Class is in Session!

Earlier this year I wrote about the frustration that coaches were feeling at not being able to coach because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since July however, we have been able to practice socially distant coaching in my region of NASA, the Northeast. This picture includes my first batch of driving students in 2020. Everyone did a great job of keeping themselves and fellow drivers safe on and off the track. A large part of that was doing lead-follow for instruction on the track where the student followed an instructor rather than having them in the right seat of their car. Lead-follow is not a stand-alone way to teach at the track, but a useful additional tool.

The disparity in ability narrows as experience grows in any area where we measure competence, and driving is no exception. So, although everyone attends our track day events to go fast, everyone’s fast is a little different depending on their car, their overall track day experience level, and their specific experience at the track we are visiting. While we focus on coaching and teaching, an equally important part of our job is to deliver the best experience to our students. A huge challenge for delivering the best experience we can is striking an appropriate balance between adhering to the rules that keep us safe and working with the diversity of driving talent within the group.

To that end I try to get my student group socialized as soon as possible by introducing ourselves and reminding them that although we are not a team (that needs to work together to achieve success) that as a group we need to interact with each other respectfully during our driving sessions and when we come together for our class sessions. Thus, when something unexpected happens on track it helps to know that it’s not just some jerk in the red car who screwed up my corner or lap, but that it’s Ed or Sally or Joe, etc., who most likely unintentionally made a mistake or not great decision in the moment. I think the socialization of the group increases the chance that what can be learned has greater chance of sticking with the students.

Cars passing each other is the usual source of trouble at a track day so the passing is self/driver regulated and as long as the rules of what to do to be respectful of fellow drivers is followed there is a healthy margin of safety.

The way it works is that the car in front has to give permission to the following car to pass by pointing to which side the following car should go by and when the pass should take place so it can be done as safely as possible. The safest place to make a pass is the straightaway so drivers do not have to worry about braking or turning. No matter what the performance levels of the cars involved the overtaking car is being driven faster so we work hard at getting across the idea of getting over yourself. We instruct the students to let the overtaking car by and then try to follow in an attempt to learn something they can apply themselves.

Dealing with student-driver egos is really a starting point to promote and enforce best behavior. If we can get beyond the ego related deal about who is faster then, the opportunity to embrace how to engage with and be part of their own environment opens up and we can get to working on the process of learning itself. The goal is to drive the students to a place where they feel they are present and aware of what we are doing and how they are affecting their environment. In terms of education this is a high-level skill that students can use to keep themselves safe on public roads where bad behavior like tailgating, poor merging, and other aggressive actions is too common.

When we are learning something new that we care about we concentrate really hard and that can mean that we are narrowing our focus. On the track in a lead-follow session that means students may be narrowing their focus to the point where they are only seeing the back of their coach’s car. In contrast the coach doing the leading needs to be aware of (1) where they are placing their own car so they are (2) correctly teaching the student where to put his/her car to be smooth and fast, (3) observing what the student is doing, (4) being cognizant of faster traffic coming from behind the student, (5) thinking about where the best place to let the faster traffic by without losing momentum, and (6) seeing far enough ahead in reality and in their mind’s eye to judge how to present themselves to any coach-student pairs that they are catching ahead of them.

Thus while it is my goal to have the students gain a measure of self-awareness, it is our expectation as an organization that the coaches are present to the full in their car on track and around the paddock when talking with their students.

In an ideal track day situation I would combine lead-follow instruction with in-car instruction, along with demonstration of technique from the driver’s seat of the student’s car by the coach all brought together and enhanced through introduction of skills and reinforcement of lessons in the classroom. Hopefully going this deep with the students will mean that when they watch a race is no longer boring because they have picked up on how a driver has to figure out a strategy as they attack opponents and defend their position rather than just see how they take the one turn 1 front of them.