Q: “How do we know if a racing school is legit/worth it? Most new drivers want to go to a school, but there is no list or certification or anything to know if a school is really worth the time or money. Reading reviews could be biased or misleading. Is there a way to tell if you’re being taught the correct way, by true instructors? Or is it a fly-by-night school that is just trying to make some cash and not really teaching you anything? Are there questions we should ask of the school or things we should be aware of when looking for a performance driving/racing school?”

A: Wow, that’s a tough one because even the best schools have changed through the years. It’s not an easy business to make money in, and therefore the school you’re considering might be going through tough financial times – and the quality of cars and instruction might not be ideal. Or, they might be on a rebound from some past struggles and have the latest and greatest. That’s the time to go there!

So how do you know? Certainly keeping your ear to the ground within the motorsport industry and community is the best way. But that might not be possible, so I’d recommend finding a few different people you can trust who are in the industry, and ask them about a specific school that is being considered.

To me, here are the three priorities for a good school:

  1. Instructors – “Big names” mean nothing. Some of the very best instructors I know do not have a “big name” from a successful racing career. What’s critical is their level of enthusiasm for the job. I’ve seen more than a few instructors at some of the big name schools who should not be there, as they’re simply going through the motions. They’re burned out. Ideally you find the school with instructors who have enough experience to be able to adapt your needs (inexperienced instructor don’t necessarily have this ability), but are still excited and enthused to help you learn (and learn themselves). So, a school that simply advertises that their instructors are more experienced may or may not be a god thing. That might just mean that they’re all burned out! So ask about how their instructors work with students; ask open-ended questions, and listen to the answers (it’s more than possible that the person you’re talking to has no idea of how good or bad the instructors are – another reason for reaching out to trusted people in the industry).
  2. Cars – Assuming you’re talking about attending a school that provides the cars, safety is number one. Well, duh! But it’s not so obvious. And go back to what I said earlier about some schools going through financial challenges. Guess what often gets cut back on in lean times? Yup, car preparation. Dig to find out how well the cars are maintained and prepared. Ask about that. Also, what is the car? Is it an old tube-frame, cobbled-together open-wheel car, or a carbon-tubbed car? A production car or open-wheel? What do you want to drive? I strongly believe that if a driver is comfortable in an open-wheel car (and they might not be immediately), they will learn more in one than they will in the same amount of time in a close-wheel, production-based car.
  3. Curriculum – While most teach something close to the same in terms of the curriculum, some do a little better job. Unfortunately, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, as one school’s focus on using data acquisition, for example, might be a benefit to some drivers, but not so much to another. I do think that if the school has been using the same curriculum for decades… well, it might be time for some updates. Yes, driving is driving, and we still use a steering wheel, throttle and brake pedal to go fast (and a gearbox that needs shifting!), but how material is presented has changed – or, at least, it should have.

I wouldn’t let big budget advertising sway your decision-making too much. Sure, some schools have more to spend on marketing, and that might make them seem better, but that’s not necessarily the case. The same could be said about the name attached to the school. Just because “Cole Trickle’s” name is attached to the school, that doesn’t mean it’s a good one. It might be, but not necessarily.

Location is a factor, in that it’s going to impact your budget. But you might find that spending more to travel to the right school will be better than saving a few bucks and having a bad experience.

And that leads to the last factor: cost. You know what they say about getting what you pay for?

In the end, be sure what you want – open-wheel or production cars; in-depth training that will set you on the right path to the elite levels of the racing world, or a great, fun learning experience? Don’t get overly excited by big names, but focus on the enthusiasm and experience (not too little, not too much) of the instructors. And then… ask around. Talk to people in the industry. Find out which school is doing well right now financially, and which ones are not.

Oh, one last thing: Short of a school putting you in unsafe cars (in which case, stop immediately and get your money back!), it’s hard to have a bad experience at a professional school. They’re all good – it’s just which one is better than good for you?