The MSF is doing more than any other organization to make trackday driving instruction as safe as possible. We go inside their training program to show you what's involved.
The crippled poet Alexander Pope, a man of inestimable talent who nonetheless loved petty quarrels and published insults more than Tupac Shakur or Kool Moe Dee, once wrote, “A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” Well, I’m definitely wiser today than I was yesterday, at least in the matter of trackday instructor training and certification. I thought that one of the single-marque clubs would be the first to really get their house in order on this subject, and that whatever program they developed would be mostly limited to those clubs. I also thought that the major for-profit trackday organizations would fight the implementation of any program because it would affect their margins.
Just goes to show that I don’t know everything. Most of the organizations that have gotten involved in the Motorsports Safety Foundation’s instructor training have been for-profit organizations, and one of the biggest players in the business has been leading the way. Hooked On Driving, founded by SCCA veteran David Ray nearly 14 years ago, has been so successful that Ray is now selling franchises to would-be trackday operators across the country. Under his direction, HOD has jumped into instructor safety training with both feet, holding one of the first MSF Level II schools in the country. At Ray’s invitation, I went to Thunderhill last month to train for my Level II instructor certification and to watch how the proverbial sausage is made.
Before we get into the specifics of the Level II school, I should explain the MSF process. Right now there are six potential levels of certification, although to my knowledge MSF is still developing the four top tiers. Level I is done online, which makes it sound worthless. It’s not, because it implements something that I’ve wanted to see happen ever since I first started sitting in the right seat: A commonly accepted and used set of hand signals. If you are being coached by an MSF Level I certified instructor, you can learn all of the signals and terms you'll encounter before the two of you ever get in the car. If you don’t think that’s valuable, you’ve never had a student turn his head to you and say “do you mean brake or accelerate?” while heading into an 80-mph turn.
Level I graduates are eligible to sign up for a certified Level II school. The one-day, nine-hour event that I attended at Thunderhill was HOD’s first-ever Level II session, and one of the first Level II sessions in the country, but rookie mistakes were few and far between.
Each operator is free to add his or her own spin to the early parts of the event; HOD is very focused on customer satisfaction, rather than putting an emphasis on selling the next trackday. HOD also maintains a fairly large cadre of “core instructors” who travel with the company and provide a consistent presence for their drivers.
After the first hour, however, the standardized MSF curriculum begins. We reviewed the standard hand signals—and just as importantly, we reviewed how to put that hand signal in the driver’s line of sight without obscuring vision or being distracting. We learned standardized phrases and descriptions to use in and out of the car. My favorite out of these standard phrases was “brake ... now,” an improvement over the traditional (and much-parodied) “Brake, brake, BRAKE!”
There was a lot of attention paid to instructor and student safety. It’s been shown that instructors are often far too reluctant to bring a student into pit lane even after witnessing dangerous mistakes, and they are often completely unwilling to cancel a session even when the student is putting them both at risk. David Ray emphasized that HOD would cheerfully refund a student’s money and back the instructor’s decision all the way. We discussed the early warning signs of a dangerous student, and how to maintain control of the situation.
One area in which I disagreed with the MSF training was their description of the instructor as being “in control” of the vehicle. Way back in 2008, I went to NASA instructor school and the inimitable Dan Fargo told me, “you are in command of the car, but the student is in control of the car.” With the sole exception of a time where I had to jump into the lap of a Corvette driver and keep him from rolling us at 110mph, that’s been true. Ray acknowledged my feedback and is passing it along to MSF.
After the classroom sessions, it was time to start working with our "students." Each one was a seasoned track driver, hand-selected by MSF organizers and trained ahead of time to assume a different personality. We had an uncontrollable ego-maniac in a tuned-up five-liter Mustang, a happy-go-lucky fellow who would interrupt your instructions to talk about the snow-covered mountains visible after Turn Two, a nutcase in a Corolla who would randomly swerve across the track. Each of them presented different challenges to the instructors, who had to get them safety through a three-lap session.
At the same time that we were coaching our “students,” they were evaluating us: For use of hand signals, for clear communication, for authoritative control of the car. There was one driver who would behave in an increasingly more dangerous fashion until the instructor terminated the session. It was exhausting work for all involved, but it was about to get even more challenging.
After our first two students, we had to start evaluating the skill of each driver according to MSF standards. Were they overconfident? Under-confident? Did they have novice, intermediate, or expert skills? As with the classroom sessions, MSF is open to feedback on this. We quickly learned that it was hard to tell the difference between a “novice confident” and an “intermediate confident” driver. The over-confident guy with novice skills? He was easy to spot. The driver profiles are going to be refined in upcoming Level II sessions.
After four hours evaluating our students, we were sent out of the classroom while they evaluated us. Then we all met again for a feedback and discussion session. The vast majority of the Level II candidates were satisfied with the program, even if they didn’t perform as well as they had hoped. I thought the program exceeded my most optimistic expectations going in.
If this school was good—and it was—then the ones that follow are likely to be even better. MSF is actively refining and improving the Level II curriculum, even as they prepare the advanced level requirements and training.
Neither the school nor the certification are free, which will no doubt raise some concerns among instructors who are primarily in the game for no-charge or heavily-discounted track time. And MSF is receiving heavy resistance from marque-based clubs who feel their in-house instructor program is superior. I can’t speak to every one of those organizations, but I have participated in a wide variety of instructor training over the years and I have no trouble declaring that MSF Level II is head and shoulders above what everyone else is doing.
A week after the school, I talked to David Ray. He confirmed that I had passed the school and would be eligible for a Level II sticker on my MSF credential. More importantly, he also confirmed that a few of the instructor candidates were not awarded Level II, which meshed well with what I observed during the day. That’s going to be the biggest hurdle the trackday organizations face: Getting their instructors to pay for certification and then having to let some of them know that they’ve failed. It’s not a pleasant prospect, but it must be done if we are going to keep this hobby alive for future drivers.
I’m now using the MSF hand signals and curriculum with my students. I feel that I’m better off for having participated in the training, and that I will be safer as a result—as will my students. I have to give credit to Ross Bentley, Scot Elkins, and the rest of the masterminds behind the MSF program. While most of us were just complaining (or writing articles complaining), they were taking active steps to make the situation better.
If you’re a trackday student, ask for an MSF Level II instructor. You will see the benefits. And if you’re an instructor, you should strongly consider taking the training. If nothing else, it’s a chance to be wiser tomorrow than you are today—and that’s a chance that every trackday instructor should take.