Story by Tim Sharp
[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]
You graduated from Nigel Hotshoe Racing School two years ago with flying colors. You also have two seasons of NASA road racing under your belt. You finished on the podium in half your races last season, won one race and never had a DNF. In addition, you qualified in the front row for every race but one. So, why would you need a personal driving coach?
The answer is quite simple. As good as you are, you can be much better.
Let’s analyze your race results. You obviously have some driving skills, but you also must be making a few mistakes. As strongly as you are qualifying, you should be doing better in the races. You are a consistent finisher, but you could be running higher when the checker is thrown.
Yes, you could use a driving coach. But then again, every race driver can. Hiring a personal driving coach might be the smartest money you will ever spend in racing.
Before you dismiss the notion of hiring a driving coach, ask yourself one question: How good would a major league pitcher be if he did not have a pitching coach? The world’s best golfers and tennis pros also use personal coaches, so why not race drivers?
Consider this: Race engines, tires and brake pads wear out. They have a limited life span. You always need to replace them. Advanced race driving techniques, on the other hand, can endure forever. If you practice the racing skills that you learn from a professional driving coach, they will last indefinitely.
Let’s get one thing straight. If you have not been through a professional race driving school such as Bob Bondurant’s, Skip Barber’s, Jim Russell’s, Stephens Brothers’s or The Mid-Ohio School, then your first order of business is to attend one.
Club schools and lapping days are great, but the volunteer instructors usually have several students to watch and as a result may not have the time to help teach you proper heel-and-toe down shifting, weight management principles or braking techniques. If you do not have a solid grasp of these techniques, go straight to an accredited racing school.
However, if you have already attended one of the professional schools and are racing, it is time to move to the next level. Driving coaches can do many things for you that a race driving school cannot.
For example, a good personal driving coach can train you at a track where you actually race. He can test your race car and tell you if it is handling properly or if it needs some suspension tuning. A driving coach can watch you in traffic to see what mistakes you are making. He can also help you with braking points, turn-in points, apexes and track-out points on difficult corners. Most important, he can work with you one on one and with your car to correct any deficiencies you have. In short, he can make you faster and more consistent.
Photography Credit: David S. Wallens
As Ross Thompson, an SCCA Trans-Am, Grand-Am and Busch Series racer, put it, “On a race weekend, I work for one driver exclusively. During practice, qualifying and the race, I am in constant radio communication with my driver. My goal is not only to make them faster, but also more consistent, lap after lap.”
It must work, since Scott Ivie, one of Thompson’s students, just won NASA’s ASC championship. Racecraft, goal setting and achieving mental focus are the cornerstones of Thompson’s coaching philosophy.
Ross Bentley, a former CART, Trans-Am and BMW factory driver who now runs Speed Secrets, believes that personal driving coaches are better equipped to handle the individual needs of race drivers. “Our philosophy is to do whatever it takes,” he says. “If that means testing his car and making setup suggestions, riding in the car with him or coaching via radio from a corner, that is what we will do.” Bentley also believes in training his coaches in everything from psychology to data acquisition systems so they can better help drivers.
Speed Secrets is the biggest personal driver coaching group in the nation. They count such outstanding personnel as Ian Lacy, John Olsen and former F1 driver Allen Berg among their driving coaches. Both Speed Secrets and Ross Thompson Racing place a premium on the psychological aspect of “racecraft.” Both write reports after the coaching session and keep a file on each driver’s progress.
Selecting a Good Coach
Good driver coaches aren’t always going to be listed in your local Yellow Pages, but they are out there. When shopping for a coach, the ideal one will have the following attributes:
- A history of success in racing (although not necessarily as a professional).
- An understanding of race car dynamics and setup.
- Experience in a wide variety of race cars.
- The ability to effectively communicate racing knowledge to drivers.
Johnny O’Connell, a highly successful works driver for GM and a former Bondurant instructor, is not currently working as a coach. Between testing, racing, announcing and trying to keep up with his wife, Robin, in martial arts, Johnny O has his hands full.
However, O’Connell offered this advice: “I would not only look for someone who has won races in several different series, but also someone who has the teaching background of a Bondurant’s, etcetera. A driving coach could help in all areas—car setup, technique and racecraft. It is even better if he is on the radio for practice and the race.”
Corvette Challenge champion, Trans-Am racer and ex-Bondurant instructor Bill Cooper is one of the pioneers of personal driver coaching. He is best known for coaching NASCAR greats Dale Earnhardt Junior and Senior as well as Ricky Rudd. Cooper also coached Denny Hamlin, who, despite little experience in the upper echelons of NASCAR, won the Busch Series road race in Mexico City last March.
Despite his youthful appearance and demeanor, Tim Sharp has been driving competitively since the ’60s. He still races and regularly coaches others. When seasoned vets like Tim Sharp say something, it usually pays to listen. Photography Credit: Ross Thompson
“Experience in teaching race driving and communicating are essential,” Cooper believes. “In addition, being a successful race driver and having experience in a broad range of cars is also very important.”
Cooper has been extremely successful in producing his NASCAR road racing protégés for several reasons: He knows road racing technique, he communicates it well, and he can set up a NASCAR stock car to kick the competition’s butt.
“A good driving coach must have experience in many different types of cars, and a teaching background is a major plus,” says driving instructor and coach Paul Mazzacane. “A driving coach should have personal track knowledge, track maps, stop watches, pyrometers, etc., to help the driver with chassis setup.”
Mazzacane is a race driving instructor for Skip Barber and a skilled race driver who has won many championships in GT1 and late-model stock cars. He has also competed in World of Outlaws sprint cars, Trans-Am, Formula Continental, and the Daytona and Sebring endurance races. Mazz is only one of two American driving instructors certified to teach at BMW’s factory driving school in Europe. On his free weekends, he also works NASA and PBOC events.
Maximizing the Lesson
Mazzacane’s advice brings up an important issue. Arrive prepared to get the most out of the time with your driving coach. Don’t forget your pyrometer, tire gauge, camber gauge, alignment equipment and a driver-to-instructor radio system.
If you have a mechanic who sets up your car and downloads data from your car to a laptop, bring that person, too. Bring all data on your car’s corner weights, cross-weights and spring rates.
Even better, if you have computer software like AutoWare Inc.’s Computerized Chassis Weights Ver. 4.0 or similar, bring that, too. Oh yes, also bring some spare sets of springs and tires, if you have them.
Some driving coaches will charge more if they are asked to test or diagnose your car’s handling. Why? Testing a strange car is far more dangerous than critiquing driving technique via the radio. Both Speed Secrets and Ross Thompson Racing will ask you to fill out a form in advance of your track days that will ask you questions regarding your driving strengths, weaknesses and whether your want your car tested by your driving coach.
A lot of today’s top drivers—like SCCA World Challenge and Grand-Am standout Randy Pobst—are very approachable. Many, like Randy, also regularly offer their coaching services. (By the way, he can be reached through his Web site, randypobst.com.) Photography Credit: David S. Wallens
If you want your car as well as your driving technique diagnosed, you should be prepared to hire your driving coach for a minimum of two days. It is well worth the extra expense because you might be “driving around” your car’s inherent handling problems without even knowing it. An experienced professional driving coach is far more likely to recognize your car’s handling problems than you are. In addition, he will be able to communicate these problems to your crew far better than you could.
One side benefit of this diagnosis process is that your crew and you will both learn how to make your car work better. Basically, a good driving coach can help to optimize the performance of both you and your race car at the same time. Hence, you are killing two birds with one lug nut.
Here’s a recent example of this. I spent three days at Hallett coaching a team that had just built two new Ford Mustang American Iron race cars. The development of these cars and their drivers was our primary mission. However, one of the mechanics also brought along his older Mustang AI car, which usually ran near the back of the pack. The mechanic wanted to know if his driving or his car’s handling was the cause of his mediocre finishes.
Since there were two racing seats in the car, I first rode with him and then drove his car. There were a few areas where the driver’s technique needed some refinement, but his line was spot on. The car, however, had a basic problem: The springs were far too soft.
Stiffer springs and some minor adjustments to the shocks and anti-roll bars enabled the driver to lower his lap times by almost three seconds. After some further coaching on passing, the driver was also able to click off consistent lap times in traffic that will put him near the lead pack. After two years of racing Hallett, this driver/mechanic is now looking forward to racing with a renewed passion.
Finding Your Coach
You will find few, if any, advertisements for personal driving coaches in motorsports publications. There are two reasons for this. First, most driving coaches acquire their business through word-of-mouth. Second, many driving coaches also work for race driving schools, which properly forbid them from soliciting weekend coaching gigs at their schools.
The cost for a personal driving coach will range from $500 to $1000 per day, plus expenses. Included in the “plus expenses” category are the coach’s travel, lodging and rental car. Track rental is also your responsibility; however, you can save money by sharing track time with your racing buddies or by attending a NASA or car club test day. The cost for track time at these test days will be nominal, but you will not get as much seat time as you would if you rented the track exclusively.
As far as car preparation goes, a day spent with a coach is no different than any other visit to the track. Show up ready for a full workout. Photography Credit: David S. Wallens
Johan Schwartz. Look no further. Had him at Road Atlanta and really refined my skills. As a 20+ year HPDE driver and instructor with even some amateur racing things tend to get stale. I have tried 2-3 others from IMSA and while they were good drivers they were not great teachers. Johan dials you in. Shows you and makes sure you learn the technique from the passenger seat to the driver seat to the computer data. He digs deep but makes it fun. A better professional driving instructor would be hard to find. Plus his personality is first class. No arrogance. None. Amazing. I mean this guy is just awesome and his accent only makes you feel better. Lol. You won’t be sorry. http://johanschwartz.com
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