Time Out With Eric Meyer

Eric Meyer began driving in HPDE with NASA in 2005, traveling all over the Midwest to various NASA events and some with other clubs. He started out driving an AMG Mercedes and went on to own five Spec Miatas. He’s driven on 28 different tracks, has experience in Grand-Am and World Challenge. His favorite tracks include Virginia International Raceway, Mosport and the street course used for Long Beach Grand Prix. Meyer is now the Chief Instructor of NASA Great Lakes region, a position he’s held since 2013. We caught up with him to see what he and the Great Lakes Region have been doing with their HPDE program.

Q: You guys in the Great Lakes Region have a pretty stringent system for HPDE. Tell me a little bit about the lessons you teach in downloads and how you reinforce them on track.

A: Our HPDE program follows the NASA Passport and the CCR with a strong emphasis in connecting the classroom to the track. The concepts presented in the classroom in HPDE1, 2 and 3 are immediately supported in the next on-track session by an instructor and then debriefed after the session in the paddock and then discussed back in the classroom and/or standup download sessions.

Average member attendance in HPDE1 is three to four events, and we use a self-assessment process whereby the members guide their advancement process to HPDE2. Each HPDE1, 2 and 3 on-track session typically has a drill related to the taught foundational concepts for the first one to three laps followed by a green flag and traditional open lapping.

Situational awareness, comfort in traffic and off-line passing are concepts we reinforce right from day one, so these do not become run group issues later on. I can’t think of the last time I saw a train longer than one lap in HPDE1 in a few years. Our HPDE1 and 2 instructors follow a script, which makes them a direct extension of the classroom. Most of them prefer this because it gives them guidance. This also makes it easy when everyone on track is doing the same drill at the same time because it prohibits competing agendas and therefore safety related issues.

Q: Does your system require more instructors than normal?

A: Yes. The Regional Director Jay Andrew and myself made a decision six years ago that our best form of advertising comes from our customer’s word of mouth and their actual experience. So, instead of running a full page ad in a trade magazine or an aggressive paid social media campaign, we invest in a high instructor-to-student ratios.

This strategy has worked well for us because every year we see many new drivers that are first timers as well as high retention rates with all our HPDE groups. HPDE1 has a 1:1 ratio and we also plan “floaters,” which is typically one instructor in 15 that waits on grid should an assigned HPDE1 instructor arrive late. Rarely are they used, but we have them and from time to time they jump into cars usually because of schedule conflicts. Low anxiety for a new driver — or any driver — is of huge importance to us, so we make sure that there is never an orphaned HPDE driver on track when grid rolls. This is the main value of a floater and it works well for us.

HPDE2 has approximately 2.5 instructors per student and we continue the great experience started in HPDE1 as the driver advances. Years ago, HPDE2 didn’t want a babysitter, but since their instructor experience is so good and they learn so much in so little time, they actually ask for instructor support.

HPDE3 is heavily staffed with instructors who race and Time Trial, and have come up through our system. Typical staffing will be six advanced instructors per 30 HPDE3 drivers. Jay does a great job at allowing co-Chief Instructor Jeff Henderson and me to have many resources, and we wouldn’t have such successful implementation without them.

Our curriculum allows for concepts presented in class to be coached within minutes after introduction. This leads to a high rate of educational results as these one or two concepts are fresh and top-of-mind for the driver and allow for focused execution and success. It is not uncommon to have 50-plus instructors and HPDE group leaders at our events. We are blessed to have a great staff of motivated instructors who genuinely want to help drivers. The old days of the instructor that just wanted free track time are in the past.

Q: How does your HPDE system affect the amount of drivers who move up to Time Trial and racing?

A: Years ago, we addressed the problem of social advancement — instructors signing off students to the next run group prematurely for a number of reasons — with a series of gates, an open book road test program and written tests. We also raised the consistency bar several notches. In order to advance, a driver must demonstrate specific skills and do them lap after lap after lap.

We are looking for consistency, and this takes time to develop. The advancement rate is a bit slower, but the knowledge and talent level as they advance is much greater. That foundation allows us to build up to some advanced concepts, including some very robust passing drills, simulated two- and three-wide driving at a good clip and mock flying starts and single file restarts.

We also expose our drivers to reverse gridding and Time Trial gridding to give them a taste of what happens should a driver choose to move out of HPDE4 to racing, Time Trial or instructing. These things aren’t learned in a single 20-minute track session. HPDE3 has a mandatory requirement of at least five events before a customer can request a check out ride. This is an entire season of full-time driving.

Most drivers stay in for five to seven events, so that those moving to HPDE4 really represent some talented drivers that are safe, aware, fast and fantastic in traffic. The percentage of drivers moving out of HPDE4 is rather high. At our last competition school, we had 12 HPDE4 drivers attend and successfully “crush” it. Almost all of them made the podium their first race, which is a testament to our program and our great instructors.

Q: You mentioned that you introduce data in HPDE1. Isn’t that a lot for an HPDE1 driver to take on in addition to the fundamentals and post-session downloads?

A: We introduce data. Actually, we introduce a lot of things. HPDE1 is where we support the foundational driving concepts and introduce what happens as they advance. We show and tell them “this is what you’ll do when you advance,” so they have clear understanding that they are in a learning program.

This wasn’t exactly the case when I did a HPDE1 and 2 session 15 years ago. More drivers are using data and we are there to help should they want to learn more, but in no way push it in the curriculum. Driver progression is self-paced and some are more conservative than others. On the flip side are those who want to learn, and we do our best to feed them information and resources so they can advance at a pace commensurate with their study, practice and interest level.

Today’s data acquisition devices actually support the fundamentals and a simple speed trace explanation by an instructor can reveal the value of braking less or a later apex, which directly correlates to our curriculum. Data is used a tiny bit more in HPDE2 and in HPDE3 we will often do a full-blown introduction to data PowerPoint presentation.

Many drivers are mechanical engineers, and I’ve found they are excellent at understanding the concepts, putting them to use and becoming better drivers. We’ve found it actually accelerates their learning. Andrew Rains and Baker Heppenstall of ApexPro, pro driver Michael Cooper and driver coach Jeremy Lucas have been great supporters of our program. Members who want to know more have on-site free resources for analyzing their data, trouble-shooting their devices and making that initial jump into data collection. We make sure it’s paced to a customer’s interest level.

Q: Speed comes naturally as a driver progresses, but how do you teach situational awareness on track?

A: I would suggest that the second priority behind learning a strong foundation of driving in NASA Great Lakes is learning, practicing and exceling at situational awareness. This term is not only introduced in HPDE1 but specifically supported in our entire HPDE program.

We prioritize being aware of flags, traffic and surroundings over going fast, and as a byproduct the driver becomes faster! Off-line coordinating passing drills in HPDE2 while randomly throwing flags supports a culture that awareness is paramount at all times. In HPDE3, the entire curriculum has drivers being off-line, passing on the inside, outside, three-wide at speed and in close proximity in the corners.

This coordinated on-track structure plus surprise flag drills makes for a very aware and safe driver and a very fast driver. By the time a driver gets to HPDE4, they are not only experienced driving nose to tail or side view mirror to side view mirror at speed in a corner they are also heads up for traffic ahead and behind, plus they prioritize the flag stations.

We engineer this outcome starting in HPDE1, which is probably why we have such a fast traffic pace relative to other organizations. Situational awareness is our No. 2 focus and all our drills support this. For those looking for just open lapping, we are not their solution. For those looking for advanced skills that make them a wicked driving talent, we have a program for you!

Q: What’s your biggest success story from drivers who have climbed the HPDE ladder in the Great Lakes Region?

A: Instuctor development, hands down. Six years ago, I had no idea that the byproduct of a clearly defined HPDE program with on-track advanced drill support made great instructors.

These men and women have come up through our system and have learned so much in so little time that they naturally want to give back. Early in a driver’s path, I make it known that we,  the NASA Great Lakes HPDE team, are here to support their goals. Those who teach or are college professors or corporate trainers, boy scout leaders and ball coaches reveal themselves early and we get them on a program to instructor success. This gives Jeff Henderson and I two or more years to guide these folks, and as they progress they make great instructors and perfect advocates of our system.

An early instructor-development program has them attend our morning instructor meetings or sit in on an actual instructor clinic. I’ll also drive and have them sit right seat and coach me for practice.

To date we’ve had 160-plus instructors go through our one-day instructor clinic. This wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for our HPDE leadership team. Shout out to John, Robert, Nick, Pop, JT, Derek, Joey, Robin, Marlon and Lauri, Jay, co-Chief Instructor Jeff Henderson and dozens of talented instructors who love to help drivers learn. Special thanks to Paul King who founded our curriculum structure and suggested a culture of continuous, ongoing driver improvement. Our success story is built on our instructor team and we think ours is one of the best in the U.S.

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