. Timing Start cones
  3. Gate Cones
  4. Wall Cones
  5. Slalom Cones
  6. Finish Line Cones
  7. Finish Area Cones (YES! don't forget it)
Cones that never cost the driver a penalty:
  1. Lay-down cones (wasn't standing to start with)
  2. Pointer cones (wasn't standing to start with)
  3. Grid cones (not on course)
  4. Paddock cones (not on course)
  5. Staging cones (not on course)
Once you have inspected a cone that you suspect may have been displaced, you need to communicate the status of that cone to your corner captain, who may be 50 or more yards away. This must be done EVERY time so the captain doesn't have to yell at you to find out the status of the cone. Of course it's fine to shout the status, but it's best to accompany those shouts with hand signals because wind, or the noise of the radio can make it hard for your captain to hear you. 
  1. To indicate that the cone you just ran out to inspect or adjust is "safe" (not a penalty) make a motion like an umpire calling a runner safe at home plate. Hold your arms outstretched with hands at waist level and then cross and uncross your arms quickly.
  2. Too indicate that the cone was a a penalty, raise your hand high in the air as you leave the cone pointing your index finger at the sky (or holding up two fingers if you had to replace 2 cones, etc.). This is better than holding up the cone which you may see in some videos, because you can do it while exiting the course, and so it wastes less time.
  3. To indicate that a driver is OFF COURSE, hold both arms over your head and cross them to form an X with your wrists above your head. Hold that position till your captain acknowledges the call. 
  4. If cones are knocked over AND off course happens for the same driver, give both signals. If the off course call is successfully disputed via in car video evidence later, the cone penalties must still exist. Likewise continue to call cones even if you heard or thought that the driver was previously off course.
Sometimes your corner captain may be busy focusing on something else important (like trying to figure out if the slow car down course is going to get caught and if that situation will require a red flag for safety). They may only see you returning, and may not have seen that you didn't touch the cone, or you may need to shout to get their attention. Once you see them looking at you give the hand signal. The entire corner should work as a team, help your captain not miss any calls. If someone else is failing to notice a down cone or didn't notice a cone wiggling (see below)... yell at them (politely).

Preventing Delays

Delays to the event can occur in several ways:
  1. Getting hurt: Don't get hurt. Avoiding this is always number one priority.
  2. Failing to show up to work on time: If we don't have enough people at a corner the other workers have to run too far to pick up cones, this means they have less time to get out of the way of the next vehicle and decreases safety. We can't run if safety is compromised. Safety comes first, so if safe operation becomes questionable, the ops steward will stop the event while we look for you. This quickly irritates EVERYONE else at the event. Don't be late. If this takes very long there's a much greater chance we all get one less run before we go home. That will make you nobody's friend.
  3. Re-runs: If the cone is out of place, the driver may stop to point it out and will get a re-run. When things get hectic sometimes cones can't be set up on time. Having this happen is much better than being unsafe, but several steps can be taken to minimize the sources of re-runs:
    1. Inattention. Watch the cone not the car. If you focus on the cones as the car goes by you'll see them move. If you're watching the car or the driver inside the car, you may not notice the cone wiggle or fall over. Your job is to watch the cones.
    2. Lack of hustle. If you don't get out there quick you're going to have less time to set the cone properly. This will lead to misplaced cones and distracted drivers
    3. Sluggish return. Hustling back from fixing a cone is important. I can't count the number of times I've seen folks nonchalantly mosey back as if pretending they weren't scared of the oncoming car. Meanwhile the driver is being unfairly distracted. This is rude and disrespectful to the driver, and slows down the event.
    4. Not fixing wiggles. Even if a cone has not caused a penalty it must be perfectly in the box at all times. Any time a cone wiggles even a bit, it may have moved part way out of the box. You need to fix this just as quickly as if the cone was knocked over. Our top drivers are multi national champions. They are AMAZINGLY accurate. Inches matter. Check out these images of Dave NOT hitting a cone from a 2017 video:

      If that cone were even an half inch out of place to the right, he would have hit it and he would been unfairly penalized, or he would have been forced to go slower. Many of these drivers can see that the cone is out of place by an inch even at 55mph. If competition is tight they may stop and tell you to fix it even if it's only slightly out of place. Even if they don't stop it's not fair to them or their opponent.
A final note: At the start of the day you will be given a chance to walk the course as a preview. If you are one of the first folks to walk you will be asked to draw the boxes that help everyone remember where to put the cones if they become displaced. The above picture shows a cone that is correctly marked. The chalk is as close  as possible to the cone base. When marking a cone keep the side of the chalk against the base of the cone, do not draw a random squiggly circle around it. Inches (or even fractions of an inch) matter.

If you are working and you discover that one of the cones you are responsible for is marked poorly (or tires have erased the chaulk) ask your corner captain for chaulk and fix the problem!

So that sounds like a lot, but it's really not hard once you've been to an event. This will all quickly become second nature. Most of all... don't forget to have FUN! See you out there!