Track Day 110 - Advancing to Intermediate or: How I Learned to Drive Alone  

Time to read: 9 min | 11 November, 2020 | Kevin Homan

I had another article in mind for this, and while it is still in the works, I wanted to get this one out while things were fresh in my mind. Because, well…I solo’d and completed my intermediate check-ride at our last local event of the season. So, in keeping with my previous article on how to get started in this hobby I wanted to talk about my experiences working through the novice group, and what I thought helped get me to the point of getting signed off to drive in intermediate. While this article is certainly meant to be read by all, as with my previous one, I’m really trying to give those potential and active HPDE drivers who don’t necessarily have the resources I’ve had throughout my first-year driving. In case you didn’t read my first article (which you totally should), I’m lucky in that I have two friends who were already driving when I finally dipped my toes in the water…or rather jumped in feet first who I could use as additional resources in this journey I’ve taken.

This article is meant to serve as a resource guide for those of you on the cusp of making the bump from novice, to intermediate, and I hope it provides a bit of assistance and insight in getting you there.

Of all the assets you have at your disposal, your instructor is among, if not the most valuable, so make good use of them while you have their time during a weekend at the track. There is a balance to this however, while instructors have taken on the responsibility of dedicating time to a student for the weekend, they’re also at the track to drive themselves. It’s certainly a tough balance to strike, and one you’ll have to figure out for yourself. I’ve been extremely lucky in that I’ve had four accomplished, and talented instructors, and I hope I’ve adequately relayed that to them after they’ve instructed me. If not, hey, you all have been awesome!

I’d actually like to highlight something my last instructor did which I greatly appreciated and think is a great way to plan for an upcoming track weekend. The Thursday before our event, we got together for a Zoom session to discuss the weekend, set goals and review some video of the circuit. In the lead-up to each of my weekends, I have found a YouTube video for each of the tracks so I could learn the driving line, and try and pick out reference points on track. While this is certainly a great way to prepare for a track, having a second set of eyes was even better. My instructor's prior experience with the track, coupled with each of us seeing the track a bit differently led to some great discussion, and the formation of a great plan for the weekend. Going into Saturday, we were able to use the morning orientation laps to confirm what we watched, and get going with the program starting with Session 1. I had found that in my previous outings, while I was able to pick up the line during the orientation laps, there was a bit of refining going into session 1 to really figure things out and nail a line down. In this case, the only refining of the line was slight changes based on how things felt at speed, as things can potentially be a bit different than expected. I would highly recommend talking to your next instructor, and see if they’d be interested in doing something like this, I cannot say enough how helpful I found this to be.

But back to making use of your instructor on track again before we move on. The most important thing is setting goals with your instructor ahead of time, then working through them on track and potentially modifying your program as need be. Before each session I try and spend five to ten minutes with my instructor talking about what if anything I need to improve upon from the previous session, and what we’re going to work on for this session. Equally important is the after-session debrief, going over the session, discussing what went well, what needs to be worked on/improved in the next session. Again, this is something I'll spend a good five to ten minutes on with my instructor. On this topic, I highly, HIGHLY recommend keeping a journal. As soon as I finish my debrief from a session, I’m writing it all down, everything we discussed, everything that happened on track. I know myself, and if I don’t write it down, I’m likely to forget it. Not only does it allow me to review notes for a previous section before I go out on track, but those notes shape how I'm setting goals for a particular weekend.

Hopefully that is helpful in terms of what and how you should be interacting with your instructor, but more helpful probably is, what is it your instructor(s) are looking for in terms of whether or not you are ready to get that bump?

The big thing here is, “be a good track citizen” as my friend puts it. What I mean here is, how well do you share the track and interact with other drivers? That is perhaps an oversimplification of what I’m trying to say, but really it comes down to…are you a predictable driver? When giving and receiving point-bys how do you act/react? How well do you adhere to a particular driving line? How do you react when you're in traffic? When you get a point-by, are you giving the other driver good space and not potentially creating an incident? On that note, your instructor is going to want to see you being comfortable with driving off-line before they’re signing you off. As you advance, point-by's can come late, or in the case of advanced drivers, anywhere on track. When you give a point-by, are you clear in your intentions, are you clearly giving the proper point-by so the car behind knows exactly what you’re intending? As an example, in my last outing myself and my instructor had such a situation. I had a car in front that gave me such a signal, and immediately pulled off-line. My interpretation of it was, the car in front gave the pit in fist up signal, and pulled off-line to drive slowly to the pits. My instructor saw it differently and thought I should have not taken the pass. Thankfully, no harm no foul in this particular case, and it actually led to a good conversation between myself and my instructor and a learning experience for me (we ALL make mistakes). But the point is, be clear in your intentions if you’re the car in front and be sure you understand the given signal if you’re behind. A miscommunication, or misread between two drivers on track is in general a recipe for bent metal; ensure that your intentions are clear.

Vision outside the car. Since you’ll be alone in the car, at least if you’re driving SCCA events, your vision and awareness outside of the car is an extremely important factor in your instructor’s decision to sign you off. Are you aware of traffic behind you, and to tie in to our above discussion point, are you clearing them from behind you if they’re faster than you? Are you taking opportunities to scan other portions of the track to have an understanding of where faster cars are in relation to you. This assists you in not being surprised by any of the cars on track all of a sudden being in your mirrors. As an example, at any event, in our last two sessions, intermediates and instructors are combined into one group. In our instructor group, we have a Supra, and an E36 M3, both of which are insanely fast (among other fast cars in that group). By keeping a quick tab on where they were, when they DID show up in my mirrors (and they did) I wasn’t surprised seeing them there. When doing this, you don’t need to be calculating where on track you think they’re going to be catching you, what you’re doing is expanding your situational awareness from the immediate area outside your car, to well behind and in front of you from spots where you can pick up this information around the track. As a novice, your instructors will often point to your vision, “pulling it up, and OUT from in front of you”, “having near total track awareness”. This is what I’m talking about, and I see it as an extension of tunneled vision from within your little sphere of the track. Don’t let these cars surprise you, keep your field of vision “wide” and then as they do start getting up behind you, you won't be surprised, and you can begin planning to give them the point-by.

Going along with vision outside the car is your awareness of flag stations. When you’re first starting out in novice, your instructor is managing this for you (traffic as well), allowing you to focus on getting comfortable driving at speed and learning the driving line. As you begin to advance, and approach that point of soloing and getting signed off, these are things you need to be able to manage yourself. If you’re not aware of the flag stations, and the track conditions they're reporting, ultimately you are unaware of the track conditions and potentially a danger to other drivers and emergency response crews on track. You should know where each flag station on track is and each time by you should be giving it a quick glance to check on the current status of the track, or that section of the track. More often than not, the stations are going to be clear, so just power on and keep having fun. But you want this habit ingrained for those rare situations that something does happen, the last thing any of us want on track is for an incident, to potentially become a bigger incident.

Related to that topic, and before I start wrapping things up, know…your…flags. We all think we know the flags, and there’s a good chance we probably do, but different sanctioning bodies do use different flags. I had been a HUGE F1 fan for years before I got on track with SCCA. To me, a red flag meant a suspension of the session, cars return to the pits or the starting grid. In SCCA, this flag is similar in that a suspension of the session is happening, HOWEVER you are to find a spot on the side of the track where you can safely pull over, and have clear field of vision to a flag station. Learning the flags is not, or should not be a difficult task, just be sure to know the flags and their meaning for the sanctioning body you’re driving with. Again, misinterpreting a flag has the potential to make an existing incident, into something potentially larger.

Do everything in your power to attend BOTH days of a track weekend. In the case of my club, the second day is only an extra $100.00, and I realize saying “is only an extra $100.00” sounds very first World problem here, but the value to on-track gains benefit is just massive. I cannot accurately describe in words just HOW important that second day of a track weekend is.

Finally, be your own advocate. Your instructors will give you feedback, and they will let you know how you’re doing and if you’re ready to start thinking about these things. But, if there’s something you want to work on, just say so to your instructor. If you think you’re ready to start managing traffic and flag-stations, by all means tell your instructor and work out a plan before you get in the car for a session. Your instructors are there to help you improve and learn, but they can’t do so if you’re not communicating with them, so don’t be afraid to speak up and advocate for yourself if you feel you’re in a spot to do so.

So that’s my story, and I think I’m sticking to it. If you’re in a position where you’re getting ready to advance from novice to intermediate, I sincerely hope this helps you out. I largely enjoy doing this because it helps me gather my thoughts from previous event(s), but I hope it can help someone else out as well. Feel free to reach out, provide your feedback and thoughts, especially if you think I missed anything, and most importantly, drive safely!

Finally, I just want to take a minute for some thank yous. To my friends Jim, Jeff and Alan, thank you for putting up with my incessant questions throughout this process. The engineer in me can get a little annoying at times I’m sure, but I appreciate your guidance, advice and patience. To my instructors Barry, Alan, Tim and Wendy, thank you for helping me meet and exceed all my goals and expectations. Your guidance, advise and as above, answering of any and all of my questions have been greatly appreciated. To the volunteers who run our events, keep us safe and send enjoyable emails, thank you for making this all possible. And of course, to my wife who puts up with this hobby of mine, and graciously allows me to leave home for a full weekend to drive fast.

For the TLDR crowd...notice how I left this for the end. Have a realistic set of expectations, set goals, take notes, be safe, listen to your instructor, be predictable. Now go get that HPDE trophy!

As usual, thank you for reading. These thoughts are my own, and in no way represent the official thoughts and statements of my employer, my automotive and Masonic membership affiliations.