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Driven

You can have the car, the performance mods, the safety gear and the track, but you can’t have a race without other racers. They are what make wheel-to-wheel competition the pinnacle of motorsports.

Clicking off apex-perfect laps during a track day is thrilling, sure, but at its best it’s just qualifying. Speed is addictive, but when you add clever, motivated and talented humans to the mix, you’ve got the kind of excitement that makes people gasp, cringe and, ultimately, cheer.

Still, you can’t just hop on the track and expect to be the instant hero. Most racers have lots of hard-earned money, heaping gobs of time, and even a few ounces of unintentionally shed blood tied up in the development of their race cars. They don’t want some newbie with more adrenaline than brains hopping on track and using everyone else’s back bumpers to slow down for the turns, just because that’s how it works in “Gran Turismo 4.”

Therefore, virtually every wheel-to-wheel competition series on the planet mandates that drivers must prove themselves worthy before the other racers will let them play on track. Likewise, the major sanctioning bodies are eager to fill their ranks with only safe, educated drivers.

To facilitate this educational process, these sanctioning bodies—SCCA, NASA and several others—offer schools to teach the specific skills needed for wheel-to-wheel racing. If you display the abilities needed and pass the school, you get to be a rookie race car driver. If that happens, you might notice that you’re holding your head up a bit higher than before.

Mission Control

NASA Mid-Atlantic Regional Director Chris Cobetto addresses the rookie hopefuls at a NASA SuperComp school session.

The National Auto Sport Association (NASA) takes a comprehensive stance when it comes to driving fast on track. Check out one of their weekends and you’ll find that the schedule includes everything from a novice’s first view of the track—complete with instructor co-pilot—to intense wheel-to-wheel action between highly modified race cars. The former is called the High Performance Driving Event (HPDE), and the latter is good, old-fashioned road racing, but they’re inseparable in the NASA philosophy.

When you start from scratch the NASA way, you start in HPDE Group 1—and that means your first seat will be in the classroom. Instruction is a major part of any NASA track event, and each stage of their program involves some desk time. You won’t want to skip these courses, as you’ll learn how to drive faster and safer from people who are far more experienced than yourself.

There are four tiers of HPDE, and as you rise through the ranks the speeds increase and the rules change. At the lower levels, passing zones are strictly enforced and you’re always joined by an instructor in the car. Once they feel you’re ready, the instructors can sign you off for solo driving. (We still recommend riding along with as many instructors as you can and inviting them to share their wisdom, even at higher levels—you’re never too good to learn something new.)

Assuming you demonstrate control and poise in high-speed situations, you’ll eventually graduate to HPDE Group 4—open passing is allowed here—where your options open up considerably. Now you can attend a school to become a NASA HPDE instructor, participate in Time Trial events, or petition for a competition road racing license.

Mission Objective

“Confidence. That’s what it comes down to,” says Chris Cobetto, regional director for the NASA Mid-Atlantic Region and the creator of the SuperComp school format. “When you’re confident, you’re relaxed, and knowledge is confidence.”

Cobetto recalls his first auto racing experience. “I attended two schools, which I felt were more like evaluations, and I was in the middle of my first race going, ‘I’m not prepared for this.’ From a racecraft perspective, I didn’t know how to pass, or how to use practice or qualifying. I knew nothing about strategy and tactics. I was going into Turn 10 at Summit with cars all around me—I had car control skills—but I remember being really scared. I thought, ‘I really don’t know what I’m doing.’”

Chris came up with the framework for the NASA SuperComp school to help reduce the amount of panic that rookies feel during their first race. But since part of controlling panic is becoming acclimated to the conditions that create it, the first big step of the SuperComp school is designed to instill newcomers with strong feelings of panic and dread. (We’ll get to the specifics of the school in a bit.)

To experience the SuperComp school firsthand, we sent in our $350 entry fee, packed up our gear, put the car on the trailer and headed to Virginia International Raceway. Along with nearly 40 racer hopefuls of varying ages and experience levels, we’d be going back to school.

We Have Liftoff

The SuperComp school was open to cars of all shapes and abilities, so students had no choice but to quickly learn traffic management.

Like most NASA programs, the SuperComp school started off in the classroom, where Chief of Instruction Dan Unkefer and instructors/racing veterans Bill Revis, Carter Hunt and Chip Stabler introduced themselves. (That’s not the scary part.) After a discussion explaining the goals for the program, we were told that our first drill was going to be a full-blown race. (Gulp.)

After checking our wrist watches to confirm that we hadn’t slept through the main part of the course and it really was morning, we strapped into our cars and hit the track. We got a few warm-up laps, the green flag dropped, and a field of nearly 40 drivers tried to figure out what it was to race wheel-to-wheel. It was obvious that very few of the drivers in the group knew what they were doing in a full-on race—very clever, Mr. Cobetto.

To make things really interesting, several instructors joined us in their cars, challenging for position, stealing lines and behaving a little erratically. In hindsight, most of us were spread out all over the track, playing it safe and sacrificing speed for comfort zones.

Many hopefuls fell back on the point-bys required at most track days and just did their best to stick to the ideal line, but it was readily apparent that this was a different sort of animal altogether—one with a lot more teeth than a track day.

Ten minutes after the checkered flag fell, we were back in the classroom where Chief of Instruction Unkefer came clean: The purpose of putting us in a race situation right out of the gate was to scare the hell out of us so we’d pay attention. It would also enable us to apply the knowledge of future drills to the experience we’d just gained.

“No matter how many schools you have done, racing is completely different,” says Cobetto. “We want to make you uncomfortable. We want to shake the attitude from you and get you in the proper frame of mind so you’ll trust us as experienced teachers.”

The Clock Is Running

The side-by-side drill taught prospective racers that driving off line isn’t that scary, and it’s often the only available option even though it isn’t the fastest way around the track.

The side-by-side drill taught prospective racers that driving off line isn’t that scary, and it’s often the only available option even though it isn’t the fastest way around the track.

With the students’ minds sufficiently softened by adrenaline and therefore ready to absorb new material, a series of classroom sessions and drills filled the day. In class, a wide variety of racecraft skills were discussed, including passing and blocking techniques, standing-start procedures, and the importance of attitude when it comes to dealing with officials and fellow racers.

This latter point came up throughout the day. We were repeatedly advised that a good attitude will inspire confidence in others and make them want to race with you.

There was almost no discussion about driving technique. Once a driver has reached the top level of the HPDE ladder, NASA assumes they can control their car at any speed and in any conditions, so the new goal is to create racers capable of winning. The panel of driving veterans provided candid answers for any of the questions students threw at them. Unkefer put it well, saying with a grin, “In this classroom, they are your teachers and they will be completely honest with you, but once they are your competitors they will lie to you at every opportunity.”

While the classroom sessions were educational, the on-track drills provided several revelations. At HPDE events, driving the “racing” line is the major focus, while being off-line is strongly discouraged as both slow and potentially dangerous.

Most of the students in the class were of the mentality that driving off-line meant going into the marbles and probably spinning off. For the second block of track time, we spent 20 minutes driving exclusively on the left half of the track and then 20 minutes on the right side—often off-camber and usually in the marbles, all with complete disregard for the sacred line.

Why this exercise? Unkefer explained that in a race situation drivers are frequently going to be using whatever piece of asphalt is left for them—hopefully there will be enough room for all four tires. The ideal line is great when you’re not in traffic or if you’ve got a flying qualifying lap, but you’d better get used to not being on it, he explained. Forty minutes later, the line didn’t matter so much. The whole track felt pretty comfortable.

For the third on-track session, each student paired up with a partner for some side-by-side laps, adding the element of hard physical objects to our earlier left-side, right-side drill. Not only did this reinforce the usefulness of being able to run off-line, it also provided an interesting insight into the momentum changes that result from using different lines through the same corner.

Next up were the passing drills. The goal was to pass our partner at a few designated turns. While harsh blocking wasn’t allowed, the pass was not guaranteed; if you couldn’t get by, better luck next turn. And every now and then, an instructor would pay a visit to make it a three-car affair. Following each session, discussions in the classroom showed that confidence was growing steadily in every chair.

Finally, we gridded up for a standing start and another full-blown race. Most of the earlier panic and anxiety were replaced with anticipation and excitement, although Turn 1 at VIR is a very busy place after a standing start. A fly on the roll cage might have spotted a few white knuckles on the wheel. In contrast to the morning race, however, there was lots of close action and even some genuine racing. 

With genuine racing comes a genuine risk of contact, and there was indeed an impact between two cars during our race. While some series use a variant of the popular 13/13 rule, the SuperComp school is run under the generic NASA CCR, which allows for “racing incidents.” 

“All on-track incidents are unique,” Cobetto says, “and we handle them on a case-by-case basis.” NASA keeps a keen eye out for any such incidents, and you can expect a conversation with one of the race directors whenever your paint is modified on track, regardless of the circumstances. In a school scenario, contact doesn’t speak well of your car control skills, and it isn’t likely to impress any of the people who are going to make the final decision about your racing future (or lack thereof).

Re-entry

Drivers were having SAT flashbacks, but this time they really cared about the results.

Drivers were having SAT flashbacks, but this time they really cared about the results.

With brakes still cooling and ticking from the final track session of the day, the students headed back into the classroom to face the dreaded multiple-choice test. It’s a test designed to confirm each student’s knowledge of the NASA Club Codes and Regulations.

The CCR is not quite “The Da Vinci Code,” but it can be read from one end to the other without inspiring too many yawns, and it’ll go much further toward helping you get a racing license. If you’re going to take this test, pay particular attention to the section regarding racing, flags and passing rules. There are even some passing scenarios in the back of the book, so have someone quiz you during the drive to the track.

Soon it was pencils down and fingers crossed. Every driver had been closely observed throughout the day. Flag stations reported missed signals, course workers kept an eye out for tardiness to the grid, and the instructors who were out on course were watching every move and taking note of people’s attitudes throughout the day. Any single factor out of whack can keep you from getting your license.

“I think that NASA’s basic program of the HPDE requirement and then evaluation prior to your actual race evaluation is unique,” says Cobetto. “Every region may accomplish these tasks a little differently, but the question that [each regional director] asks our evaluators is, ‘would you want this person beside you on the grid?’ If it’s a thumbs-up, they’re okay, because they’re the ones you have to race with.”

Mission Accomplished

Everything was all worth it when Cobetto handed us our provisional license.

Everything was all worth it when Cobetto handed us our provisional license.

Assuming you pass the written test and your performance throughout the day was acceptable, you’ll receive your provisional license. For the next eight races you are a NASA rookie, and during that time you can expect to hear about every mistake you make on track. As before, the goal is education, so pay attention and become a better racer in the process.

Welcome to the pinnacle, and we’ll see you on track.

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