A lot of folks new to HPDE worry about passing - they either think folks will bully them from behind, or they worry about being held up by slower cars. Candidly, in the lowest run group when there's a fresh crop of brand new folks out there, this can be an issue. It's also one of the key tasks for your instructor, to help you out with another set of eyes and ears, manage the traffic and help everyone with the rules and etiquette.
In a true HPDE event, passing is cooperative, not competitive. There are designated passing zones, and they're almost always on the straighter sections of the track. The person in front signals that they're going to allow a pass; no passing can happen without that signal.
My home club, Audi Club Northwest (ACNW), uses turn signals, and we model it to be as identical to the "street" as we can get it. Lead car puts turn signal on and moves in that direction (or stays to the same side of track as the signal). Overtaking car signals in the opposite direction and moves out to overtake. Overtaking car can then signal (briefly) when they're moving in front of the "passed" car. If (formerly) overtaking car is allowing yet another car to pass both, the formerly overtaking car can leave the turn signal on signifying "OK to pass me too".
ACNW favors passing on the left, as it's done in the street. There are exceptions; at Portland on the front straight passing is done on the right side for a couple reasons. Car being overtaken gets to stay "on the driving line", and Turn 1 at Portland is a right-hander. National Audi Club rules suggest the direction of overtaking match the next turn. In any case, the rules for that club at that event should be made clear in the morning Driver's Meeting, and it's one of the reasons attendance is mandatory.
Other clubs favor the "point by" method of signaling. The driver who is willing to allow a pass sticks his/her arm out the window and clearly points where the overtaking driver should go. Straight out to the left indicates the overtaking driver should pass on the left. Arm up and curled over the roof pointing to the right indicates the overtaking driver should pass on the right.
Unless the officials of the club at that event have indicated otherwise, you should not pay attention to hand signals from the right seat instructor. His job is not to signal the passes, and you might confuse him simply giving direction to the driver ("See the turn-in cone there?") as a passing signal.
Another thing covered in Driver's Meetings (either globally or by run group) are exceptions. Sometimes a turn signal is not working correctly so the driver will point instead. Sometimes a driver is not capable of using his left arm for any number of reasons and he is allowed to use his turn signal instead.
If a club that normally operates with "point by" rules decides to allow use of turn signals due to weather (windows rolled up in the rain), be sure everybody is clear exactly how turn signals are to be used. I track with a dozen or so different clubs / bodies, and there's at least one out there who uses turn signals "backwards" from the rest - they use the signal like a finger, that's the direction they want you to overtake. They're a safe outfit, but only if everybody is on the same page.
Presenting to Pass
This is one of the trickier bits about the HPDE culture. There's a tendency for new student drivers to want to "make it obvious" that they are faster than the car in front, and they move in too close. There's no hard and fast metrics, but much like the street the following distance should be speed based. In any case at the lower levels of HPDE you should never move in so close that you can't see the rear tires and pavement of the car in front.
Having said that, when you are actually approaching the passing zone and are expecting a signal to pass, you should close up to within a few car lengths. If you're hanging too far back, the person who would give the passing signal might look up, figure that you're too far back, and not give the signal. This is a situation where the instructors really help both drivers sort out what is reasonable behavior.
Many drivers, particularly early in their HPDE career, get quite nervous when somebody is following them at all closely. We have a term for it, it's called "Driving in your mirrors." One solution: when you see somebody behind you who is going to want to pass you, tap your inside rear view mirror. This is a signal that says, "I see you, and I'll signal you to pass in the next passing zone." When the driver behind sees this, they usually back off a tad and then get set up for the passing zone. Everybody relaxes when things are understood.
Finish Your Turn
Almost by definition, passing zones happen after a turn. If you're anticipating allowing a pass, you might be tempted to transition directly from the middle of the turn to moving aside and signaling for the pass. It's very important to finish your turn first, tracking out normally before you signal for the pass. If you don't, it's called "Pinching your turn" or "Pinching the exit", and it makes the car unstable. Turn 16 at The Ridge is the last turn leading on to the front straight. If you pinch that one with decent throttle applied, you're going to hook to the inside and hit the wall.
After you've signaled for the pass and the overtaking car has moved out to pass, breathe off the throttle a little, just enough to allow the other car to get past you easily. It's not the time for a drag race, nor is it the time to mash the brakes. Drive in a way that is expected.
Timing is everything. Signal for the pass, move in the direction you're going to move, glance in the mirror to see that the overtaking car has moved to overtake, and *then* lift throttle. I have cautioned a handful of students who get this bass-ackwards, lifting and then signaling, that they're in serious danger of being rear-ended.
Passing, what happens next?
No brainer, you keep driving fast, right? Sure, but watch out for that next corner. Some of the worst near misses I had early in my HPDE career were at the first corner after passing. If you didn't get the pass done very early, chances are you're not in the same place entering the turn as you were in the prior lap. You might be entering the turn from mid-track instead of the pavement edge by the turn-in cone. With experience, this is easy enough to adjust for, but the first time you encounter it, it gets interesting. Slow it down a tad is the best general advice for that next corner if you're out of position. This is perhaps hard on the ego; I just passed this guy and now you want me to slow down? Deal with it, or pick weeds out of your grill.
The "Passing Flag" and Vehicle Profiling
One of the standard flags in the HPDE (and racing) quiver is the Passing Flag. This is a medium blue flag with a diagonal yellow stripe. I call it "Sweden" because the colors are about right. One of the colorful lead turn workers in California explains it thusly, "There's a race going on, and you're not in it!" What it really means in an HPDE event is, "Check your mirrors, somebody wants to pass you." It is not an absolute command, nor does it change the passing rules (i.e., sometimes they display the flag when you're not in a passing zone).
If you see the passing flag and didn't know there was somebody back there, you should make a mental note to check your mirrors more often.
As with all flags, the flagger appreciates it if you acknowledge the flag somehow. If you can lift a hand and wave safely, that's great. If not, just fidgeting fingers on the wheel, nodding your head or flashing your lights all work as an acknowledgement.
Vehicle Profiling is my term for the tendency to look at a car and determine how fast or slow it is based on your own biases and experiences. I drive a Volkswagen. When I'm out amongst the Porsches / BMWs / Audis, it's not unusual for both the turn workers and other drivers to assume that I'm a rolling speed bump. My car is not the fastest out there, but I'm a relatively fast driver, particularly in the rain. I have had "Sweden" waved at me because the flagger perceives that I must be holding up the Porsche I just passed.
...which brings me to another point about passing, particularly in the less experienced run groups. If you just bought an RS4, an M3, or a 911 and want to learn how to drive it well, taking it to an HPDE is a great plan. Recognize that the A3, 325 or 914 behind you *might* be learning at a faster rate if they're sticking to you like glue in the corners. Be kind and let them by you in the passing zones, don't just dart away in a 400HP expression of your joy.
Variable Passing Zones, Point-By Anywhere, Open Passing
Some clubs, notably the Audi Club Golden Gate (ACGG) and Audi Club SoCal (ACSoCal) have different passing zones for different run groups (experience levels). The novice run groups have the fewest zones (and use turn signals), the safest ones to navigate. Intermediate groups get a few more and use point-bys, and the instructor groups get a couple more added. I see plusses and minuses in this approach: the plus is that instructors are less likely to get held up when lapping. The minus is that it's confusing, particularly to the instructors who run in all three sessions, and especially to a student who moves up or down and the rules change.
Point-By Anywhere is a protocol used by a handful of clubs in the instructor and advanced groups. It's a little terrifying at first, and requires a level of trust in your fellow enthusiasts to get it right. Once embraced, it's a hoot and takes your on-track awareness to another level.
Open passing is pretty rare, and for the most part runs like "Point-By Anywhere". I was in an open passing event in Austin at Circuit Of The Americas, and I was pointing by much faster cars. On one short straight, I pointed by three faster Porsches. As I was turning in to the apex, a guy in a Viper cut me off, damn near causing a collision. We had words later. He said, "I don't need your permission." My response was along the lines of, "You don't need your paint or bodywork either, but it's nice to have."
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