A few years ago, I wrote about how I coached my experience coaching 200 customers of a "supercar experience" over four days. Some found my account to be scathing. Then, as now, I had what I felt were well-justified concerns about the safety of putting "regular drivers" behind the wheel of high-performance automobiles on an ad-hoc basis. It’s easy to assume that the myriad of stability-control and passive safety systems in modern supercars make them idiot-proof, but a quick check of YouTube will show that such is not the case. When you take a driver who can barely control a four-cylinder crossover at freeway speeds and put them behind the wheel of something with twice as much grip and four times as much power, the situation can get out of hand in a heartbeat.
With that said, the fact of the matter is that there will likely always be a market for "supercar experiences," both at walled-garden private facilities like the one operated by EXR in Las Vegas and on racetracks throughout the country. So it’s important to provide the customers of those experiences with instruction that is qualified, dedicated, and consistent. Doing so goes a long way towards reducing the risk involved—and one supercar experience company in particular is putting a strong and serious emphasis on instructor and customer safety.
Not long ago, the staff at ed me to talk about the improvements they’ve made in their instructor programs. I’d coached with them back in 2014; at the time I thought that they were doing some things right, but that there was substantial progress to be made in the way they selected, trained, and managed their base of professional instructors. I bet a few of my readers felt their ears perk up when they saw the phrase "professional instructor." Yes, it’s true—you can make nontrivial money sitting in the right seat of Huracans and GT-Rs.
At the suggestion of Cal DeNyse, the chief instructor at Xtreme Xperience, I agreed to undergo their novice instructor training during their weekend at Pitt Race, after which I would spend a morning coaching their customers in a variety of exotic machinery including a Ferrari 488GTB. I didn’t take any money from XX, but in the interest of full disclosure I should note that one of my students tipped me 50 bucks, which I did not refuse.
From the moment I arrived at Pitt Race on Friday morning, I was impressed by the changes that XX has made over the past four years. The cars are generally close to brand-new, shod with OEM-spec rubber that is replaced when it reached 2/32" over the wear bars in wet conditions or 1/32" over in the dry. It’s been unfortunately common in this industry for cars' brakes to be replaced with low-cost aftermarket pieces, a harrowing practice. Happily, XX never did that and they’re not doing it now. The 488GTB that I drove was remarkably similar in both condition and behavior to the press-prepared model that we had in our Performance Car of the Year test a few years back.
I started the morning with Stu Warner, one of the senior instructors, who gave me an overview of their standardized program for customers. There’s no longer a pre-drive classroom session about line theory or racing techniques; it wasn’t relevant to the task of getting around an unfamiliar track safely and nobody was retaining it anyway. Instead, each customer receives a safety briefing with easy-to-remember phrases like
"When the wheel is straight, gas is great!"
"When the wheel is turned, you can get burned!"
These helpful hints and others are printed on the loaner helmets handed out to every driver. So as you’re standing in line looking at the back of the customer’s head in front of you, there’s a bit of additional teaching going on.
After reviewing the curriculum with Stu and taking a passenger ride in the pace car that leads each session, I drove around Pitt Race with Tyrell Meadows, one of their traveling instructors, sitting in the right seat. Meadows, a professionally successful "e-Sports" racer and GT Academy driver who has also done a fair bit of European kart racing, was infectiously enthusiastic but also quite rigorous in his adherence to the XX curriculum. They use just four hand signals, placed in the driver’s line of sight and directly related to, but simpler than, the signals that are taught as part of the MSF Levels 1 and 2 instructor programs.
"Did you do the ride-along?" Meadows asked. "We really encourage people to take laps in the ride-along car now. I'd like for it to be mandatory, because it gives you a look at the track ahead of time and improves the driver experience. A lot of people are doing it."
After reviewing the hand signals and the expectations with Meadows, we switched places and I coached him around as if he was a customer. Then he evaluated me and pronounced me ready to coach.
The last time I worked with XX, the vast majority of the instructors were local autocrossers and Chumpcar racers. Each of them did things differently and some of them were remarkably ineffective. "That’s all over now," Cal emphasized. "We are training and retaining good instructors now, about 40 a year, so we are no longer in a position where we need to settle for 'just good enough' in the right seat. I've had instructors show up and tell me they don't use the signals. If that's the case, I can't use them." More than half of the instructors at the Pitt Race weekend were part of the traveling XX crew. Every one of the local instructors with whom I spoke had significant club racing and high-level coaching experience.
During my Saturday-morning coaching experience, I saw Tyrell and Cal regularly sitting in with their three "rookie" instructors. I also saw them pulling video from the cars for review. "I spend seven or eight hours a week reviewing video,” Cal noted.
The payoff for this increased focus on instructor consistency and quality? There wasn’t a single spin or four-wheels-off incident while I was there—and that’s not something I could have said about the weekend I spent with them in 2014. I also noted a much higher percentage of customers buying additional drive time, which is probably another good measure of the improvement made over the past few years.
The next step for Xtreme Xperience? They’ve reached out to partner with the MSF on a certification program that would be specific to the particular challenges faced by their instructors. "We’d love to work with MSF in further standardizing and improving what we do," Cal stated. I think that’s a great idea, and I think that XX has already laid out the foundation for what that program would contain.
Last but not least, I think that Cal and his crew at Xtreme Xperience have made the most persuasive case yet for certified and standardized driver training. If the folks who are selling three-lap drives in supercars to complete and utter novices can get their act together and create an effective program, there’s no excuse for the established trackday operators and marque-related clubs not to make a similar effort. In that sense, safety—for both student and instructor—is a lot like preventing forest fires. It can’t be handed off to someone else. It can’t be ignored. Most importantly, there are consequences for not taking personal responsibility for it. If you’re a driver coach or a trackday operator, now’s the time to get serious. It’s not exciting, and it’s not flashy, and it’s not something you can brag about at the office. But it’s important. So don’t wait.