The HPDE Instructor
How hard can it be?
In true Jeremy Clarkson fashion, I always found myself wondering "How hard can it be?" about instructing high performance driving at the track. Not in a trivializing the effort kind of way, I simply thought it would be exciting to coach people on high performance driving and the dynamics of driving, two things I'm very passionate about. I have heard about the safety risk. After all, High Performance Driving Education (HPDE) Instructors agree to trust a complete stranger not to kill them in a fiery crash, while said stranger pushes their car towards its limits. In return, those instructors teach you high performance driving. Trouble is: I have ridden shotgun in a very wide variety of cars that span a huge range of capabilities.
I'm quite fond of my memory of a ride in a 997 GT2 RS so I always love an opportunity to mention that. I've been in GT3 RS's, a C6 Z06 on R-comps, M3's of every generation and ranging from stock to heavily modified, and plenty others. I have also been in stock GTI's, Miatas, and similarly capable cars. And I took them all with a giant grin on my face as some of the best drivers I know piloted them. I had no fear of the passenger seat. If an opportunity ever presented itself for me to ride shotgun on track, I always took it.
More BMW's, Audi's, Mustangs, and even a Jag waiting for track time at Atlantic Motorsport Park
To make matters worse, I had been on the receiving end of HPDE instructing up until 2016. I took a seat on the other side of the table back then for the first time and that solidified my conviction. It's not scary at all. The problem is that my "student" was not a beginner, nor was he a stranger. He was a friend, and an instructor himself. He asked that I be assigned to him as an instructor so that we could compare our lines, braking points, throttle application, etc. Worse yet, the fact that he is a good driver not only meant no scary shenanigans, but also predictable reactions to input. If you said "brake", you didn't even need to qualify if that's a brush of brakes, touch of brakes, light braking, or heavy braking. Instead, it's very clear what the intensity of braking is based on how the car is loaded, how far into the turn, what the tires are doing, etc. That's a luxury I didn't appreciate, up until my first fresh green student after that. Indeed, how hard can it be?
The actual experience in the car is vastly different when it's someone whose skills you don't trust and know is fresh to this. I had never thought to picture before what it would feel like if I didn't trust that the driver is going to do the right thing. It was kind of a "duh" moment as we took the first hot lap. Every time you approach a braking point, you wonder if they'll take it. If a braking point is missed, you always wonder if it can be salvaged or you're in for an off track excursion. You need to be ready with direction for corrective action and that has to be clear and concise and, above all, timely for the situation. Oversteer? Going wide? Locking up? Abrupt inputs? Be ready for it all. And worse yet, be ready for your student not to know how to deal with a car out of control or console an upset chassis. And it will be a long time before consistency is achieved. But as they improve, they will no doubt gain speed.
Slalom exercise prior to open track with a student in a 7th gen Honda Civic (North American Model) with a K20A3 swap, lowered on coil-overs, at Atlantic Motorsport Park - Kevin Doubleday ©
A mistake now is that much more of a problem and speed gets picked up just as fatigue starts to set in. Meanwhile, you have to remember how overwhelming it can be. For someone who's been doing this a while, a lot of stuff is second nature and you start to work on the details, but a new track driver is still picking up all the skills. You, on the other hand, still remain calm, cool, and collected through it all. And there's more once you get out of the car, too.
Breaks are fewer and further between for someone who instructs and drives because you also want to go out and have fun in your car. And you'll be surprised how many more people ask you questions once you are assigned an instructor role. You always have to be aware that you are no longer just you out there learning and having fun, you now represent the organizing club and, to an extent, all instructors. Above all, you are also co-responsible for that person's school experience; how much they learn, how safe they are, and how much fun they have. That last bit alone is far more eye opening than the scary passenger seat with a new driver.
Paddock conversations are the backbone of social interaction among members of the endangered track rat species.
Perhaps that is the reason why you overlook the scary passenger seat with a new driver. Or it could be that you feel like you're contributing to growth in the community of this great sport. I'm sure there are various reasons why everyone does it, but regardless of the reason, my appreciation for all the instructors I have had and the organizers for such events has grown exponentially since I started instructing. I don't know what other regions are like, but we seem to have a pool of massive but humble talent in our local region. At that first school in 2016 where I wasn't officially an instructor but I was coaching someone, I wasn't assigned an instructor. But I wanted to still get feedback on my driving because I think a second person critiquing what you do do is a huge help. You know what I did? I asked four different people to come out with me during different sessions. I didn't expect the result.. .
ALL FOUR came out. These are people already busy with other students and tasks at the school. They already have to deal with all the above. They do know me, so perhaps the "fear factor" isn't there, but they still all happily came out to help, took the time afterwards to chat and give feedback instead of running off after the session. That was not an isolated incident and I can still remember just about every instructor I have had, as well as all those that I didn't "have" assigned to me but came out anyway. I can't thank them all enough, so here's hoping this does the trick.