No matter how good you think you are behind the wheel, whether you pilot your ride down the dragstrip or aggressively attack corners, there is room for improvement. That improvement can and will come naturally with seat time; however, you can speed up the process exponentially by learning from those who drive for a living. We did just that at Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Chandler, Arizona.
Bondurant offers a wide variety of classes to fit your time and monetary budget. You can do a single-day session or more comprehensive, multiple-day programs. The program you pick will also dictate the type of car you'll be driving. For example, a student in the ZR1 program gets a full day of on-track experience with the top-tier Corvette lineup, and for new drivers, Bondurant offers a safety driving course. We opted for the two-day high-performance class that provided everything from the basics, to learning how to heel-toe, to practical applications on the road course. Oh, and we got to flog the fifth-gen Camaro.
To kick it off, we were grouped and placed in a classroom for a quick introduction of the instructors and fellow classmates, a breakdown of the schedule, and some Q&A. If you're wondering if the classroom session was dry, it was quite the opposite. If anything, it's very visual, with a detailed map of the track and model cars to show how a chassis can and will react to driver input. You can expect to go through this routine prior to taking on a new lesson; each lesson is specific to a portion of the track, and you'll eventually apply everything you've learned and use those newfound skills on the big 2.2-mile road course.
Again, this is a high-performance driving school, and you will be maneuvering at a high rate of velocity through the corners, hitting triple-digit speeds on the front straight—potentially nerve-rattling, especially to those with limited experience. Given this much information—and action—you'll appreciate the instructors' level of professionalism. They are well versed in what they do and are focused on you and your learning experience. Their goal is to improve your skill level, not to push anyone into an uncomfortable situation.
If you've ever considered enrolling in a driving school but are unsure as to which one is right for you, you'll want to seriously consider Bondurant as your first stop. So many high-profile drivers have "walked through these doors", and while you may not become the next hot shoe in the world of professional racing, there's no reason you shouldn't learn the same techniques, improve your driving, and up your overall proficiency behind the wheel.
The skid car was a personal favorite. Not only did we get to burn the hides and pretend we were professional drifters, but this was an important portion of the program where we learned to keep the car in control during oversteer conditions.
At the end of the two-day schooling, our group went on the big course for a final wide-open throttle session. It’s here we applied all the freshly learned techniques, and what a rush it was, especially with all three cars driving in unison.
Bondurant offers your choice of programs, with access to a fleet of Camaros and Corvettes, including the coveted ZR1. Our weapon of choice was the Camaro SS.
Modifications to the Camaro are minimal and primarily for improved reliability. These include performance brake pads, clutch, and sway bars.
One of the greatest aspects of the school is that you’ll quickly learn your strongest and weakest suits; during the class session, the instructors went into great detail, explaining what to expect on the course.
Another fun exercise helped improve response time. In this maneuver, we drove at a steady speed, approaching three lanes with traffic lights. The instructors controlled the lights and we had to turn into the green lane without lifting or braking. Even though only one car is on the course at a time, it can still rattle your nerves.
Controlled skid and steering was another exercise that showed how well an ABS system works. We accelerated to a predetermined speed, hit the brakes as hard as we could, and were expected to turn hard to the right while navigating between cones. The brakes modulate to stop as fast as possible, but the car is in a controlled skid. Ultimately, this can help prevent potential accidents in real-world conditions.
Learning to heel-toe shift initially proved to be a bit challenging. During this session, we drove continuously, in a large rectangular pattern, until it felt like second nature. Marker cones were used to predetermine our throttle, shift, and braking points. Do it right and be rewarded with smooth transitions through the 180-degree turns.
Another personal favorite was testing your ability to judge spatial distance. Here each car lined up to drive at a specified mph toward two cones, requiring everyone to brake without overshooting them.
The single most important driving technique we learned was trail braking; done correctly, it feels like you’re accelerating through a corner when you’re really braking in a controlled manner. As you enter the apex, you brake hard then relieve the pedal pressure slowly and throttle down as you’re exiting the corner. This eliminates understeer conditions and produces faster entry and exit speeds.
Toward the end of the second day, everyone applied what they learned on the autocross course. Sure, it was a blast, but it was just a stepping-stone to getting on the big course with the final lead-and-follow session with the instructor.
Driving courses are not limited to the Camaros and Corvettes; Bondurant also offers shifter kart and formula programs. If you have a new driver in the family, they even provide a defensive driving program for teens.
It’s unreal how much we learned in such a short time. And no, there isn’t a formal graduation, but you do receive a certificate for your efforts, and a card with a final rating. The best possible score is 5.0, reserved for the best of the best—and rarely given. Rumor is Bob Bondurant himself has only given that score to one person. So we’re pretty pleased with our 3.6.