Although I've only done one NASA HPDE (High Performance Drivers Education) event so far, I thought I'd compare how it stacks up against the pro racing schools (such as Skip Barber or Bertil Roos) that I've done.

The NASA HPDE allows you to take pretty much any car, from an all out race car to a fully stock street car on the track for un-timed lapping sessions. Drivers are grouped by skill level and the beginner and intermediate groups require you start with an instructor in the car. There are also several classroom instruction sessions throughout the weekend. There are many organizations that host HPDE type events at almost every road course in North America, including NASA, SCCA, Trackdaze and marque clubs such as BMWCCA.

The differences between the track day/HPDE and pro racing school formats are vast. Probably the biggest similarity between the two is the classroom sessions. I run in the level 2 group, so the instruction was not fully comprehensive, but the topics covered were similar.

On the track, things are very different. First off, since drivers are grouped by skill level and not by car, there is a vast range of different cars in each group; a majority of the cars I was running with had two to three times more power then me, although some were on stock or near stock brakes, tires and suspension, so I could carry significantly more speed through the corners. I was concerned about the safety of this going in, but it really turned out to be a non issue. I did have to be aware of when to point someone past me on the straight, but it did not significantly distract me from driving the track, and although sometimes the closing speeds are massive, I did not see any unsafe maneuvers by anyone. Sure, car to car contact is possible, but from my experience I think it is a pretty rare occurrence.

Secondly, having an instructor in the car took some getting used to. I was worried about being distracted from the instructors comments, but in turned out his level of talking was appropriate and not distracting at all. Certainly there are pros and cons to having an instructor in car; an in car instructor can watch your steering and pedal inputs, and provide real time feedback. However, if you've never attended a pro racing school, it is pretty amazing how much a good instructor can see just from standing at a corner or following in another car.

Although I mentioned the range of different cars did not present a significant safety concern, I do think it inhibits drivers progress. Having to slow down to let another driver pass can kill your momentum for half a lap. It is hard to find the limits of braking in a race car when you've got cars with much longer braking distances ahead of you. And naturally with such a huge difference in lap times, there are going to be trains of cars that form and it could take several laps to find clear track. In short, a dozen or less identical cars on the track that I've experienced at the racing schools produces a lot more valuable track time then two dozen or more cars of vastly different performance all getting in each others way.

Another concern I had was the level of instruction I would get with NASA, and the ability of my instructor to help me drive my car. I've mentioned before the excellent quality of instruction I've gotten from both racing schools I've attended, and I believe any pro racing school should have excellent instruction. However, with track days being on such a larger scale, I'm lead to believe the quality of instruction can vary a lot more. During my first event though, my concern was unfounded. I found that NASA does try to assign instructors who have experience in the type of car you are running. And my instructor was also knowledgeable about the track and and able to communicate effectively, both during and after the sessions.

I should also mention the difference in the environment of a pro racing school and a NASA type event. The combination of a lot more different things happening at the NASA event, the varying mentality of the drivers (some are serious about racing and some are just there to have fun or push there street cars to the limits) and having to worry about running my own car meant I found it more difficult to focus on improving my driving during the HPDE vs. the racing schools.

In closing I think that HPDE type events do teach you performance driving and can be a lot of fun as well. However, if you are really serious about racing, I would highly recommend you attend a pro racing school as well.