'Distance Coaching' Is Safer for the Driver and Instructor, But Does It Work?

What do you do when you still need driver coaching, but it's no longer safe for the coach to be in the car? Dion von Moltke might have the answer

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R&T

When veteran racer Sean Edwards lost his life while teaching an advanced student in a Porsche GT3 Cup racecar, the loosely-knit community of professional and volunteer driving coaches was immediately fractured by our various responses to the incident. Some of us quit coaching and never looked back. A surprisingly large number of instructors weren’t bothered at all and made no changes in their approach. Others chose to gradually reduce their exposure to risk, often by moving to a data-driven coaching model such as the one pioneered by well-respected racer and analyst Peter Krause.

Finally, you had the driving instructors, such as your humble author, who resolved to continue with in-car training but who also resolved to take any and all steps necessary to increase our safety. The Motorsport Safety Foundation (MSF) was created out of that desire, and it has already done a considerable amount of absolutely invaluable work in safeguarding both drivers and coaches from harm. Most importantly, the MSF has made it acceptable for us to openly and frankly discuss issues of risk, safety, command, and control in the driver-coach dynamic…

...with the exception of one topic which is generally considered too hot to handle, and it is this: At what point in a driver’s development should the instructor get out of the car and never get back in? The vast majority of coaches agree that there is a place for in-car coaching at the novice and intermediate levels. Many of us are perfectly fine with giving “check rides” and occasional right-seat feedback to our peers, so long as the vehicle involved is something less ferocious than, say, a Corvette Z06. After that, it’s a very grey area.

I am personally aware of some extremely upscale programs, usually occurring on private facilities or behind locked gates, where wealthy drivers are coached at full race pace by dedicated professional in-car instructors. I have even been shown proof of secret wheel-to-wheel race series where each driver has an instructor along for the ride. They typically involve nine-figure net worth individuals and extremely sandy locations. The risk, like the financial reward involved, is immense. Yet there are some people who believe that there is no substitute for personal instruction–even when the “student” is running at the ragged edge of performance and safety.

Dion von Moltke, well known (and liked) for his successes in Grand-Am and IMSA sports-car racing, has a better alternative. “We identified a gap between traditional right-seat coaching, which works up to the lower advanced levels, and the data-driven coaching provided at the very highest levels of competition.” His new company, Racers360, plans to fill that gap with an affordable but meaningful new kind of instruction. It’s very simple: his clients upload or email their in-car videos, and von Moltke’s staff of pro coaches returns a fully-annotated review of that video.

This technique isn’t intended for novice and intermediate drivers who need and benefit from a personal presence in the car, nor is it meant for the seasoned racers who are running within a few tenths of their cars’ absolute capabilities. It’s for the people in-between–the advanced drivers and middle-of-the-pack club racers who aren’t yet able to take millimeter-precise direction on midcorner throttle motion from a World Challenge crew chief but who nevertheless are going fast enough to kill or seriously injure a right-seat coach if they step over the edge. “It’s been common for racers to send us their Friday qualifying videos that evening, and we return them in time for them to take advantage of the coaching on their Saturday race starts,” von Moltke told me. Some of the Racers360 clients are seeing improvements of two seconds per lap–an absolute eternity in club racing.

As the great Patrick Bedard used to say, I’m from Missouri when it comes to claims like that – you have got to show me. So I sent Dion three laps of in-car footage from the season-ending NASA Great Lakes event at NCM Motorsports Park, where my wife, the infamous Danger Girl, took a narrow class win in Super Touring 5. Although Danger Girl has significantly improved her pace this year behind the wheel of her NC-generation MX-5 Cup, she is still a couple seconds adrift of my best efforts in the same vehicle. Could Racers360 help her?

True to his word, von Moltke turned the video around in just a few hours. What we received was a detailed exposition of DG’s best lap, stretched from its actual time of 2:32 to about 20 minutes thanks to considerable freeze-framing, slow-motion, and reverse footage. An excerpt is below. As someone who has been coaching for fifteen years, I was immediately impressed with how von Moltke addresses both general concerns and specific techniques. Throughout the lap, he detailed individual changes that DG could make to gain time–but he also put those changes in perspective as part of overall changes in midcorner steering and exit lines. Check out an excerpt below:

Danger Girl, who is not known in my household for her willingness to accept much correction, found the feedback from Racers360 much easier to accept than the vague comments she gets from my own half-baked review of her post-race videos. “It’s one thing to say, ‘blah blah blah stop cramping the car at exit,’ the way you do,” she said, “but Dion actually stops the video and shows me exactly what I’m doing wrong.”

“I hope the two of you will be very happy without my vague feedback,” I snarled in response. Much as I hated to admit it, however, the lady had a point. The Racers360 format made it absolutely obvious what she needed to change, why she needed to change it, and how to make that change. Unfortunately for us, it will be a full five months before she is back on track at NCM–but when that day arrives, she will have the video to watch at her leisure until she has internalized the lessons involved.

Another thing I might as well admit–when I spoke to von Moltke on the phone, only my considerable respect for his accomplishments behind the wheel kept me from laughing out loud when he made his claims regarding laptime improvement. In-car video is the dollar-menu hamburger of road racing–it’s everywhere, everybody has it, and it’s never worth consuming. I’ve always believed that you needed detailed data traces to make serious improvement at the club-race level. Shows you what I know.

Not only does the Racers360 method work, it has the potential to get instructors out of the most dangerous right-seat jobs out there. The next time a wealthy road-racing hobbyist crashes while looking for that last half-second, the instructor’s chair might be empty. If that’s the case, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Dion von Moltke and his fledgling company. They won’t teach you how to find your way around the track, and they won’t change you from a third-place Runoffs finisher to a Runoffs winner–but if you’re somewhere in-between, Racers360 offers a service that deserves your attention.

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