4 Things You Can Learn from Professional Driving Experiences

I’ve been having #funwithcars with the SCCA® for more than 30 years, and during that time, I’ve never met a single person in the Club who considered themselves a bad driver. On the contrary, from road courses to rallies to autocross and RallyCross, everyone considers themselves an excellent driver. Personally, as an egomaniac racecar driver, I put myself in the “excellent driver” category, too. My wife, meanwhile, strongly disagrees. Maybe there’s room for improvement after all.

The fact is, regardless of how good we think we are, we can improve. Sometimes people who consider themselves an expert at a craft may turn their brain off to learning new things. Even at the Formula 1 level, nobody knows everything about racing – they have coaches for everything. Racing is an extremely dynamic and complex sport, trust me when I say that yes, even us “excellent drivers” in the SCCA have room to become even more excellent.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to attend a number of racing schools and professional driving experiences across the country, including Skip Barber at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, The Mid-Ohio School in Lexington, OH, the Audi Driving Experience at Circuit of the Americas, and the Porsche Experience Center in Atlanta, GA. Even though I already had a lot of seat time when I attended these schools and experiences, I still learned an enormous amount from each of them.

Here are four things you (yes, even you) can learn from a professional driving experience.

1. Track Familiarity
Regardless of how many laps you have at a certain track, it will pale in comparison to that of an instructor at a school or a driving experience. These folks eat, drink, and live at these tracks. They spend all day going around the same track, so they know it like the back of their hand.

These instructors will tell you where to look, where to brake, where to shift, and where to position yourself. In short, they’ll give you the keys to the track. No amount of YouTube videos or track map studying will give you the one-on-one instantaneous coaching and feedback like this.

I learned this lesson at a Skip Barber Racing School at Laguna Seca when they placed a cone on the entry into Turn 2. I was in an MX-5 school car with ABS, and they told me, “Don’t touch the brake until your front bumper passes this cone.” In my opinion, the cone was way too close to the apex of the turn – there was no way the car would slow in time. So, being the “excellent driver” I am, I clarified with them: “Are you sure that cone is in the right position? I’m going to end up in the gravel trap.” They told me not to worry, and that they had a tow truck ready to pull me out.

I came in with my foot planted on the throttle right up to the braking cone and then smashed the brakes into the ABS – the car cruised through the corner no problem. Then they moved the cone 40 more feet closer to the apex and we did the exercise again. It was amazing how much grip was in that corner and how well these car slowed. Without that instruction I never would have had the guts to go that deep into Turn 2. Since then, I’ve made numerous passes on drivers who didn’t attend the school by out-braking them into Turn 2.

(Winding your way around WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca can be pretty daunting the first time you try it, unless you have an instructor who works at the track showing you the way. Photo by Rob Krider)

Every track has its own unique portion of the course that takes a certain line to get through quickly. Anytime I have a big event at a track I’m unfamiliar with, I enroll in whatever driving experience they have so I can learn the track from those who know the course the best.

2. Experience a Different Vehicle
One of the great things about attending these different schools or professional driving experiences is you get to use their cars (and their brakes, and their tires, and their fuel). You don’t have to tow your race car all the way to Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX, to get to experience the track. You arrive, then you drive. The bonus is you get to drive cars that you probably don’t have in your garage.

This exact scenario was certainly the case for me when I got to drive an Audi R8 around COTA. Then, when I attended the Porsche Experience Center in Atlanta, GA, they let me choose any Porsche I wanted. GT3 RS? No problem! Here are the keys.

Thanks to the instructor, not only are they teaching you the track, they’re teaching you the car. When I was at the Porsche Experience Center, I also jumped into a GT4 and realized there were things about the car I was unfamiliar with. For instance, when the car is in drive and idling and you let your foot off the brake, the car stays still. You have to touch the throttle to get the car to move. I would have sat motionless in the paddock confused if I didn’t have a Porsche instructor saying, “All of our GT cars have this feature, which makes standing starts easier at the track.”

(At the Porsche Experience Centers, you can drive any new Porsche on dedicated tracks with experienced instructors riding shotgun. Photo by Zack Rigg)

For folks who like performance and sports cars, the opportunity to test drive a certain car on a track is fantastic. This is something you’re never going to get at a dealership or on a public road (and good luck finding a dealership that’ll let you test drive a GT3). If you know you’re going to buy a car for track days, you want to know the car can handle the abuse. The Porsche Experience Center allowed me to do just that (sadly, though, owning a Porsche hasn’t happened…yet).

3. Fix Bad Habits
Even if you have an SCCA Full Competition License, even if you’re already a National Champion, even if you’re an instructor yourself, I assure you that you probably have a bad habit or two that you may be unaware of. When you have a professional instructor looking over everything you do, he or she will point those habits out to you (even if it’s uncomfortable to hear).

Many years ago, I was at the Derek Daly Academy at Las Vegas Motor Speedway ripping around the road course when the instructor told me, “Keep your eyes up.” When he said it, it stung. I was a bit embarrassed because he was 100% right, I needed to look further ahead. Why it bothered me so much was because I’d coached others numerous times and told them the same thing.

(Instructors help you improve and/or fix any bad habits you might have picked up over the years. Photo by Rob Krider)

We all may know the theories of race craft, but that doesn’t mean we always practice what we preach – even if we think we do. There hasn’t been a single time I’ve attended a racing school or a professional driving experience where I didn’t learn something – or relearn something.

The key is to show up with an open mind.

4.Earn Your Competition License
Not only can you learn a new racetrack like a master, drive a car you never thought you’d get to experience, and become a better driver from coaching, you can also earn your competition license.

Depending on the curriculum, some of these driving experiences can be upgraded to a multi-day school where you not only leave with a smile on your face, but you become a better driver and one with an SCCA Novice Permit or Full Competition License. And don’t forget that several SCCA Regions offer Drivers’ Schools as well.

You’ll find a comprehensive list of SCCA accredited Competition Licensing Schools here.

(About the author: Rob Krider is a national champion racer, the author of the novel Cadet Blues, and is the host of the Stories and Cocktails podcast.)

Lead photo courtesy Zack Rigg/Porsche