The Dangers Faced by Driving Instructors

Being a driving instructor is a dangerous job no matter how you look at it or what type of instructor you are. There are various types of instructors and the ones we think about most are the instructors who teach beginners how to drive and help clients get their drivers license. As a licensed instructor myself, I know full well that taking a new driver onto public roads is risky and terrifying…not only for me but also for the client. Driving is the one thing we regularly do that could get us killed and rarely does that thought cross ones mind when they leave their driveway. Most instructors who only work in this group aren’t actually very good though and often teach unsafe driving habits and techniques. There are only a handful that I would trust to teach my son.

Then there are Advanced Instructors and although the title is a bit subjective, this is the type of instructing that I specialize in and do the most. My focus is on making drivers safe and not just focusing on the basic maneuvers like how to park. A parking maneuver gone wrong is unlikely to ever kill anyone in the car, although it could kill a pedestrian if the driver isn’t paying attention. What you learn from an advanced instructor is what will save your life (and the lives of others) on public roads.

Then there are Performance Instructors which I am one of also. These are the instructors who teach drivers how to get the most out of their vehicles and themselves and how to improve and how to drive at the limit of both driver and machine…on the edge of the envelope. These are the instructors that are called upon for instructing on racetracks, either teaching someone the art & science of racing or at slower speeds, just teaching drivers how to lap on a race track safely. But to get around a race track safely, people first must learn a hell of a lot of things before they try it and once they do, the instructor is right there beside them, slowly working on the driving skills, their control and their technique so that they can go faster in increments. Let me say that last part again…’in increments’.

When I’m instructing at a race track I always start by telling my client “Don’t try and impress me, because you won’t, and if you try and drive fast, you won’t be and you’ll just get us hurt. Speed is a byproduct of being smooth, being in control and learning the techniques.” Most drivers don’t understand that they have to learn how to be smooth, learn control and learn the techniques FIRST. Once those are learned, speed just…happens.  When organizers of track events, or the instructors, forget those basic fundamentals, things can go horribly wrong. If there is ever a failure in either the driver or in the vehicle, being on a safe track is paramount. Some tracks though have very obvious safety flaws that go ignored. I don’t mean simply unnoticed, I mean the issues are known and flatly ignored.

Once again, there has been a fatality in the ‘performance driving experience’ market.  On Sunday April 12th, 2015, Gary Terry, an instructor (and former race car driver) was killed in Orlando, Florida. He was not only an instructor but also the Operations Manager for the Exotic Driving Experience company (operated by Richard Petty Holdings) on the Disney World race track. The client who was driving was 24 years old and suffered only a few minor injuries. He was released from the hospital that evening. Gary Terry had a wife and young child who now have to make sense of what happened and learn to live without him in their lives.

The company’s website says “Exotic Driving Experience gives YOU the opportunity to get behind the wheel of these supercars and make your dreams a reality. Each experience starts with six laps around the course with a professional driving instructor in the passenger seat providing coaching and feedback.” No mention of any in-class training or recon laps with the instructor driving first. I wonder how many laps they actually completed.

The track itself was originally designed and built as a stock car oval track but was later modified to include an infield section for programs like the Exotic Driving Experience. They used not only the infield course section but also part of the original oval. They they ran in ‘reverse direction’ to how the oval track was designed to be run…this was a lethal mistake. After carefully looking at the track overall and the design features, this track configuration could be lethal no matter which direction it was run in. When tracks are modified to suit a wider range of features and applications, it really has to be totally redesigned and re-engineered. Not just slapped together with the “Ya…that will do” mentality. Sure this new section of track wasn’t intended to be used for official competition and it wasn’t. So maybe they didn’t have to meet the same safety standards that a ‘race track’ would have required. Although when you are providing exotic sports cars like Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Porsches, to anyone with a license who can afford to pay the price, you’re begging for trouble. These caliber of cars are basically street legal race cars and they do require much skill to drive. Especially to drive them fast on the track. Doing so on a track with some serious safety design flaws…no thank you.

The driver obviously lost control of the Lamborghini they were in and crashed passenger side into the unprotected and exposed end of one of the barriers. This could have happened in several other areas of the track also. Not a tire stack or Fitch Barrel to be found anywhere on these exposed ends of the walls.

Working at a facility like this and with a company that obviously ignored some pretty obvious safety issues is a horrible situation to be in as an instructor. You need to work and provide for your family & that was the only real gig in town for instructing, but the safety compromises would have been obvious to Gary who was by all accounts very experienced. Its for reasons like this that a lot of instructors have given up doing in-car instruction on race tracks. Its for similar reasons that I stopped instructing at various lapping events at certain tracks. Sure I still instruct in-car on race tracks but I’m very picky about which organizers & schools I work with and on which tracks.

As performance instructors, part of our job is to keep our clients safe and not let them exceed their skill level. Like I said earlier, speeds go up incrementally. But at a company like this, part of what the client is paying for (and expects) is a thrill ride and with the starting package offered, you’ve only got six laps. Knowing this, the client wants to make his limited number of laps count. I get that the clients want to drive their dream cars and drive them fast but there just isn’t enough time to teach them the required skills and techniques to be fast. There lays the paradox. All it takes is one client who thinks he’s a good driver (and everyone thinks that) to ignore the instructors commands and go hell for leather, for things to go horribly wrong. Now I’m not suggesting that’s what happened in this case but obviously something went wrong and the client was unable to control the car. The Florida Highway Patrol is investigating the accident, and at the time of writing this, the only reason given was “failure to maneuver.” Perhaps “failure to recover from a skid” or “driver far exceeded their skill” might be more accurate.

It’s happened before and it will happen again. Only once the instructors make a stand and start refusing to work for certain companies/organizers or on certain tracks, until they clean up their act and/or improve the safety measures, will any change actually happen. They don’t have a business without the instructors and it’s not the kind of job that can be filled by some Joe Blow with no experience in both teaching and high performance driving.

Personally, I wouldn’t work for a company like this. There is no way I’m going to let someone with only the basic driving knowledge and skill drive me around a race track in a supercar that can reach speeds of older Formula 1 cars. Add to that an unsafe race track? No thanks.

If you want a thrill ride, that’s fine…I’ll do the driving thanks. All you need to do is just hang on. Please folks…leave this kind of driving to the Pros. Trust me, it’s more of a ‘thrill’ when the driver is a Pro anyway.

Side Note: Within a couple days of the tragedy, the Exotic Driving Experience has cancelled all operations at the Disney World track and has updated their website to reflect that the facility has been removed from their list of track venues. Apparently Disney has already slated the track to be demolished and turned into a parking lot anyway.

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