Speed Secrets: Hard Lessons

By Ross Bentley

November 06, 2013

As an in-car instructor, you're in control, whether you are or not. Huh? The second you strap in next to a driver and head out on the track, your words, how you use them, and your actions will control your student more than you may even realize. If you do the right things, you get your student to do the right things; if you do little or nothing, you're leaving the control in the hands of your student—in that case, you're controlling the situation by doing nothing!
So who's ultimately responsible for what happens on the track? The driver? The instructor? Yes. If you ever get into the right seat of a car to instruct with the feeling that you're not responsible, STOP! Get out. If you're abdicating control and responsibility to your student, you're asking for trouble. And I mean that whether you're instructing a novice or a very experienced driver.
Having said that, if your student driver feels that he or she is not fully responsible for what happens on the track, STOP! Get out.
Right-seat instructing is a partnership, one based on both driver and instructor being fully responsible for what happens. When both "partners" head onto the track with an attitude of responsibility, you've done just about everything one can do to ensure a safe session.
Others will share their opinions on whether in-car instruction is better or worse than using technology and old-fashioned observation. Some instructors have taken a stand on their approach, and good for them. For me, there is no right or wrong; there are times when the best approach to helping the student is in-car instruction, and there are times when that's either not practical (single-seaters or purpose-built race cars without passenger seats) or the best solution. There are times when data, video, observation, and driver briefing/debriefing is more effective; there are times when getting in a car and seeing, feeling, and hearing for oneself is best. Personally, I try to use every tool available to me to help my drivers, and that sometimes means right-seat instruction, and sometimes it doesn't. It comes down to what's best for my driver. But let me leave that argument to others (some, in this issue) to discuss and make their case.
In-car instruction is not for everyone. Some like it, some love it, some put up with it, some hate it, and some refuse to do it. Admitting that riding in the passenger seat is unnerving—even scary—does not mean you're not as "brave" as someone who gladly jumps at every chance to belt in next to a student driver. To me, standing up and saying you're uncomfortable in the right seat is the right thing to do (and brave), if that's how you feel. To feel uncomfortable—and not want to do it—and yet getting in the right seat anyway, is just plain wrong. You're not doing you or your student any good. Get out.
I believe that those who say, "See, Sean Edwards's death proves that it's too dangerous to ride in the passenger seat of car at speed. That's it—I'm not doing it anymore," should have stood up and made that decision earlier. Ingrid Steffensen did a great job of summarizing why someone would volunteer to right-seat instruct in her feature article a couple of weeks ago, but let me emphasize one motivation that I abhor: right-seat instructing because it makes you one of the "elite," and leads to some benefits (often, a little extra or less-expensive track time). This is even worse when the instructor doesn't really like being in the right-seat. Get out. It's okay, it doesn't make you any less of a person.
In terms of what we can learn from Sean Edwards's death, three other things come to mind:
       The mechanical preparation and appropriateness of the car for track driving.
       The safety equipment in use (I often see a driver wearing full harnesses and a HANS device, and the instructor sitting next to him or her with a standard seat belt and no HANS...).
       The safety and rescue equipment, facilities and procedures.
It goes without saying that every organization that facilitates any type of track event needs to take a good look at how it handles these issues. And this goes for the guys that organize a track day for a few friends, the car clubs, the professional schools, the sanctioning bodies (I'm looking at you, USCC, and your re-organization of the IMSA safety team...).
If there's one thing that we can learn from Sean Edwards, it's this: instruct because you want to, because you're committed to helping your students (whether that's from within or outside of the car)
Then, ensure everyone takes responsibility for what happens on track, and do everything you can to minimize the risks.
Exerpted from Ross Bentley’s Speed Secrets Weekly. For more tips and additional articles on the art and science of racing, click here to subscribe.
Also be sure to check out Ross Bentley's book, Ultimate Speed Secrets: The Complete Guide to High-Performance and Race Driving.