Published: July 30, 2014
An instructor in the car generally speaking tells the driver what to do and when to do it. "What" can be "brake" or "turn". "When" is typically given in one of three ways:
- Reference points ("turn at the cone/end of the curb");
- Immediate commands ("turn now");
- Relative instructions ("turn one foot later" - applies mostly to intermediate and advanced drivers).
For the majority of drivers, reference points is the most effective method of specifying the "when". When working with novice drivers in particular it is even more important for the instructor to provide the reference points, as novice drivers have limited ability to find their own reference points. This is why, as an instructor, you need to:
- Be able to find reference points on the spot;
- Be able to communicate reference points to the driver in a way that the driver would understand.
Personally I did not have a lot of reference points when I was a solo driver. I had to learn "the hard way" that reference points are required for instructors. If you are in a similar situation, the best thing you can do is actively work on finding reference points whenever you are on track. I will talk more about this later.
Identifying Reference Points
The first challenge an instructor faces is finding reference points for lines they have never driven or seen, and doing so very quickly.
The school line differs for different cars (higher horsepower cars typically run later apexes) and different speeds in the same car. Because of this, even if there are cones indicating turn in and apex points, the line for a given driver is often close, but not identical, to the line suggested by the cones. Unless you, the instructor, are an 8/10 or lower driver yourself, your line at 9/10 and above will be different from the school line as well.
With respect to the line, your challenge as the instructor is to immediately find a safe line through each corner for the particular driver and car you are instructing, and eventually to find a fast, but still safe, line for them. Because lines differ, reference points are going to differ as well. You should ideally figure out reference points corresponding to the driver's actual braking and turning points within one or two laps of them entering the track.
Then, because students typically bring street cars to events, the line in their cars, at speed, is not going to match the line you would drive in your car. Generally speaking, you will need to figure out the line for each car as you are sitting in said car. You cannot just give your own reference points to your student.
A reasonably good and safe strategy is to start from the line the student is driving by themselves, on the assumption that they are not going to purposefully wreck their car, and gradually modify it as the session progresses. In order to do this, you need to find reference points on lines that you pretty much have never seen before.
Reference Point Material
What can you use for reference points?
If event organizer set the cones out on track for turn in and apex points, these cones would typically be very close to the right turn in and apex points in most cars and most turns. The simplest thing for an instructor is to say "turn at the cone". The easiest thing for a driver, often, is to turn at a cone as well.
Besides often being in the right place, cones are easily visible. You may have trouble finding a tire mark on the pavement, but you won't be missing a cone. On the flip side, cones can move and not all promoters put them in place.
Debate is ongoing as to whether cones help or hurt novice drivers. Personally I think that cones are overall helpful for novices. Intermediate drivers should work on using more permanent fixtures for reference points.
Many corners have entry curbs built such that a novice driver would turn at the end of these curbs. At higher speeds the turn in point would be earlier, but "end of the curb" is a pretty common reerence point for novices.
Offsets can be used with any reference points, but they often work well with cones and curbs because of the cones' and curbs' proximity to the track surface. An offset, simply, is turning "1 foot before" or "2 feet after" a cone (or a wall, paint mark, etc.). In my experience, a typical driver can consistently execute offsets against cones.
I most often use splits in reference to curbs, so that the reference point becomes 'middle of the curb" or "1/3 into the curb".
Splits can be used between corners but this method is typically less precise and requires a more skilled driver to use reliably. As the pavement flows smoothly into and out of corners, where a corner begins or ends is typically not precisely defined, and it is up to the driver to identify a consistent beginning/ending point.
Most visible marks on pavement are paint marks. Some tracks have a painted line on the edges of the pavement that might start or stop in a convenient spot. Some tracks have explicit marks like X's or lines placed strategically to indicate turn in or apex points.
Less visible marks are those from tires. Tire marks are fairly permanent but because rubber is black and asphalt is black the tire marks can be hard to see.
Texture Adjacent To Pavement
Tracks sometimes have potholes at apexes where there is no curbing. These potholes are natural reference points for the apexes.
Some tracks have spots where grass is of noticeably different color from normal. Grass color changes with time but it can be a usable reference point throughout a given weekend.
Walls, guard rails and tire walls surround most tracks. There are corners where change in the type of retaining wall is usable as a reference point.
Brake markers can be used for turning in addition to braking.
Bridges are a common reference point for some tracks.
Far Away Objects
These are usually buildings, poles, trees and other fixtures that are relatively far from the track surface. Some people use them; I find that using far away objects often does not give me enough precision.
Communicating Reference Points
Reference points that are hard to see are not only hard to find for the instructor, they may also be hard to find for the student. A reference point that a student cannot find is useless to the student.
Some reference points are difficult to see because they are not in the student's field of view. For example, in a right turn the driver would generally be looking right; using a mark on the left of the track for the turn in point would be problematic because that mark may not be in the driver's field of view when they are in the braking zone and looking right.
It is instructor's job to not only find reference points but get the student to find them as well.
Some drivers do better with hand signals than with reference points. Some corners simply do not have any suitable reference points (these corners are often blind ones cresting hills). Reference points are not the only tool in an instructor's arsenal, and the instructor should constantly be evaluating whether they are using their available tools optimally.