Three Key Factors In Making HPDE Events Safer for Everyone

By Ross Bentley

August 10, 2014

Houston, we have a problem. And it's the same problem in every city that has a race track nearby. In fact, that's where the problem lies - on the tracks - and it hasn't anything to do with the cities. The problem, as this week's feature contributor, Ryan Staub writes about, is the safety at performance driving events, and particularly, the instructors who sit in the passenger seats. But this campaign is not just about pointing out who and what is at fault. It's about solving the problems, and making things better - as Ryan points out in his article. - Ross
Recently, there has been a lot of press, chatter on enthusiast forums, and discussion in the road course community following a fatal incident at an HPDE event. Everyone I spoke with hated to hear that one of our own lost his life, but the reactions beyond that varied quite a bit: some said they'll never ride in the passenger seat (instruct) again, some had concerns about controls at events, and some blamed the safety (or lack thereof) at certain tracks.
Most people involved in HPDEs and racing understand the risks that we take participating in this hobby; the chance for damage to you and your car is higher on the track than it is when driving on the street. We understand that risk and accept it each time we enter a racetrack facility and sign the Release and Waiver of Liability. If you're participating in this hobby, you've come to the conclusion that the reward of driving/racing your car around a racetrack outweighs the potential risk. While you've decided to accept that risk, I'd suggest that you think about ways that you can control and affect that risk. In this article I'll touch on a few areas that I hope will get you to think about protecting yourself and your car.

While I think and hope there are few exceptions out there, the majority of instructors are in it for the right reason: they genuinely want to help people become better drivers and they want to give back to the community. There are two ways to look at the risk of instructing: you can take the position that you're along for the ride (the driver is "controlling" the situation) or that the instructor is in "control" of the situation.  "Control" is in quotes because you can never truly control a driver, but you can significantly influence and change the behavior and actions of a driver with your words, tone, and sometimes actions.

While most instructors want to make sure every student has a great experience, remember that you are putting your life on the line to help someone become a better driver. Don't hesitate to be firm and even unpleasant if that's what it takes to get the desired response out of your student. If you need to pull a driver in for a talk, end their session, or remove them from an event to protect yourself and the other drivers on track, that is the right decision to make.

Also, I'd recommend not giving students much latitude until you really know and trust their skill level and ability to focus (this level of trust can only be established after many on-track sessions). I've seen too many situations where instructors saw tell-tale signs of a dangerous situation, but waited to actually do something significant about it because they thought they could eventually correct the situation with minor adjustments over time.
Most important, if you don't feel comfortable working with a student or aren't comfortable with the safety of a car, then talk to the Chief Instructor/Event Leader at your event and let them know you don't want to instruct this person/car. The majority will be understanding, and in the worst case scenario, it's better to make the event organizers upset for refusing to instruct than to potentially put yourself in an unsafe situation.
Unsafe Events

If you haven't already, at some point in time, you will attend an HPDE or race event where you don't feel safe. Sometimes it's the other drivers, sometimes it's the corner workers, and sometimes it's the event structure/event organizers that cause you to feel unsafe. If you're uncomfortable about the safety of an event, you should either address it with the event organizers or leave the event. When it's your well-being and car on the line, you shouldn't just accept an increased level of risk.

I strongly believe that most clubs and organizers will try to address any potential safety issue that is brought to their attention. If you notice that the corner worker in T5 is asleep, let the organizers know. If you see that the driver of car #124 is driving well past his or her skill level, let the organizers know. Or, if you don't think the organizers have the rules/structure in place to put on a safe event, share your concerns with them. Unless you are truly willing to accept a higher level of risk, you should make a point to try and address your safety concerns with the organizer and give them an opportunity to respond.
Unsafe Tracks

Some of the tracks that drivers enjoy the most are the ones with the greatest consequences for getting it wrong. Many enthusiasts love certain corners at tracks that have a "pucker" factor, and that is typically achieved because of a greater risk: high speeds, little runoff, blind corners, etc. As a driver, the best way to manage risk in these situations is to adjust your driving to the hazard. If the hazard is at the exit of the turn, manage your entry to give yourself more of a margin for error at the exit. If the hazard is a challenging turn where a minor mistake can send you off the track, make a mental plan of how you'll manage an off. In most situations, letting the car go off-track with minimal lateral load is the safest way.

In motorsports (and in life in general), I strongly believe in giving people an opportunity to salvage your business by fixing and issue. If you've always (or even recently), been concerned about an addressable safety issue at a track, let them know about it. If enthusiasts speak up about their concerns, most facilities will make an effort to address a known safety issue.

Participating and/or racing in track events is incredibly fun, but it comes with certain risks. If you give those risks consideration, planning, and action, you can significantly change and reduce the risk to yourself and other participants. Don't just accept the status quo. And never be afraid to speak up about safety issues.
- Ryan Staub
Exerpted from Ross Bentley’s Speed Secrets WeeklyFor more tips and additional articles on the art and science of racing, click here to subscribe