Drivers' School (HPDE & HPDC) Q&A Article

By Giovanni P. Tomasi

The very first driving school that I attended many years ago was a truly enlightening experience: Unlike life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, driving skills were not part of the inalienable rights that I acquired upon birth. I had a lot to learn before considering myself a somewhat proficient driver!  Today, as a club instructor, to the often asked question: “What modifications have you made to your S4?” my favorite reply is, “I am still working on the driver.”

Most of us who have participated in any of the driving schools organized by Audi Club North America have quickly become great advocates of these events, touting the benefits to our friends and fellow driving enthusiasts. Where else can you have fun beyond what should be legal or moral, and improve your driving skills at the same time—sort of a health camp where you are fed a diet of steak, lobster, and chocolate mousse for two straight days—and you actually get healthier! 

SCHOOLS’ OBJECTIVE

Audi Club North America (ACNA) Driver Schools were created to assist fellow Audi owners and driving enthusiasts to understand the handling and performance features of their vehicles in a safe, supervised environment.  The schools help students become safer drivers on public roadways and, by better understanding their own vehicle dynamics and handling characteristics, be able to effectively overcome many unforeseen emergency situations that may arise.

Q: Where are the Driver Schools held?

A: The ACNA Driver Schools are held at major racetracks around the country. Locations include Lime Rock Park in Connecticut, Watkins Glen International in upstate New York, Laguna Seca in Southern California, New Hampshire International Speedway, Virginia International Raceway, Mid-Ohio, Roebling Road in Atlanta, and several other racetracks.

Q: I don’t want to learn to race.  Why should I attend one of the ACNA Driver Schools?

A: The ACNA Driver Schools are not racing schools. They are safety driving seminars. The objective is to help students become better drivers on public roadways. Some of the techniques used in racing—smoothness, driving the correct line, oversteer/understeer  control—are taught at the school since they apply to road driving and potential emergency situations as well. 

Q:  If these are not racing schools, why are they held on racetracks?

A: Racetracks provide the best location for a controlled learning environment. Run-off areas, open spaces, tire walls, flagging stations, all contribute to the safety of the drivers. Should a driver lose control and go off the track, there is typically plenty of space to stop safely.     

Q: How do I tell my spouse that I am going to drive on a racetrack?

A: All of us typically get behind the wheel of a car several times a week. If our lifestyle required boating almost every day, it would only make sense to take a boating safety course. Driving is no different. These schools help us become better drivers by addressing our bad habits and instilling good ones.

Q:  I have a (fill in your car).  It is not a race/high performance car. Can I still use it on the track?

A: The objective of the ACNA Driver Schools is to learn the handling dynamics of one’s own vehicle. As long as the car meets some of the basic safety requirements and passes a pre-event safety inspection (consult the local chapters’ web sites for the exact requirements), it is safe to participate in a driving school.

Q: My automobile only has (fill in HP value) horsepower. It is not very fast. Can I still use it for a Driver School?

A: First of all, these are not racing schools or timed racing events. It is not important to go fast, rather to learn car handling dynamics. Second, smoothness is far more important than horsepower. Several instructors and advanced students drive older vehicles such asAudi GTs, 4000q’s, 90q’s and BMW 2002s.  They are able to achieve greater speeds than drivers with twice the horsepower due to their smooth and highly skilled driving techniques.

Q: Will I damage or abuse my car?

A: The wear on a car is minimal, similar to what may be experienced in a weekend of “spirited driving” on one’s favorite mountain road (New Englanders are probably thinking of Route 100 in Vermont!). A number of wearable parts, such as brake pads and tires may experience more wear as a result of higher than average cornering forces and braking effort. In terms of over-revving the engine, all modern cars are equipped with a rev limiter, with “red line” set well below the point where engine damage will occur. So make sure you have good tires, recently replaced brake pads and engine oil, and enjoy the driving!

Q: How fast will I go?

A: That will depend entirely on the track, on your level of comfort with speed, on the level of comfort of your instructor with your driving skills, and the track conditions whether wet or dry. At no time you will be asked to exceed a speed that you are comfortable with. As your knowledge of the track and your skill level increases, so will your speed.

Q: What if I am the slowest driver in my group?

A: The Event Masters make sure that every student is placed in a group with drivers of similar experience. If you have faster drivers behind you, you will be instructed to give them the pass-by sign in the designated passing zones. If you are behind a slower driver, they will let you pass in these passing zones.

Your instructor will be in the car to assist you with passing zones, passing signals, and on safely overtaking or being passed by other vehicles.

And here is the, occasionally heard question:

Q: I am a very fast driver and have a fast car. I don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of slowpokes.

A: The school stresses smoothness and car control, not speed. Unless you have previous track experience, it is likely that you will not find yourself well above the level of drivers in your group. If you get behind slower drivers, they will let you by on the passing sections of the track. And remember, no one ever became fast without first learning to be smooth!    

Q: Since we will be wearing helmets, how will I be able to hear the directions of my instructor?

A: All instructors are equipped with communicators, similar to what is used by motorcyclists to communicate between driver and passenger. You will have an earpiece and a microphone inside the helmet that will allow you to hear and be heard by the instructor.

Q: This is a good one—really heard from a prospective student! Someone told me that at these schools students have to let the instructor drive their vehicles and the instructors really beat on them. Is it true?

A: No! Unless you give the instructor permission to drive your car, no one can force you to let him or her behind the wheel.  The are two purposes for letting an instructor drive your vehicle: 1) the instructor can have a better understanding of your car’s handling, and 2) you can see firsthand how your car can go around the track in a smooth, well controlled fashion.  It is not a way for the instructors to play with, and abuse someone else’s toys!

When instructors drive a student’s car, great care is taken to demonstrate smoothness and the correct line rather than raw speed and driving bravado.  Typically, an instructor will drive at about 50% to 60% (also referred as 5/10 to 6/10) of the limit of the vehicle while demonstrating to the student.

Q: Will I have the same instructor for both days?

A: Typically yes (go on to the next question for special circumstances). By keeping the same instructor/student team for the two days, the instructor can monitor the student’s progress and concentrate on the areas necessitating the most coaching.  The student also becomes accustomed to the instructor’s specific style.

Instructors are typically paired up for each event. As  students advance, an instructor pair may switch students to better evaluate their progress.  

Q: What if the instructor and I just don’t get along?

A: Instructors are selected for their communication skills, for their ability to adapt to different students, and for their knowledge of driving. On occasion, an instructor and a student don’t seem to be able to communicate. Rather than make the entire experience painful for both parties, the student or the instructor (or both) can approach the Chief Instructor or the Event Master and ask to be switched.

Q: Should I attend more than one school?

A: As with any other activity, practice leads to greater proficiency. Most students come back year after year to hone their driving skills. As the level of experience increases, students are placed in more advanced driving groups and are taught more advanced driving techniques.

Q: If I decide to attend another school, will I have the same instructor?

A: Typically no, however you may request (in the registration form) to be assigned a specific instructor. If possible, the Event Master will accommodate the request. It is, however, beneficial to work with different instructors to experience the slightly different driving styles and teaching methods.

Q: How can I apply what I learn in just two days on a racetrack to my driving on public roads?

A: Simple. The schools will make you a smoother, safer driver. Every corner, be it on a track or a public road has a turn in point, an apex, and a track out (just make sure you stay in your own lane!). Traffic awareness, good hands and seating position, looking ahead, smooth braking, acceleration, and cornering are good driving practices, not just track driving techniques.

Q: My spouse, son or daughter also wants to attend a school but we only have one track worthy vehicle, and we are both novices.  Can we still sign up?

A: Up to two drivers can share a car. More than two would be logistically very difficult.  Concerning being both novices, one of you will be put in the Novice group, while the other in the next group up. Typically, the first two groups are made up of students with little or no track experience. Neither one of you should have any difficulty in the assigned running group.

Q: How can I learn the track, the flags, and the terminology before attending the school?  (Great to see a student planning ahead!)

A: The track layout, the flags, and the track terms are typically available on the respective ACNA chapters’ web site.  Consult the web site to download this information. 

Q: I am not sure that I want to participate in a school. Can I just come and watch an event?

A: Absolutely yes! This is a great way to become familiar with the ACNA schools. You are also welcome to help out with registration and other support functions. Note that some tracks, such as Watkins Glen International, require guests and visitors to pre-register. You should check with the Event Master to determine if you need to be placed on a visitors’ list.

Q: What if my plans change and I can’t make it to the school?

A: The information is provided on the web site, but typically a refund is given, minus a handling fee, until a few weeks before the event date.

Q: (This is a beauty, actually heard from a limo driver on my way back from a business trip—I  just had to include it!) I drive so much already. Why would I need a driving school?

A: Every proficient athlete understands the need for a good coach. Driving is no different.  Unless we constantly fine-tune our skills, we become engulfed in our bad habits (poor hands and seating position, not looking far enough ahead, not anticipating potential hazards, etc.). Advanced drivers keep coming back to our schools because they understand the importance of continuously improving one’s driving techniques.        

Q: I am ready to become a better driver! How do I register?

A: The best way is to go on the respective ACNA chapter web site and download the registration form. To make the registration process fair for all, a first postmark date is given for each school. The openings for each school are filled on a first-come basis. Make sure that you mail in the registration no sooner, but preferably on the postmark date. Along with the registration form, also download the Pre-Event Safety Inspection form that will have to be filled out by a certified mechanic before the event.

Good motoring and we will see you at the next event!

Please also review the PCC ACNA Driver School Rules page too.

Click the link below to open the article as previously published in the Quattro Quarterly:

Quattro Quarterly HPDE Q&A Article

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