Driver Coaching and The View from The Passenger Seat

A recent article on the highly regarded Road and Track Magazine’s website proved popular. Writing about the practice of track instruction and driver coaching from the passenger seat and titled ‘The Unnacceptable Danger of Track Day Instruction’ it talks about the practice of race track driver coaches delivering instruction from the passenger seat when on track. You can read the article here.

It comments on the situation in the USA, “The fact that well-respected, level-headed voices are calling for the closure or redesign of several famous tracks—despite excellent safety records in club and professional racing—is a problem. There’s a problem with the way track-day drivers and aspiring racers are trained. But how do we fix it?”

Editor Neill Watson in the passenger seat at Spa
Editor Neill Watson in the passenger seat at Spa

The article comes almost a year to the day since the talented Sean Edwards tragically lost his life while coaching a Porsche race driver in Australia. In the UK, the practice of delivering instruction from the passenger seat has been widespread for decades and personally, I’m often in the passenger seat doing just that myself. So I talked to my own coach, Historic Racer’s resident test driver and director of Ice Driver, Andy McKenna for his, often forthright, views on the state of the industry.

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The Risks to Both Parties in Driver Coaching

“It’s a dangerous job, what do people expect? I’m the last person that wants to get hurt in car and do everything In my power to stay safe but it’s not that simple. We have had race schools and driver coaching in England since the 60’s at Brands Hatch and probably Snetterton too. If the car is a single seater then corner studies and trawling through data are the right way to go for sure.”

“But to really get my point across I need to be sat next to the driver to do it in real time, as it happens. The most important part is being ahead of the driver and the car and hopefully get my point across at a speed and in a language that the driver can understand and process . If I’ve done my job right we should be driving at a pace that makes the driver work but also leaves a margin big enough that we can at least attempt a save if we skid on a banana skin.”

Driver coach Andy McKenna delivers coaching in car, regardless of the surface.
Driver coach Andy McKenna delivers coaching in car, regardless of the surface. Demonstrating technique behind the wheel here, Sweden 2009

So what has changed over the years?

“The standard of driver coaching today is totally different compared to 25 years ago. There’s a fundamental difference in attitude amongst inexperienced track instructors in today’s industry. For me, I LOVE driving. While I don’t feel quite the same sense of excitement when I climb into the passenger side, I don’t believe that race tracks should be hallowed ground and that everyone should be able to enjoy track driving. The big issue is the widely varying standards of both track day organisers and also instructors. I’ve built an entire career from driver coaching and it’s all I know but when I see “instructors” getting in cars on “track days” all giddy and excited at the prospect of lapping in the passenger seat of a supercar, I worry.

I know some very very talented instructors that I have a high regard for but there are others who are simply walking Sat Navs, barking out “Left, Left, Brake! Power, Power” with little regard to actually teaching anyone anything that they can take away and use again. Likewise, there are some superb track day organisers and some very poor ones. Calum Lockie’s Gold Track and RM Trackdays do a superb job. I’m often sharing track space with collectable historic cars worth several million. At the other end, we have operators who will let pretty much anyone on track with the vaguest of briefings and turn a blind eye to all manner of driving standards.

So is there a significant difference in track safety between Europe and North America? And given that many historic motorsport competitors sometimes use track days as a means to shake down cars ready for racing, should they be worried?

The Road and Track article is interesting. I’ve worked in North America, there’s nothing wrong with track safety over there. They should pop over to Dijon or Spa Francorchamps as a comparison. Both safe by the standards of Clarks era but are certainly punishing if you drop it. The obvious way in my opinion is to make people take a track day exam and driving assessment from proper people before they are allowed on track, if they pass they get a license, if they don’t , they go home. As that person progress at each day he attends he is allowed to progress up the groups from novice to intermediate and then expert to open pitlane.. Of course, we’re too far down the road now to do this and even the UK’s ARDS qualification has some fundamental flaws in it.

At the end of the day, motor racing is dangerous, there’s a big sign that says that as you enter any track. Today, 400bhp is within striking distance of anyone with a few thousand pounds in a road car. But the risks on track are exactly the same as a race day. Even though nobody is being timed and there’s no trophy presentation, often the speeds are much the same. The differences are that racing cars are scrutineered for safety, on a track day unless there’s something very visibly wrong, pretty much any car can be allowed out. In racing, drivers have achieved a minimum standard of a race licence and the cars have firefighting systems built in.

So what’s the solution to the issues posed by the Road and Track article?

I think that each driver wanting to find a good track day operator and a good instructor should do his research. Look to attend the days that are run by the companies who do it right and find an instructor that understands what you’re trying to achieve and be prepared to listen to his advice. If it’s coaching for your motorsport activities you’re looking for, especially in historic racing, talk to several instructors and be comfortable with who you select.

Regarding instructor safety, I’ve never been worried about speaking out about bad driving while instructing in car. The environment is dangerous and just as a construction worker has no desire to fall from scaffolding, I don’t want to be hurt in a car. The best instructors have authority in car and take the best care they can of their clients. The less experienced guys need to perhaps look within themselves and ask “Are they doing this because they have a genuine, professional passion for driving and a desire to impart skills to others? Or are they doing it simply as a good day out, a bit of beer money and a chance to spend time in an exotic car at someone else’s expense?”

In Andy’s eyes and indeed my own opinion, people wanting to run historic race and track cars at speed on public test and track days have a simple answer. If the instructor is up to speed and on top of things, the track day provider has given adequate briefings and everything is monitored then you can eliminate a large element of risk.

Andy McKenna has been a professional racing driver and personal driver coach for more than twenty years. One of the instructors at the Jim Russell Racing school in 1991, he has coached drivers across the globe. As editor of Historic Racer, I work alongside him on track regularly and regard him as the man who taught me everything I know about the business of track instruction and driver coaching.

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Author: Neill Watson

If you love the sound of the Cosworth V8 as much as the V12 Merlin, the smell of Jet A1 as much as Castrol R and admire the late Ray Hanna as much as Sir Stirling, you’ll find you’re both on the same page. Neill's love of art deco buildings means that his ideal home would be a brilliant white, 1930′s control tower in Southern France, with crisply mown grass, biplane parked on the driveway and a Ferrari 288GTO in the garage. This is something that those around him tolerate, though it does concern them from time to time.

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