NASA Northeast driver Paul Lee has been going to the track for the last 20 years, but he said the first 10 were a waste because he was, in his own words, a snob and all stuck up. He started with a supercharged S2000 and relished being the fast guy. When his supercharger broke, he learned something about his driving that day.
“I’m like, that was an eye-opening moment that it’s not me going fast. It was a car going fast. I want to go fast, not the car,” he said. “So that shifted the whole paradigm that made me to make become a better driver. Ever since then, I don’t modify my car a lot. I try to hone my skills more.”
Lee became became NASA instructor about three years ago, something he credits with big improvements to his driving. Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that he once got a ride with pro driver Andy Lally in his S2000. In wet weather and dry, Lally taught Lee a thing or two that weekend. Lee said you can learn as much from the passenger seat as you can by driving.
From that experience with Lally, Lee sought to convey that lesson to his students as well. Lee owns a lightly modified 2020 Toyota Supra, and he’s been the leading NASA Northeast’s Toyota GR Experience program for a couple of years now. What he enjoys most about leading the GR program is seeing the progress that drivers make between their first session their last one of the day — but hopefully not their last day at the track.
Lee started treating the NASA GR Experience drivers like those in a racing class, acting as a series leader to help them get the most of their experience by getting them together with other GR owners, whether they’re Supras, GR 86’s or GR Corollas. As any longtime NASA member will tell you: Come for the cars and the speed. Stay for the people.
We caught up with Lee in 2022 at New Jersey Motorsports Park to find out more about how he makes new Toyota GR customers feel welcome.
Q: So, if somebody gets their GR car, they get their free track day, can they just bring the car and not do anything to it?
A: Absolutely. All you have to do is maintain the car as it’s supposed to be in the manual or Toyota recommends they bring the car here and as it is, you’ll enjoy more than the other actually modifying the car, to be honest, in my opinion. I tell them, yeah, don’t worry about anything, just come and we’ll have the helmet from Toyota. They give you the helmet to wear and they always enjoy the car, as from the factory. It’s very capable. It’s a wonderful car. I also drove the GR86, and it was a really good car, in my opinion.
Q: When you get a student, what do you tell them? What do you tell them to prepare the driver for the day? What’s the best way to get them ready?
A: I tell them to get a good night’s sleep. I remember my first track day 20 years ago. And yet I could not get to sleep the day before on the track day, because I was so excited. And yet I tell everyone, get some good sleep, don’t worry about anything. Just come to the track and these are the steps that you need to take. Go to registration, to tech and get parked together and the instructor will guide you on whatever you need to do. So, don’t worry. Just come. Enjoy the day.
I also give them two objectives. One, go home with the same car you came with. Two, have fun. Those are only two objectives and we’re going to try to meet that by the end of the day.
Q: And when you have them out on track, what’s it like watching their faces? If they’ve never done anything like this before?
A: They light up, their mouth is up to their ears. ‘Oh my God, I cannot believe I did that.’ That’s the impression I get. To be honest, this is what I usually do. I usually take them out in my car to show around the track because they never been on the track. Getting to know the track is very important. So I take them around and, because they have the same car, they’re like, ‘I cannot believe my car can do that.’ And that’s the first impression. At the end of the day, after going through all the classes and the sessions, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I cannot believe I did that.’ So when I see that, I feel like I did something. It gives me a lot of emotion. I’m happy that they are happy at the end of the day.
Q: So, when they finish the day, where do you hope they end up in terms of confidence? Obviously, we’d love them to come back.
A: Absolutely. In my opinion, their driving skill level improved dramatically multiple times. And they all want to come back and I want to do this again. I want to do this again. That’s about 80 to 90 percent of the students who came through the program. When I see them again, I’m really glad to see them.
Q: Is there any difference between a Supra driver and a GR86 driver?
A: No, actually as far as the experience goes, they are very similar. And we also have an intro to HPDE, which is just lead and follow. We do lead and follow, and then I also ask them to get a ride from the instructor. And when they get their ride from the instructor, sometimes they regret that they are not in HPDE1 because intro to HPDE is because was so much fun.
Intro to DE is a lead and follow, which means that we will have a lead car and the instructor will be in the car coaching them on some of the things, but there’s no passing. So it’s like a Hyperdrive for the Toyota GR.
Because you cannot pass, you cannot really build a lot of speed. But we do let some people go by, and I always ask them to get a ride from the other instructors and they get into some of the cars with instructors drive their car on the track. And they’re really, really happy about getting a ride from the instructors and they want to come back as HPDE1 students.
Q: That’s fantastic. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
A: Also, instructing is very rewarding, too. At the end of the day when student improves, they have a happy face. There’s so much reward in that. I feel so happy for the student who became who they are at that moment.
So that’s why I’m improving myself by looking at students as well as the professional drivers at the same time, because I have association with the other instructors, I tell them to get in my car and tell me what I’m doing wrong, coach me. So I do that and they tell me, ‘Oh, you know what, you could try this, try that.’ This is much better than what I was trying to do. And I learned that as well.
As I get into the other instructor’s car, and I say, ‘Oh by the way, you did this in this corner. Why did you do that that way?’ And they’re like, ‘Hey, yeah, that’s a Miata line.’ You know what I mean? Yeah. There are things that I didn’t know about. So I learned a lot by getting into someone else’s car than just driving myself. It’s become a very rewarding experience for me to instruct.
Q: It’s so great that they have someone that can welcome the Toyota guys. I mean, typically if they’re going to come to an event like this and they see a Supra, they’ll probably park next to it. But you make sure everybody parks next to each other.
A: Yeah, actually I send the email out before the event to tell the other GR guys that, ‘Hey, we are trying to park together so we can share the information. Look for the Toyota flag. Let’s try to park together.
Q: Where’d you get the flag?
Q: Oh, Toyota sent it to us. Suzan (Casella), who’s leading the Northeast, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, Toyota sent us a flag. Do you want to use it?’ I’m like, yeah, we’ll use it. It’s been very helpful for other people to recognize where we are.