Any parent who has volunteered in their child’s classroom at school knows teachers have a tough job. A few hours with a pack of overactive kids is enough to test the patience of Gandhi.
Now imagine meeting a student for the first time knowing that a few minutes later he will be putting you through 100-mph turns at Sonoma Raceway or Road Atlanta. Some might call that instructor brave. Others might question his sanity.
But each year, hundreds of instructors as part of NASA’s High Performance Driving Events aim to make a difference. They are teaching the current and next generation of racers how to be better and safer drivers out on track.
“Getting in the right seat isn’t for everybody,” said Sonny Tu, an emergency room physician from Clover, S.C., who has been a NASA instructor for the past decade. “I like seeing the light bulb go on in a student’s head. It’s that aha moment. That’s why I do it.”
NASA offers four HPDE levels and students sign up based on their skill and experience. Each level involves several sessions out on track and downloads afterward. Only HPDE 1 requires an instructor in the car, while for the advanced classes, in-car supervision is determined by the instructor — however getting instruction at any level is always a good idea.
All NASA instructors are experienced racers who undergo extensive training, and are provided with detailed instruction manuals before they work with students. We talked with several long-time NASA instructors to develop a list of best practices for teaching students. You might not be an instructor, but their insight is great for students on what they should expect — or ask — of their coach during the weekend.
The first question an instructor should ask a student is “What do you want out of this weekend?” The answer will set the tone for the weekend.
“Maybe (for the student) it’s to learn the track or just have some fun,” said Steve Romine, a professional instructor and driving coach. “If they don’t have an intent for the weekend, it’s up to the instructor to make that intent.”
Listening is a two-way street where students need to understand and execute what is being asked of them. Instructors should listen for clues, such as the driver holding his breath through turns, to recognize whether the student is being pushed beyond his or her ability. But an honest dialogue between the student and teacher will make for a memorable weekend.
Less is More
Most instructors believe the less said the better in a car during a track session. Critiques should be left for debriefing after the session. Why? Because people become overwhelmed when too much information is thrown at them in high-stress situations.
Romine points to commercial pilots who say very little other than performing checklists during a takeoff or a landing.
“You are splitting your attention with the verbal communication,” he said. “You don’t detract the attention from the task at hand. You don’t need somebody chattering in your ear.”
That doesn’t mean the instructor sits there like a mannequin. Any communication should be brief — two words at most — and those words should be simple and direct. Commands such “brake” or “gas” will reduce confusion. The instructor and student need to go over the commands before hopping into the car. A few words of encouragement won’t hurt either.
When the driver almost puts the car into the infield, it seems it would be tough to find the positive in the situation. But NASA trains its instructors to find the bright side. “Nice job saving it,” would be the teacher’s response.
Going negative might work in political campaigns, but it doesn’t work teaching a student racer. Positive reinforcement is the best method to get the desired result on the track.
“You want to make the experience friendly and enjoyable,” said Luis Jimenez, chief instructor for the Florida NASA region. “If you focus on the negative, they’re not going to do that great. A student wants to feel good and that they are progressing.”
That doesn’t mean instructors can’t correct poor techniques or push students beyond their comfort zones. It’s important to phrase it with a hopeful tone. Instead of telling a student they took a turn too tight, tell them they should leave a little more room the next time around the track.
Tu is a student’s biggest cheerleader on the track, frequently heaping praise on the student. “I’m very animated in the car,” he said. “I will whoop and holler and I love it. I find with most students, they like the animated (instructor).”
There’s an old saying in teaching. The surest way to teach somebody nothing is to try to teach them everything. Feed a student too much information at one time and they’ll likely forget everything they were told. That’s why instructors believe a “layered approach,” especially in high-stress situations on a racetrack, is a must. Whether it’s during a 20-minute track session or just a lap around the course, instructors should ask the student to focus on improving one or two techniques. It might be following a better line or accelerating earlier coming out of a turn.
“Human beings learn progressively,” Romine said. “So when we’re working with the newbies, our job is to throttle it back.”
Romine says that students want to drive with the subconscious part of their brain, which processes information faster and more efficiently, than the conscious part. To put it another way, the student should be looking out on the track rather than focusing on the pedals and steering wheel. Feeding a student too much information and they’ll drive with the conscious part of their brain.
“People have grown up in front of computers. They seem to operate as their windshield is a video screen,” said Barry Hartzel, NorCal HPDE director. “If your attention is inside the car, you’re screwed.”
Hartzel likes to use a trick with his students by asking them to tell him 10 things they remember on the track to get their focus outside the car.
“They’re not thinking about what they are doing with their feet or hands,” he said. “One of the basic rules of driving fast is your attention needs to be hundreds of yards in front of the car.”
It should go without saying that instructors should be on time and attentive when teaching an HPDE class. Instructors also shouldn’t be know-it-alls, even though they likely know far more than the students they are teaching.
“As a student I want to know if I’m actually being heard and my concerns are being addressed,” Hartzel said. “What I can’t stand is an instructor who has an agenda.”
“It’s not about you, it’s about the student,” Romine added.
If the instructor constantly shows up late — or not at all — students have every right to ask for a new one. The same goes for students who just don’t seem to be clicking with their driving coach.
“At the track, you are paying good money and if you are honest about what you want out of that day, and it’s not happening, you have that right to ask (for a new coach),” Romine said. “Not everyone is going to be matched perfectly. They should say it’s nothing personal and it’s not working for them.”
Students are given instructor evaluation forms at the end of classes. It’s important to fill them out because it helps teachers work on their weaknesses and allows NASA administrators to make sure instructors are meeting standards.
NASA instructors are taught a few absolutes during their training: Never yell at a student, don’t grab a steering wheel or deride them. It seems like basic stuff but the stress and pressure on the track, an instructor’s patience can be tried. They are human.
Instructors should speak very calmly in the car and always use headsets so they don’t have to raise their voice for the student to hear what they are being told. It’s fine to raise your voice to praise a student, teachers say, but a calming voice will reduce stress.
And the fastest way an instructor won’t be asked back is to deride a student. The classes are about being positive and supportive — even if there are close calls.
NASA instructors were split on whether grabbing a steering wheel is a no-no. The teacher and student should discuss before a session when an instructor might put their hand on the wheel. Some instructors will do it correct a line, or in an extreme case, to prevent an accident.
We all make snap judgments, whether it’s sizing up an opponent on the basketball court or assessing a new co-worker. It’s remarkable how often that initial judgment is wrong.
An expensive racecar and Gucci driving gloves tell you a guy might have a lot of money but doesn’t mean he can drive. Conversely, the guy driving a beat up old Mustang could be one of the best students at the track that day. The key is to assess them on the track, not after the five-minute conversation before you go out.
Tu shared the story about a student who signed up for HPDE 3, but they had no record of him ever running at Watkins Glen in New York, and none of the instructors had met him. They asked him about his driving qualifications and the student told him he had driven the track “a bunch of times.” Turns out his driving experience was on the Xbox in his living room.
“We thought the student might be a problem,” Tu said with a laugh. “We placed an instructor with him and after one session, the (teacher) stepped out and said, ‘This kid doesn’t need an instructor.’”
Ask any NASA instructor why they are involved with the HPDE classes and most will tell you it’s because they like teaching inexperienced drivers and giving back to the program. They also love seeing a student they taught rise up through the ranks and even competing with them on the track.
“I feel a great passion for this sport,” Jimenez said. “As an instructor, I can give back to others — and I just love being on the racetrack.”
Honor Student – A NASA student provides his perspective on the HPDE program
Eddie Hillard is hardly your typical HPDE student. An accomplished aerobatic pilot, Hillard knows more about extreme sports than most of his classmates.
But when it came to putting his Porsche 944 through the twists and turns on a track, Hillard is the first to admit he still has a lot to learn. That’s why the Encinitas, Calif., racer is a regular at HPDE courses and one of the program’s biggest supporters.
“I’m a huge fan of NASA, their staffing and the quality of the program they put on,” said Hillard, CEO of a financial software company. “I’ve become a zealot for them.”
Hillard started in the entry-level class and is currently in HPDE 3. As he’s progressed through the courses, Hillard says his skills have gotten noticeably better, but he makes sure he is well prepared before hitting the track.
“I spend a lot of time watching videos and reading track manuals,” he said. “I’m good at preparation.”
We asked Hillard to provide some advice to NASA instructors based on his experience as a student:
- Racing vocabulary. Make sure the student understands what a word or concept means and how to implement it. A novice might not know what “throw the back end out” means or how to do it.
- Immediate critique. Hillard may be in the minority on this, but he prefers to be critiqued during a track session and not at the end. “Six laps and 106 turns later I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said. “I want to be able to apply that immediately.”
- Prompt questions. Students need to take advantage of an instructor’s expertise and ask questions, because many have been instructing for more than 10 years. “You need to ask different questions,” Hillard said. “They’ll go as technical as you want.”
Hillard also advises that students have some humility when taking the classes, regardless of past experience. While many of the skills used in the cockpit of an airplane translate to a car, Hillard knew he was starting from the beginning.
“I come in with a real humility and want you to teach me,” he said. “We get a lot of guys and they’re always young and they have their girlfriend, and they are showing off and they make stupid mistakes. They drive from an ego perspective. That’s not me.”
Hillard has become such an ambassador for the HPDE program that he’s recruited at least six new students for the class over the past year. He was at a crossroads about a year ago when he thought about getting back into flying, but decided to commit to car racing.
“I can bring my family to watch,” Hillard said laughing. “You can’t do that in a plane.”