Student vs Teacher

2011 has been host to a whole new set of experiences behind the wheel and in business. Whenever I can marry the two, I get the sense that I’ve done something right.  Strategically, I’ve now been able to align my lifestyle to support my racing. While many look at driving as a hobby, for me I see career potential. I am no Schumacher or Senna, but driving at that level doesn’t have to be a part of a racers business plan.

I’m not saying I don’t want to be the best, I am being realistic. I strive to be the best “I” can be. No matter how fast I get, there will always be someone faster.  That’s the reality of every driver. I’ve heard this statement from professionals who have driven some of worlds fastest cars. I have spent the last several years developing my skills, overcoming various challenges, and doing what I can to align myself with the right people that might believe in my purpose in the sport.  Without question, it’s these people who I support in return through my creative and professional expertise. Relationships are everything in racing—hard to build and easily broken.

In addition to building a network of people, becoming a better driver is always a work in progress. The day you think you can stop learning is the day you should hang up your helmet. However, driver coaching—even at its most basic level—can be instrumental in helping you understand your own driving better.

I like to think this is true because you are then forced to examine the granular detail of actions that come naturally. You’ll hear me use this word (granular) quite a bit throughout this entry.

After a couple days of training at the Audi Forum at Infineon Raceway, the realization became stronger than ever that I love driving, and I love coaching. I almost don’t care what I’m teaching so long as there is a car involved. Even when I don’t get to drive, helping others get behind the wheel and go faster is just as rewarding. There are few things better than seeing a full-grown adult who is completely new to driving on track step out of the car with the biggest grin—like a kid at Disney World. Aside from feeding adrenaline addiction, I think it’s safe to say that driving a car ignites the inner-child—in some way, shape or form. It’s fun!

I continued some work at Audi shortly after my photography assignment was done at Laguna Seca covering the Grand-Am Races held there (see previous entry).  This time I got to work with a customer who not only had a taste for high-speed driving but also had some impairment with his hearing. He had developed an amazing talent of being able read lips, and at times he could pick out sounds of a certain pitch (like my voice). Inside of a car, however, engine noises are abound and the drivers’ eyes must stay on the road. Also, helmets limit audibility.

During a brief meeting with the driver, I memorized a series of hand signals and we were off to the track. Riding right-seat, it was good to simply observe his driving habits and gauge where he was overall. Finding the right time and place to use hand signals was probably the biggest challenge, as you always want to predict what the student will do BEFORE they actually do it. Timing it for peripheral sight vs. speaking was another challenge altogether. In this case, the biggest gains between driver and coach occurred after the session. Audi prefers to give immediate feedback as it happens via radio. However with this student, it was a unique scenario where the most thorough and complete input could only be conveyed face to face.

You never realize how much an instructor relies on speech until it’s rendered void. Once speech is extracted from his/her practice, a whole other element of awareness needs to kick in. Feedback is largely facilitated by mental note-taking then relayed post-session.

It’s true that I’ve been surrounded by drivers/instructors who have spent nearly half their lives behind the wheel and/or instructing students. As someone comparatively new, I continue to find my way about this field.  I am marveled at how years of experience prime you to know what to say, how to say it, and then be able to say it 10 different ways to all sorts of people with different learning styles.

Returning to the school I was assigned to the Autocross portion of the Audi Challenge. This is a program with limited days and a larger volume of customers. Each of them come through to experience a fleet of Audi sportscars and are allowed to run a set of “trials”. I happen to be assigned with the TTS’s, my favorite of the fleet.  Between shuffling cones, staging cars, and demoing autocross laps, I was also a human lap-timer while riding right-seat. Several dozen drivers came through the program, and each of them were instructed to set their best time around the course.

It goes without saying that sitting in the passenger seat definitely gives you a snapshot of all sorts of “driving styles” that exist out there. Plus, you begin to understand how people cope and react to new experiences under observation.  In addition to keeping track of the stopwatch, I helped ensure that drivers remained excited about their turn setting a fast lap. “Go…go… go!” … “Hard on the brake, let the car rotate in, now on the gas!” … “Look where you want the car to go!” … “Awesome job!” were just a few of my many cheers and chants that ultimately left my voice weak by end of the day. While their seat time is limited per stint (we’re talking seconds per lap), watching adults undergo Le Mans style “starts” and “driver changes” was great fun, despite losing some vocal strength.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to coach myself, and what kind of challenge that might be. Say, if I could step outside my own skin and look at Geri Amani—the driver. The girl who loves race cars, who wants to learn everything in a single day, who has a relatively short attention span, and who loves to challenge convention. Hmmm, sounds like an interesting day at the track, does it not?  I’m sure my coaches will have a mixed reaction to that question! smile

While not everyone who hires a driving coach is as serious about his/her driving, the essentials remain the same: make driver inputs efficient and any habits should be smart habits. Going back to the granular—i.e., all the little things a driver does behind the wheel—requires a totally different approach when dealing with someone who has never driven a car on track before (or who has limited experience). It almost guarantees you to become more attentive to your own actions and your own words. This is especially true when looking at lap times / results, which mistakes were made and why they were made to begin with.

Learning to drive on a race track is one thing, but for those learning to drive a car for the first time EVER brings to light another level of what I’m calling granular. Within a few weeks of arriving in Northern California, I had the opportunity to assist the NASA Teen Car Control Clinic (TCCC) hosted up at Thunderhill Raceway.  Having been there a few days prior for a private track day and photo shoot (a very rare Aston Martin), I was anxious to see the track again and meet more people who organize the NorCal region.

Thunderhill is normally a place for fast cars, loud engines, and the looming scent of exhaust and race gas in the air.  However, this particular event was different. 30 teens and their parents showed up at the track for the TCCC—a program dedicated to keeping new drivers safe on the street by teaching them the essentials of car control in a safe learning environment using their own cars.

The vision of these programs is not only to help make the youngest drivers on the street become safer drivers, but also instill confidence in them as drivers. Parents greatly benefit from the experience as well, as they too get to observe their teen go through a series of in-car exercises and ultimately demonstrate a heightened sense of car control.

The day began early in the morning, with an introduction by NASA officials and a warm welcome from the CEO of Thunderhill, David Vodden. NASA was able to hold this very important event utilizing a portion of the track along with paddock and skid pad areas, thanks to Vodden and the Thunderhill staff. Students were split up into two primary groups and quickly sent out to get into their cars and start driving a series of exercises—each focusing on a specific aspect of car control and dynamics.

Understanding the behavior of ones vehicle is critical to being able to control it. Given the various circumstances any one driver could encounter on the street, students were introduced to a series of behind the wheel experiences; all while being guided by instructors:

Slalom / Skid Pad
– Inducing a skid around a series of cones, allowing students to experience how it feels when the car starts to slide, and how to keep the car under control.

Backing – This activity introduces the challenge of reversing a car through a series of cones. This helps students gain a better understanding of spatial awareness of their vehicle and how to carefully steer a car that is moving backward.

Panic Braking – Students are asked to accelerate from a dead stop and continue to do so until the braking zone. Students then press the brake hard, applying force until the car comes to a complete stop, bringing realization to the student of their cars stopping power.

Parallel Parking – Practice makes perfect, and parking is a skill that warrants no exception. Using two cones spaced a part, students work on their steering inputs and observation skills to properly park their car in between them.

Split Decision
– Look out! That cone you just missed could have been your neighbor’s dog, a small child crossing the street, or a distracted driver on a highway. In this exercise, a flagger suddenly directs students to make a direction change after accelerating through a straightaway, allowing students to work on their reaction times, car control, and speed perception.

Merging Exercise – At higher speeds on the Thunderhill straightaway, students gain practice blending slower traffic with faster cars, an important skill for every driver.

Two-Wheels Off – Critical for anyone who drives rural roads, or simply to understand the dynamics of a car when traction is reduced on one side (in gravel or grass). Students do small laps around the course, dipping two wheels on either side of the pavement. Instructors ride right-seat with each student, offering input and encouraging smooth steering and gas-to-brake inputs.

Given success of the NASA Car Control Clinic, previous student Marissa Sesto was invited back as a guest speaker and mentor. NASA believes that students can gain greater depth and understanding as well as practice their leadership abilities when enabled to assist new students.  Proactive and enthusiastic, Marissa made a great contribution by connecting with new drivers and offering advice from a teen’s perspective.

Throughout the day students were eager to learn about their cars and go through the next series of exercises. Practical hands-on lessons learned through each course were complimented by the careful instruction of NASA coaches and volunteers, but also the CHP who gave an in-classroom presentation to the entire Clinic. Experienced highway patrol officers brought to light the realities of driving on the street, including the importance of following traffic laws and being the safest driver possible—tying in the practical lessons learned throughout day.

Organizations like NASA host these events because they can help make the streets safer for everyone, and at the same time, save the lives of inexperienced drivers by providing them critical training as more teens are killed in auto accidents each year than by any other cause. In short, it’s always great to be able to combine my interest in cars with something that could help protect lives on the road.

So after reading all this, you might be wondering …”what does this do for your career?” If I had to summarize using one word, it would be patience. My nature is to move along as quickly as possible—“Get it done!“...or... “Make a decision NOW!” With students you just can’t rush things. Besides, everyone’s a different learner—some students don’t care about anything I say, while others are eager to get started before I say a single word. I also think all of this helps me be a better student when coached on the race track. Having stood on both sides of the fence certainly helps one appreciate the amount of work and dedication it takes to convey the granular.

In this case, and no pun intended here… driving really does come around full circle.

Audi Sportscar Experience:
NASA Teen Car Control Clinic:


Posted on 08/17

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