When I started doing HPDE events, I brought the same overachiever, goody-two-shoes attitude with me that had made me so successful in school. Even though it had been ten years since I graduated from college, that “Smart Girl” in me just can’t help but come out any time I’m in any kind of class.
But HPDE isn’t wasn’t like the other classes I’d taken. HPDE is first and foremost about making sure everyone is safe on track. That means instruction is often geared toward keeping overconfident drivers safe from themselves and others, while information on how to improve driving performance is deprioritized. That’s understandable, because drivers who overestimate their skill level and drive over their head are objectively more dangerous than rule-following drivers who politely lift and point faster cars by, but may never reach their full potential as a driver.
Over the course of my HPDE journey, with help from Brad and some really great instructors, I had to learn to decode instruction that was meant to keep overconfident drivers in check and translate it into something that made sense to my Smart Girl brain. I’ve had conversations about this topic with many HPDE students and instructors and I know I’m not the only one who’s run into this challenge. I’m sure some of this advice will apply to men with a more academic mindset, too, but some of the things below are things specifically said to women, so I’m going to refer to this as advice for Smart Girls.
With those caveats, here’s are my top four HPDE “myths” busted for Smart Girls:
1. “It’s not about going fast.”
What they mean: “It’s not only about going fast.”
Because it is about going fast. You paid 3 figures to drive your car on a race track instead of the street, of course it’s about going fast. Don’t let anyone make you think otherwise. Instructors say this because they want you to focus on that other stuff that HPDE is about, like obeying flags and not crashing into things. And obviously that stuff is important, but if you’re a Smart Girl who takes instructions like, “it’s not about going fast” literally, you’ll miss out.
I learned this lesson the hard way. I was still in the beginner run group after multiple weekends, and I desperately wanted to be promoted into the intermediate run group. At that point, I knew the beginner classroom material so well could have taught the class. I had reviewed the promotion checklist, which consisted of items like “sees and obeys flags,” “demonstrates situational awareness,” and “consistently follows the school driving line,” and felt confident I met all the criteria. I had studied well, because I wanted to go racing, and getting promoted out of the beginner run group was the first milestone towards my goal.
I requested a “check ride” from an instructor, who quietly observed my driving from the right seat for several laps. I drove the line perfectly noticed every car and flagger, just like my booklet said to do. About half way through the session, the instructor started encouraging me to go faster through the turns. Ever the perfect student, I complied. My line might not have been as good, but I definitely went faster. After the session, the instructor told me, “I’m not going to pass you today. You were able to go faster when I coached you, but you need to be able to drive that pace all the time to be in the intermediate group.”
I was livid. Good girl that I am I politely thanked the instructor and saved my meltdown until I was in the truck home. But, make no mistake, I was furious. I felt like I had been lied to! I’d been told time and time again, “It’s not about going fast. Be aware and stay in control of your car. Drive the line.” I wanted to go fast, but they told me not to! I slowed down so I could perfectly achieve all the criteria that had been laid out for me. No one taught me how to do all that while going fast.
Brad told me, “I guess you don’t have to tell the guys to go fast. They’ll do that no matter what the instructors say.” This was my first lesson that HPDE was different than every other type of education I’d encountered. (This was also the event that motivated me to teach myself how to go fast by practicing in the simulator every day.)
2. “Girls don’t try to impress their instructors.”
What they mean: “Girls don’t scare their instructors by driving over their heads.”
Several male instructors have said this to me. They’ve all said, “I like instructing girls. They don’t try to impress me, and they do what I say.” Then they’ll then complain about some guy who “tried to impress them” by driving over his head in a failed attempt to prove he didn’t need instruction. “Girls don’t need to impress you,” they say. Well, joke’s on them! Us smart girls totally try to impress instructors by being the best HPDE student ever! And we succeed at it, too!
Unfortunately, even if it makes the instructors happy, trying to impress them isn’t always the best way to learn. At least it wasn’t for me. I would focus so intently on following the instructor’s commands that I didn’t consider what I was doing or why I was doing it. I would also hold back (see point #1 about going fast) in order to most perfectly execute the instructor’s commands. I’m not suggesting you disobey your instructor, but rather focus on why he or she is asking you to do things. If you don’t understand or agree, ask about it after the session. Don’t hold back from pushing with an instructor in the car. You can even tell them in advance that you’d like to focus on pushing in a certain area. For example, “I’d really like to focus on braking today. I’d like your help in pushing the limits on the brakes.”
What ended up working the best for me was having time without an instructor. I’m such a people pleaser that I needed time to focus on my driving without worrying about keeping an instructor happy. My first ever track day had a format where students alternated between driving with an instructor and driving solo, and I’ve found that’s the best way for me to learn. If you get the chance to drive solo, take it! You can always invite an instructor back into your car for the occasional session to get feedback on your progress.
3. “It’s very important to drive The Line™.”
What they mean: “You should be aware of the line and work on the technique required to put your car approximately on it.”
HPDE instructors and students talk a lot about the The Line™. “The Line™” meaning the “official school line” that is taught in HPDE classrooms. Instructors often say that The Line™ is “The fastest way around the track.” That’s accurate in the sense that if you’re driving a car on the absolute limit around the track, the fastest way would likely be pretty close to The Line™. (I say “pretty close” because the line can differ depending on the car and sometimes even the driver’s style.) But driving The Line™ doesn’t make you fast any more than standing in the produce aisle makes you a banana.
As an example, here is a vintage school bus in turn 5 at Road Atlanta. Despite its excellent line, it’s going very slowly.
The next time someone tells you about how The Line™ makes you fast, please remember this school bus. In fact, if you’re driving slowly enough to drive the line perfectly everywhere on the track, you’re actually slower than if you were driving as fast as you could, but not always on the line. You don’t have to take my word for it. It’s better to go as fast as you can, and if you find yourself way off The Line™, ask yourself how you can change your driving technique to put you on The Line™, and then if that change is actually faster. (Because remember, it is about going fast!)
One final note on The Line™: When you move up to wheel to wheel racing, the line changes. Sometimes this is because The Line™ is too conservative and it’s actually faster to drive a different line that gives you less margin for error. (For example, many school lines prioritize later apexes over absolute apex speed.) Other times driving The Line™ is less defensive and leaves the door open for someone to pass you. (I always learn this the hard way the first time I race on a track where I had previously done HPDE.) More importantly, if you’re going to pass someone, you’re likely passing them off line, so being fast off The Line™ is just as important as being fast on it!
4. “Performance driving is dangerous and scary.”
What they mean: “I think performance driving is dangerous and scary.”
It’s unfortunate, but every so often you get an instructor who is scared. There are lots of reasons why an instructor might be scared: maybe they’re recovering from a wreck, or maybe they’re instructing just to get track time for themselves and aren’t comfortable being a passenger. I’ve had scared instructors in classroom sessions and in my car, and I’ve talked to other HPDE students who’ve also had an experience with a scared instructor. As an HPDE student, you should be aware that you might end up with one, too.
Scared instructors might outright say, “Driving on track is scary!” or they might say things like, “Take it easy, I don’t like getting too close to the limit.” Sometimes they just telegraph their fear through nervous energy. If an instructor is making you feel scared, it’s totally okay to ask for a different instructor! (In fact, if you’re having any sort of communication issues with an instructor or even if they don’t feel like a good fit for you, it’s okay to ask for someone different! Most groups keep some extra instructors on hand to swap out, and it’s better and safer for everyone if you’re driving with an instructor that you feel comfortable with.)
Yes, performance driving involves some risks, and HPDE is about teaching you how to minimize them. However, you shouldn’t feel scared when driving on the track. HPDE is thrilling, and some moments might be scary, but your overall emotion when driving shouldn’t be fear. If you’re feeling a lot of fear lapping around, your job (and your instructor’s, if you have one) is to figure out why and work on that. And if you happen to get really scared when you’re on track, get off ASAP! (It happens to a lot of drivers, including me.)
Why Smart Girls make good racers
Even though I had to learn to translate some of what I learned in HPDE to account for all of my Smart Girl, overachiever academic experience, I’m still glad to be a Smart Girl. First of all, all that goody-two-shoes stuff I practiced does come in handy. (When the red flag came out in comp school because a Corvette launched itself into a berm, I was the first one to see it and I knew just what to do. Also, I didn’t launch my car into a berm.)
More importantly, the motivation that drives Smart Girls to kick ass academically – like turning in papers on time even after the class has been given an extension, or doing extra credit despite already having an A – is the same kind of motivation that drives racers to the front of the field. That drive to put in the hard work to come out on top and be the best can be harnessed on the race track in the same way that it can in the classroom. Once I let go of the idea of making people happy and following all the rules, I distilled everything I learned in HPDE down to “go fast and don’t hit things.” With that out of the way, I found I had a ton of extra energy to devote to my racing performance!