Published: July 29, 2014
When instructing a driver who has never been to the track and has no high performance driving experience (e.g. autocross/"spirited driving"), my goals usually are:
- Ensure the driver does not hurt themselves or their car by way of poor driving technique.
- Ensure the driver is not holding up the remainder of their run group.
- Provide the driver with as fun of an experience as possible.
These are in order.
Safe Driving Technique
Generally speaking, this means:
- Braking points are comfortably early to decelerate the car, accounting for variance in how hard the driver brakes lap to lap and the driver's reaction time.
- Driver unwinds steering at track out. The more power the car has, the more important this is. If the car has a lot of power (say, anything with a V8 or a turbo) I will often not work on anything else until the driver can correctly unwind steering.
- Turn in points are not early.
These again are in order.
Awareness - Not Yet
With novice drivers I take the responsibilities of watching flag stations, flags displayed, cars ahead and behind. Depending on how experienced the driver is (e.g., first vs last session of a weekend) I will either point at the flag/car off or vocalize the situation: "Yellow. Car off. Brake. Stay right."
The reasoning behind this approach is flags are not fun, and especially in the first track events there is so much going on that concentrating on flags would dramatically reduce the fun level for the new driver. Therefore I pay attention to the flags, which an instructor must do anyway, and let the driver drive.
Same thing with traffic - I do not ask a novice driver to check their mirrors, but command e.g. "point-by right" when a car is sufficiently close behind. When I feel that the driver frees up enough mental bandwidth to check their mirrors I will start pointing at the mirror, or saying something like "car behind", rather than giving the point-by command. If a novice driver spends too much of their attention on their mirrors - to the point where they are missing their turn in points or apexes, or clearly deviate from their normal trajectory - I will explicitly tell the driver to ignore cars behind and worry about the line first.
As the driver accumulates experiences and approaches intermediate run group, I start giving them flag quizzes and expect them to handle traffic on their own.
While watching for faster cars is the instructor's job, it is still the driver's job to signal the point-by correctly and assist the overtaking car in completing the pass safely. This I believe is essential even at novice level in order for the entire run group to have an enjoyable event.
Specifically, I expect novice drivers to:
- Point by to the correct side, if there is a correct side;
- Leave half of track width to the passing car;
- Decrease throttle or lift completely depending on how much power their car has;
- Not brake simply because they are giving a point-by.
Assuming the driver appreciates taking the corners faster, the fun for novice drivers is in many cases a simple function of driving the school line correctly. Therefore, once the safety and traffic are dealt with I concentrate on getting the driver to consistently drive the school line. My goal is for the driver to do so without prompts and corrections from me by the end of the weekend.
Note that although I emphasize a consistent line, I do not believe braking or even throttle application need to be consistent or aggressive for novice drivers.
The final challenge for the novice driver is remembering all of the corner stations and checking them each lap for flags. I often do a flag quiz in the paddock to check the student's knowledge of what the flags are, and I will ask them to recall the corner stations from memory. On track I ask the driver to wave to corner workers on cool down laps starting early in the weekend.
When I was an intermediate driver I found it weird to wave to corner workers. If I have an opportunity to take the student out in my car early in the weekend, I make it a point to wave to all corner workers so that the student can see me doing it. Such students tend to be more likely to wave to corner workers themselves.
On Track Communication
While driving, novices have a lot of stuff vying for their attention: their car, the track, other cars, corner workers and flags, their hands and feet that may be getting exercised beyond what the driver is typically used to. We refer to this condition as "sensory overload".
As an instructor in a car with a novice driver, I say the bare minimum of words to achieve the desired outcome, which, as we covered, involves largely keeping the driver on the school line and letting faster cars pass. What I say generally falls into one of two categories:
Commands. These are "brake", "turn", "wait", "power", etc. Commands are meant to be executed immediately. Sometimes I would say, for instance, "brake now" if the driver is not immediately getting on the brakes.
Reference points. I try to give the driver reference points on the straight prior to the turn. For combination turns, if the driver is still working on the first turn I would not worry about subsequent turns at all. Giving the reference point on the straight gives the driver time to process it. When we get to the braking or turn in point I would say "turn here", or use hand signals, until the driver is able to perform correct actions at reference points by themselves.
A couple things are missing from the above list of do's:
Explanations. I just about never explain anything to novices while we are on course. There is not enough time on even the bigger straights to have a conversation, and novice drivers cannot drive through corners while listening to their instructor - all of their attention must be given to the track.
Negative feedback. I generally try to avoid negative language when talking to novice drivers. This includes saying things like "you apexed early", "you broke late", and so on. At the novice level the driver typically does not know how to fix these problems, therefore the instructor must provide actionable feedback: "turn here", "wait to turn", "brake now". Assuming the instructor provides actionable feedback, it is pointless to also provide negative feedback.
I provide explanations in the post-session debrief. Debrief is the time to say something like "Early in the session you were turning in early, and as a result you were about to run out of track in the middle of turn 1. Toward the end of the session you turned in later and were able to get on the gas while still in the turn."
Novice Driver Types
With some instructing experience you will start to notice that novice drivers fall into certain categories. Most commonly occurring ones are:
- Timid drivers. These are usually the slower drivers in the novice group, sometimes despite having cars with a lot of horsepower. The usual recipe for these drivers is to concentrate on fewer things at a time, such as the line only, and take unnecessary things like shifting and mirrors away. Thus the driver would run the entire course in a couple of gears, only shifting up and down once or twice per lap, and instructor would be entirely responsible for managing traffic.
- "Spirited driving" drivers. These are generally reasonably comfortable with their car and are in the middle of novice group pace-wise. They often quickly understand the concept of line and are able to execute pretty well.
- Autocrossers. These are similar to "spirited driving" drivers in that they quickly grasp the concept of the school line and often have high comfort level with high speed driving. Many autocrossers have good car control skills, permitting such drivers to be more aggressive safely. At the same time autocrossers are often abrupt with their inputs, and a big action item for such drivers is becoming smoother and unlearning the practice of throwing the car into corners.
- Overly aggressive drivers. These, at least in my experience, are a very small group. Sometimes the driver just does not have a good sense of speed, and thus drives too fast unintentionally. In the remaining cases the driver is too excited to be on the track and needs to be calmed down. I usually point out that getting the technique correct at low speeds will make the driver faster by the end of the weekend, and drivers often see the benefits of later apexes, smoother steering inputs and consequently getting earlier on the throttel in as few as 1-2 sessions, at which point they become self-motivated to do the right thing.