Driving Progression

Note: I’ve updated this post since it first appeared.

In my day job as a Professor, I get to observe people learning all the time. Normally, this is in bioinformatics, which lies at the intersection of biology, molecular genetics, software engineering, statistics, and computer science. For some reason, UC Davis allows me to teach a course on High Performance Driving. Since I have simulators in my office, I get to observe driving students and record data on a fairly regular basis.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is very pronounced in driving. That is, people of little skill often overestimate their abilities. The D-K effect is often considered something that’s bad or shameful. I think of it as the normal way people learn. Whether it’s bioinformatics or driving, students go through stages of learning, unlearning, relearning, and perfecting. Let’s take a closer look at these stages in driver development. But first, I want to show an infographic I made that attempts to reconcile learning, the D-K effect, typical labels for driver development, keywords for each stage, and even lap times (many thanks to brother Mario for discussions).


  • Level: The are many lables to describe expertise. I’ve decided to use 5 labels. The numeric level is an attempt to sync with NTRP (tennis), which I admire for its thorough descriptions.
  • Key: This is a single keyword to describe motivations at this stage.
  • Pace: The way to read pace is as a percentage greater than a world-record time. If the lap record is 100 seconds, or 1:40, then most expert drivers would be less than 1% off pace: < 1:41.0. Note that most track records are set by advanced or expert drivers, and not pros (professionals don’t drive in various and numerous amateur racing classes).

Learning Stage

In the beginning, driving is mostly about having fun. Every book, video, and track session is both entertaining and a learning experience. Novices learn and improve simply by participating. A succinct way to describe this stage is fun.

After the initial novelty wears off, intermediates want to achieve something, which is usually their personal best lap time. In order to perform better, intermediates learn about the nuances of driving like 9-n-3 hand position, heel-toe shifting, trail-braking, and left-foot braking. There are apparently a lot of hyphens in the intermediate stage.

Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick. — Bruce Lee

Unlearning Stage

Many drivers plateau in both knowlege and lap times well before they reach anything approaching the theoretical limit. In biology-speak we would say they are terminally differentiated as intermediate drivers. Progressing to the advanced stage requires two things:

  1. Recognition that they suck at driving
  2. Motivation to improve

Many high intermediate drivers believe they are driving correctly. Most intermediate drivers aren’t comparing their lap times to other drivers in the same car, so they are free to make excuses about the vehicle or its setup. A driver who is unable to recognize their own shortcomings can only improve by buying a faster car, which many of them do. There are plenty of very fast cars at any track day driven by intermediate-level drivers. Your HPDE coach is probably one of them.

How does an intermediate driver full of confidence come crashing down to reality? By looking at hard data such as minimum corner speed. Intermediate drivers are generally 10 mph too slow at the corner entry. There is no way to make up for such a deficit. Increasing throttle mid-corner only creates understeer and lifting at the exit.

Drivers who recognize that they suck have two options: accept their fate or resolve to improve. Getting better at driving takes a lot of work. During the learning stage, it’s easy to pick up bad habits that are hard to break. I understand drivers who just want to have fun with the skills they have and not be confronted by their actual suckage. That describes my guitar playing.

For those who resolve to improve, the road ahead isn’t easy. It will be hard work, but it will also be truly satisyfing.

Relearning Stage

Driving is like any other sport: the way to improve is by training. What exactly does training mean? Long hours of drills and some expert coaching (like every other sport). High performance driving is an expensive sport, so the best investment you can make at this stage is to buy a simulator. The initial investment might set you back $2-3k, but this is a bargain considering you’ll need hundreds of hours of training to improve. In addition to cost, there are 2 critical reasons to make simulation part of your relearning activities:

  1. Disaster training – In the real world, it’s very difficult to gain experience in terrifyingly horrible situations. In the sim world, it’s easy. We don’t rise to the occasion, we fall back on experience. And if you have no experience driving off track, driving on dirt, spinning in oil, or avoiding reckless racers, you won’t know how to handle it.
  2. Data – In the real world, it’s difficult to compare yourself to other drivers. Everyone has a different car. The weather changes constantly. Also, nobody wants to share. In the sim world, you can make everything identical and you can get faster drivers’ data for free. This is priceless information.

The relearning stage is mostly about humility. Advanced drivers are continually confronted by their specific shortcomings. Advanced drivers understand that their lap times are the product of their technique, and the way to improve is to work long, hard hours on their technique. One of the most important things a driver can do to improve at this stage is also one of the hardest: ask for help from a better driver. Better yet, pay for professional coaching.

Perfecting Stage

True expertise takes time, effort, and sacrifice. Nobody becomes great without being disciplined about their training. Expert drivers train to maintain their edge, and worry that if they don’t train regularly, they will lose that edge.

Nobody gets to the top without being selfish. The sacrifice at the top level of any activity isn’t just personal sacrifice. Yes, it means you train instead of going out with your friends. But it also means your friends and family suffer to enable your success.


Wait, you actually read all the way to the end?

5 thoughts on “Driving Progression

  1. There is a mispelled word in the article. The first person to locate it (that would be me) wins a free 3 hour coaching session with Ian, a spot on his next race team, and a free race prepped Yaris!

    There is the word “their” misspelled as “thier” somewhere therein the article, therefore there should indeed be a prize of their choosing.


    1. Fixed. I don’t have a Yaris or race team anymore, but happy to do a coaching session someday. That’s not contigent on finding a spelling error. If I gave out prizes for misspelled words, I would have to give out a lot of prizes. I noticed that you intentionally misspelled “mispelled” the first time. So do I get a prize for noticing or what?


  2. Very inspiring poVery inspiring post.
    Why don’t aliens set track records?

    After 18 months of sim I can easily see what I’m doing wrong IRL e.g. driving over limit. st.
    Why don’t aliens set track records?

    After 18 months of sim I can easily see what I’m doing wrong IRL e.g. driving over limit.


    1. There aren’t many aliens and there are a lot of different racing classes. Some classed have so few participants that it’s possible to be 10% off pace and still set a fastest lap. Lots of track records get set by more ordinary people.


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