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Meet Steve Pizzati: Volkswagen's dynamo driving instructor

A man who was never going to live an ordinary life, Steve Pizzati is as well known for his skills as a driving instructor, race driver, presenter and journalist, as he is for his quirky sense of humour, passion for the motoring industry and infectious love of driving and cars.

Many of us at CarAdvice have come across him on more than one occasion, and when I recently attended the Volkswagen Driving Experience, Pizzati was the head driving instructor.

The ability to command the attention of 128 punters that begin the day just itching to get on the race track is a rare one, yet Pizzati does it with his trademark left-of-centre and humorous explanations; calming the throttle-happy feet and getting the crowd revved up, all while delivering crucial instructions and guidance in an entertaining fashion.

It's the sixth year of the Volkswagen program, and Pizzati and his team of professional driver instructors have led the way for the past two years. After an awesome day behind the wheel of the Golf GTI, Golf R, Scirocco R and Polo GTI, I sat down to have a chat with him.

CarAdvice: Tell me about your background?

Steve Pizzati: Well mum and dad met in 1972…

No, not your life story! Your car story?

I’m slightly unusual in that I didn’t start go-karting when I was eight years old or anything like that. My family wasn’t into motorsport so I started racing when I got into uni. I was doing pizza delivery – I thought it was a great job because it involved the two loves of my life – pizza and driving. I saved up as much money as I could, and I brought a go-kart and started racing that way.

I thought, how do I catch up to the professionals? For me, I felt very quickly that I could teach and that was also a good way to accelerate my learning. Whilst I was doing motorsport fairly early on in the piece, I started doing some very low-level driver training. It’s put me in good stead because I almost had to learn as an adult. A lot of guys learn as kids, and you sort of don’t quite analyse what you do, you just do it. For me that’s been an advantage because I’ve had to think – how do I get better at this as an adult?

I then pass that on to our customers. It's something that I’ve been able to pass on to our instructors as well and I think I can see in our team – when we pick and choose who we have as instructors – people that have that understanding and that analytical part of the brain that can break it down for other people.

What would you say to someone in the same situation you were in back at uni? What would you say to motivate them?

Persistence pays off, I think it’s as simple as that. It’s like anything in life, if you want something bad enough you’ll do it. I obviously wanted it bad enough – rightly or wrongly, and much to the dismay of my family. I did engineering at uni and I haven’t worked a day in my life as an engineer.

But I’m doing what I genuinely love. Don’t tell Volkswagen but I’d do it for nothing! It’s something that I absolutely love doing. We’re in the fortunate position that we’re paid to do what we genuinely love to do. And I think it shows, I think customers relate to that genuine feeling that the team has, it’s something that we love, it’s infectious and that’s an important part of the day.

This driving experience has proven to be incredibly popular.

[Our class in] Sydney sold out in less than half an hour. I was talking to two customers this morning and they were saying they’d got on the website half-an-hour before bookings opened, and were watching the clock.

They wanted to be in the same session as their mates, and were trying to all book at the same time. But the counter was falling backwards so quickly – luckily they managed to all get in to the same session when there was just a few spots to go. It’s a tribute to the popularity and success of the program.

Great to see a couple of female instructors here – Renee Gracie, Leanne Tander – is it hard to find female instructors?

Yes, for no other reason other than pure numbers, there’s just not as many girls in motorsport as there are guys. They’re not here for any other reason, other than they’re both really successful, really good race drivers that like teaching. I can say that, genuinely, hand on heart – if it happened to be that they’re all guys or all girls then so be it.

It just happens to be that in the current mix, we have two girls. Fundamentally, if there were more females getting into motorsport there’d be more female instructors and it’s as simple as that. And we’d gladly have them any day of the week – better than hanging around some of my guys, they smell better.

Prettier too! You are really passionate about what you teach – how important is this type of training for everyone on the road?

I think first and foremost you need to acknowledge that there’s probably more to be learned. That’s the prime reason that 99.9 per cent of the population don’t do these sorts of things. Once you get into some of these cars, you start to go ‘hang on, maybe there’s more in the car than there is in me'. So the first step in getting better is acknowledging that you can get better.

Most drivers go, 'I’m great, I’m a great driver, I don’t need to do this', but it’s important to acknowledge that there’s more to learn. Beyond that, like anything in life, if you want to get good at something, the fastest way to get good at something is to get professional lessons. When you go skiing, if you’ve got a couple of days you can try and get around yourself, but if you take a couple of hours with a pro, you’ll learn so much more.

Driving is the same, it’s no different to any other skill whether it be painting or cooking, you can kind of work it out for yourself if you do it for long enough – but it’s way quicker with a professional. In this case, we have the top of the driving profession and they can condense what they have learned over years and years to this wonderful nugget of information.

Seek professional tuition, it’s as simple as that.

How important is it that we eventually see something like this included as part of licensing conditions?

We would love to see that. The entire industry would love to see that. It’s one of the unusual things in our society – without getting too philosophical – that in my 21 years I have never had someone come to a drive day and say, 'this is a waste of time, why am I here?' Everyone unanimously questions why we aren’t doing this. It’s so obvious, so apparent. Yet we can’t get over that hurdle of actually getting it into parliament and getting it enacted, even though the vast majority of people feel that it’s important.

I don’t know what the answer is. We’ve collectively, whether it be the manufacturers or the drivers, we’ve all lobbied for years for this to happen. I don’t know what the answer is, I really don’t. Until there’s a politician that’s passionate about the subject, it will be difficult to change.

At the end of the day, if you feel strongly about something, you’ll make it happen. And if we end up with some parliamentarians that feel strongly enough about it, it would happen. So more race drivers in parliament!

What would you like every driver to know?

If there’s one thing – a single piece of information, something you can pass onto your kids – it’s keep your vision up. Look up. It doesn’t matter how good you are, and you could have ninja reflexes, but if you’re getting the information late it won't matter.

It doesn’t matter what level of driver you are, you’ll always benefit from getting the information earlier rather than later by looking up the road. It’s as simple as that. It’s not quite a three word slogan, but, as a simple statement – you should never know the number plate of the car in front of you ever again. It’s a simple little reminder to yourself – if you know the number plate then you've been looking down.

That’s the thing you’ve got to clobber. Keep your eyes up, simple as that. Everything else is a lot easier if you’ve got time. And that’s what you’re buying: you’re buying time when you look up the road.

So, Scirroco R or Golf R for you out on the track?

Arrrgghh, it’s like picking which child is your favourite. I’ll put it to you this way, and this isn’t diplomatic – if it’s wet I’d go the Golf R, if its dry the Scirocco R. We love them both, they’re both different, they both achieve similar things in slightly different ways. At the end of the day, it’s like, what’s more correct, chocolate or vanilla? It’s chocolate, we know... No, joking!

It’s a personal preference and that’s why Volkswagen don’t just make one car. If there was one perfect car for everybody, there would just be one car. Volkswagen make a lot of different cars because some people have different needs, different requirements and simply like a different feel behind the wheel.That’s what it comes down to.

But yeah, depending on the weather I’d pick one over the other.

Anything you’d like to add?

I’m a Taurus…. my favourite colour’s blue… everyone likes bushwalking, isn’t that the thing? I like that.

Call Steve on…

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