Racecar drivers are often asked to provide coaching or basic instruction about defensive driving. Sometimes it is a teen driver course or a corporate occupational safety meeting for their fleet drivers. Or it may be a specific up and coming racing driver who is looking to get some one-on-one advice for a particular track and asks for coaching. For many NASA members, especially those who teach HPDE courses every month, teaching is a basic part of being at the track. However, how you teach and the tools you have to teach with can vary greatly from track to track. I’ve learned not to depend on anyone else to ensure I can be effective as an instructor. Essentially, I bring my own classroom.
Standing in front of a crowd of people and talking fast while waving my hands around will only get me so far — and usually not far at all. Visual aids are key in being an effective educator. Full disclosure, my wife is a middle school math teacher, so she is quick to tell me when I am doing a poor job of teaching others about anything. The reality is this: just because you are a champion racecar driver doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher. Like anything else, being good at teaching takes passion, planning and practice.
First you want to have an articulated plan about what you are going to teach. And you want to know your audience. Is the course going to be about basic car control? Is it going to be more about physics? Is it going to be about race craft and passing? All of this depends on what your students need. Ensure you are tailoring your curriculum to what your students expect and what they need to improve. Simply standing in front of them and telling them how bitchin’ you are behind the wheel doesn’t help them become better drivers. They already know you’re cool. You’re the instructor.
I bring my own portable classroom to any event where I am asked to speak to a group. I have a collapsible tripod easel and large Post-It pads to provide visual aids. I usually fill up about 10 pages of drawings before the class begins. I already know I want to talk about understeer and oversteer. I also already know I am going to talk about weight transfer and the friction circle. I bring pre-drawn visual aids that allow me to explain these concepts quickly to the class without drawing them — poorly and slowly — in front of the class. Students don’t want to look at your back while you fiddle around drawing cars and skid marks. Have that done beforehand. If you are coaching for a particular racetrack, have the track map already drawn or printed out.
Sometimes you get lucky and the track has a nice facility with chairs, air conditioning, and a big white board to use with a track map already on it. However, most times you are standing in a parking lot doing the best you can with a large group and the sound of cars whizzing by. I have learned to bring a Block Rocker to work as a portable PA system so I can project my voice without going hoarse screaming at the students. People want to hear what you have to say. If you have a large group, you will need some voice amplification.
Once you have something to provide visual aids with and a writing instrument, it is time to teach. Be systematic, encourage participant interaction, and look for learning confirmation. Many people in a classroom environment are afraid to look stupid by asking a question. Chances are 30 percent of the class wants to hear the same answer to the question they are all afraid to ask. I try to hit basic concepts to ensure everyone is on the same playing field. It also helps to be humble, find a way to connect with your audience and have them enjoy the experience to ensure they get something out of your lecture.
When it comes to running students through different driving exercises or one-on-one driver coaching, remember to be positive and always encourage learning. This is the reason these folks have come to the event, to improve. Help them improve. Provide small victories where they can see themselves improving. If they need a little more coaching in one area, ensure you provide a lot of positive reinforcement prior to any criticism of their technique. Remember, we want this to be a positive experience. If it isn’t, chances are you will not be asked back to instruct.
Another teaching tool I use is two-person communication system between helmets. I want to calmly talk to students when I am in the right front seat. I don’t want to have to raise my voice over the sound of tires, exhaust and wind. I do this for two reasons: 1) To save my voice from yelling for six hours; 2) To ensure the person can hear me clearly when I say, “OK, let’s apply more brake pressure here … more brake pressure … brakes!”
An inexpensive, closed-loop, battery-powered, communication system works wonders for this. The ones I have purchased in the past were designed for motorcycle riders with two people. The microphone and speaker wedge between the face and the inside of the helmet. It is easy to use between different students who do not have comm systems in their helmets already, which is most new students. I know there are some trick Bluetooth systems out there, but I have found they are frustrating to use when they don’t work. Give me a couple of wires and simplicity. Yes, I know, I’m a troglodyte.
As an instructor, try to remember your experience with your own teachers you have had when you started driving and emulate the good ones and do the opposite of the bad ones. I had some outstanding instructors over the years at Skip Barber and at the School at Mid-Ohio. They were professionals, smart, funny, encouraging and absolute experts in their field. I learned they were experts because of how proficiently they explained the curriculum. They didn’t have to overstate their resumé or sell me on the fact that they should be the ones in the front of the room at a racing school. It simply came out naturally through their teaching, which is the proper way to do it.
When I am asked, or I should say provided the honor, to teach a group of people about driving, something I am extremely passionate about, I try to bring my best effort to each class. I roll up with my portable teaching tools, coordinate my lesson plan to the audience and then give them 100 percent of me while I am there. I hope to pass on to them knowledge for their own racing success. Everyone on track wants the day to be a good day and teaching people how to have a fun, safe, fast way around a racing track is a win.
One suggestion I have for doing the portable classroom thing is to find a way to tell the sanctioning body prior to the weekend to ask students to bring a portable folding camping chair with them. Too many times I have become a bit long winded in teaching and realized I have a lot of people tirelessly standing on concrete. Their patience is going to wane pretty rapidly without a seat. If they bring a chair and you, as the instructor, bring a positive attitude, then you can let the learning begin!