On Track: HPDE to Time Trials (Part 2/3)
By: Richard Graves
Picking up where we left off with our last installment, you’ve now taken the plunge, finally made it to an event (figuratively speaking, I know it’s only been a week, bear with me here…), and have no doubt come away hopelessly addicted to track. Now lets talk about how you continue getting your fix….er, making progress towards your goals as a
track addict driver.
II. The HPDE Ladder
“High Performance Driver Education”
NASA utilizes a four-tier HPDE system: three “school” tiers with a sort-of “graduate” tier beyond that. You’ll hear them referred to as HPDE or “DE” 1,2,3, and 4. Everyone starts in DE1, and then progresses at an individual pace up to DE3, from which you can jump off into TT, Racing, become an instructor yourself….or, if you prefer, just enjoy open-passing track weekends in DE4.
Upon entering the program in DE1, you’ll be issued an HPDE Passport. This combination log-book and grade-card serves to provide you and your future instructors a way to track your progress and provide targeted feedback and coaching as you work your way up the levels. Grading is a simple 1-5 scale: 1: Excels, 5: “Needs Work”
Moving up through the levels involves keeping your nose clean on the track, not scaring your instructor, and completing check rides. That last part involves an instructor or the chief instructor (depending on the level) riding along with you for a session in order to assess that you are competent and have the skills to comfortably drive in the more advance group.
One thing to remember: This is not grade-school. You do not get moved up a level because the rest of your class did, because you’ve attended a certain number of events, or because you have a GTR or Koenigsegg and like to drive flat-out. Progression results solely from competence and comfort on track.
With that in mind, let’s take a walk:
HPDE-1: Check your ego, listen, learn.
DE1 provides a basic introduction to track-driving etiquette, and rudimentary driving skills and strategies. As you go into this experience, please….for the love of God, just forget that you’ve ever played Forza/Gran Turismo/i-Racing, etc. Even if you’ve done years of autocross, keep an open mind as some concepts may still be new to you, or may require a slightly different approach.
Also…..and this one is a personal pet peeve: the HPDE1 classroom is not the place to discuss car setup. Don’t take this the wrong way, but at this point, odds are you are the weakest link. A really good driver might be able to shave another 0.100 seconds off of a lap time by changing the settings on their shocks. If it’s your first weekend, you could “squeeze” another…I dunno, TEN SECONDS out of your car by learning to push it near it’s actual limit. Don’t be “that guy/girl”. If you really must ask questions, save them for your individual instructor. Having ridden with you , they may be able to judge if it’s your sway bars or just a loose nut behind the wheel.
Listen to the instructors, and pay attention in the classroom sessions. It’s for the good of humanity, I promise.
- You get an instructor assigned to you, and they will ride in the car with you at all times
- You have classroom sessions in between driving sessions
- Passing rules are restricted to point-by-only
- e.g. you can’t pass unless the guy in front points you around
- This is good, because no one knows what they’re doing and it make sure that both parties understand that a pass is about to happen.
- If it’s your first DE1 weekend, you’ll get your HPDE Passport
- Towards the end of the weekend, you’ll receive, and discuss your “grades” with your instructor.
- If your instructor feels you are competent and you have good control of your wits as well as your car, he or she may sign you off to drive by yourself in the DE1 group.
- This is a good time to ask about a check-ride to move into DE2.
- Some regions may allow same-weekend promotion, but few/none will allow same day, though I’ve seen exceptions
- If you have prior track day/karting/signficant autocross experience budget one weekend.
- That said, be honest with yourself and listen to your instructors.
- Don’t be afraid to ask about moving up, but at the same time be ready to deal with it gracefully if the answer isn’t a promotion.
- If you have no prior experience figure on spending a couple of weekends here unless you just happen to have a knack for it.
To give you some idea of the criteria on which instructors grade students, here is my report card from my first-ever NASA weekend:
HPDE-2: Practice, practice, practice, Ask questions, self-analyze,
DE2 may seem a lot like DE1, only with a longer leash. Essentially designed to re-enforce all of the concepts introduced in HPDE1, DE2 classroom sessions also start getting into more advanced techniques to practice and develop.
Depending on which NASA region you run with, you may or may not have an instructor in the car for all, or part of the weekend. This is a good time to start developing some self-analysis techniques (Video, Data, a friend following you around for a session, etc.).
Plan to spend a few events in DE2 while you pick up speed and learn different tracks. Don’t be shy about asking instructors questions or asking for for ride-alongs if you don’t have a dedicated instructor. This shows that you’re trying to learn. I will say I probably felt the most progress from my weekends in DE2.
- You may or may-not have an instructor assigned to you.
- If you don’t have one assigned, you may ask for one if you’re at a new track, or just want some in-car pointers for a session.
- You still have classroom sessions between driving sessions.
- Passing rules remain restricted.
- It’s up to you to grade yourself, or seek out an instructor for analysis
- You’ll also have to pursue a check-ride, they will not come to you.
- DE2 represents the meat & potatoes of the learning process in my opinion. Spend as many weekends here as you need to get comfortable with the different situations you may encounter on track and while you still have ready access to instruction.
- You’ll want to see mainly 1s & 2s on your Passport report card before you consider moving up…..
- Understand that the jump from DE2 to DE3 can be significant with respect to the driving skill of the “field”. If you’re issuing a lot of point-bys in your DE2 group, it’ll only get worse.
- On the flip side, if you are frustrated with traffic, particularly in a low horsepower car, you may have more fun in DE3 even if it means issuing a few more “pass-me”s.
HPDE-3: ….Because that’s how I drive
DE3 takes a big leap from DE2: No instructors, skilled drivers, and lots of dedicated track cars. DE3 tests your driving skill as well as your situational awareness. Getting comfortable in this fast-paced environment will prove key to making the jump to the next level. Self-analysis remains key.
- You will not have an instructor unless requested
- You still have classroom sessions, although they now run more like download/discussion sessions vs. a lecture. You might discuss nuances of a particular track, talk car setup (yes now you may do that), or ask that guy you were following about why he took the line he did through turn 3.
- Passing is still point-by, but much less restricted
- You may have group exercises like side-by-side sessions that force you to use parts of the track you might not have otherwise.
- Plan to spend a few events here getting accustomed to being around faster cars and drivers
- To move forward, you will need to request a check ride since you will not have an instructor by default
- From DE3, you can apply for a TT license or a racing license depending on your other track experience or start on the path to becoming an instructor yourself.
Compare this HPDE 3 session to the HPDE 2 session I posted at the end of the last installment. ’Slightly more intense:
HPDE-4: What’s a point-by?
DE4 exists mainly as a playground for instructors and advanced drivers who, for whatever reason, are not competing elsewhere. Still a DE group, this remains not-racing even though point-by’s are no longer required.
- You might have a student
- You might be teaching a classroom session
- Passing is open within-reason
- Point by’s are still recommended, but not required
- Yeah, you’ve already been there, done that, and have the t-shirt.
So, there you have it, the NASA HPDE experience in a nutshell. If you’ve stayed in school, worked well with others, and minded your instructors you should have a good idea at this point how much further you’d like to take your driving.
We’ll be covering at least one possibility in the next installment as we delve into the process of preparing and getting licensed to run Time Trial events!
Until then: Keep the shiny side up.