Are racing drivers born or bred? The age-old nature versus nurture debate certainly has a place in the realm of motorsport, and while certain innate traits are almost impossible to teach — such as drive, dedication, passion, and attitude, others are cultivated from the sum of experience. Those of us who have racing ambitions are inherently competitive, thrill-seekers, and split down the middle in terms of humility or cockiness.
If you have the yearning for speed in the disciplined and skillful environment of the race track, many programs exist to help groom you into mastering the skill set necessary for success. While private tutelage often comes at a hefty price tag, ultimately these schools lack the accreditation to carry you to a full card-carrying membership in a given class.
If you are eyeing a specific division of racing, or just want to hone your skills with some instruction, high-performance driver education (HPDE) programs are some of the best avenues for seat time on track. The National Auto Sport Association (NASA) is one of the country’s leading grassroots-level racing organizations, and for good reason — they have in place the driver training architecture to give you the best chance at success.
NASA’s HPDE program is designed to take green drivers with an interest and turn them into safe, situationally aware, technical, critical, and fast drivers. We decided to immerse ourselves in this program, slipping into the Nomex socks and shoes of the aspiring wheel-man to see how NASA grows its drivers. Our teaching vehicle would be our Golf R project car, Gruppe R since it represents a mid-range performance car to which many can relate.
HPDE 1 – Saturday
The site for our foray into grip racing was Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. We decided an immersive two-day experience would make for the best springboard into learning the ways of road racing — in the hopes that our Saturday progress would net us a promotion into HPDE 2 on Sunday. Having carved our way through the industrial and railway metropolis of the Inland Empire we happened upon the great red and yellow coliseum that is Auto Club Speedway. This motorsports complex can host a multitude of events spanning multiple genres at any given time.
Passing through the infield tunnel, we escaped the foreboding industrialism of the exterior to find ourselves in the monumental bowl of the oval. This arena of power and spectacle is not such a far cry from the exhibition spaces millennia past. We rocked up bright and early on the gloomy Saturday morning, the legions of encamped tarmac warriors hunkered down in their transient accommodations. The cool humidity and overcast skies cast a heavy atmosphere to the air, with time to digest the new surroundings we perused the parking lot.
Car Prep And Tech
Tech inspection was scheduled for a snappy 7:30 a.m., and not knowing the complexity of things, we had time to burn. When the chipper woman on the loudspeaker effectively called reveille in the form of a “good morning campers, tech opens at 7:30!” we sprung to action like mid-morning molasses. Having read ahead on some of the pre-tech/self-tech procedures we had already inspected the car’s vitals: brakes, bearings, fluids, tires, and other important areas were safe and sane for our impending sessions. One useful trick recommended by fellow racers and NASA alike concerns affixing your temporary numbers.
Unless you own a vinyl graphics shop or are quite well-heeled you’ll probably be prescribing to some 3M race numbers — masking tape that is. Even low-tack tape can do a number on a paint job, a little spray wax applied and allowed to dry before taping up makes for easy removal later in the afternoon. Tech was a quick and painless affair
Tech was a quick and painless affair because our track-steed was nearly bone stock. A literal kick to the tires and head underhood had us approved and tagged.
Shortly after completing tech inspection was the call to muster for the driver’s meeting. NASA officials were introduced and general procedures for the day were addressed. At the conclusion of the group meeting, we were divided up into our respective run groups for individual briefing sessions. Being the HPDE 1 group we remained in the Auto Club Speedway lecture hall for our introductory classroom session.
School Is In Session
Leading the HPDE 1 classroom sessions was Eddie Hilliard, a jovial BMW racer who enjoys bringing aspiring drivers onto the track safely. The initial lecture consisted of various track-craft fundamentals and served to cultivate a mindset in students — one of safety, communication, and competency. We covered all the colorful flags one can expect to see being waved vigorously by track officials, what they mean, and how to appropriately heed their message. Moving onto incidents we discussed when it occurs, and that it is not a good idea to get out of your race car in the event of a crash — with the general consensus being that unless your car is on fire, wait for the safety crews to arrive before exiting.
With a good handle on operations, we changed to a more tactical mindset and took to examining the circuit map. The concept of the racing line, as basic as it sounds, was detailed in much more analytical terms such that we gained a more intimate understanding of why apexing too early or too late detracts from the fluidity of a lap. Braking points, turn-in, track-out, and run-off areas were identified. Hilliard outlined the unique features of the racetrack, highlighted tricky areas, and pointed out potential escape routes should a mechanical problem plague a driver. Being the first level of driver education, passing allowances were very limited, and only passing on select straights would be permitted, although point-bys were encouraged.
We would be assigned instructors to provide real-time feedback and critique during the sessions. NASA officials made it clear that they would do their best to pair students with mentors who communicated with some sentiment of synergy. Should a student feel like the teaching style or communication of an instructor just didn’t jive with their own, NASA would be happy to oblige with an instructor change.
With a grid time assigned, we broke from the meeting to prepare our cars for the first session. Around 11 a.m. we sat gridded and awaiting an instructor pairing. We were quickly aquatinted with our new driving coach, Gregg Karr. An HPDE 3 student and accomplished driver, Karr was allocated to us because he had an affinity for the platform we would be driving and could best advise on its specific quirks. We spent a few minutes getting to know each other’s backgrounds before the five-minute whistle blew.
“I went out to a track weekend, I didn’t know anything, I thought I knew how to drive cars but I got out there and realized I knew nothing about driving cars. I had so much fun doing it I decided to keep pursuing this hobby. I wanted to find more groups of drivers and I came across NASA, there’s a ladder system there,” Karr said. “The thing I like about it is there’s a path, so I know what to do and how to progress. The instructors are willing to teach you, we do this because we love it, we love getting other people excited. I’ve known Ryan Flaherty for 10 years and his number one before fun for anything is safe, safe, safe. Helmets and head and neck restraints on, comms hot, and clicked-in, we waited for a marshall to wave us onto the track.
Having never driven the Auto Club Speedway road course, our first lap was a very cautious sitting lap, which gave us time to acclimate and establish visual cues. As we grew more familiar, subsequent laps shifted our focus onto running the line — not fast, but correct. There is no sense in practicing something fast and wrong, as perfect practice makes perfect, and speed would come after the line was thoroughly engrained. The infield road course is comprised of 21 turns and about half of the D-shaped oval.
This 2.8-mile course has a little bit of everything, rewarding handling and line choice on the flats, and all out horsepower on the straights. A broad selection of cornering demands also make this track a good teaching circuit. While forgiving with abundant run-off, the banked oval commands respect when entering turn one at speeds ranging from 120-160 mph in production cars.
Karr reinforced the uncomfortably-late turn-in points and worked to push our track-outs into the run-off areas, making full use of the tarmac. Towards the end of the 20-minute session, the corners began to look more familiar and the butterflies had dissipated. Corners that were more important than others for carrying speed onto straights became focal points.
Post driving session there was a HPDE debriefing meeting back in the lecture hall. In these quick recaps, we reviewed everyone’s experience and addressed any incidents like spin-offs, blown corners, unsafe passes, or general concerns. The meetings were not meant to be disparaging or accusatory, but groomed drivers into a mentality of accountability so that by the end they would out themselves for an error and the class could learn from the mistake. Attendance of the meeting was mandated but a beneficial part of the experience, arguably more than the lesson that preceded the session. Track passes were issued at the end of our debriefing, granting us access to the next run.
NASA’s HPDE program is chalk full of action but affords participants plenty of time to stop and smell the tetraethyl lead, err roses. In between the action packed sessions a multitude of spec-class and time trial racing filled the air with a buzz and atmosphere of competition. Spec Miata, 944, and E30 were mainstays in the paddocks, and on the track, cameos by Honda Production and the Time Trial classes made for a diverse field.
We took the spare time to peruse the paddocks, look into the prep-practices, and watch the racing sessions of the class battles on track. The packs of spec race cars shared the track and mingled after a few laps. The attitude of the NASA racing community was one of camaraderie — tight dicing on the track but backslapping friendliness in between.
As a further teaching aide, and just a plain ‘ole good time, Karr invited me to go for a ride with him in his HPDE 3 (open passing) session. After climbing into the minimalist and almost cartoonishly cramped cockpit of his Lotus Elise, we took to the course on full attack! Simplify and add lightness has never rung so true than at 140 mph in the bank fluttering like a leaf on the wind, before braking well into the 1.5 g range and chucking the little car through the corners. Our ride-along with Karr had us jousting with supercars, and not only exemplified the prowess of the car, but of the mutual respect of the drivers. Karr made sure to practice all he preached during our driving sessions and provided commentary throughout.
Back At It!
Reporting for the following sessions of the day, we continued to work on the consistency of the line. Learning the line was easy to remember, it was applying that theory with other cars breathing down your neck that was the challenge. A smattering of speed began to make its way into our lines and we could roust the cars weaknesses. Confidence was building, and knowing that the Golf R was a middle-of-the-road platform we focused on precision. It is always said how important the racing line is to define fast drivers from slow, but it became much more concrete as we chased down and passed cars with several hundred more horsepower.
In the third and fourth sessions of the day, we began to toy with tire pressures dropping from the excessively efficient 40-plus psi cold pressures to a more appropriate staggered pressure set hot at 32-front, 36-rear. This change made a drastic improvement in grip and control; no longer did the car feel twitchy and eager to apply driver-aides. By the final run of the day, we felt confident hitting the lines, braking late, and using all of the track. It was a steady progression learning the limits of the car and driving right up to those limits. Marked by speeds carried onto straights and through corners, we saw a definite 10-plus mph gain around the track.
By the end of Saturday, Karr mostly just observed from the passenger seat of the Golf, only offering chuckles of appreciation at our management of understeer and run-off. The personal growth from session one to four was immense and apparent; the fruits of our labor came in the form of confidence, accuracy, and speed. The NASA instructors are laid-back and treat you like a friend. By not bringing stress into the car, their trackside manner makes for a constructive and fun learning atmosphere.
NASA provides HPDE students with a passport, as they call it. This little booklet is like a personal log book for individual growth, as any NASA race car has a log-book to keep tabs on changes and maintenance, so do the drivers. This record-keeping book allows instructors to document your progression and skills mastery, as they see fit this passport grants you entry further up the scale. At the end of Saturday, Karr was confident in our situational awareness, car control, and general competency to promote us to HPDE 2 for the later half of the weekend.
HPDE 2 – Sunday
Morning broke Sunday much like the previous day, but with an air of familiarity. The sites and sounds of the race track were comfortable rather than foreign as we knew what to expect and where to go — now we would be on our own. HPDE 2 reinforces the same fundamentals as HPDE 1 but without the safety net of an instructor, since at this point, students are expected to be aware of what they are doing wrong, why, and how to correct it. All too many students may not even know why their laps are suffering, identifying that there is a problem and why is a big part of the learning process.
A repeat of the morning drivers meeting re-hashed the important safety fundamentals, and after a short stint in the classroom, Hilliard released the HPDE 2 students to prepare for their first solo voyage onto the track. Recalling all the milestones from the previous afternoon we set out to build back up to (and hopefully exceed) our performance over the previous day. The first session cleared the air of any doubts that Saturday’s success was instructor-dependent. With a fresh crowd of students, the lap traffic was a little different — more aggressive drivers required a reminder that HPDE is not a race and passing rules needs to be respected.
Although HPDE 2 students are out to learn independently, building a foundation of consistency, it is sometimes beneficial to get a second perspective. We were offered an instructor ride-a-long for a different set of eyes. Karr did a fantastic job of setting us down the right path, but as in all technique-based sports, it’s good to know the different schools of thought. Enter John Aaron. Aaron lent a different perspective to a few of the line options, specifically navigating the banks of the bowl through turns one and two. After one 20-minute session with Aaron’s observations we were left with a few new options, and in a dynamic environment like road-racing, having options makes a difference. Keen to get Aaron’s impressions documented, I presented my NASA passports and like a high school yearbook hungrily collected his endorsement.
As we continued to complete solo lap after lap, our comfort level freed up the computational brain bandwidth to consider other fundamentals that were more platform specific. The Golf R moves power around to maintain traction like a kid hopped-up on Pixy Stix chasing a whack-a-mole. The overplaying trait is safe, predictable understeer, but only at the absolute limit before the stability control (not traction control) decides it’s had enough of your attitude.
With a penchant for push in the more laterally demanding power-on corners, getting a handle on weight transfer became our new goal for HPDE 2. Trail braking the Golf into corners is not a technique generally rewarded by the German hatch, rather it became clear it would be vital to unload the nose before turn-in for optimal adhesion. Similarly, the speeds in excess of 125 mph were carrying into the steepest of the banked oval and urged a little throttle prodding to keep the rearend settled, as abrupt off-throttle or touch of the brakes could upset the car under the high-speed turn.
The final session was approached cautiously. Not wanting to taint a perfect weekend of experience building we focused on nailing the lines and pushed only about 80 percent. Pulling back into the racing gypsy camp of the outer lot, most racers had packed it in and started the trek home. With a little reflective time on our hands we peeled off the super-trick 3M racing numbers, let the tires solidify and the new brakes cool.
NASA’s HPDE program granted us not only some third party instruction and evaluation but awoke a sense of confidence on track. For those looking to get into road racing or just wanting to feel more mentally equipped at the next open track day, NASA has the perfect buffet for your driving binge. Check out NASA’s schedule of events to find the nearest HPDE opportunity to you.