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My First Driving School

By: admin

Interested in participating in a Driving School (also known as a HPDE)? Curious to find out what really goes on?

See what this first-timer had to say about her experience on the track.

After 18 months of club membership and several missed opportunities, I was finally able to take part in my first High Performance Drivers Education event. This was initially the reason I joined the Audi Club. I’d been told by a friend that there were these educational track events that taught drivers how to drive their own car to its maximum potential, or to the maximum comfort level of the driver. I thought that sounded great. So what’s it really like?

Audi A4 at Road Atlanta

Audi A4 at Road Atlanta

When I first pulled into the paddock I saw all types of cars – everything from your average sub-compact to highly modified street legal cars to cars that are, for all intents and purposes, race cars. There really is  a wide representation: Corvettes, Mustangs, BMWs, Audis, Porsches, and even a Nissan Altima and a Toyota Corolla.  Some of the cars have trailers full of tools and tires, and lots of folks have tents to keep the sun and rain off while they work on the car. It can feel a bit overwhelming when you realize your toolkit includes only the spare in the trunk. Not to worry, it’s really all you need for your first outing.

So I find my friends from the club and get all the stuff out of my car; if it’s not bolted down, it comes out. Once that’s done, it’s time for the mandatory drivers meeting.  General safety and “rules of the road” are explained – this is not a race, it’s an educational experience and not everyone on the track with you is at the same level. You will be courteous to other drivers, and other drivers will be courteous to you. Pass only in the designated passing zones for your group. Obey the signals of the corner workers. You were given a copy of the schedule when you checked in – you are required to be at every classroom instruction for your group. Questions are asked and answered.  How do I find my instructor? How will I hear my instructor while wearing a helmet driving at high speeds with the windows wide open? Are we really driving with the windows open in this rain? What’s the condition of the track today? Everyone’s questions are answered and the key people are introduced so everyone knows who to find if there’s a question or problem.

In the Paddock at Road Atlanta

In the Paddock

There is an alternating schedule of classroom instruction and track time for each group with time in between for relaxing, watching the other run groups, discussing your last session, and riding along with instructors.  I’ve got class before my first driving session. For beginners, the first classroom session covers basics. First, a more detailed explanation of the rules: pass only on the right and only when the driver gives you a pass signal and only within one of 3 clearly marked designated passing zones. Drive at your comfort level – not your instructor’s or based on the car in front of (or behind) you – your comfort level will increase with practice. You may progress at a faster or slower pace than others – you may find yourself getting passed by cars you were passing earlier in the day. Be courteous. We’re reminded about the flags and what they mean and what to do when you see them. We learn what to do if we put two wheels off the track – how to recover with the least possibility of losing control. We’re told that if all 4 wheels go off the track we must come in to the pit – there could be damage we can’t see or feel. We’re told that if we go off track and can’t get unstuck to stay in the car – someone will come get us, but if it’s safe for us to stay where we are we may sit there until the session is over.  We’re taught about oversteer and understeer. We learn about what happens between the tires and the road when we brake hard – and how that changes when we’re trying to steer at the same time.  We get a demonstration of how water can drastically change the amount of grip your tires have, and how oil decreases that grip even more. It’s all good information. Some of it we’ve all heard before, but it is really wet out there and there was oil on the track yesterday so there could still be some really slick spots. Stay off the gators; when they’re wet they’re really slick (for the uninitiated, gators are the bumpy curbing along the edge of the track – I was glad that was explained as that was one of the terms that was new to me).

Audi RS4 in the rain

Audi RS4 in the rain

It’s time for track session one. I’m about to get on the track with 27 other drivers, most of whom have never done this. I’m not alone in my lack of track experience. I go pick up my instructor. I meet him at his car. We chat. He’s a nice enough guy. He’s been racing for more than 20 years and has instructed for more than 10 – ok he’s at least got good credentials on paper; let’s see what he’s got when the rubber meets the road. We’ve got 10 minutes so it’s time to get in the car and get down to the grid. He hands me a headset to put under my helmet so we can talk to each other without screaming. He’s explains to me what’s going on on the grid; he explains the hand signals and the checks that need to be done to be sure that everyone is ready to go. I’m paying attention, but at the same time, I’m surveying the “competition.” I know, it’s not a race, but we’re out here to drive fast and passing is an indication of skill and nobody really wants to be the slowest – self included. I’m wondering who I will pass.

The first couple of laps are warm-up laps. The safety car is leading us around and there is no passing allowed. This is my first chance to see the track and get a feel for what these corners really look and feel like. My instructor guides me around the track teaching me the line, explaining where to brake and where to accelerate. He tells me what turn number we’re in so I can get a feel for where we are; I’ve studied the map but it’s different at ground level – the hills change the corners. He points out all the passing zones and flag stations. It’s a lot to take in at once, and before I know it there’s a green flag and everybody’s going full throttle.  I glance in the mirror and there’s a train of cars behind me – what do I do now? The instructions start flying, “touch the brake, cut right, unwind, accelerate, hug the corner, stay right, don’t brake here, go faster, right, left, right, brake, hard left, unwind and floor it!” Wow! The instructor talks me through the series of laps, maintaining his cool when I’m way off the line or carrying too much (or not enough) speed into a corner.

After roughly 20 minutes of this I see a checkered flag. Cool down lap. Whew! I did it! We debrief a bit as we make the last lap. He starts with the things I did right, and talks about what I need to do to have more speed and take the corners more smoothly – roll the accelerator down to the floor, don’t stomp on it like you’re trying to kill something.  We get back to the paddock and get the helmets off. He tells me what we’ll work on next session and asks me if I have any questions. I’m overwhelmed. I can’t think of a single one. He said that’s not uncommon because there is a lot coming at you in the first session.

I have another class and track session before lunch. Session two is an improvement. I pick up speed and I pass more cars – even a Porsche! I’m really starting to see the fun in this.

By the time lunch is over, the track has started to dry a bit. It’s damp now as opposed to really wet. I pick up my instructor and we get down to the grid. I purposefully waited to get in line at the end. I am opting for less pressure from people behind me so I can focus. This works out pretty well. Drier track plus a bit of experience and my speed picks up. It’s easier to feel confident that the tires are holding on to the pavement. I’m focused on the line. It’s all starting to come together and I seem to have mastered one particular corner that my instructor says is one of the toughest (but I’m still consistently early or late on others). My speeds on the straights are increasing and more drivers are giving me the passing signal. My adrenaline is flowing – this is exciting! This session is the same length of time as the others, but I swear it passes much faster. It can’t be time for the checkered flag; I was just starting to have fun!

The Green Hornet Project

TGHP

Day one came to a close with a final session that was faster than the previous one even though it was wet again. I made progress. I learned to drive more confidently in the rain. This is a skill that I’ll use in real life. I accomplished something useful, and my instructor confidently assures me I’ve made very good progress. I’m hungry and ready for the evening get together where we will have dinner and unwind.

Over the course of day two the track gets progressively drier, and my driving gets progressively better. I’m smoother through the corners, faster down the straights, braking later and generally more confident in both my car’s abilities and my own.  I took the opportunity to have a different instructor ride with me during the lunch time “touring laps” to get another perspective. He also took me out as a passenger during the instructor session. I learned a lot from riding along. It’s one thing to see a car whipping around corners at speed, and another thing entirely to experience the feel of it. I am glad I got the opportunity.

It turns out that the HPDE was everything I initially thought it would be. It was so much fun. But it was also very humbling – and I’m not the only one who felt that way. There were other students in the class who confessed to being humbled on the track. They’d started out the weekend very confident in their abilities, and yet they learned more than they expected to. I’ve realized how much I still have to learn, and I look forward to my next experience – I will be out there again.

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One Response to “My First Driving School”

  1. [...] And don’t forget that registration is now open for our 3-Day Driving School at Atlanta Motorsports Park, Presented by Audi North Atlanta. In addition to the traditional Saturday – Sunday Driving School, we willl offer a Friday lapping to advanced students and instructors. Driving Schools are a tremendous opportunity to improve your skills and awareness as a driver in a controlled environment. If you want to know more about what goes on at these events, see what this first-timer had to say about her experience on track. [...]

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