Driving Technique
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"It’s a heck of a lot of fun to witness a first time, inexperienced student who has never driven on a track before, smiling ear-to-ear by the end of the day.  That’s why I do it."

The following is a memoir written by Doug Quara, an experienced track day driving instructor who learned of this magazine through the Chin Motorsports forum.  Chin Motorsports is a track day organization that offers HPDE events at some of the major tracks around the country.  Quara approached us requesting that we publish his musings about being an instructor going back to 2000.  Even though this memoir is written by an experienced track day driver and coach, it is an accurate portrayal of what to expect from the student/instructor relationship.  There are also some good how-to tips to consider when approaching your first few events.  For example, make sure both front seats have good safety restraints.  It is good etiquette to ensure that these safety restraints are equivalent.  If you have a five point harness installed on the driver’s side, it is considerate to the instructor to also have one on the passenger side.  Some instructors will not allow you to use your harness if there is no harness for her.  A few other good pointers:  relax and release the death grip on the steering wheel; make incremental increases in speed as opposed to sudden big jumps; make smooth and consistent use of the controls of the car, like the wheel and the gas and brake pedals; and listen to your instructor.  We hope this sheds some more light on those early track days and upon the student/instructor working relationship.  Thanks Doug!

 

Memoir of a High Performance Driver Education Instructor

 

By Doug Quara, Sr.

 

I’ve had my share of track days.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first time at a “big track.”  It was in the year 2000 and it was at Sebring International Raceway.  At the time I had a bunch of experience auto crossing, so I had the basics of track driving, but not at the higher speeds experienced at road courses.

My first track day was in my 1994 Miata, essentially a stock car with then-legal Stock category mods, those being shocks, front sway bar, R-compound tires, and of course, upgraded track-ready brake fluid and pads.  I recall being very, very apprehensive the night before.  I wasn’t sure what it would be like at much higher speeds compared to what I was used to.  In hindsight, with the experience I now have, I think I was appropriately concerned.

I recall my instructor, Randy, being very patient with me.  I got signed off that first track day, with the only thing I really needed to work on in the afternoon to be solo-qualified was more consistent entry to Turn 1.

I suppose I might have been one of the “easier” students in that I had the basic concepts of line, car control, and situational awareness, although I did need to work on that last one since most of my near- or at-the-limit driving was in solo autocross situations.  So I don’t think I scared my instructor much.

I must say that since that day in 2000, signoff for a novice on Day 1 is probably justifiably a little harder to achieve due to a higher standard currently being applied (and performance cars getting insanely capable and fast).  It is rare these days for students without race track experience to be signed off on their first day.  I recall those early days for me at HPDE track events, in my 1994 Miata, I used to actually pass people occasionally.  Nowadays even in the intermediate run group (as in all groups, for that matter) I know I have to monitor my mirrors closely, even though our 1990 former Spec Miata is reasonably quick.  Interest in the sport has grown so much and performance cars have gotten SO fast.

Since then, I have participated in dozens (hundreds?) of track days, most of which as an instructor, getting track time in exchange for sitting in the right seat with a novice.

I’ve had a very, very wide range of students, from really green drivers to highly experienced who haven’t been signed off at a particular track, from excitable to calm, from wanting to listen to not hearing or caring about anything I have to say.

Here are some of the more interesting encounters in no particular order.  Names not used for obvious reasons.

The Young Lady

First up is a young lady driving a Miata.  She was a driving enthusiast but was nervous, as was I on my own first track day.  During the first few sessions she was pretty uptight, having a death-grip on the steering wheel and not really having any fun or making much progress.  I pointed out her nervousness and that she should relax, after which she underwent an amazing transformation.  She went from being tentative and inconsistent to being smooth, confident, and very importantly, having fun.  In the last few sessions of the day she was fairly flying.  Which brings me to why I get in a car with a perfect stranger:  it is intensely gratifying to guide someone, who, in the morning, knows little of technique and may not even know which way the track goes, and then is flying in the afternoon. 

One of the challenges to teaching a novice is trying to impart enough knowledge and expertise to be safe and to make the experience fun so they can progress throughout the day, without overwhelming the student.  It can be very intense out there, with sensory overload:  knowing and executing the line, monitoring the car’s status, getting used to the speed, dealing with overtaking and being overtaken in traffic, etc.  Teaching one or two topics at a time helps as does prioritizing what the student needs to learn next.

The Passenger Seat Doesn’t Matter

Okay, next what comes to mind is the driver of a vintage mid-80’s 280ZX.  Hmm, the aftermarket lap belt-only for the instructor doesn’t actually tighten and is useless, while you have a really nice driver’s side 5-point harness for the driver.  When that student didn’t get the passenger side belt problem resolved after the warm up session, this instructor begged out of the situation.  No sense unnecessarily risking life and limb.  I have no bravery to prove to anyone.

The Autocross Acquaintance

Then there was an autocross acquaintance in an MR2 Spyder that I ended up being assigned to.  We have similar cars, small convertibles, similar power, weight, and since I also have track-driven my NSX, the fact that the MR2 is mid-engined makes it a good fit.

Most of the day was okay, as he did well, as I had expected, coming from autocross with a solid foundation.  I should note at this point that during my first instructor session that day with me driving my car I tried to take Turn 10 at Homestead flat out.  I had made it once and so tried it again that session.  Also noteworthy is that at the time, we had just added about 10 HP since the last time I had driven that track, and the tires, really old Kumho Victoracers, had been heat cycled a few more times at Sebring and were pretty much used up.  As soon as the car unloaded after crossing the berm at the apex of Turn 10, it starting slowly wagging its tail.  I caught it, caught the tank-slap (i.e. wobbled and shimmied) the other way, but wasn’t fast enough going back still the other way and tank slapped all the way around.  Did a nice 540 straight down the pavement, thank goodness, and put both feet in (i.e. one foot on the brake and the other on the clutch).  Killed the tires (note: if you’re going to try something like that, do it in the LAST session of the day, especially if you have only one set of tires to last all day).  Mounted up the other set we had brought, and enjoyed the rest of the day.

So with that knowledge, my MR2 student decides that he will try going flat through 10.  No warning, just one lap decided he wasn’t going to do that little lift before turning in.  Now, mind you, this isn’t a situation where we added a few MPH / RPM at a time.  No, this was adding like 15 MPH compared to the fastest we had been through there.  And guess what?  Yup, we went around.  Didn’t really get a good response to the inquiry, “why all of a sudden would you try to go there flat when 1) we hadn’t been anywhere near that speed all day and 2) you know I tried earlier in the day in a similar car and I didn’t make it?” except for “well, I thought I could make it.”  (Which sounds suspiciously similar to the explanation I gave when I did the stop-of-shame conversation with the chief steward after I spun myself.)

Lesson learned here:  if there’s a big, hairy turn with high potential for carnage, don’t hesitate to remind the student of the appropriate speed every time through.

It is good to know that said MR2 driver has gone on to become a very well-qualified instructor himself.

The Right Stuff

What’s next?  Can’t talk about the, um, questionable incidents without mentioning that some simply listen, apply what you tell them, and “get it”.  Best student I ever had was a 747 pilot in an NSX.  He was able to understand immediately what I was trying to tell him, ask important and insightful follow up questions, then do what I suggested, without argument or an attitude that he already knows stuff.  Wow, did that guy progress quickly.  Maybe there really IS something to professional aviators having the “right stuff”.  And I say this in spite of the fact that we, too, spun in Homestead Turn 10 but at least with this student we were slowly working up to adding speed, and he simply turned in a few feet too soon, then tried to get back on a better line and upset the balance.  But even with that error, I still went away impressed.

Bouncy-Bouncy Nose

I’ve seen all levels and habits.  There was a guy in a Miata at Sebring who didn’t know how to heel-toe.  From street driving, he had developed a habit of braking early, getting off the brake pedal in the middle of the braking zone, blipping the throttle to change down, then going back onto the brake pedal to complete his braking.

I tried and tried to break him of that since the nose of the car kept porpoising, weighting, unweighting, weighting.  I told him, in a nice way, “If you keep doing that, before the end of the day we will spin.”  Tried to get him to declutch in the brake zone and slowly clutch at the apex since he tried and wasn’t successful heel-toeing, and to use one smooth braking effort.  And there in Turn 15 at Sebring, after coming off Tower Turn and going through Bishop’s really nicely, he braked a few feet later than previous laps, carried a lot more speed, panicked a bit, fell into the old habit, and got off the brakes to blip the throttle to change down.  By this time we were really deep into the braking zone and with the fore-aft weight being all over the place and not having completed braking by the turn-in point, he braked REALLY hard – while starting to turn in, and around we went.  Again, luckily, we didn’t hit anything.

I’m a Wheel-Whipper

Which reminds me of yet another student driving a Miata, a real wheel-whipper.  Held the steering wheel straight and when he got to the turn-in marker, boy, he was going to turn NOW, really fast with his hands, no chance for the weight to transition to the outside.  Most times the rear followed the front, sometimes the front just gave up without having had much weight transferred to the outer front tire.  I told him, too, that a spin was in his future if he didn’t smooth out his turn-in.  Sorry to say I was correct and we spun, making the right-left transition entering the Carousel at Sebring.

But I Really Like Going Fast

There was the young lady who was interested in speed but was really attending mostly because her boyfriend wanted her to.  She was driving an M3.  Little concept of outside-inside-outside, turn-in, apex- track-out.  Totally flustered when cars came up behind (which they did.  A lot.)  But with patience, some inventive techniques (I got the chief instructor to do lead-follow and we told her to drive in his tire tracks), repetition, and well-placed words on where to look, it finally clicked in the last session of the day.

Vroom!  How am I doin’?

Then there are the pony car drivers.  I would hate to stereotype or generalize but during the time when there really wasn’t a good reason to bring a Mustang or Camaro out to a road course, most of the guys that did, showed up for track driving, but tended to be drag racers at heart:  mash the gas as soon as the steering wheel was straight, brake really hard for the turns, inch around said turns, then mash the gas on exit again.  And yes, I had Mustangs in my past.  So I was one of them before I bought a Miata and finally learned to drive better.

There have been oodles of others, and I must say, most are a pleasure to be with, appreciative and open to suggestions, and fit somewhere in between the 747 pilot and those with bad habits. 

So I’ll close with two stories of every instructor’s nightmare.

You Can’t Teach Me Anything and I Don’t Care

First, we have Mr. Other GM Two-Seat Convertible, GXP edition.  Not a clue.  Despite me repeatedly telling him to enter Turn 1 at Homestead (a left-hander) from up near the wall on the main straight FROM THE RIGHT, lap after lap after lap he cheated to mid-track before turning in.  And with 265 super-charged HP, Turn 1 entry is about 110 MPH.  Some laps, he’d enter from the FAR LEFT.  Yes, inexplicably, from the left.  I really thought that in any lap we’d end up running out of room at the exit and do some agricultural activities.  But luckily we never did.  How many ways can you say “Get up near the wall on the right!!  GET UP NEAR THE WALL ON THE RIGHT!!”?!?!?

He was really, really angry when he had to point anyone by.  He did so only reluctantly and only when I told him there was a car behind.  And then he’d signal.  But few actually passed.  Only after I realized that his “point by” signal was him lifting his hand in the air and giving a circling motion with his index finger did I figure out why so few were passing when he signaled.  My conversation went something like “Weren’t you even at the driver’s meeting?!?!?”  Again, I tried to remain patient and try, with my best use of the English language, to convey the line (even after having him ride in my car to show him the line).  But there are only so many ways to say something using different words.  I was going to suggest that we get another instructor to try to see if it was a compatibility thing, but fortunately for us he decided he had something better to do after lunch and left.  The evaluation sheet I turned in strongly suggested that with his skill set and attitude, with the safety of instructors and others sharing the track in mind, that future registration not be accepted.  He was that bad.

Ah, to be Young!

And finally, there was the 16-year-old with a pristine early NSX.  He had been to a couple of Skippy schools (Skip Barber Racing) in formula cars and obviously knew more than did I. 

The first session of the day is typically run Full Course Yellow.  The purpose of this session is to familiarize students with the track, the corners, where the corner stations are, pit in and pit out, you know, just get a lay of the land, no passing.

This young man, during this warm-up session, had no traffic in front of him when we first exited pit lane.  And he drove 9.5/10ths for most of the first lap.  Finally caught up to traffic where he had to slow down.  He was sliding the car, braking really deep, intent on showing me how good he was, or really just way, way, too enthusiastic.  All the while I was diplomatically but strongly asking him to save it for the rest of the day, to work up to the speed.

So, after that session and the first novice session (after novice classroom session 1), we went out.  We were the first car on track.  During the warm-up lap for that session, he was driving 10/10ths.  Again I calmly but strongly asked him to take it easy, and work up to the speed, worry about line first and that the speed would come later.

In hindsight I should have been much more forceful.  I am an Information Technology Project Manager by trade, so I have been taught to remain calm in stressful situations (at which I am not always successful, I must admit) and to firmly but gently influence people.  In my years of both my profession and instructing at HPDE events, this served me very well.  When we came around to take the green flag lap (this is the lap following the Full Course Yellow lap), I had already decided that on the straightaway after the Carousel I was going to tell him to go to the pits so we could chat.  I try to convey important information when possible only on the straights so the student is not mentally busy braking, finding the turn in and apex points while trying to listen to me.  We didn’t make it that far.  He went in too deep at Turn 3, which at Sebring is the first heavy braking zone of a lap.  So we augured straight into the tire wall, buried the car in the tires up just past the windshield.  First braking zone of the first hot lap of the first session of the day.

I was sore from where the OEM shoulder harness caught me but luckily neither of us were hurt.  How hard a hit was it?  A couple of months later I saw on NSXPrime.com a question about the car and whether anyone knew what had happened to it.  It was in Budapest, Hungary, sold for salvage.  Um, yes, I did know what happened.

But overwhelmingly my experiences instructing have been incredibly gratifying.  I really enjoy sharing what (little?) I know.  No, I am not really all that fast, but I am reasonably quick, drive consistently and safely, am always aware of cars around me, can analyze and prioritize what a student needs to work on next, and communicate fairly well.  And it’s a heck of a lot of fun to witness a first time, inexperienced student who has never driven on a track before, smiling ear-to-ear by the end of the day.

That’s why I do it.

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