PCA Southeast Michigan Region

Tales from the Instructor’s Seat

By Tom Fielitz

A very small cadre of driving enthusiasts are hooked on the thrill known as Driving School. Not exactly slow learners and not exactly racing drop outs, they are just people who get their thrill one small step short of wheel to wheel racing. Their motivation to risk their necks and precious rides for no trophy and very little recognition is a mystery to most. But a co-mystery is the motivation of the driving school instructor.

In theory, there can’t be a driving school without instructors. In the world of event insurance, that is fact, not theory. There is an even smaller cadre of instructors than there are students. After all, not many sane people are willing to sit helpless, strapped in and braced futile against the g-forces, trying to sort out a fast unrolling series of driving miscues and a flood of sensorial car feedback that is mostly new and unique to both driver and instructor. All the while the instructor must calmly and with all possible positivism, encourage, motivate, interpret and modify their students driving habits. The reward is the interaction with very interesting people and the thrill of an unpredictable ride in some unique cars. Plus you get some great stories to tell your fellow instructors.

Every instructor has some favorite stories to tell. Here are a few of mine. The events are real, only the names are suppressed to protect the innocent; and to protect my reputation.

I once was assigned to a very old, well mid sixties at least, college professor driving a very large V12 Mercedes sedan. What could I hope to teach this guy? His objective was to try something he had never done before; sort of a thrills checklist after skydiving and scuba. He also wanted to stop being punched in the arm by his wife every time he drove too fast.

Now that was motivation I could appreciate and goals we could obtain. What is the mantra for all students? “Smooth driving is fast, smooth is predictable, smooth keeps your passengers from getting angry or scared.” Smooth makes your instructor happy! Now as we were trucking (sorry Mercedes) around the Michigan Speedway banking at a solid 135 mph we both hear a cell phone ringing. To my amazement, the professor pushed a button and began to talk to the sun visor. His wife was on the phone asking where he was and when was he coming home. Incredulous, I asked him to please not do that again.

But the good professor got even with me. At lunch break I went looking for him. I found his car in the garage area with him sitting in the drivers seat; head tilted back, mouth agape. “Oh, no” I thought, “I’ve killed the professor and I’ll be drummed out of any future instructing gigs; ostracized from any schools!” Touching his shoulder gently I tried to rouse him. To my great relief he opened his eyes, “Just napping” he said. “Well, napping is good” I told him; much better than my nightmare!

Sometimes the car itself is smarter than its driver and probably the instructor too. Case in point was a student I had in an Audi Quattro wagon at Watkins Glen. Not being exactly sports car material, we spent Saturday discovering how all wheel drive and multiple computers were more effective than any instruction I could offer. On Sunday the weather turned uglier than any school I have ever seen. Rain turned into balls of sleet rolling across the track. Everyone else had to slow down; but not my Quattro driver! I had to remind him that even Audi was not able to suspend the laws of physics. To my great relief the session, and the school, was stopped with a red flag and we all went home.

I once instructed Police Pursuit School just so I could add to my baseball cap collection with a cool instructors cap. You won’t find a more motivated or more competitive driving school student than a young trooper. They are motivated to stay alive in a pursuit. We were at Nelson Ledges, which closely approximates the frost heaves, pot holes, and fast blind corners of the average Ohio back road. School was progressing well until my trooper lost control in a very fast turn and we traveled the next few hundred feet pirouetting into the infield grass.

Back in the pits I discovered a really good reason for our spin; the back tires on the Crown Vic were snow tires! The trooper explained that it was the last car left in the cruiser pool. Saturday night he raided the pool for spare tires and came back with at least a matched set. But as he told me, it isn’t comforting to know that all the parts on your cruiser were provided by the lowest bidder! On Sunday we thought it would be useful to practice with lights and sirens to make it feel more real. But every time we went down the back straight, parallel to the local road, the local traffic would pull over and wait for the trooper’s car to go by; which of course it never did.

It is really rewarding to ride with the same student over years of schools to see how their skills expand and their cars get more and more tricked out. At Michigan Speedway a student and I found the limit, of skill and car. Flying around the high banks at over 145 mph with a full race prepared engine bellowing away was quite a thrill for both of us. But it didn’t compare to the sudden and unexpected thrill of that engine blowing up at top speed.

The explosion was so loud that I lifted my feet up to avoid the shrapnel that was surely going to tear through the floorboards. That fear was replaced with the ensuing oil smoke that totally enveloped the inside of the car. Playing through my mind were visions of stock cars in that very same situation. The resulting oil all over the back tires always would send the stock car into the wall.

That self same wall was just a couple of feet away from my right shoulder! That was when the driving skills kicked in and my friend negotiated the car off the banking and on to pit road. The safety workers roared up in the crash truck and asked if we were OK. I guess I was ashen faced and shaking, or so they had to tell me. They offered me a ride back to the garages with the car but understandably; walking was all I wanted to do at that moment. That car dripped oil for the next month. Usually a student’s misfortune is none of my doing. In this case, the hole in the side of the motor was on my side of the car so I did feel a tad responsible.

Racecars are a thrill ride but also a challenge. One challenge is often the limited space for the instructor. Roll bars are usually installed right where the instructor’s head would be. Another interesting challenge is the noise that can defeat even the loudest intercom system.

One classic ride was at Road America in a 1970 Trans Am racing Mustang. Built by a professional team, it had sat in a barn near Watkins Glen, New York for decades after it’s last race. It was crude, loud, and not particularly safe for driver or instructor. It was a great ride that I was not about to pass up.

Sure enough, as soon as the motor fired up it made so much noise we had to shout at each other. On the track it was strictly hand signals. This car wanted to be every which way except straight. Even small turns took a big hand full of steering lock. Shifting gears, or even touching the brakes required another big hand full of steering.

It must have looked even scarier from the outside than it did from my perspective because the chief instructor black-flagged us off the track. I had to do a lot of fast-talking to explain that the car was actually under control and my student was driving masterfully. He still advised that we slow down which was advice I gladly passed on. Every student ride is a learning experience for both student and instructor. Maybe my story will inspire others to be instructors. Or maybe inspire other instructors to share their stories. All I ask is that I be allowed to share these experiences with all my student friends for many years to come.