Ask the high-performance driving instructor

Based on the requests in a previous thread, I am launching this thread to offer Dopers a chance to learn more about High-Performance Driver’s Education (HPDE), and perhaps to encourage a few of you to enter this fun and exciting, if little-known, area of motorsports.

**What is HPDE? **

First, it is not racing. You are not timed nor do you compete with other drivers in any way.

HPDE is an opportunity to learn basic race driving techniques in your own car in a safe, controlled, and non-competitive setting. Classes are usually held on road course race tracks like Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen, or Mid-Ohio, although some are run at oval tracks that have road courses in the infield. There are literally dozens of tracks in the U.S. and Canada that host HPDE classes. (I’m afraid I have no information about HPDE outside North America.)

A course will typically start in a classroom with discussion of basics such as the racing line, threshold braking, weight transfer, etc., as well as safety instruction, such as passing rules and the meaning of the flags that corner workers use to indicate track conditions.

Students then head out to the track with instructors, usually one-on-one, for a 20- to 30-minute session in which the techniques will be applied. Instructors coach the students from the passenger’s seat of the student’s car, introducing more advanced topics as the student progresses. The day may consist of four or five track sessions and two or three classroom periods. Some schools also offer time on the skid pad, a wet circular track on which you can really learn about car control.

Students are split into three or four groups, based on experience and skill level. After several sessions, instructors can certify a student to move into the next skill group, or to run solo, without an instructor. This doesn’t mean the student can’t still ask an instructor to run with him for more advanced instruction, only that he has been judged skillful enough to be on-track on his own. Wise students will continue to take instruction even at the most advanced levels, particularly when they’re running a track for the first time.

HPDE sessions can last one, two, or three days, almost always on weekends, with between 1.5 and 3 hours of track time per day.

**What kind of car do I need? **

You can start doing HPDE in almost any kind of car, but of course most people interested in this kind of activity have, or soon get, sports cars. Popular on track are Porsches, BMWs, Corvettes, Subaru WRXs, Mitsubishi Evos, and my car, the Nissan 350Z. You occasionally see exotics like Ferraris and Lamborghinis, although they tend to run in club events with others of their own marque.

How safe is it?

Safety is the top concern of all who organize HPDE events. Students must wear helmets; convertibles must have roll bars; all cars must pass a basic technical inspection. Corner workers monitor the track and students are taught about the flags they use. Emergency vehicles and trained EMTs are usually present.

For all but the most advanced groups, passing is usually allowed only on specified sections of the track (the straights), and only when the car being passed gives a sign, known as a point-by.

Accidents happen, but they are almost always single-car incidents, and serious damage or the totaling of a car, while not unheard of, is rare. Injuries requiring medical treatment are extremely rare, and I have only heard of a handful of fatal accidents in HPDE.

But the potential for harm is always present, and people who participate regularly, like myself, often add safety equipment such as roll bars, racing harnesses, and fire extinguishers, to their cars.

Who organizes HPDE events?

National organizations such as the National Auto Sports Association (no connection to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the Sports Car Club of America run dozens of weekend events all around the country each year, usually mixing HPDE schools with amateur races. HPDE sessions are also sponsored by car clubs such as the BMW Car Club of America, the Porsche Club of America, and others. Some tracks offer their own schools, such as Mid-Ohio and Summit Point Motorsports Park in West Virginia, whose long-running one-day school, Friday at the Track, is how I got my start, and where I now instruct. (I have also instructed with NASA.)

Other organizations such as Performance Drivers Association, TracQuest, TrackMasters, run HPDE events.

Why do it?

It’s the most fun you can have with your pants on.

If you follow any racing series, and have ever wondered what it’s like to drive a race car, this will give you a hint as to the skills needed, and what it feels like. If you’ve ever watched NASCAR and thought, That doesn’t look so hard, trying HPDE will prove you’re wrong. If you don’t believe that top race drivers are serious athletes, try it, and see how tired you are after 20 minutes on the track!

If you’re interested in trying club racing, or taking a school like the Skip Barber or Jim Russell racing schools, HPDE is a good way to get the basic skills at much lower cost.

How can I get involved?

Perhaps the easiest way is to visit the Web site of the track closest to you and check its schedule for events that fit your schedule. (Keep in mind, however, that these events often fill up weeks or months in advance.) If you don’t know what the nearest track is, check this site, Chasin’ Racin’, for a road course (yellow dot) near you. If you are a member of a car club, or have a car for which a club exists (BMW, Porsche, Audi, Corvette, etc.), see if the club offers track events. If you see that a track has a car club event, contact the club, even if you don’t have that kind of car: most allow participants outside their marques.

I strongly recommend NASA events. They are well run and the instructor corps is experienced and well trained.

Who are you to lecture us about driving?

My credentials: I have been running HPDE events since 1999, and to date have done more than seventy track days in three cars at thirteen tracks. I have taken the Skip Barber three-day racing school (at Mid-Ohio) and for the last two years I have been instructing HPDE at Summit Point and with NASA.

That said, I don’t consider myself a great hotshot, either as a driver or as an instructor. I don’t know everything, and won’t pretend that I do in answering any questions you may have. I have read a fair number of books about driving, and may cite them or some of the many HPDE Web sites out there.

So what would you like to know about high performance driving?

I’d love to go to a HPDE event (such as one of the ones the BMW CCA in my state sponsors), but the only car I have access to is my mother’s Taurus. Is there even a point in registering, or should I wait until I have a sportier car of my own?

Well, since you did mention ‘nearly any kind of car’, what kinds of cars would you not reccomend be used for HPDE? I would think that a rust bucket that is threatening to fall apart at the slightest touch would be high on list, but are there any particular makes/models that just aren’t well suited to such a thing?

And in a related note, what the oddest/funniest car you’ve seen at a HPDE event?

<< The journey of a thousand miles begins with a broken fan belt and a leaky tire. >>

I would be interested in taking a class like that just to get more knoledge about how my vechicle handles on the road, and how to keep it under control when the shit hits the fan. Would I be laughed off the track if I showed up in my daily driver

Would you recomend that for someone who just wants to improve their driving for the daily commute?

What are the biggest problems you have in teaching someone? Are there things that a majority of the students think are correct that you have to change?

Do you ever take the wheel of the students cars? If so which was the most fun to drive? What was the stupidist/scarriest thing a student has done in the car while you were riding with them?

OK, enough for now. I should be getting some work done.


My boyfriend perked up at this post, since he has always been interested in cars and rallying. Ive been curious about these too, and it would be wonderful if you could point us in the right direction!

When is the best time to start accelerating out of a turn? Before, at, or after the Apex?

Also, how much does body roll affect the performance of a car? Both of our cars (Pontiac Vibe and Mazda Protege5) have body roll, and we were wondering if this would be an issue performance-wise.


Have you seen the film of Sabine Shmidt(?) doing the Nurburgring in a Ford Transit?

I’ve had a spin-out scenario in my car exactly one time in my life and i’d rather not repeat it accidentally. Purposefully however would be a blast(on a track!).

I drive a 99 Impreza outback sport

in an AWD vehicle when going into a turn and beginning to oversteer is the correct notion to counter-steer in the direction opposite of the oversteer and simply apply power?

Er, that should be over-steer scenario

Great timing for this thread! I’m attending a course at the end of May and having read your description of the physical demands I’m wondering if you can recommend a way to prepare. I’m supposed to be trying to get into better shape anyway but what types of exercise can you recommend specifically for the demands of high performance driving? If I know I’m exercising for a specific goal rather than just plain old boring general overall health I’m more likely to take it seriously.

iwakura43, Nightsong, Otanx: You can start with almost any kind of car, but obviously it isn’t wise to go on track with a car that isn’t in nearly perfect running condition (good brakes, tires, wheel bearings, etc.). You will be putting much greater stress on almost every part of it than you do in ordinary street driving–running the engine to higher revs, braking harder, turning harder–so any weak point is more likely to break, which you don’t want when you’re coming down the front straight at 120 mph.

The tech inspection that the organizer conducts is only intended to check for the most obvious problems, so it is the driver’s responsibility to make sure that his car is up to the stresses it will experience on track. Here is a standard tech form that must be filled out for a NASA event (PDF!).

As for the type of car, first, an automatic transmission is obviously less than ideal, since maintaining control of the shift points is a key skill drivers must learn. But for a first session, an auto is not a deal killer.

Unfortunately, otanx, your pickup, and other vehicles with a high center of gravity, like minivans, are not recommended, because of their tendency to tip over in turns. The other problem with a pickup is, of course, its light rear end and tendency to oversteer. It is up to the individual organizers to say whether they’d actually permit any specific vehicle on track, but offhand, I’d say you’d be better off trying any of the other three vehicles in the driveway than the 3500.

Keep in mind that in the beginning, you won’t be driving your car anywhere near 100% of its capability, no matter what kind of car it is. So iwakura43,the Taurus would be fine for your first couple sessions. But if you run more than a few events, you’ll soon want to move to something with a little more ooomph, and a manual tranny, if the Taurus has an auto.

But learning in a slow car is not a bad thing: it forces you to learn to conserve momentum. Many people who start in a muscle car don’t learn the finer points of carrying speed through corners, since they can just power down the straights, making up for time they wasted in the slow parts of the course. One of the best track starter cars is the Miata: inexpensive, great handling, not too powerful, and fun, fun, fun to drive. And if you really get into it, you can move into Spec Miata racing.

Absolutely, although many tracks and event organizers also offer Advanced Driver Training that is focused less on racing technique and more on street driving. These courses are also recommended for teenagers, to give them more experience with extreme situations that regular Driver’s Ed doesn’t cover. HPDE will definitely improve your driving skills on the street, but if that’s all you’re looking for, these other courses (sometimes called accident avoidance classes) are probably preferable.

The biggest problem is trying to teach someone who thinks he already knows it all, and doesn’t want to learn. Fortunately, this is fairly rare, especially among beginning students, who generally realize that this is a new skill they have to take in from someone with more experience.

The biggest mistake beginning students make is wanting to turn in to a corner too early or with too much speed. Coming down a long straight at 100+ mph, you see that corner coming up and street driving instincts tell you to TURN! But you have to brake HARD first (much harder than you normally do on the street), slow the car to the optimum speed for the corner, wait for a turn-in point that usually seems too late, then accelerate past the apex. If you turn in too soon, or carry too much speed into the corner, you will go off the track on the outside of the turn. The motto is, “Slow in, fast out.”

Yes. It’s not unusual for an instructor to drive the first few laps in the student’s car to acquaint him with the track and the “racing line,” the optimum path around the course. Of course, you’re not running at top speed as you do this, for obvious reasons, and you only take a couple of laps before turning it back to the student. So you’re trying to get familiar with this new car, and not grind the gears or do any damage, all while going through your spiel about the line, braking, etc. Judging the relative merits of the cars is kind of low down on the list, and there isn’t much time. But I remember being pretty impressed with the speed and handling of the Evo. And I really like the Lotus Elise, although it’s a little tricky to get in and out of (at least for someone my size).

I’ve been fortunate not to have any really bad students, although I’ve heard tales from more experienced instructors that would curl your hair. Usually, it’s the know-it-all type who just wants to go fast and not listen to the instructor. In some situations, the only thing you can do is tell the student to come into the pits and hand him over to the chief instructor for “special attention.” Again, I’ve never had to do that, thankfully.

First of all, long chapters of books have been written on this subject, so my answer will necessarily be very simplistic.

The “official” answer is usually, “at the apex,” but the real answer is, as early as you can, given the conditions (car, tires, track, etc.). For the beginner, accelerating at the apex is a good rule of thumb, but there are circumstances where you may have to wait until later, or may be able to ease on the gas before the apex. One of the primary skills a driver must learn is what he and his car are capable of handling at any particular place on the track.

As in the other things we’ve been talking about, not so much when you’re just beginning, but as you get more seat time, it will become a bigger issue. Sway bars or other mods to the suspension are often a simpler and cheaper way to find speed on track than trying to increase the horsepower, which is where most people tend to start.

No, but I saw her on Top Gear driving a diesel Mercedes (I think). She’s amazing. A friend of mine did the 'Ring in a rented Z4 last year. I’m envious, and would love to do that sometime.

Countering oversteer is one of those cases where writing and talking about it is not as helpful (for most people) as just getting into a car and going out onto the skid pad and doing it.

But in general you’re right. If you’re making a right turn and your rear end is swinging out to the left and pointing the car further right than you wanted, you have to turn the steering wheel left to point the car in the direction you want to go. The trick is not to overcorrect, which can send you into oversteer in the other direction. As for power, remain on the gas or increase throttle smoothly if you can. Do not mash the gas, and certainly don’t lift, which will tend to spin you around faster. Don’t hit the brakes unless you’ve passed the 90-degree point in the skid. Then “both feet in:” hard on the brakes and the clutch.

Gut: I don’t have any specific training ideas, and I’m not in the greatest shape, myself. Driving doesn’t necessarily require great strength, but it does take stamina and quick reaction times. Working on the upper body can’t hurt, of course, and jogging would probably help with the stamina. Beyond that, I don’t have many ideas.

At the track remember to stay hydrated, use sunblock, and avoid too much caffeine.

Thanks! I’ll make with the push ups and hit the exercise bike. I can’t stand jogging. I’ll be sure to bring a good sized water bottle to the track.

It was a Jaguar. This is the follow-on.

[broken link]

Thanks for all the answers. Sounds like a fun job. When I get back to the states I will probably look into a class for both my wife and myself.

That is what I figured. I love driving my truck, and I do race it just because I like being unique. I have noticed it has a tendancy to understeer not over. My truck is modified “just a little” so that might be part of it. Also the only other vechicle in that photo I can drive is the Porsche in the back (one with the hood up), and it is on jack-stands with no suspension. Not going to get around the track very fast that way. Of course I got another 2+ years till I get back to the US, and get to drive again.

OK few more questions.

Do your organizations also offer HPDE for motorcycle riders? I am thinking about getting a bike when I return to the US, and would be interested in trying a motorcycle HPDE class. How about classes for big rigs? Wasn’t it Allstate that had the commercial with the semi truck on the skid pad in the background. If I am going to be driving something I want to know everything I can about how it handles.

How did you manage to get a job teaching HPDE? How would you recomend someone go about getting a job teaching HPDE?

As a counter point to the question I asked before; what is the most common thing new students perform correctly at the beggining, or grasp the easiest?

Finally do you know if insurance companies consider your courses as one of those that you can take to lower insurance rates? Usually they say a defensive driving class, but wondering if HPDE fits in that or not. I know this will mainly lay with the insurance company itself, but do you know if any accept the class you teach?


Thanks for the link, Quartz. I hadn’t seen that one.

Otanx: I’ve never heard of HPDE for bikes, but I haven’t looked. None of the car groups I run with do bikes. But there’s plenty of bike racing, so I’m guessing there must be racing schools. As for big rigs, well, you’re on your own there, big guy!

Instructing isn’t a job for me or for the vast majority of HPDE instructors. We volunteer and get track time in return.

Insurance is becoming a problem for some HPDE participants. More insurance companies are excluding any kind of track activity from coverage. It’s possible to get special track insurance, but it’s expensive. Most of us joke that if something happens on track, we’ll get the car off the track’s property and claim we hit a deer.

Is one expected to know how to heel toe for HPDE? The more advanced courses?

Heh, tell me about it: I learned to drive on a '67 Mustang which, given the stopping power of drum brakes meant the answer to nearly anything was MORE POWER! (‘She cannae take any more, Jim!’) After driving a '97 Intrepid for a bit, I switched to a '95 Miata as my daily driver.

Quite a difference, that. Instead of giving the car more gas in order to accelerate my way out of potential trouble, I have the ability to use a lot more finesse in my response. All I need now is to get a pair of dissonant tone horns to plunk into the Miata so I can signal my displeasure to my fellow drivers with more emphasis. :smiley:

It’s definitely something a track driver has to know, but it’s an advanced technique that I usually don’t get into with beginners. And it’s hard to teach on track. The mechanics vary considerably with the size and placement of the car’s pedals and with the size of the students’ feet, and it isn’t always easy to see what’s happening from the passenger’s seat.

For those who don’t know, heel-toe braking is a technique of “blipping” the throttle with the right side of the right foot (usually not literally the heel) while braking from a fast straight into a slow corner. The reason is that when you’re slowing down for a corner you want to brake and downshift at the same time, so that when you finish braking you’ll be in the correct lower gear and ready to accelerate through the turn. If you just downshifted normally, and pulled the clutch out while going too quickly, you could make the rear wheels spin as the engine slowed the wheels. This could cause you to spin out, or damage the tires or the engine. And it would be hard on the clutch.

By giving the throttle a tap with the side of the foot as you’re braking, and releasing the clutch as the revs drop, you match the engine speed and wheel speed and avoid those problems. It’s a tricky little dance that good drivers must know how to do without thinking.

To demonstrate heel-toe, I usually wait until we’re off the track, and have the student stand outside the driver’s side door and watch how I do it. (We’re not moving, of course.) Then I may take him for a ride in my car and show how I do it at speed.

I usually suggest that he try it in his street driving, when slowing for turns. After practicing away from the track for a while, he’s better prepared to try it on track.

Nightsong: One of the first things I did after getting my Miata was to install LOUD Fiamm air horns. If those other people out on the street couldn’t see me, they were damn sure going to hear me! (I also installed a roll bar and a Momo sport steering wheel.)

What does your mother say about this? :dubious:

I just thought I’d bump this thread once to tell the participants here about what I experienced at the course I just finished. It was Friday and Saturday and it rained all day Friday. I didn’t mind at all since I got to learn everything in wet conditions which is something that happens in the real world all the time. Saturday the track stayed dry which was great since we all really got to open up the speed and carry a lot more speed through the corners. All in all a great learning experience and the most fun I’ve ever had in a weekend.

There was a wide range of vehicles participating. A Dodge Colt, Acura RSX, Mustang GT, Audi A4, Mercedes E320, Subaru WRX, Mini Cooper,Nissan 300Z, Nissan 240SX, Porche Boxter, Porche Carerra, Porche 944 turbo, BMW M3, BMW M5, BMW 645 (2 of these), BMW 328is (2 of these including mine). That was just the novice group and only the ones I can remember. There were 23 cars in total for the novice group. As you can see even though it was a BMW club event all vehicles were welcome.

The intermediate and advanced groups had some other notable vehicles too. Acura NSX (2 of these), Porche GT3, Corvette (2 of these), VW Golf, Mustang GT. I’m sure I’m missing plenty. There wasn’t a whole lot of time for sight seeing as we had to hurry between classroom, skid pad, and track sessions.

The skid pad exercises were really great. Slalom through pylons, S curves through pylons, and increasing and decreasing radius turns exercises. This is where we got to apply some classroom theory before bringing it out to the track. Things like oversteer, understeer, threshold braking, and car positioning.

Out on the track is where we got to really test what we’d learned. It became clear very quickly that my lil baby beemer just doesn’t have a whole lot of power. Almost every other car in my group could easily out gun me on the straights. Something I already knew but it’s a little different having it demonstrated so graphically. However as soon as we got back into the corners it was even more graphically demonstrated who was learning faster than the others. There is something rather satisfying about chasing down a more powerful car through a series of challenging turns.

After the second track session on the first day our group instructor really laid down the law about the powerfull cars letting the others pass on the straights if the slower cars were just catching up right away. In fact he said. “There’s a reason they are catching you in the corners and you might just want to let them pass on the straights and follow them through the corners so you can learn what they are doing right and you aren’t.” On the second day all the passing issues were resolved and with the dry track everybody was really pushing it. Fun!

My evaluation went great and I’m cleared for the intermediate group next year. My track instructor gave me some real compliments afterward about how fast I learned and improved. Says I’ll probably move from intermediate to advanced group after the first day next year. I don’t know how true that is but I’ve got to tell you it was a hell of a compliment. I’m already looking forward to next year. If I can swing it I’m going to do the winter course too. It’s out of town so that will be more difficult to arrange.

The guys in my group that impressed me the most were the Mini Cooper and the convertible BMW 645. Holy crap those guys drove the hell out of those cars! That Mini was dancing through the corners and pounding down the straights. No way in hell was I gonna be catching that guy. The 645 was an absolute beast. Huge power in the straights and the guy carried it through the corners really fast and smooth. It sure was fun trying to catch him in the corners even though I had no hope. The Boxter and Carrera were flying too. I’d love to try a more powerfull car some day.

This is the facility the event took place:

and this is the map:

The skid pad was set up on the oval track and the classroom was the cafeteria/consession.

If you want to have a blast while learning a ton about driving and your own car I highly recommend taking part in one of these courses.

I’m glad to hear you had a good time, Gut, and welcome to the world of motorsports. I hope some others here will be inspired to join the club.

I want to offer a word of advice that reinforces something you’ve already observed. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that having more power equates to having more fun. Your car, underpowered though it may be, is a great car to learn in. Don’t bother modding it or trading up for something more powerful for a while. Maybe quite a while.

A low-power car forces you to learn to maximize your momentum. As you noticed, the guys with really powerful, fast cars think they’re having a good time because they can pull away from you on the straights. But you had the last laugh by catching up to them in the curvy places.

So stick with your present car and keep shaving seconds off your laps. Eventually you’ll be happy shaving off tenths. When you have a hard time finding another tenth, maybe it’s time to add power. But be patient. It’s much more satisfying to go a tenth of a second faster because you’ve improved your skills than it is to go ten seconds faster because you bolted a turbocharger onto your car. (And it’s cheaper, too!) Any idiot can buy a powerful car. Writing a check doesn’t make you a good driver.

And as you improve, don’t get too full of yourself. Once you get to the point that you’re allowed to solo, don’t think you’re done with instructors. It’s good to have solo time, but keep asking instructors to ride with you and offer advice.

A case in point: at my home track, where I’ve spent more than 45 days, my best time in the 350Z for more than a year has been 1:31.4. Just last week I was able to get down to 1:30.0, a remarkable improvement. After doing that, I rode with an instructor who gave me some pointers that I’m sure will improve my time even more.

Now, I found that 1.4 seconds before running with the instructor. But now that I think about it, I probably would have improved my time much earlier if I had ridden with an instructor more often. But I became complacent, and assumed I knew my home track completely. I hadn’t gone out with an instructor there for at least a year or two. A fresh set of eyes is always helpful.

Also, if you’re thinking about a pro school like Skip Barber or Jim Russell, I strongly recommend getting at least ten HPDE days under your belt first, maybe more. HPDE lets you master the basics at a tiny fraction of the cost of the big time schools, so that when you do plunk down your $1,200 per day, you’ll be able to hit the ground running. I had been doing HPDE for two years, and had run 14 track days in two different cars, before taking the Skip Barber 3-day racing school. Without wanting to appear immodest, I was one of the top three in my class of 25, and the other two had also had track experience. The students who had no previous track time couldn’t come close to what we were able to do. They had fun, and weren’t exactly throwing their money away, but I’m convinced I got a lot more out of the experience.

So go out, have fun, and let us know how it goes.

BTW, what direction do you run at Race City? Clockwise or counter-clockwise?

Also, for other readers, I’m still open for more driving questions.