How Much Can a Professional Driving Coach Help You?

Racing is a passion that most of us cram into the gaps of our real lives. Family, work and daily chores leave precious little time for strapping into a race car and hitting the gas. If we get a dozen days of pure wheel-to-wheel competition in a year, we consider ourselves lucky.

It’s no wonder that most amateur racers find themselves hitting a performance wall after a few years of practicing their craft. An observant racer may be able to pick up some speed by watching other competitors and analyzing in-car video and data. However, with just a few hours of track time per year and a honey-do list longer than a tech inspection sheet eating into post-race analysis time, it’s downright difficult to achieve any real breakthroughs without help. It’s time to bring in an expert.

One on One

Fitness nuts have long appreciated the benefits of a personal trainer. A pro can demonstrate proper techniques, and having an expert focused solely on your performance forces you to step up your game and really think about what you’re doing. Driving coaches offer the same service for racers who want to move up the performance ladder. Not only can coaches evaluate your performance and offer tips for speed around a single track, they can give you the tools to analyze and improve your driving in any situation.

Worried that private coaching is only for the rich and famous? Most racers wouldn’t hesitate to spend $1000 on a set of tires that could drop a second off their lap times for maybe five races in a season. Spending a similar amount—typically less—for a day of coaching could drop a second or more from your lap times at every event for the rest of your life. That seems like an absolute bargain by comparison.

Test Subject

It turns out that I was a good guinea pig for this test. I’ve been autocrossing since the late 1990s and road racing with NASA since 2004. I usually attend a handful of road racing events at various tracks each season, and though I’ve had my share of podiums and solid finishes, in a large field I tend to be a mid-pack driver. Like any racer, I’m keen on improving my lap times, but the movies have lied to me: You can’t just downshift and hit the gas pedal harder every time you want to make a pass. Thanks for nothing, Tom Cruise.

James Clay, on the other hand, found his way past the performance barrier long ago. He operates a race team and parts company under the BimmerWorld banner, and he’s bringing his organization up to speed in the ultra-competitive Grand-Am series after several years of top performances in World Challenge. Along with some of his teammates, Clay has founded a coaching company called Next Level Driving to provide personalized instruction for drivers looking to step up their game.

“Not everyone learns the same way,” explains Clay. “It’s like anything: You can learn in a classroom, but just like elementary school, smaller classroom sizes are better. One-on-one coaching becomes individualized.” Typically, students provide their own cars for instruction—it makes more sense to practice with the guitar you’re going to be using on stage. However, we weren’t able to get our race car to Virginia International Raceway, so Clay was kind enough to offer the use of his E46 BMW M3 track toy. It’s the same car that we used recently for our brake pad test.

Incidentally, we were extra careful not to do anything stupid in his M3: The night before our coaching session we went out to the shooting range behind VIR, where we discovered that BimmerWorld is probably the most heavily armed team in Grand-Am. The image of 6-foot-4 Clay holding a Glock is solid motivation not to scratch the man’s car.

In cars with two seats, most instruction sessions begin with the coach in the passenger seat. If you’re going to take advantage of coaching, make sure your ride has proper safety gear and harnesses on both sides before you show up for a lesson. Common sense applies, too: It would be foolish to waste your paid instruction time at the track chasing down silly mechanical problems. Before you start shopping for coaches, make sure your car can turn dozens of consistent laps without overheating or braking issues. It would be difficult to learn anything in an inconsistent car.

One Fast Classroom

Our classroom for the day was Virginia International Raceway’s 2.25-mile North Course, which incorporates the main circuit’s front straight and flat Esses before cutting through the infield in a six-corner series that rejoins at the Roller Coaster complex. It’s a fine mix of hills, blind apexes, uphill and downhill braking zones, and other challenges.

We started the day with me at the wheel so Clay could get an idea of which kind of idiot he was dealing with. “Our preferred methodology is to ride shotgun at first for new clients to directly view potential bad habits—clinching the wheel, speed-shifting every gear, where eyes are looking, things that are hard to see in data,” says Clay. Fortunately, I seemed to fall into the “not hopeless” category. Once that was determined, I rode shotgun so I could observe Clay’s line.

The true value of a qualified coach became immediately apparent: Clay didn’t just take over the wheel and crank out his usual insanely fast laps. Instead, he was able to mimic my line while making a few key changes to demonstrate were I needed the most improvement. It takes a serious talent to emulate a less skilled driver for the purposes of coaching, and it’s a remarkable teaching tool. It meant that rather than being blown away by how much faster everything was with Clay at the wheel, my brain was able to digest the differences without exploding. In short, he made improvements that I could relate to. “It’s important to have reachable goals,” explains Clay.

On my second session, I focused on my problem corners and immediately felt a difference in the way the car was behaving. I had to adjust braking zones as I increased my speed heading into corners farther down the line. Clay notes, “It’s apparent by the second session how quickly someone is absorbing things, and if they’re able to duplicate things you’re telling or showing them.”

After each session, and sometimes multiple times during a session, we’d bring the car into the hot pits for discussion time. Clay isn’t a fan of barking orders in a loud race car, so the only in-car communication at speed was through a series of simple hand signals that indicated when to brake, accelerate or adjust the car’s position on track.

When the helmets came off, AiM Sports data acquisition became the key teaching tool. Clay uses this technology on a daily basis to win in high-stakes racing series, and his expertise was evident as he explained the data. He was able to point to the lines on screen and make me think about how they related to my performance on track.

My first session graph (green) bore only a cursory resemblance to Clay’s line (red), but by our last session (blue) I had undergone what he described as a fundamental shift in my driving. “There’s a difference in how you approach the track as a racer,” he says. By our last session, I was more decisive in my braking, less tentative on the throttle, and finding serious chunks of time in the corners that had previously been catching me out.

We only had one day available for our coaching session—Clay usually prefers two days so drivers can digest what they’ve learned overnight—but I left the track feeling much more confident about my ability to find speed in a car. My lap time around VIR North had dropped, sure, but many of the skills we focused on will help me find speed at any track and in any car.

For the Sport

Clay and his cohorts at Next Level Driving are working to establish a basic curriculum for coaching, but because every student is different, so is every instruction session. However, his ultimate goal is to establish a trusted benchmark for coaching so that the cost-to-benefit ratio is instantly recognizable. Plus, it would allow quality coaches to be easily identified. Clay has heard stories of people who tried learning from a driver coach but left unimpressed, and he’s certain that those experiences were marred by subpar instructors.

“We want to establish a real value on what the product is. Coaching has been around at the very highest level but, like data, it’s now in the mainstream,” Clay says. He notes that there are many qualified instructors all over the country, and he’s hoping that his efforts help the real pros stand out from the snake-oil salesmen. “I want to define the market a little better. It’s good for the sport. This is a sport I love,” he declares. “I want people to enjoy it more.”

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