"Universal Pictures hired me in 2001 to be the driving instructor for the cast of 2 Fast 2 Furious which was filmed in Miami and that is when I opened up my driving school - Sports Car Driving Experience. I got to work with the entire cast and had a great time with all the actors, including the late Paul Walker."
Henry Gilbert: Race Team, Schools and Track Days
by Ziva & Michael Allen
Henry Gilbert, an accomplished professional racecar driver, owns and operates The Performance Driving Group, which is an HPDE provider operating predominantly in Florida. PDG prides itself for running the friendliest and safest events around, catering breakfasts and lunches and providing cold water throughout the day to all participants. The four main Florida tracks that PDG frequents are the full 24 hour course at Daytona International Speedway; the full 12 hour course at Sebring International Raceway; the full and modified Grand Am course at Homestead Miami Speedway; and the full course at Palm Beach International Raceway. Gilbert spoke to us about PDG, his racing school called Sports Car Driving Experience, his racing career, and his run as a stunt driver in the major motion picture and television industries.
Q. What are your one or two favorite parts on each of the four tracks that PDG’s HPDE events frequent in Florida and do you have any special turns you can break down for us?
A. Daytona International Raceway - Tri oval and the Bus Stop; Sebring International Raceway - Turn 5 and Turn 14; Homestead/Miami Speedway - Turn 1 and Turn 6-7; Palm Beach International Raceway - Turn 4 and Turn 5. Sebring turn 5.
Let me breakdown the two Sebring turns for you.
Turn 5, better known as the carousel: It’s not particularly a fast turn by any means, but it is a very important turn as it leads to one of the longer straight-aways where you can gain time. If you get it right, it feels great. But if you enter it wrong, you lose so much time plus you can end up in the red dirt to the right or spin and collect the wall to your left. A worst scenario is that you spin in the middle of the track and block the cars behind you, never knowing if or when you are going to get hit. Pavement change from asphalt to concrete is critical on a slippery day, rainy day or early morning.
Turn 14: Awesome really fast left hander that can be taken flat out if you have the balls and proper line to do it. Make a mistake there, and the tire wall awaits you to the right. One of the few places you can make an outside pass if you have a good handling car. This is a very important turn for a fast lap time.
Q. Do you provide driving instructors or utilize the coach volunteer method?
A. We do both. We provide volunteer coaches who have been coaching with us for a long time and understand what it is we want them to get across to the student. Although many of the coaches participate with other HPDE organizers, we don't always use them because we don't want them coming with bad habits and other ideas that we don't approve of. Unlike other organizers, we only appoint one student to each coach and there is no charge to the student or the coach. We also have available our Pro coaches who do charge a fee for their services (we don't) and spend all day with the student going over data after they are done with their session.
Q. Tell us about what a driver coming to a PDG event can expect in terms of the format of the day.
A. PDG runs a three-run group format. Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. Each run group gets FIVE 25 minute sessions plus breakfast and lunch. We also have cold bottled water accessible to everyone throughout the entire day. After registration, students are introduced and paired up with their coach for the day and then they must attend a 30 minute classroom session to get them familiar with the procedures as well as some driving techniques. The rest of the day is spent rotating run groups with not a lot of time between sessions. There are no download meetings or additional classroom sessions during the day. A properly instructed student has enough learning first hand while on-track that they also need time to relax and prepare mentally for their next time out. You can't cram too much into a short period of time or it will go in one ear and out the other.
Q. I understand that you have an extensive racing history. Can you give us a couple of highlights of your racing career?
A. I have spent most of the last 30 years racing in some sort of professional series as well as being team owner for Gilbert Racing. We have always run more than one car in the series. In the mid-1980s I started road racing open wheel cars and found my real passion to be sports cars, so I went to the Brand's Hatch Racing school, got my license and started my racing career. I jumped right into the Firestone Firehawk IMSA series and did my very first Pro Race at Road America driving a Chevrolet Camaro. Since then I have raced in Grand Am for many years, IMSA, World Challenge, Trans Am, Motorola Cup, SVRA and HSR. I had the opportunity to drive with my good friend John Paul, Jr. at the Petit LeMans in a Viper GTSR back in 2000 and in Grand Am I co-drove a couple of races with Randy Pobst in a Porsche cup car with some top four finishes. I bought a Daytona Prototype about five years ago and had the opportunity to race in Grand Am with Shane Lewis as my co-driver. For the past two seasons I have tried my hand at Trans Am and I am now waiting for my new Derhaag TA car to be delivered. I have also raced many times in the SCCA National series over the years.
Q. What races are you currently involved in?
A. This year I have raced in Trans Am and currently I have been driving in the Chump car endurance series while my new Trans Am car is being finished so that I stay physically fit and sharp in the car. I will be co-driving a Daytona Prototype in a 500 kilometer endurance race at Sebring next month. I will do some select races with SVRA or HSR in my Daytona Prototype until my Trans Am car is ready. We expect the next 2015 Trans Am race will be in November at Daytona.
Q. What would you say has been your toughest challenge to overcome, skill-wise, and/or what would you say you find you are continuously honing and getting better at?
A. Maintaining my endurance is the biggest challenge. I drive a variety of cars and find them easy to handle, but cardio is the biggest hurdle to be able to be just as focused and fast from start to finish. I'm not as young as I used to be so driving long stints takes more out of me than it used to. Being fit for racing is a full time commitment and a lifestyle. You don't just go and get ready the week before. It's a 24-7 commitment every day of your life.
Q. I understand that you have also been a stunt driver, having driven in films such as 2 Fast 2 Furious, Transporter 2, Miami Vice, Burn Notice, Charlie's Angels, All About The Benjamin's, Sex Drive. How did this part of your driving career come to be? Is this something you’ve enjoyed and why? Can you relay to us a couple of stunt-related stories while performing onset?
A. Universal Pictures hired me in 2001 to be the driving instructor for the cast of 2 Fast 2 Furious which was filmed in Miami and that is when I opened up my driving school - Sports Car Driving Experience. I got to work with the entire cast and had a great time with all the actors, including the late Paul Walker. He was such a great person and a good driver. Tyrese Gibson was hilarious to work with. All the other actors had such a good time learning and they were thrilled to drive the actual cars that were used in the scenes. Stunt drivers do 99% of the actual driving, but actors do get in the cars from time to time.
I got to work with Colin Farrell during the filming of Miami Vice. What an experience! First driver in a race car with his helmet on that I have seen smoking while on track - in a Ferrari to boot! Great guy, had lots of laughs. Jason Statham, very talented person. Likes to do his own stunts and can wheel a car pretty good too. Seven years with Burn Notice. And Jeffrey Donovan had some great work - not all driving related. I can't go into any more details except to say working with these actors is a lot of fun. Many stories over the last 20 years.
Q. Any close calls while performing a stunt?
A. Everything is so choreographed and safety is always number one that I can honestly say - no - we have not had any close calls. All my work has been done under the supervision of stunt coordinator Artie Malesci since I started working with the film industry back in the early 1980s. We have been friends since we were 12 years old, grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same schools. He is the best at safety and prep. He also co-drives with me from time to time.
Q. What are some of the challenges new drivers face during their first time on the track that you find tend to be common among new drivers?
A. They are all very tense and apprehensive of the unknown. That is why it is so important to never put a beginner driver in a situation where they are rushed to get up to speed. A beginner driver should never be rushed. They need to get up to speed on their own time not someone else's. I hear from instructors at other HPDE events that they are told to hurry up and get their student up to speed and not to hold anyone up. I would never allow that to happen at our events. That to me tells me the run group has been oversold and there are too many cars on the track. That student needs to take his or her time and come up to speed without being pushed. The student paid to come and enjoy him or herself for the day, not to be under pressure to perform the first time out.
Q. How do they overcome this apprehension?
A. Seat time. That is the only way. Repetition and assurance from the instructor is helpful. Praise the driver no matter how small the gain is. Help him after the session by giving him pointers when he can think back without having to be worried about what's coming up while on-track.
Q. How would you describe your teaching method for new drivers as opposed to more experienced drivers?
A. You have to start from the very bottom with a new driver and continuously walk them through every step of the way. You have to tell them when to brake, when to turn, when to accelerate, when to straighten the wheel, when to shift. You have to tell them everything you want them to do and then slowly and progressively stop, little-by-little. An instructor who is in a car and doesn't talk continuously to his student is not doing his or her job.
An experienced driver is totally different as that driver’s goal is to lower the lap times, so now you are teaching smoothness, consistency, momentum and proper form. This is where it pays to have a pro coach who can download data and show the student where he or she is making gains, where he is slow and how to get better.
Q. I understand you also have an SCCA accredited racing school called Sports Car Driving Experience. Tell us about that and how it may be structured differently than PDG.
A. I worked for several driving schools over a 20 year period that gave me the experience and knowledge to get to where I am today. I learned the most from The Skip Barber Racing School and the Justin Bell Experience. Sports Car Driving Experience is a Corvette driving school - NOT track days. Although I learned many good things working at other schools, I also saw the flaws. I wanted to start my own school and make it the best I could for the student. We supply Corvettes and have professional instructors who ride along with the students during the entire course while giving instant feedback. We limit the amount of cars on-track to be no more than six so that there is a good distance between cars and the students don't have to be concerned with traffic. Passing is allowed on the straight-aways with permission from the instructor. All instructors have radios and can communicate with each other while on the course. The focus of our courses is car control. We teach many things, but it all revolves around car control. We use a skid pad to teach how to prevent a spin, spin recovery, and how to slide a car through a corner under control. Students are on-track for 20 minutes at a time every 20 minutes for some real intense driving time.
Some of our past and present instructors have been the likes of John Zucarrelli, Adam Ricardel, John Paul, Jr., Shane Lewis, Guy Cosmo, Walt Boren, Dennis DeFranceci, Michael DeFontes, David Farmer, Nick Fanelli, Geoff Lowdermilk. Additionaly, we have had several others bring their own students, like Terry Borcheller, Andy Pilgrim, Lawson Aschenbach, Matt Plum.
Q. What do you think shaped your desire to make a career out of driving and racing? What are your earliest memories?
A. I knew driving was my passion before I was a teenager and I have been fortunate enough to have made my passion my career. There hasn't been a day in my life that I had wished I was doing something else except when I did a tour in Viet Nam with the Marines. I love what I do, so for me I haven't worked a day in my life.
Q. Do you have a favorite everyday track car you would recommend to an HPDE enthusiast and why?
A. Don't laugh, but you asked. A Mini Cooper Turbo. Talk about a great handling car with awesome fuel mileage. Comfortable, easy to park, reliable and no I'm not a Mini salesman. Ok so mine has a few more horses than a regular one, but if you want to practice driving all day every day, the Mini is it.
Here are two drive-along thrills with Henry Gilbert!