"It was a very proud moment for me when they finally said 'ok, you can take one student now, don't mess this up.'"
Jon Felton: Director, NASA Florida Talks about the National Auto Sport Association HPDE Program
by Ziva Allen
The National Auto Sport Association (NASA) was formed back in 1991 and provides a full slate of driving events for motorsport enthusiasts. NASA has numerous regions throughout the country and there are events of one sort or another all the time. These events include HPDE (track days), autocross, time trial, rally cross and amateur racing. Newcomers start out in high performance driving events, which have four levels. The levels are distinguished by the experience levels of the drivers and by increasingly relaxed passing rules. Also, in level one, the driver has an instructor in the car at all times. NASA oftentimes combines HPDEs, time trials and races when they rent a track. Time trial classes depend upon the vehicle and modifications and are meant to pit similar cars against each other in timed competition. For example, the Miata driver will be competing against other similarly prepped Miatas and other cars of similar speed, not against a Corvette ZR1. Club racing also takes place at these events, offering wheel-to-wheel competition and the opportunity to spectate to discover if this might be of interest to you. Unlike other amateur racing organizations, NASA is known for safety and a controlled racing atmosphere. One of the many plusses about NASA is a comprehensive ladder system in one organization. A driver can start out and then move into any of the available levels of motorsport participation offered. This is an experienced organization and one of the first and early HPDE providers in the country, so they know what they are doing. Their events can be busy, with all of the different HPDE run groups, time trial and race groups packed into one highly coordinated schedule.
We talked with Jon Felton, Director of the NASA Florida region, about his driving experience and the NASA HPDE program. Many of us fondly recall how we got started and through whom. Jon is no exception. “I was an auto crosser. But eventually I wanted to go faster. Driving on tracks was just an evolution of the hobby for me, as it is for most. A friend who was already into track driving got me into it back in the late 1990's. The planets aligned as the small NASA region I was living in needed some help with expansion. I became a NASA official soon thereafter and have been in some sort of directorial position with NASA pretty much nonstop ever since.” Those lucky enough to participate in track days can certainly relate to Felton’s nonstop involvement in the hobby. When asked how he developed track driving skills, Felton had this to say: “Seat time, taking notes, and working on smoothness are all critical to improvement. Trying to improve too quickly while just blasting around only burns up tires and brakes.”
That ladder system we mentioned earlier? Jon Felton climbed every rung. “My journey was longer than most because I'm often too busy working at the track to get a full weekend of sessions in. So over the last 16 years it has been a lot of... one session Saturday, two sessions Sunday, no sessions at the next event, four sessions or two races at the one after that, etc. But I simply climbed NASA's “ladder of speed” like anyone else. Eventually I got to HPDE3/4 and was invited to an instructor clinic. Then when the Time Trial program was launched, I started participating in those and running that program for the mid-Atlantic region. Eventually I went to competition school in a rented BMW and raced in a rented Mustang the two days after that. To this day I run my own BMWs in HPDE3/4 and TT and autocross, and rent or borrow cars to race whenever time and money allow.” Those milestones are unforgettable. Moving up the ladder from novice to intermediate or getting signed off for solo or being invited to an instructor day: Nothing like it.
In the early 2000s Felton was invited to attend an instructor clinic which, at that time, was considered a big deal. Says Felton, “It meant you were known as a safe and somewhat fast participant. There was a more involved interview process, check-off ride-alongs, role playing exercises, and the whole deal. It was a very proud moment for me when they finally said ’ok, you can take one student now, don't mess this up.’ It has been a learning experience ever since, and to this day I am proud to call some of the best chief instructors in the world my friends, like Jeff Curtis and Jack McAfee in NASA mid-Atlantic and Luis Jimenez in NASA's Florida region. These are guys who understand the importance of safety before all else. Then have fun! It's infectious – when an instructor is having fun, the student has even more fun and has a better weekend as a result. The student usually gets faster quicker too!” No HPDE program can survive without its instructors. Do not be too shy to ask about a track day provider’s procedure for signing off on instructor approvals. Do they have instructor training and evaluation days? Do they train their instructors? Do they have master instructors who mentor new enlistees? Did your instructor read Ross Bentley’s recent publication, Brake, Brake, BRAKE: The HPDE Instructor Manifesto?
To give you an idea of how instruction at a NASA event goes, let’s hear again from Felton. “It all starts with the Saturday first session pre-discussion, which is really more of an interview. ‘Hi, I'm your instructor. I am here to help you have a great weekend. What are your goals?’ Just that one question sets the tone for a generally great weekend because it lets you adjust your approach accordingly. Some students have natural skill. Others don't. Some students really want to get faster and closer to the limit while others just want to drive around and have fun. Some are timid so you speak gently and slowly and others really need to be barked at – in a friendly way of course – to do what you're telling 'em to do. Figuring out how to do that quickly and efficiently only comes with years of instructing experience. And after that, just making sure the students are being safe and having fun and learning, the usual items in that order, really helps. I also like to help students with car related items such as tire pressures, replacing brake pads, whatever they need. Instructors are ambassadors in the grand scheme of things, and the most important people at any given event since no HPDE can happen without 'em!” A good instructor will strive to learn their student’s goals for the day and for track driving in general and will gear your sessions to your individual needs. Instructors are also there to welcome and help you in every way because, while Felton says that HPDE cannot exist without the instructors, it really cannot exist without you, the track day participant.
There are many teaching techniques and at times instructors need to be creative in order to reach a student or break a bad habit. For example, there is the all-important skill of not locking your vision too close over your hood but instead looking way ahead of where you are on the track. When you are turning in, you should be looking at the apex of a turn. When you are at the apex, you should be looking at the track out point. Looking way ahead will make you a smoother driver and allow you more set-up time as you approach turns. So what to do when a driver just insists on looking right in front of the car? Well, here is what Felton did. “There was an intermediate guy at Summit Point years ago who was driving like an auto-crosser – from point to point, throwing the car around and not being consistent, placing his car only relative to the part right in front of him. Eventually I used an old Evolution autocross school trick. I literally covered the bottom of his windshield with tape, so he had to look ahead… he was driving much better and smoother and faster only a few sessions later! He's racing now and has won a bunch of events since.” This is not unlike a technique we heard about in a recent interview with Rick Malone, Ron Fellows Performance Driving School Director at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch. Malone told us about an exercise wherein they cover the entire windshield during a slow circuit through a series of cones to force students to look out the side windows to see where they are turning. Malone explained, “To strengthen peripheral vision, we do a serpentine exercise where we cover the windshield with a sunscreen. The student drives through a course slowly using only the side windows.”
Everyone, no matter how experienced, can always work on improving their driving skills. We asked Felton what he does to work on his driving skills. “I'm a bit out of practice these days as I’m often too busy working at the events to drive much. So I usually work on consistency and building speed gradually. I also soak up as much advice and coaching as I can from pros like Peter Krause and Mike Skeen.” Yeah, those guys hang out at NASA races too. You just may run into them at a NASA event.
When asked what advice Felton would give someone who is interested in getting started at track day driving Felton said, “The best advice is to just jump in and do it. Flying around a road course is some of the most fun you can have with your clothes on, and helping someone “see the light” is even better! The approach is always the same for all of us – go as fast as you can safely, and have as much fun as you can, within your own limits as well as those of your car... and your wallet.” Sounds pretty reasonable. “NASA had one of the original HPDE programs from way back in the early 1990's in California,” said Felton. “As NASA has grown into a nationwide organization, this program has grown and developed in many regions as well. The events typically have four or five run groups based on skill and experience, with certified instructors provided at first as well as available later, with less restrictive passing rules as you progress. There is no better or more developed HPDE platform in the country that I am aware of.” NASA has been holding HPDE events for a long time and is a very large and well-structured organization.
With the onslaught of HPDE-only track day providers, NASA has had to do some innovating to stay competitive. They have developed some interestingly branded procedures to differentiate themselves from other track day organizations. These include Supersize and Double Down, Hyper Drive, Driver Tuning, and Roll On, Roll Off, which Felton explains for us below.
“NASA's ladder system is quite simply the best in the country as far as I'm concerned. With many HPDE-only organizations, once you get to the fast run group, you've done all you can do. But with NASA, you're just getting started. You can then schedule a check ride and enter the time trial group and test yourself in competition against the clock, with a common sense based classing system – not to mention winning Hoosiers and Hawk brakes and more. Or you can take a competition licensing school and race regionally. From there, you can attend either or both of our national championship events each season (eastern at Road Atlanta in late August, western at Sonoma in early November) and “go pro” from there!
Supersize and Double Down are our terms for doubling your track time on any given event weekend for much less than twice the price. Racers can also run in Time Trial or HPDE4, and HPDEers can run in their group and the one “below” it (HPDE4 and HPDE3, HPDE3 and HPDE2, etc.) Our dollars-per-minute-of-seat-time ratio is the best around as a result of this!
Hyperdrives are the ultimate introduction to the world of HPDE. A single HPDE1 session with an instructor usually goes for between $50.00 and $75.00, all on the first half of Saturday, and without requiring a NASA membership either. There is no better way to get started without having to commit to a whole weekend worth of time and expenses!
Driver Tuning is our advanced coaching program in select markets. We pair you with a known pro coach/pro racer for a variety of tasks based on your goals. Generally our coaches use some combination of in-car instruction, out of car observation, data comparison (your Traqmate file from you in your car versus theirs in your car), and video review. It's the best way we know of to really hone your skills and find the last few tenths of a second here or there. All for far less than the cost of hiring that coach for the day!
Our insurance is also among the best in the business. Most people don't think about this ‘worst case scenario’ stuff, but our members get a million dollars’ worth of excess medical coverage. If things go very wrong at the track, medical bills can quickly add up and NASA's got your back, just in case. Check with other groups, especially the smaller HPDE-only ones and some of the racing providers provide the bare minimum which is, I believe, $25k. You can easily blow through that just getting airlifted out because your neck hurts... a million bucks instead is an awesome benefit for just the small price of a NASA membership!
Roll On Roll Off is one of the two ways we maximize the quality of the track time in our HPDE groups. Most organizers wait to fully clear the track then send the next group. This burns up several minutes on either end of, say, a scheduled 25 minute track session, especially at the bigger tracks! We don't do that. We send a pace car ahead of each group, behind the last car from the prior session. So the prior group's cool down lap is the next group's warm-up lap. Doesn't sound like much, but if it gets you 5 more minutes of high speed fun per session that adds up quickly!
The other thing we do to maximize track time is something called Hot Pulls. We use a much larger safety crew than most groups (and all HPDE-only groups I'm aware of), including two staffed ambulances so we don't have to shut down if someone needs to be transported to a hospital. Then if we have a tow-in or incident to deal with, we only go local yellow in that area so drivers can continue to play on the rest of the circuit. Most groups will black-flag everyone to sit on pit road until the cleanup is finished which can quickly eat up most, if not all, of a track session. We don't do that unless we absolutely have to for a major safety reason like track blockage or a truly dangerous spot for emergency workers with feet on the ground. This keeps our “actual time versus scheduled time” ratio as close to 100% as possible. Other groups may advertise more track time than we do, but usually you'll find that it isn't really more at all, because of all we do that they don't do.”
Felton’s final words. “Just an invite to come drive with NASA anytime. We have a lot of fun both on and off the track. Thanks!”