2011-02-19

My first HPDE novice student

As of last Saturday, I am now an official NASA driving instructor. I took the instructor seminar at the last NASA event in 2010, and had my check ride at the first event of the 2011 season, at Infineon.

Check ride is another name for a road test, where the examiner gets in your car as a passenger and you demonstrate to them what you plan to do as an instructor. Sometimes it's the other way around, and the instructor plays the student in their own car, and you ride with them. Either way, you're supposed to instruct the "student" and point out all the important stuff like the flag stations, the turn-in and brake points, etc.

I was plenty nervous about it at first, because I thought that the check ride will take place in my own run group (Time Trials or HPDE4), both of which go at a pretty good clip. Turns out, the check ride happens in the run group that I'd be teaching in, HPDE1+2, so there was no need to worry about traffic passing me, or staying out of people's way going 7/10ths while pointing out stuff out on track.

The check ride went well, all instructors were very welcoming in congratulating me, and the very next day I was assigned a student. Eric, who did the check ride with me, said that they were always looking for Miata driving instructors, meaning someone small enough to fit into a student's Miata, so when I met the student at the end of the morning drivers' meeting, I expected him to have a Miata.

I had to swallow hard when we walked to his pit and saw that he drove a debadged Mitsubishi Evo. That car has at least 200 horsepower on my little Miata, and has four-wheel-drive. An entirely different beast. Plus, it is a known magnet for knuckleheads, and as I sat in the passenger seat I hoped that my student will not prove to be one.

We went over some formalities, his goals, and what I was going to teach that day (it's all in the standard script that all instructors get): Drive the line, brake in straight line, passing zones, flags, that sort of thing. Then I left him to get ready for the session and went on to run my own session.

That day, I ended up driving four stints and riding in four others. I was physically and mentally wrung out when the day was over, but also very happy with how the day went.

My student turned out to be very reasonable, and learned the line quickly.

One challenge that I had was, that I had not yet bought an instructor-student intercom, so I had to rely on yelling (not very effective) and hand signals (surprisingly effective) for communication.

First session was all under standing yellow, so we concentrated on following the line every single lap. We went a bit faster in the second session, and then I took him out in my car in an advanced run group. I did not go more than 8/10th with him in the car to ensure that I drove a clean and consistent line and did not make any mistakes, but that was enough to give him a feel for what is possible out there. So the next time he went out, the difference was huge. We got to pass a bunch of cars in his third session. Both of us were having a great time, and I loved to see him beginning to grasp what I was talking about when I said "don't lift in the esses" or "brake more than you think you have to for 11."

After this very encouraging experience, I decided to do a lead-and-follow with him in his last one. His eyes went huge when I said he'll go out alone and follow me. "Really?" So cool.

Before we went out, I told him that he should watch my line and try and turn in at all the right places and most importantly take it easy in his last session. We're all tired, so let's take it down a notch, shall we?

Right.

After two or so laps, we caught some really slow traffic, and coming out of the carrousel I had lost all my momentum. All the novices in their high-horsepower cars took off, and so did mine, leaving me in the dust. Heh.

Later, back in the pit, he said that he thought I was letting him by, because he saw just how much faster I could go there. :)

On his own, he had a couple good learning experiences of the scarier kind, but thankfully, no metal was damaged, and he went home in a car pretty much in the same shape it was in the morning. I signed him off for group 2 and we parted ways.

All in all, a good experience.