This is what we gained after a season of trying to race, drive and instruct with our club this season. What we lost were a few wrenches. These losses and gains do not encapsulate how the season went for us or what we learned that will affect us going into 2024.
One of my goals for the 2023 season was to begin collecting data to improve the novice driver experience at the events in the NASA Northeast region where I’ve been volunteering as the Chief Classroom Instructor since 2019. The method I chose was to survey the drivers about their experience overall, with their instructor in their cars, and the classroom debrief sessions.
Over the course of 24 track days, we had 307 DE1 novice drivers complete 467 track days which means we had 160 drivers join us for more than one day of a weekend and or return for more than one event during the season. From among these drivers, we had 135 surveys returned.
At least a couple of drivers completed the survey more than once. Next year I’ll make a point of asking returning drivers to give us input on how their experience evolved over the course of the season.
The survey questions included asking the drivers about their overall experience, the pre-event zoom call, their interaction with their instructors, and how the classroom supported the input they were getting from their instructors. I don’t think that’s a surprise that our drivers would rather be driving than talking about driving.
Here's how the survey responses look in chart form. (In all the charts the scale goes from 1 to 5 with 1 being the worst and 5 equaling the best.)
This first chart is for the drivers’ overall experience and things look pretty darn good. The response results are an indication of the amount of experience the club has and the amount of preparation that goes into every day that NASA Northeast runs. Comments like, “Thank you for being so on top of the schedule! The days were so smooth and absolutely on time.”, and “This was my first time ever taking my car to the track and I won’t miss another event next year hopefully. Thanks so much for putting these on I wish I knew how awesome these events are when I was a bit younger.”
Critical comments related to things like group run time length or traffic mostly.
The second chart shows how drivers rated their experience with their instructors. Again, things look really good, and in fact, the instructors got even better marks. I think this speaks to two things. First, the region is consistent in its training and has developed a culture of high standards for being an instructor. Comments like this; ”Provided great instruction and support. Allowed me to push the car to the best of my ability’s while keeping me and others safe.”, and “NAME and is an amazing instructor. He was so patient with me and attentive to my insecurities and skill level. He provided great information on how to execute techniques and provided excellent feedback on where I can improve.”, were typical of what we heard all year.
The next chart shows how drivers responded to a question asking how helpful the pre-event zoom call was. The pre-event call went from being an opportunity to go over event logistics to going over event logistics plus a virtual track walk. The idea for the call came from my own experience of showing up at my first track and race school events and feeling completely lost. Granted that was in 2003, but the anxiety new drivers feel before their first event hasn’t gone away despite the proliferation and availability of how-to prepare information out there. As far as I know, NASA Northeast is the first and might be the only group that did a pre-event call for new drivers in 2023. (I’m kind of proud of this and hope more clubs take advantage of the technology to do their own pre-event zoom calls.)
When I look at the responses compared to the drivers’ overall experience it is obvious that the results are not quite as stellar. I think this has to do with how driver expectations are all over the map, and that even with the best attempts to describe and show where registration, tech Inspection, or gridding takes place at what time, it still can be a bit confusing when you show up at the track. That said, if we weren’t looking at the response results in comparison to the overall event or instructor interactions responses, I’d conclude that the pre-event call was hugely successful.
Turning to the classroom sessions, my interpretation of the charted data is that drivers would rather be driving and working with their instructors than talking about driving. The constructive criticism feedback that I received in the text responses to the survey was from our repeat customers. Their feeling was that they didn’t need to hear the same thing over and over again so we adjusted and did something new.
The way that we dealt with this criticism was to address it head on and split the classroom into first-time drivers and drivers who had been with us at that particular track before. The ability to do so was born from a request to have two group leaders share the classroom. I made that request in 2022 because I want to race as well as help other drivers learn. (Having the time to race allowed me to race and finish on the podium at the last race in the 2022 season, btw.) the club now uses two group leaders for every group from our novices (DE1) to our advanced group (DE4). This change helps us avoid burnout among our group leaders, provides opportunities for instructors to try out the group leader role, and gives our all of our drivers different perspectives to help them keep growing and learning.
Comments on the classroom ranged from, “It was great covering the experiences on track with both the instructors and other drivers. Great round table discussions.”, to “I felt they were ~10 minutes longer than they needed to be.”, which speaks to the fact that we’re running a one-room schoolhouse with students who have a variety of knowledge and experience levels, as well as different learning styles and levels of patience. For the most part, I share what would help a driver at any level of experience and always ask the students to contribute to the discussion whether we talking about the session traffic-wise or something skill related.
I am grateful for the drivers who were able take a step back and recognize that we work hard on trying to make their experience fulfilling, “Splitting the group in the middle on the second day was a great idea and allowed the more experienced group to talk about new and useful topics. Even in full group classrooms, I appreciate how you've been working to make each one of us feel a little unique despite still needing to go over certain essentials each time. Having been to a few events now, I notice the effort to keep it fresh and I think it's overall effective.”
There’s more to do and thanks to the input we have some direction for what to try in 2024.