“Once you work with an advanced person,” says Ray, “you see the issue, give feedback, coach them through it differently and then get out of the car and let them work on it.”
David Ray of Hooked On Driving
by Ziva Allen
David Ray, founder of the national Hooked on Driving track day organization, shared with us his expertise on driver improvement, coaching, track car modifications, track car choices and opening up the hobby to more women. Even with his busy schedule running Hooked on Driving, Ray makes it a priority to still attend events and observe drivers. Whenever necessary, Ray draws upon his decades of experience as a driver, going back to 1986, as a foundation from which to give drivers his advice. And he doesn’t just stop with the novices as he is a firm believer that everyone can improve. “Basically, we like to be an instructional learning environment all the way up to our advanced drivers,” says Ray. “We don’t just say, ‘okay, advanced guys, go play. You know what you are doing.’ We have group leaders for each run group. We watch each group and have a safety steward watch for someone who’s overdriving the car or technically missing some turns or missing their lines. We also have something called the candidate list and we try to get ahead of the curve. So when someone looks like they are a liability we will kind of put an arm around the guy and rather then call him out at a meeting or something, we’ll go chat with him. And we’ll say, ‘you know I’ll be honest with you, our safety steward is saying that you look like you’re pushing too hard and maybe you’re consistently missing that one turn and kind of barely touching the apex of the turn. Would you mind if we sent a coach out with you just to get it dialed in a little bit? And 95% of the time they go, ‘Wow! Yes.’ I love that.”
To reinforce his belief that everyone, at no matter what level, should focus on driver improvement, Ray shares an experience of his own. “I raced down at Buttonwillow last weekend and I had only done a track day there about 10 years ago and I got thrown right into a race weekend. And I kept hitting two turns too hard. And you can get into a rhythm of doing it wrong and if I’m in the middle of a race, I can’t correct it. And finally my ABS controller died and locked up my brakes so I had to slow down. And that’s when I learned the turn. I finally go, ‘oh okay. Well that’s one thing that came from that race.” And therein lies the message - you have to go slow first to go fast later.
We talked to Ray about the pros and cons of having instructors in cars versus utilizing lead/follow procedures. “If you do lead and follow correctly,” says Ray, “it can be very helpful. And some really prefer to learn that way but it’s just really hard to keep a group together and do traffic management. Also, once you have more than three cars in a row, it’s hard to keep a fourth car to where they’d actually be learning anything. And then observation certainly is a very valuable tool. But starting out in the car is pretty helpful.”
Ray’s approach is to use all tools available. “Generally when we can, we will throw me or an advanced coach in with the higher level drivers if we see they are attacking the turns or coming in too hot or they’re turning in too early or they’re a little inconsistent. There is value to being in the car because you see the hands, you see if he’s smooth, you see if he’s pinching,” says Ray.
Ray acknowledges that in-car instructing is neither for all scenarios nor all people. In fact, sometimes it’s not even possible as the driver’s car might not even be equipped with a passenger seat. Although he does believe that having someone in the car is invaluable, Ray is also aware that some people will perform better without a coach in the car. He finds that for some, it’s distracting and it can break the rhythm and flow of the lap. “And so once you kind of work with an advanced person,” says Ray, “you see the issue, give feedback, coach them through it differently and then get out of the car and let them work on it.”
Ray has coached at both the SCCA competition race licensing school and at high performance driving events. We asked him to talk about the difference between coaching for racers and for track day participants. “In the context of Hooked on Driving, I get a guy that wants to become a racer and I definitely have to hold him or her back and we work really hard on consistency and moving up the ladder of 7/10ths to 8/10ths to 9/10ths to get the pace where it would be at least reasonably competitive in a race environment. We do now have an open passing group in our very top level, most experienced group where we ask for cooperative passing. The thing we don’t do at Hooked on Driving is teach race craft. We’re not going to have people out there dive bombing one another and doing defensive lines and doing things that look racy. If I stand on the wall and watch the activity and if it looks like there’s a race going on, I bring them in because people have to work together. But that’s about 80% of what you need because if you’re out there working cooperatively, that means you are aware. You’re watching who’s in your blind spot, you’re anticipating speed differentials, you’re thinking ahead. You’re looking to the next turn. All of those things are great.” Ray also coaches once a year at the SCCA competition licensing school. He says, “Now there - I teach people how to kick ass and be very competitive and brake toward the start and do all kinds of crazy stuff to try to win races. But it’s a different set of skills and I keep that in the tool box when I’m at Hooked on Driving. They don’t recognize me when I go to the SCCA licensing school. They go, ‘you’re kidding me! You would do that?’ That would be really rude David.’ Yeah but that’s racing!”
Track car modifications is a popular topic and many people get very caught up in wanting to make their cars go faster. And people often get so caught up that it is at the expense of focusing time and resources on becoming a faster driver. It may even be at the expense of pursuing the activity over the long haul. Ray has vast experience as both a driver and working with track day participants and he has a few things to say about car mods. “I have a passion about that subject. Get your car in safe condition with good tires and brakes and fresh fluids and hoses and belts and go buy a helmet. And at the end of the first day you will be so massively more informed, you will find that doing any modifications to your car is unnecessary. Ninety-four percent of the cars can survive the first day with nothing more than stock equipment and consumables. We start out pretty slow. I mean we take it easy with the folks and the fact that we have restrictive passing zones means that it’s really just the end of the day when they really start flying down the straightaways. So the strong message is - spend the money on doing an event or even visiting and attending an event before you spend one nickel on the car other than maintenance and safety items. You certainly have to have good brake pads and stuff. And somebody should inspect it if you don’t know how to do that.”
“With our customers, I hope that they don’t just go off the deep end and blow huge money right away and kind of burn themselves out on the hobby too quickly. I’m always going to guide a person by telling them, ‘okay now if you put coil overs on that car, your wife’s not going to like it or you might not like it anymore and you’ll start looking for a trailer and a truck and now all of a sudden it’s like you’ve got to buy four cars.’ So be aware. Be informed. Have a plan about how you’re going to improve the car and what you want to accomplish with performance driving days. Brakes, suspension and tires. So few cars need horsepower, it’s a joke. The easy thing is cold air intakes and free flow filters. That is something that I believe in. It’s legitimate. Inexpensive. A one-time expense. With brakes and even with suspension, the whole thing is you’ve got to decide before you start spending money on the car how far you want to take it. Is this car going to go off the reservation and end up on a trailer? If it’s your daily driver, keep it under control. Don’t spend big money. Okay – there’s some upgrade kits to stiffen a little bit here and maybe some adjustability on the shocks. The performance alignment is maybe the best deal going in terms of performance. For a couple of hundred bucks you can have a knowledgeable shop set the car up and take some of the understeer out of it and it gets you going faster and it will turn better. Those are the kinds of things you should do. But horsepower’s the last thing.”
“When you get into horsepower, you start getting a lack of reliability too. Some people go buy a super charger or turbo charger kit and immediately start overheating their engines or then they have to spend $4,000 on big brakes because they’re going too fast into the turn. The radiator’s not big enough. I just want the new driver to be informed. I had a guy show up recently at an event that had been pretty much hosed over by a shop. He had a Grand Am adjustable wing on his Boss Mustang and they put a new steering rack on it. And I go ‘what?’ And this guy was a low intermediate driver and he just spent $18,000 on his Mustang. He was happy. But I just kind of bit my knuckle a little bit and said ‘okay wow that’s cool.’ But in reality, I hate to see that happen. I want people to enjoy the sport and if they could afford it, god love them, but even then people will start blowing money and not researching or not understanding the products they’re buying. We will guide or at least offer consulting.”
Ray’s advice about modifications is as well put as it gets. Focus on safety and reliability first. Don’t lose sight of what’s really important and end up turning your daily driver into a track only car that needs to be trailered to events. That leads to a whole other level of hassle. I knew someone who was trailering two cars to events with two pickup trucks and got burned out. He sold off everything, including a Porsche Turbo and a Porsche 930. He walked out of the dealership with a 997S, a check, started driving to the events and running the car as is. Then it became fun again.
Another big decision, if or once you’re in the position to purchase a track dedicated car, is which car to buy? We picked Ray’s brain on that one too. Maybe with Ray’s advice, we can save you some time and grief. Hooked on Driving has partnered with Chevy to bring its customers a special deal. Chevy has given Hooked on Driving 12 spanking new Corvettes. You know, the brand new 2014 C7 Corvettes that dealerships won’t even let you sit in. There are two for each region and they are at the events throughout this year. One to look at and one to drive. Drive? Yes, drive. Qualified drivers can take one out for some hot laps on the track. Free? Yes, free. Crazy? No, not crazy. Just excellent marketing. Ray was pretty fair and balanced when he was asked the question; so what kind of car would you recommend for a track day person? “I will tell you that I had a C5 Z06. I’ve had three or four Corvettes long before I had the Corvette relationship so I did have my money where my mouth is. It’s a no brainer to say that the Corvette is really one of the good values for driving a car on the track.” Since Chevy has given Hooked on Driving Corvettes to use at their events, Ray has not surprisingly spent a bit of time test driving one of those babies himself. And he has found that the car is not only a world class sports car but an amazing track car as well. As he says, “you really get the bang for the buck with that car!” In addition, Ray also finds the Porsche to be a good value for track day use, “in terms of taking the car from the showroom floor to the track a Porsche is one of the best cars. They’re very well set up. Their cooling systems and brake systems are good for the track. Even the modern day Mustang is a good buy and with a few minor modifications can be made a pretty darn good track car. If you want a good deal, the little Lotus Elise is a good one. It’s a little rocket ship and it’s pretty inexpensive to operate because when you get small and light everything is less expensive. For example, the rotors are $75.00 instead of $500.00, the tires are cheaper and the cars are almost as fast as the more powerful ones out there. All-wheel drive? I would admit to kind of mixed feelings about all wheel drive. I’m not a huge all-wheel drive fan but I’m blown away by what has been done with the Evo for instance, the Audi product, the Subura STIs. Those are cars that I see as day-to-day practical cars where somebody’s got to have a five door hatch but wants to drive fast. Those are a great solution.”
Since Ray mentioned the Evolution, we took the opportunity to open up the dual clutch versus manual transmission can of worms and asked him what he thinks about the DCT. “Well you know, they’re the wave of the future. Fortunately they’re so cool that they’re going to eventually win over the purists like me – it’s kind of analog versus digital. I love and I pride myself on the heel-and-toe skill. But I mean it’s pretty cool to get in a car that you can really just focus on pointing and shooting and really maximizing the line and straight line speed and turn-in momentum and all of those things.” Being the wave of the future, Ray believes, “It’s the new cell phone!”
We shared a funny anecdote with Ray about the time we sold our kart to a long time SCCA Mustang racer. I told the guy we were selling the kart because we were purchasing an Evolution MR with a dual clutch transmission, all-wheel drive and super all wheel control. And the guy’s response? “That’s almost like cheating!” Ray picks right up on this and says, “I mean he is somewhat right. It takes some of the skill away. But it sure doesn’t take the experience away in my humble opinion. We did a PDK [Porsche’s version of the DCT] versus a stick comparison in Excellence magazine a few years ago and the PDK was magic. I didn’t like how they had deployed it and they’ve since fixed that. You’ve got to have the paddles. There’s a certain way to set it up on the wheel. Some of the companies I think have done a better job with implementation than others. But it’s very cool. And I will point out that Corvette has been last to the party but they’re coming with a superfast automatic transmission eight speed with a torque converter. I’m not an engineering person so I’m dipping into an area beyond my expertise, but from what I’ve read and from what I understand from my Chevrolet contacts is they’ve built an automatic that handles over 600 horsepower. So that torque converter gives a smooth transition. The initial SMG from BMW was problematic and it really hit hard and it was hard to do a rhythm and then they improved that by programming the software. You could tune how hard the shifts hit but now the twin clutch is just unbelievable. But we’ll see. I’m pretty excited about the eight speed automatic as well.” Yeah, and BMW is selling the new M235 Racing and it only comes with an automatic transmission. A dedicated race car with an automatic transmission? No manual at all? You got it.
Ray concluded our interview by lamenting the lack of women involved in the activity. There are frequent examples of women-only track day events in the motorcycle world, but not so much in the car track day world. Let’s face it. There are obstacles for women in this activity. When my wife and I went to an event at The FIRM in North Florida, we asked for two driver waivers at the front gate upon arrival. The kid working the guard shack responded by saying, “She’s driving too?” Later in the day, I noticed one of the other participants came off the track and went right back on. It turned out that my wife had come up on him and then backed off and let him go. She caught him again and he came off the track to avoid being passed by a woman.
We asked Ray if Hooked on Driving has considered hosting any women only driving events. “When we opened the business, including women was a huge priority. A way to increase the customer base is to make this friendlier to women and figure out a way to encourage women to participate. However, I’m still disappointed with the percentages. It’s tough. I’m going to be very honest with you that we took some haircuts financially trying to do some things early on. We do have a good number of women that are regular customers but it’s not a big percentage. I’d like for it to be a bigger percentage of a customer base.”
“What I will say heartily is that women are absolutely encouraged and treated fairly and challenged and not cow-towed to or talked down to and culturally I stand on solid ground that women will be comfortable with us. Half a dozen of our best coaches are women with a lot of experience. I don’t know if she’d want me to tell the story but to be honest we have one coach who is a kick ass driver, a Corvette driver, and if we get a guy that shows up and we detect somebody that’s a know-it-all and doing a little macho stuff and standing on the gas on the straightaway and blocking everybody in the turns and giving us a little attitude, we will ask for a ride with Terry for that guy. It is actually one of the unofficial techniques that we use,” Ray says with a chuckle. “And it usually quiets that guy right down pretty quick. I think every region has some female drivers that can quiet the boys down pretty quickly.”
“One of my favorite proud stories involves my daughter Erin who, at 17 years old, went through the program in a Volkswagen R32 which is a pretty quick little GT coupe. And I had an acquaintance at the time – he’s turned out to be a really good friend of mine – a very prominent surgeon with a supercharged Cobra Mustang. It was his first day also and he was in the same class with my daughter. They were all walking in to lunch and the surgeon – he’s a big guy– a 6’ 6” guy – and I watched him walk by and stop at my daughter who was already eating lunch and he said ‘are you the driver of that blue R32?’ And my daughter looked up and said yes and he goes, ‘how is it that you blew my doors off in turn 6? I still can’t figure that turn out.’ And it was funny because I saw him a month later and the guy’s car was lowered, it had camber plates, it had harness belts and race seats and he goes ‘you know your daughter cost me $25 grand?’ and we all had a big laugh over that one.”
We talked to Ray about our mission for this magazine. We want to have an informative and fun periodical of interest for track day enthusiasts. We also want to impact a couple of issues. One has to do with the problem and the danger to our youth of street racing. This is a growing phenomenon due to the influence of popular movies and video games. Kids already feel omnipotent and they oftentimes lack the ability to be realistic about the consequences of speed on the streets. We have always believed that track days are a legal and safe way to test the power of a car and one’s driving skills. We have a monthly feature on efforts to curtail youth street racing, such as the one we did on Beat the Heat, a volunteer organization of public safety officers who engage with youth by using drag racing to get them off the streets. We also have a hope that since we are a couple engaging in track days together and doing this magazine as a team that this may influence more couples to become involved together in track day driving. We have a 13 year old daughter and we hope that she becomes involved with us too when she’s old enough. When we explained that we hope to encourage other couples and families to become involved in track day driving through our example, Ray gave us a resounding “That is music to my ears.”