The Driving Coach: How They Can Develop Skills And Advance Careers

An observant beginner will notice how everyone in the paddock seems to think they hold the key to it all. At most events, there are a few know-it-alls and self-proclaimed sages waiting to dole out information to anyone who will validate them. As it turns out, not all of this is accurate or helpful—some can even be dangerous. The wise, experienced driver can sift through the nonsense, but even they made a few mistakes along the way. Wouldn’t life be simpler if there was some sort of guide to nip bad habits in the bud, instill confidence, save money, and mitigate stress?

Aside from the pain, sweat, and tears, a driving coach has spent an absurd amount of money learning the arcane information that makes a driver fast, consistent, and safe. By hiring a driving coach for a day, students receive one-on-one access to this data bank of knowledge for a fraction of the price. We’ve interviewed three intelligent, experienced, and passionate coaches whose approaches all differ. However, their objectives are all the same. 

Driving Coach Nik Romano

Learning to Love Oversteer

With a background in midgets, Formula Ford, touring cars, and Spec Miatas, Nik Romano is a versatile man with nearly twenty years of racing experience. He values car control, careful planning, and self-analysis.

Fast Sideways, his school, aims to give students total mastery of slip angle. Of course, this requires a moderate level of car control to begin, but once the driver passes the first few stages of Romano’s curriculum, they’ll find they can progress much faster than before.

First, Romano makes sure the student’s car has its grippiest tires in front; the car needs to break away with relatively little effort. A skidpad is the best environment for the initiate. But, a low-risk corner – provided it’s wide enough – can help once the driver is a little more comfortable with catching slides.

This level of car control is something we’d all like to be able to do instinctively.

Once a student has demonstrated some drift proficiency, Romano teaches them radius control, whereby he asks them to try a first-gear donut around a cone and gradually expand or tighten the radius. This helps them manage slip angle, speed, and accuracy simultaneously. Getting back on the racing line once the car’s started sliding, say, past the braking point, is an ability that every racer worth their salt must have.

Planning Ahead

When a student isn’t experiencing an adrenaline-induced manic episode, he picks their brain a bit. “That’s the time when it’s best to discuss finances, categories, and the ideal path. Through this nitty-gritty, we can establish realistic expectations and get moving on the right track,” he elaborates. For instance, if they’d like to develop a Honda S2000 (and themselves), a decent stepping stone would be VTEC Club: a time attack series revolving around various Honda platforms. “Then, part of deciding on a category requires thoroughly understanding the rulebook. This helps them plan a clear path toward success.”

Romano acts as a supervisor, guide, and confidant during the early phases of a driver’s development. “I always go back to the adage ‘begin with the end in mind.’ This applies to their chosen path, their mindset, or technique for a specific corner.”

He prevents his drivers from establishing bad habits and stagnating by prioritizing the exit first, then focusing on the mid-corner, and lastly the entry. This may seem obvious, but he makes people more cognizant of the car’s behavior through these three phases, and, in doing so, gives them a good reference for what typical car behavior is at any point. To keep their progress moving along swiftly, Romano ingrains in them a self-analysis with questions like:

  • What is the car doing at this point? Does the car feel neutral here?
  • What would happen if you (for example) tried carrying an additional mile per hour?
  • What is it doing wrong? 

While the right mindset is an important part of going faster, it’s predicated upon muscle memory. This is where Romano’s specialized coaching style comes in. When it comes time to drive to and past the limit, one must instinctively countersteer—there’s not enough time to think through those periods. 

Driving Coach Thomas Merrill

Valuing the Technical Side of the Sport

Like many coaches, Thomas Merrill first tries to understand a driver’s personality when structuring a curriculum to help them reach their goals. Once he’s determined their character, he takes an exceptionally data-focused approach to give them clear, obtainable objectives. 

Most of his students have a car they own and drive a great deal, so he first assesses the setup. Once it’s handling sweetly, he sets a baseline to a) give the student an aim and b) help them trust their own feedback. If the car is behaving correctly, they’ll know their technique is what must be changed.

“Getting the human element mated with the right formula for going fast comes first,” says Merrill.

Then, Merrill must distinguish between “the desire of the driver and the desire of the car,” as he puts it. With most students, this means adjusting the driver to manage the car. Occasionally, he works with experienced drivers at the club racing level, who have more than enough talent to handle their vehicle, but the car isn’t set up properly. These talented drivers ‘hit a wall,’ and, unable to make the necessary setup changes, cannot move forward. “After a certain point, technique isn’t the limiting factor,” he clarifies. This is when his setup experience comes in handy. 

Training Tools for Car Control

Typically, the low-intermediate driver needs a breakthrough in car control. “A lot of guys have a ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach to driving because they’re afraid of the unknown.” A racing car at the limit is regularly sliding, though almost imperceptibly, and a good driver can manage the car just over the edge of adhesion. To familiarize his students with the sensations of sliding, Merrill typically takes them onto a skidpad, where they can get acquainted with the limit in a controlled environment.

After this, there are two other routes to improve car control. Either the pair can venture out onto the full track and induce enough slip angle through a safer corner to get cozy with sliding at racing speeds, or they can try go-karts.

“Karts are great for teaching car control because the risk is lower and the tire slides in a fairly predictable way.” Unlike most full-sized cars, karts typically wear bias-ply tires, which have a more abrupt breakaway than a radial. Though the snappiness is something the student has to adjust to, dialing in big slides becomes fast and easy in a short span of time. With enough practice, they can translate this sort of driving onto the full-sized car with radial tires.

Tricks of Telemetry

These days, telemetry makes all the difference. Provided a driving coach can provide a strong reference point, the gains are exponential. Once a driver has risen to a level of proficiency that requires minor adjustments, the information relayed by these little lines can save them months of trial and error. “In addition to showing objectively where the differences are, it can also help the driver focus on the areas where they stand to have the greatest yields,” Merrill informs.

Often, this is where the biggest gains are made.

As the data systems produced by Motec, VBox, and AIM now frequently pair video and telemetry, finding those last tenths is more realistic—especially for the visual learners. A somewhat vague suggestion of “less steering lock through the middle of Turn 8” is only so helpful when muscle memory and instinct are largely responsible for getting the car through the corner in one piece. Rather, a visual demonstration, coupled with the specific changes in technique, is much more digestible.

Driving Coach Ken Fukuda

Making the Difference in Mindset

The matter of mindset is only a concern to drivers who want to make racing more than a casual hobby. Once the general concerns of fitness and technique are addressed, there’s a whole other side to racing, which the aspiring driver must master to become exceptional.

When a driver begins to overdrive, they have to remind themselves of the fundamentals they worked so hard to establish. “Dial it back, calm down, work on your breathing. Keep your eyes up to give yourself more time to process that data and when the car is misbehaving, identify why. Nine times out of ten, it is because of something the driver is doing. If a driver is unsure why, this is where a coach can be extremely helpful,” Ken Fukuda says.

A good rhythm is something that can seem elusive at times, but Fukuda knows how to find it. Fukuda’s psychological approach to finding speed and consistency is what makes him such a fighter—and what sets him apart. “You’ve got to reassure yourself and remember that the speed is always there,” he begins. 

All the great drivers have the ability to center themselves and then whittle away at their lap time. “Once they’ve calmed themselves down, I get them moving back towards the limit by instructing them to focus solely on the corner ahead. If they can make minor adjustments at every corner to try and refine their approach, they can brush the limit consistently. Ask yourself questions like: ‘What were you doing in that corner on the last lap? What can you try to be faster there?’”  

Quick pre-session reminders help make an afternoon more productive.

“If a driver voices their interest in becoming a professional, I suggest they spend some time shadowing a current pro,” Fukuda advises. The range of dedication in motorsport is vast; a driver with grand aspirations has to take the plunge, sacrifice, and picture a life oriented around motorsport if they want to wear the wreath, drink the milk, or see their name in lights. Having moved abroad to pursue professional motorsport himself, Fukuda is qualified to comment on the practical and psychological demands of climbing the ladder.

The Right Guidance is a Necessity

For a number of reasons, amateur racers shy away from coaching. Considering the cost invested over the long haul, the uncertainty all drivers experience, and the frustration which comes from hitting an invisible wall, the cost of hiring a good driving coach is just a drop in the bucket.

Rarely do people pursue a sport without any help. Unlike other sports, the emphasis on the technology involved can occasionally take precedence over the skill factor—you know, the ability to drive. As valuable as a well-sorted machine is, a driver must be able to manage it. Racing—particularly road racing—requires a driver to be fit, focused, coordinated, and courageous. No amount of top-shelf parts can make up for an absence of those qualities.

Establishing a lasting relationship with a driving coach makes racing more fun and fruitful.

Enough lecturing. The truth is, a competitive driver will feel at their best when they can observe themselves making great strides towards their goals. With so many variables present in racing, that feeling of advancement is often hard to find—we’re all familiar with some period of stagnation if we’ve been racing for a while. Just the sheer expenditure of time and money required to get in the seat, let alone excelling while sitting there, should make any sensible person find ways to minimize waste. Plus, it enhances enjoyment across the board; the clueless beginner and the thwarted veteran will be equally pleased by feeling themselves nearing a definite target.

To sharpen your craft, further your career, or just enjoy the experience a little more, you can speak with these fine driving coaches via their personal websites:

 

 

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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