Bark's Bites: Here's Why You Should Take an Autocross Drivers' School (and Why You Should Teach One)

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
by Mark "Bark M." Baruth

There are two things that all men think they’re good at: sex and driving. While I won’t make any comment on the former, I can tell you, with absolute certainty, that most of you are really bad at driving. Sure, if you consider going back and forth to the grocery store and back without too much trouble, or putting the accelerator pedal to the floor and making very loud noises “driving,” then you’re probably okay. But any sort of combination of braking, turning, hitting apexes, tracking out, transferring weight, heel-toe shifting… yeah, you’re not good at that.

But before you get all mad at me and rush to the comments to make remarks about my mother — relax. Nobody is naturally great at performance driving. It’s a learned skill, just like anything in life. And while many of us might be hesitant to take a daily driver that’s currently on its 14th of 60 payments to the track, there is likely a place near you where you can learn some of the basics of enthusiastic piloting in a safe and friendly environment. Chances are that your local Sports Car Club of America region has an Autocross School with hotshoes who are ready to sit in your passenger seat to help you improve.

My local region, the Central Kentucky Region, hosted just such a school a few weeks ago, and I enthusiastically offered to be one of the coaches.

Although my thoughts on autocross are widely known, well, pretty much everywhere, I still find a great deal of value in learning car control technique at lower speeds. Also, there’s no shame in the fact that wheel-to-wheel racing isn’t for everybody, and even if you get there someday, a few years of autocross to prepare you for it is (mostly) a good thing.

I haven’t autocrossed with any regularity since about 2012 — my Boss 302 wasn’t classed appropriately when I bought it, and my Fiesta ST was fun for daily driving, but I didn’t feel like investing significant money into preparation to compete in the H Street class, which is the slowest class in autocross. Despite what people might tell you, autocross isn’t that cheap if you want to compete for national titles. Once you factor in shocks, wheels, tires, sway bars, and travel, you’re looking at a five-figure number. But there are lots of ways to enjoy autocross that don’t include driving all the way across the country for six minutes of seat time, and local SCCA autocross is likely the best.

We had 40 students sign up for the school, and each student was assigned a morning instructor and an afternoon instructor, giving them the opportunity to get two sets of eyes on their driving. Most of the instructors were local drivers who have had some amount of success on the national level, and the students were assigned to instructors who had specific experience in their type of car (FWD/RWD,/AWD, high/low horsepower). Since my work in the autowriting biz has allowed me to get seat time in all sorts of cars, I was given the duty of being the “catch all” instructor. My students for the day were in the following cars:

  • 2015 Subaru WRX STI (a year of experience)
  • 2003 Nissan 350Z (a few events)
  • 2000 Mazda Miata (first day of autocross)
  • 2017 Shelby GT350 (a few events)
  • 2017 Toyota 86 (two or three events)
  • 2004 Porsche Boxster S (several years of experience)

The format was simple: each student would get three runs behind the wheel with me in the passenger seat, and then we’d switch for two runs — I would drive their car at maybe 8/10s and demonstrate the skills that I had identified as being lacking in them during their runs. Then we’d switch back for a couple of runs, and then, finally, I would get out of the car and watch them from the outside. The course was specifically designed for a school, with typical elements such as a slalom, a decreasing radius turn, and a lane change, and was very short in length — between 17-22 seconds long, depending on the car and the driver.

My methodology for teaching is simple: each student possesses the ability to be a good driver — maybe not great, but definitely good. The trick is to get them to pull it out of themselves and to balance between being directive and supportive as a coach. I get into the car, introduce myself briefly, and then I ask them what they want to accomplish by the end of our time working together. Most of them give the same answer — “I need to be smoother,” mostly because they’ve read an article somewhere that “smooth is fast.” Meh. Most of the great autocrossers I’ve known have been close to violent with their inputs. But smooth will make you 85 percent fast, which is a big improvement over where most of them started their day.

I let them drive without saying a word for the first run, and then I ask all of them the same three questions:

  1. What worked?
  2. Where did you get stuck?
  3. What would you like to improve on your next run ?

The order is important, because students tend to focus on the negative — it’s necessary to make them focus on the things they did that worked first. Even if they spun the car or went off course, it’s likely that they did something well, and we want to recognize and encourage them for that. The wording is important, too. Rather than saying “what did you do well?” we want to focus on outcomes and keep the language neutral. Sometimes they struggle with this stage, and they want to rush to the part where they get to hear your feedback. Not yet. Make them talk first.

The neutral language continues with “where did you get stuck?” Not “what did you mess up?” Again, this removes judgment and allows them to focus on outcomes. Students often understand what happened (a spin, a plowed corner) but they rarely understand why. I allow them to work through this in their heads for a moment before finally asking “What would you like to improve on your next run?” The kneejerk response is to say something like “not spin,” but it’s important for them to know what behaviors to change that will prevent that spin or plow.

After emptying out all of their self-analysis, then (and only then) do I provide feedback. I validate their observations, saying that I agree with many of them, and then I ask for permission to give feedback. After I receive it, I provide honest and specific details about what they can improve — again, without judgment. I don’t say things like “your hands are terrible.” Rather, I say, “we can improve your hand position.”

All of the students I had during the day had some combination of the following issues:

  • low eyes
  • poor hand positions
  • stabbing inputs on the throttle and brakes
  • driving one element at a time
  • lack of aggression/too much aggression

It’s important to focus on one skill at a time, at least initially. The course was set up so that each section posed a specific challenge, so I made sure to remind students of the elements before we approached the line, and asked them to repeat back to me the specific behavior they would be doing in those elements before I allowed them to enter the course. This helped to ensure that they were consciously and intentionally performing the skills that they intended to work on, rather than a random, haphazard chain events.

For most students, this actually slowed their time a bit from their first run to their second, which is completely understandable. They were practicing a new skill or technique, and it felt uncomfortable or unnatural. The third runs improved slightly, but were maybe still a bit slower than their initial baseline run.

It wasn’t until they watched me drive their cars that most of them said, “Aha, now I get it.” With the exception of my Subaru student, I knocked anywhere from a second and a half to three seconds off of their runs, and that was with only driving at 8/10 speed. Most of them realized that in their efforts to be “smooth,” that they were being slow with their steering, brake, and throttle inputs. They also realized that a certain amount of looseness, or oversteer, was sometimes desirable. Lastly, for most of them, I was able to demonstrate that entering a turn a bit too slowly was much better than entering too quickly.

Once they got back in the car, nearly all of them improved vastly — I only had one student who didn’t improve by at least two seconds from his first run to his last. Watching from the outside of the car for the last couple of runs allowed me to get a better picture of things like corner entry, mid-corner speed, and weight transfer.

Of course, not only did each one of my students drastically improve over the course of the day, but I had a great deal of fun watching them do it. All of them were incredibly grateful for the help, and they all made sure to thank me personally before leaving. But it also helped me work on some skills that I had forgotten about with my own driving — there’s nothing like teaching a skill to somebody else to help you improve your own skills.

There’s a lot of reasons for a local region to offer a school like this. Keeping new autocrossers from becoming frustrated with their lack of advancement helps ensure that they’ll return a second and third and twelfth time in the future, which, in turn, ensures the survival of the club long term. But there’s also some altruism behind it. Seeing people who are new to the activity experience that same sort of joy that I once had when I began autocrossing helped me remember how much fun it really can be to spend the day out with friends at the local parking lot. Not one of the dozen of instructors was compensated for their time, or for enduring the sweltering 100+ degree heat. And none of them asked to be or expected to be.

If you have the chance to attend a local autocross school, I recommend it. For less than $100 and a Saturday’s worth of time, you’ll walk away a much more competent driver. And if you have the chance to instruct at a local autocross school, I’d recommend it, as well. Not only will you be helping others, but you’ll refine your own skills that much more.

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
Mark "Bark M." Baruth

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  • Doublechili Doublechili on Aug 01, 2018

    What's really necessary to improve safety is: 1. paying attention (and not just to the rear bumper of the car in front of you); 2. common sense; 3. rudimentary grasp of the rules of the road. For example, if someone routinely decides to move right on a highway in the area of an on-ramp where cars are merging left, worrying about hitting the apex on a turn is Titanic-deck-chair-rearranging territory.

  • OzCop OzCop on Aug 01, 2018

    I'm 75, have been autocrossing for nearly 35 years, and have been teaching police a performance driving for nearly 40 years. I currently teach teens basic emergency driving techniques through our Skills Driving company. We also instruct fleet drivers, SUVs, pickup trucks, and medium duty truck drivers. What all these have in common is the same exercises work for whatever level of driving we are instructing at the moment. Teens who have a permit, or have had their driver's license for a short time benefit immensely from this instruction. Why? Because they have no point of reference, and have not developed bad habits that can't be easily fixed. We use real world scenarios, including brake and turn exercises that teach the students the benefits of ABS brakes. How many adults have never felt the vibration or kickback from their brake pedal when making an emergency stop? Not many, because most drivers do not put themselves in a position to ever brake so hard the ABS activates. Some people, and many of these people have been involved in wrecks, tend to panic when and if they feel ABS kick in, and will release the brake rather than push harder. During the brake and turn exercise, I tell my students I have a hundred dollar bill in my pocket if they can break the brake pedal off...I still have my 100 dollar bill... We also teach emergency lane change techniques that allow you to maintain control of the vehicle in come to a complete stop once the maneuver is completed. Real world stuff that can save a life, or at least lessen the severity of an impending crash. Things like looking ahead is preached the entire day of driving, in every exercise we present. Wet skid pad driving. Ask a kid what understeer means and you will get a variety of answers. Heck, ask an adult, and half of them have no clue. Mention oversteer, and how to correct an oversteer situation and again, you get a variety of answers that pretty much skirt the edge of the issue. By the time we finish with kids and adults on wet skid pad, they have decent knowledge of how to avoid an accident or driving into a ditch due to techniques we teach. Controlling balance of vehicle under adverse conditions such as material falling off a truck or other objects in the roadway. We use the slalom exercise for that instruction, and good smooth arks create a better vehicle attitude/balance than choppy, errant, G spikes, reinforcing the "smooth is better" driving techniques. If a driver never feels a vehicle's dynamic attitude or suspension hitting shock absorber bump-stops, their inputs to keep the car's dynamics under control are limited. We want them to feel those dynamics, and your high school driving instructor is not equipped to help in that regard. Off road recovery is another important dynamic that is way understated, yet so simple to correct. Dropping one or two wheels off the pavement and yanking the wheel to return to the highway has gotten far to many people killed, both teenagers and adults. That maneuver as described will surely throw the car into the oncoming lane's traffic... Rear end collision avoidance...Yeah, never drive too close to the vehicle in front of you. You can preach that til the cows come home, but once your teen and their friends get in the vehicle, all too often the distractions begin. With those distractions goes common sense and the driver tends to lose site of the fact they are responsible fro the safety of every person in that vehicle. We have an exercise that shows them the chilling effects of what can happen when students allow distractions to disrupt their safety zone from the car in front of them. That is a sampling of what we teach, and as stated earlier, it works for all age groups and vehicles people normally drive, either for family transportation, sports cars, and light duty trucks up to a couple of tons. Bark touched on a few exercises, but most of this stuff is also part of the Autocross and track driving exercises as well. It's about understanding vehicle dynamics and what one can expect from a given input. Call it an autocross school, or advanced driving technique school, it works regardless of the nomenclature...

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