Think back to your first day in NASA HPDE, green as can be, nervous and excited to get out on track for the first time. Someone you’ve never met approaches your car, helmet in hand and introduces himself or herself as your instructor for the day. Do you still remember his or her name? As sure as you can remember your first grade teacher’s name, odds are good that you do.

That’s how powerful a NASA instructor is to anyone who signs up for day one of HPDE1. NASA instructors are important, critical to our mission to spread the joy of driving fast and doing it well. A NASA instructor is the springboard to everything a new driver hopes to accomplish in NASA and, yes, you too can become a NASA certified instructor.

Each NASA region goes about it in roughly the same way, with some variances, of course, but the procedure is essentially the same. Once you have risen through HPDE to level three of four or advanced to Time Trial, you can become a NASA instructor. Whether you knew it or not, NASA officials in your region might already have had their eye on you as a potential instructor.

“We look at it as breeding our own instructors through our HPDE program, said NASA Great Lakes Regional Director Jay Andrew. “So we go in HPDE2 and HPDE3 and literally either Jeff or Eric or one of the instructors goes into the classroom or the download session of those HPDE groups and does a quick push to tell people that instructing is one of their destination options.”

It might seem like a stretch to be able to identify potential instructors that early in a driver’s career, but NASA Great Lakes’ chief instructors have a list of character traits they look for, and the system is working.

“How do you choose the instructors? You’re looking for those that are organized that actually can manage and make those types of accommodations. The guy that’s in group two or group three, who is the first to class that asks the right questions, who is prepared. Those are the attributes and the characteristics you’re looking for as a potential instructor,” said NASA Great Lakes chief driving instructor Jeff Henderson. “It requires a tremendous amount of organization. But what then happens is that those that are doers, are the ones that get the job done, and those are the instructors.”

Most instructors are TT competitors. Racing drivers can become instructors, but the schedules and mechanical demands on a racer’s time during a NASA weekend are usually such that instructing would involve being in two places at one time. It’s possible, probably with a crew who can take your car to grid so you can hop in and go, but your focus as an instructor is the student.

So, whether you are groomed for the position or you simply indicate you want to become an instructor, your first and best bet is tell your region’s chief instructor or your Regional Director. Your driving and conduct must be high quality, if not exemplary over the course of several events, and at that point, you will be looking to attend an instructor school to get your certification. NASA Southeast offers its instructor clinics three times a year.

“We always offer it on a Friday. And you take the clinic on a Friday and you have to instruct that weekend. We assume at that point you know how to drive. So the clinic is more about how to keep your butt alive while sitting in the seat with nothing but a communicator,” said NASA Southeast Regional Director Jim Pantas. “Basically it’s talking about all the different types of scenarios you could possibly get into in the car with somebody and how to defuse each one. You’ve got timid people, you’ve got egotistical people. It’s more of a psychology lesson than it is a driving lesson.”

In terms of what to expect, NASA Southeast sends out existing instructors in cars with prospective instructors who role-play one of those 10 personality types. They have the scenarios printed out on slips of paper and the school instructor takes one and acts it out while he’s behind the wheel on track. The prospective instructor also grabs a scenario and he or she plays that role when the two switch seats. The scenarios are unknown to the other driver, yet both have to identify and correct their behaviors.

If none of the instruction works, if the student persists with unacceptable behavior or driving, NASA Southeast instructors will make the prospective instructor drive in one gear or drive without using the brakes. They will have no choice but to listen to the instructor to either maintain momentum or slow enough to get through the corners safely. They’re not distracted by trying to be the “hot shoe,” which is something that seldom describes an HPDE1 student.

“If they come from another group and they’re already an instructor, we just make them take our class so that we basically say, this is how we want our instructors to act. And so we certify them to our NASA standards,” Pantas said. “Most of them don’t mind it because in all honesty, the instruction clinic we host is a lot of fun between the scenarios. And then the end of the day, we just use a golf cart, and we do blindfold driving. We’ve been doing it for years where basically the driver is blindfolded and the instructor has to get them through a course, and that’s literally it.”

See and you just thought that was a hilarious game we played at the Championships. It’s actually instruction! So, how do we want them to act as NASA instructors? First and foremost, we want professionalism punctuated with positive feedback, and reinforcing the fundamentals to maintain the safe and controlled environment described in every piece of collateral material NASA has ever published. NASA Southeast even gives HPDE students instructor clinic evaluation forms to ensure educational quality.

As you might imagine, NASA Great Lakes takes instructor school to the “nth” degree. NASA Great Lakes instructors are a tight-knit community, spending weekends together even when they are not at the track. Pool parties, barbecues and events like the Hot Rod Power Tour keep them in touch throughout the year.

Once Henderson or NASA Great Lakes’ other chief instructor Eric Meyer has identified a prospective instructor, or he or she has self-identified, he will pair him or her up with a senior instructor who acts as a mentor to show them what precisely is involved with being a NASA Great Lakes instructor. If you haven’t already gleaned what’s involved in becoming an instructor by now, well, it’s a process.

“Some of them will be shadowing some of our senior instructors as their mentors because certainly we don’t want someone to go to the trouble of coming to instructor candidate school and realizing halfway through that this isn’t something they want to do,” said Henderson who has been chief driving instructor for NASA Great Lakes for more than 20 years.

Even before the racing season begins, Henderson hosts a day at his home south of Chicago to discuss curriculum, policies and procedures for the coming year. It’s at gatherings like these where new and veteran instructors share insights and effective pedagogical methods to make the learning experience easier and teaching more rewarding. Henderson has a library of videos and test and procedures to better prepare their instructors. They probe students to understand their style of learning whether it’s visual, aural, literate or kinesthetic, and tailor their instruction to those learning styles. They hold two instructor schools a year, and a prospect must attend both before being signed off to instruct.

“We require a lot of additional work, certainly additional accreditation as well with Motorsport Safety Foundation,” Henderson said. “It’s not a requirement. It is an addition to because we want the very, very best individuals because they really are our instructors, the first face of NASA, and if we can catch them, our clients, early with some great education, it mitigates potential problems.

“(Our instructors) are ready to go because we also have developed continuity of curriculum between the classroom instructors and the in-car instructors,” he added “So they’re clearly on the same page singing from the same sheet of music.”

The goal is, of course, to have fun, Henderson pointed out, but safety is equally important, because in the absence of safety, no one has any fun. He said they use the reverse mapping strategy to determine what an ideal driver should be in terms of skills and knowledge, then reverse map what it takes step by step all the way back to HPDE1 day one.

Taking things a bit further, NASA Great Lakes instructors are in contact with their students via email and by phone prior to an event, so that when the student arrives they already know a little bit about their instructor. Once at the track, NASA Great Lakes instructors actually perform the HPDE tech inspection, which saves the student from having to wait in line at a tech trailer. If you’ve ever waited in that line, you can appreciate their system.

NASA Great Lakes member Brian Parrish is an instructor newly minted from the program. Parrish said he ends up learning a lot riding alongside his students, something he values as part of being an instructor.

“One, I have always been obsessed with driving. Two, I’m a lifelong learner. It’s just my personality. So I’m constantly looking for ways to get better and improve, and I end up asking a lot of questions of mentors to help me to grow,” Parrish said. “Naturally, I feel indebted to people who helped me. So I always look for how I can give it back. I’m a leader at work, but people ask me questions coming up through the HPDE program that are maybe in 1 or 2 and in 3 or 4. I know I’m not the best, but I’ll tell them what I know to help pull them along. And going into the instructor program gives me the opportunity to pass on knowledge while also helping me continue to learn and hone my own craft.”

There are rewards, including track time and NASA’s industry-leading Instructor Benefits Program. NASA contingency partners Hawk Performance, VP Racing and Summit Racing all offer “bucks” programs based on the number of days of instruction. At three, five and seven days of instruction, NASA instructors can rack up $50 to $200 in program bucks good toward brake products, lubricants and coolants, and hard parts for their cars. There’s no other program like it in amateur motorsports.

One of NASA SoCal’s newest instructors, Diane Stucker, took a crash course during a rainy weekend at Buttonwillow Raceway, with intense training from NASA National Chairman Ryan Flaherty. Throughout the weekend, she drove with Flaherty riding shotgun, then switched seats. After each session, similar in format to an HPDE, they would have a download discussion about the session and what she did right and wrong. She described it as a positive learning experience, Socratic in nature.

“I’d sort of have to back off and explain, well, what’s our first goal? It’s to be safe and to drive the line as cleanly as possible, and learn,” Stucker said. “So no, we’re not in a race car. We’re not racing yet. It was very focused on that young hyper racer type characteristic, not necessarily representative of every student. And at the same time you’re constantly correcting and making adjustments and providing information and feedback as you would any student on how to be safe.”

As noted early in the story, yes, you too can become a NASA certified instructor. It’s not automatic and it does require effort on your part. However, once you become certified, you will be part of a community of NASA instructors giving back to the sport that has given all of us so much joy, excitement and fellowship.

“I am proud of the people that I work with. I love them to death because they’re the best and the brightest. Every time we’re at the track, we celebrate being together,” Henderson said. “And that’s the real beauty of the group. We have a great time. They’re great people. And over the last 24 years of doing this, I think I’ve done it longer than any chief instructor on the planet. That gives you some idea of the insanity of this, but I really love it, and it’s great.”

Images courtesy of HERB LOPEZ, ROB PHELAN, JEREMY BRYNER and Jeff Henderson


  1. I think the minimum qualifications should be experience driving in Group 4 or at a minimum signed off for Group 4 after driving in Group 3. Or be an experienced instructor with another organization(s) AND have spent at least one weekend driving in Group 3 or Group 4. Different organizations have different passing rules/etiquette and other nuances.

    A driver in Group 3 is still in the learning process. They’re not ready to be an instructor until that process is complete.

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