Published: March 22, 2017
This is the general process I use as an instructor. It's the baseline that I start with, and adjust as necessary.
My goal is to obtain the following information:
- Does the driver have previous experience? The less experience they have, the closer to the baseline the day will proceed. Previous experience often, though not always, colors the driver's initial thought process and driving style. Autocrossers tend to be abrupt with their inputs and throw the car around, yet be confident, and often need to work on smoothness. People with previous racing experience are often confident and aggressive, but do not necessarily have high degree of car control/driving skill; I prepare to calm them down if they start getting too excited.
- Does the car have any safety issues? If there are racing harnesses in the car, I make sure they are properly installed. The seat should not move when pushed and pulled. Roll bar/cage tubing should be padded, and I now carry spare roll bar padding with me to events. I look at tires and brake pads although these have not presented problems so far.
- Does the driver have their own goals for the event? Most drivers do not have specific goals, which means I follow the general process with them. If a driver does have specific goals I work them into the day.
Then I explain the meeting procedure for on track sessions (the driver is to pick me up and drop me off at my parking spot regardless of announcements). This is much easier than me walking the grid which is what I used to do before, and it does not take time for the driver as they are in transit to the grid anyway. Plus I can get my helmet on in the car, and the driver does not need to wait for me while I do that.
I do two more things prior to the first session, but after the first novice classroom:
- I ask the driver to demonstrate left and right point by signals as well as pit in signal, with the driver in their normal driving position and me looking outside the car.
- I tell the driver that I will tell them when to point by the cars and they should give the point bys I call out, and not worry about their mirrors.
First Session - School Line, Guided
My goal for the first session is to get the driver to drive the school line with decent consistency, possibly with ongoing instruction.
The primary means by which I do this is giving the driver reference points for braking and turn in. Most corners have easy visuals neighboring both braking and turn in points, and generally if the organizer has set cones out on course they help. "The end of the curb" is a very frequent turn in point for novices.
If a corner has no usable visuals, which is occasionally the case, or if the driver is not able to brake and turn at reference points alone, I add hand signals to the mix. Usually these are "brake now" (closed fist), "wait to turn" (open hand with the palm facing the driver or the passenger, indicating to hold the car on the respective side of the track) and "turn now" (point left or right with the index finger). I try to limit hand signals to 2-3 laps and then check to see if the driver can turn at reference points or on their own.
Usually in the first session I manage all passing. I instruct the driver to "point by left, one car" as the situation warrants.
After each session I spend 5-10 minutes debriefing the driver. The debrief covers: 1. What they did well, based on my goals. 2. What they need to continue working on. 3. What we can start working on in the next session that I did not mention on track.
Especially early in the event with novice drivers I keep non-driving line talk on the track to a minimum. I do not explain why; I just say what I want the driver to do. In the post-session debrief I get into the "why", especially for corners where the line deviates from the standard "turn in from the outside, hit the apex, track out" procedure. The amount of detail I give to complete novices is minimal, just enough to give them some reason behind what I am asking them to do. The more experienced the driver, the more details I offer in the debriefs.
A piece of paper or the track map in the classroom and dry erase markers can come in handy - a picture is worth 1000 words.
Second Session - School Line, Solo
My goal for the second session is to have the driver do everything they did in their first session on their own. This means I stop telling them where they should be braking and turning.
Most drivers need continued assistance in one or two corners around the track for more than a single session. From the second session onward I start working on individual corners as opposed to the entire track. The corners which the driver is executing well I leave alone, while I bring the remaining up through the progression. I try to have the worst corners be no more than one step behind the best corners - for example, I would generally not talk about weight transfer (step 3) anywhere on the track if there is a singe corner where driver cannot turn in on a reference point or my hand signal (step 1), until that corner is fixed.
I would probably still manage traffic at this point, especially with very novice drivers.
School Line, Fine Tuning
When the driver has a basic understanding of the school line and can brake and turn reasonably consistently, it is time to add some speed. Often times this requires adjusting the line for the car or adjusting the driving for the car or the specific corner. Common things that I start explaining at this point are:
- Weight transfer, specifically keeping weight on the front tires as the car is about to turn in.
- Brake release timing, this is a very common requirement especially with typical novice cars (street cars on street tires, relatively low grip).
- Completing braking before turn in.
- Looking at apexes while in the braking zones before the car arrives at the turn in point. Not doing this accounts for probably 80% of missed apexes by novice drivers, with the other 15% being improper brake release (braking into the turn or coming off the brakes too early, both cases resulting in understeer but for different reasons) with the final 5% being tricky corners like VIR T1, Lightning T7, etc.
- Full throttle on straights until braking points, to increase consistency in the braking zones and corner entries.
At around the same time I start transfering traffic management onto the driver as well.
Passing, Traffic Management
If we are working on fine tuning the line and more advanced driving techniques, the driver is normally doing well around the lap overall and it is time for them to start manage the traffic on their own.
If the car I am in is slower than the pace of the novice group overall, I tell the driver before the session that they are to start watching their mirrors coming onto the straights which are passing zones. In the car I point at the mirror or say "check your mirrors" when there is a car behind, as opposed to instructing the driver to point the car by. The goals here are: 1. Acclimate the driver to checking their mirrors when entering passing zones. 2. Have the driver decide which side of the car the pass will happen on. 3. Have the driver decide if there is enough straight distance remaining for the pass to be safely completed.
Since I have been telling the driver which side to point the cars by on up to this point I expect them to get this right. Also, the driver should have the line in their muscle memory by now which again should minimize the likelihood of wrong side point bys.
The toughest part for the driver at this stage tend to be shorter passing zones (VIR hog pen, etc.) because I skip them entirely when I do traffic management. If the driver offers point bys to the wrong side I proactively instruct them to come to the right side of the track and then point by to the correct side for several laps until they get their muscle memory going for such passes.
If the car I am in is faster than the pace of the novice group overall, we are probably doing the passing much more than get passed by now. I get the driver to set up the passes coming out of corners especially if they are in a lower power car. We would probably be doing some late passes, in which cases I tell the driver to stay on their side of the track into the next corner and enter the corners off line.
Flags, Preparing For Solo Driving
In a well run HPDE event there are very few flags displayed, with the blue flags being the most common ones. If the driver is doing well and is approaching the point when they could go solo, I give them a flag or a corner station quiz. For the flag quiz I ask to name the three most important flags (red, yellow and debris), or make up a flag and ask them what it is. If we are the slower car in the group I would ask them what flags, if any, they saw the previous session - the answer should be the blue flags. I also like to ask the drivers questions that are meant to stimulate their thinking on the track, like when they can pass under yellow (to avoid a spinning car, for example) or which corner station shows the red flag first (start/finish if the control person/chief flagger is there and shows the flags themselves).
For the corner stations, an easy question to ask is how many corner workers there are, which normally requires a person to go through each corner station in their head and sum them up. I might ask the driver to point out the corner stations on the out lap in their next session.
There are skils that are necessary or highly benefical for track driving that are difficult or impossible to teach during a track day. Heel-toe is the most common and most dramatic example - it is a required skill and one that cannot practically be taught in a track day. Second in line after heel-toe is vision - for many people, myself included, it takes a lot of effort to start looking at different things than what they are used to. Further on the list are smoothness, ability to feel the car (traction sensing, body roll sensing), threshold braking in non-ABS vehicles, etc. These skills are difficult to impart primarily because they require a lot of practice time, more time than is available in a track weekend.
When faced with skill deficiencies that are not addressable during the weekend I adjust my expectations of the driver and explain that the driver would be well served to practice the skill before their next track event. I then give the driver street exercises to help them practice the skill in question.