Remarkably, it wound up being pretty fun and not as terrifying as one might think. If the lead image wasn’t obvious enough, I’m talking about coaching for Tire Rack’s Street Survival program. It’s a driving school made available 1-3 times per year by several well-established car clubs in many areas of the U.S. (SCCA, BMW CCA, PCA, Corvette Museum, etc.).
My SCCA region (Kansas City) was having some trouble finding enough coaches to help run the program, so I figured I’d volunteer to actually do something a bit more substantive about unskilled drivers in the area than just complaining. That, and I absolutely had to have one of these sexy polo shirts:
Well, not so much on that last point, but it was a lot more enjoyable than I thought it would be. Some quick info about the structure of the program first though:
The general idea behind this school is to provide a safe area (typically an autocross venue) and coaches with performance driving experience to teach new drivers about the limits of their car. They get to learn about things like oversteer, understeer, emergency braking maneuvers, how those things feel, what causes them, and how to best handle them should they occur. In other words, it’s a bunch of things that only ever get a brief mention when learning how to drive and can’t easily be practiced safely/legally out on the road.
All of the lessons are set up to build confidence and skill in hopes of creating a healthy margin of safety above normal driving behavior for those moments when things go bad on the road. Of course, the “normal driving behavior” part of that equation is strongly emphasized as well, because none of this is intended to enable faster or more aggressive driving out on the street. If students are interested in putting what they’ve learned to use on a regular basis, they’ll be provided with info about upcoming club events at the end of the day.
The school is a full-day event, with two classroom and two driving sessions of about 70 minutes each and a lunch break in-between. The classroom sessions go over topics like the basic physics of tires, best practices in the driver’s seat, and distracted driving. The practical exercises have the students driving their own vehicle (as long as it’s not a SUV/truck without modern electronic aids) with a coach in the passenger seat the entire time as they cycle through several areas set up to experience and practice the concepts I mentioned above.
The cost is currently $75 per student and many insurance companies count it towards their additional driving education discount.
Our club used the same venue as we do for most of our autocross events, which is a local community college’s precision driving center normally used for training law enforcement officers. There, we set up a skidpad with cracked corn spread out on one side, an offset slalom (which could be traversed on the short/easy or wide/hard sides as needed), a single/double lane change, and an emergency braking zone (which went from straight to curved later on in the day), all with intended speeds in the range of 20-45 MPH.
I had two students assigned to me, both with about 8 months of driving experience. One had their family’s new-ish Explorer (since their older F150 wasn’t eligible) and the other had his own early 2010s Corolla. Both were a little nervous at first about some of the things being asked of them, but once they saw that they and others could slide around, slam on the brakes, etc. without dying, breaking their car, or upsetting their parents, they quickly took to the exercises with aplomb.
Adjusting my own performance barometer to the unfamiliar cars from their passenger sears was an interesting experience as well. The Corolla wasn’t too difficult to figure out or get it to do what we needed it to do, considering that it’s about as straightforward as one can get with a modern FWD compact, but the Explorer was somewhat tricky and restrictive. It was a lot more capable than I had expected and getting it to oversteer proved nearly impossible. The drivers aids were just too aggressive (we’re not allowed to disable them) and the pedal-style e-brake was too cumbersome and ineffective to be useful. Still, we made do everywhere else just fine.
Both students made excellent progress throughout the day with few hang-ups. I’d say the biggest hurdle to overcome in each case was the instinct to just keep adding steering when the car starts to understeer when instead they should be focused on restoring grip with deceleration and/or less steering. Not far behind that was teaching the idea of driving a wider, more curved route through the lane change and slalom to provide an easier approach to the next cone(s) and avoid clipping them with the rear tires.
By mid-afternoon, they had just about everything figured out, so I kept raising the speeds and started mixing a few things in, like surprise handbrake applications in the Corolla and/or asking the students to navigate some of the exercises while texting. Both caught on quickly and were able to apply what had been taught earlier, so by the end of the day I barely had to make any corrections.
We did unfortunately bust off a few splash guard clips on the Corolla after mowing down a full line of cones at speed early in the day, but the parents of that student were entirely cool about it. They saw the progress being made and thought the experience far outweighed the few extra dollars it would cost to fix. I think with the exception of that and someone else’s student winding up with a flat tire, everyone else made it through unscathed, so I’d call that a pretty successful day overall.
Anyway, I’ll likely be back at it again when it comes around again next year. It probably goes without saying at this point that the experience was a very positive one for both me and the students, so this program has my full support. If you have any performance driving experience and have an interest in teaching or have a teen in the family at or approaching driving age, I’d highly recommend checking it out.