Driver Training at the Indy 500
By John Dinkel
Because I am an engineer who is also a journalist, I have spent my life driving, evaluating, testing, racing and writing about cars, primarily at Road &Track magazine. I have a passion for driving . . .driving well. In America we have spent billions of dollars making safer vehicles, but we have spent barely a nickel on making safer drivers.
We Americans think of driving as a God-given right, not a privilege. Typically, if you wish to become accomplished at something, you take lessons and you practice: golf, piano, tennis. Unfortunately, while most driver education instructors are well meaning, they are also misguided. They know the rules of the road—that red means stop and green means go—but they are poorly informed in the fundamental mechanics of teaching someone how to drive correctly, things as simple as how to position yourself in the seat and how to hold and turn the wheel correctly.
And I would bet that not one instructor in 1,000 understands that every input the driver receives about how the car responds is a direct result of what is happening underneath four tiny patches of rubber acting on the road surface. Those of us in the know refer to that as tire management, and understanding and controlling what those four tiny patches of rubber are doing at any given time and in any situation is what driving and saving lives while driving is really all about.
I live in an area where driver education is not taught in the high schools. And you are forced to pay good money to attend a licensed driving school— and I use that term loosely—before you are allowed to go to the DMV and take your driving license test. After my two kids passed their driving tests, I spent the next several weeks re-teaching them everything they had been taught incorrectly. And giving them instruction in the one thing every driver needs but is never taught unless he attends a racing school such as Bob Bondurant’s, Skip Barber’s, Jim Russell’s, Danny McKeever’s FastLane or an SCCA driver’s school: car control or what I call offensive driving.
Incidentally, one of my two kids has attended an SCCA-organized teenage driver training school that taught the basics of threshold limit braking, with and without ABS; cornering on a skidpad to experience the limits of a car under controlled conditions and an autocross where the lessons of accelerating, braking, steering and cornering could be integrated and applied. These are car control skills that the typical American driver will never learn, practice or employ when driving in the real world. There is a terrible finality to the words in that previous sentence because there isn’t a day that goes by when one or more of these skills could be used to avoid an accident and to save lives. Imagine the following very common situations:
The list is endless. And more often than not the results of not having proper driver training are tragic: an accident, injuries . . . often death.
Oscar Koveleski is a kindred spirit. We share a common passion for driver education. I have had an opportunity to attend a number of professional driving schools and Oscar has raced professionally, having competed very successfully as an independent racer against the major factory teams such as McLaren, Dan Gurney’s All-American Racing and Roger Penske.
We both help train prospective racing drivers. But for the past 15 years Oscar has also been teaching car control skills to a very different audience: To kids, some of whom are barely old enough to walk and talk. And with amazing success. His KIDRACER program has taught literally thousands of kids ages 2 to 8 the fundamentals of driving. And he does it in a racing environment so that the kids learn about the various flags: red means stop, green means go, yellow means caution, slow down and black means no bumping. And of course, the checker. Everyone loves the checkered flag.
After learning the basics of driver etiquette, the kids buckle themselves into a realistic looking and feeling open wheel Formula 5 race car and are individually taught how to accelerate, brake and steer, following a line that is taped around the track. KIDRACERs have two speeds, 2 mph and 5 mph and are battery powered, an when a kid become proficient at the lower speed he or she is allowed to shift into 2nd gear.
Following these training sessions 5-6 kids get to race wheel-to-wheel for 5 laps around the track. While someone always crosses the finish line first, every kid is a winner as Oscar provides all of them with checkered flags and winner decals. Sportsmanship, driving well and having fun are emphasized versus winning.
I spent a week with Oscar and his KIDRACER program at the recent Indy 500. We ran the KIDRACER program for five days and trained more than 300 kids, which might not seem like a lot until you consider that each training class requires 35-45 minutes to conduct. It’s amazing how quickly little people come to grips with the intricacies of driving a car. They concentrate, they have fun and they learn. Most important they learn correctly.
More than five years ago an 18-month-old kid crawled behind the wheel of a KIDRACER at a program Oscar was conducting at Watkins Glen. Cord Kisthardt could barely walk and he couldn’t talk but today at the age of seven he is Oscar’s chief driving instructor and winning races every week behind the wheel of a 1/4 midget.
Kids teaching kids. This is Oscar’s philosophy. And it works. It’s incredible how well kids relate to other kids. They really pay attention and they really learn. I have done a lot of instructing of kids in youth sports programs and the biggest negative I have seen is when adults attempt to vicariously re-live their youth through the kids. Kids reaching and teaching other kids is a much more positive and rewarding experience.
I have no statistics to back me up but I gotta believe that all these kids leave the KIDRACER program with a better understanding of traffic rules and safety. They will recognize the meaning of red, yellow and green traffic signals and they are taught that they have to buckle their seat belts before the car can be driven.
Some of these kids will find the KIDRACER cars so much fun that their parents will buy them one. Maybe their friends in the neighborhood will see how much fun they are having and ask for a KIDRACER. Soon there will be neighborhood KIDRACER events, just like there is Little League baseball and AYSO soccer and Pop Warner football for kids.
In a few years some of these kids will graduate to go-karts and 1/4 midgets and continue their education. When they become teenagers, they will already understand that driving and that driving well with control is a responsibility and a privilege. And they will teach some of their peers who weren’t fortunate to start with a KIDRACER when they were three years old. And maybe, just maybe, the roads will be a safer place to drive on because more people understand what offensive driving and car control are all about—preventing accidents and saving lives.