I know the thought of spending two days at full throttle in a 505 horsepower Z06 makes most of you cringe and recoil with horror. The Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving has an easy sell when it comes to the actual experience of the Z06 Experience class. But what has most of you penciling it into your bucket list rather than your plans for next year is the price tag. However, as a graduate of several Bondurant classes I can assure you that if you modify and race your late model GM, you can't afford not to attend this class. The training that you will receive is invaluable for not only improving lap times greater than any part in the Summit catalogue, but also in your daily commute and transport of your loved ones.
Just a month or so prior to my last visit to the Chandler, Arizona school, I had several experiences that first made me glad that I had attended the school already and second made me realize that it was time for another trip. During my commute home one day from work I attempted to avoid gridlock by exiting the highway and taking local roads. This plan nearly backfired as I entered the left turn lane, and a gentleman in a Mercedes sedan entered my space (from the right) blindly as he cut through traffic. In an instant I scanned over to the left and saw no oncoming traffic as I applied the brakes, trailed off, and turned into the opposite lane until I had gone around the sedan. When I pulled up to the light the gentleman in the Mercedes thanked me, and all I could think was how glad I was not to be watching my C6 being carted off on a flatbed. I later reflected on the incident and remembered the accident avoidance exercises at Bondurant. I wondered if I would have been so successful without this training. Probably not.
Unfortunately the confidence I had from this situation was short-lived. I had noticed the consistency and quality of my lap times falling off over the last year. And this culminated in an embarrassing showing at a go-kart track with some colleagues and fellow racers. It was time for a refresher on driving technique, and with the many 500-700hp cars I am tasked with piloting (including my own C6), the Z06 Experience seemed the perfect method for gaining confidence in a high horsepower car. Unlike my last foray into the Bondurant method, then in a base C5, the Z06 Experience is focused on the typical enthusiast that is seeking his or her first instruction in the art of high performance driving. But that is not to say that an intermediate driver such as myself couldn't use a refresher on these techniques, make substantial improvements, and even pick up a few new things in the process.
Day 1 Classroom
The excitement is palpable as we assembled early to register, sign necessary waivers, and get started in the classroom. Luck of the draw, our class turns out to be small and I am the lone assignment of Mr. Corey Hosford. The skilled hotshoe and instructor comes from a Karting and Formula Mazda background, but as of late has been tearing up the Formula Drift circuit in a blown LS3-powered 350Z. In addition to introducing us to our private instructors, Assistant Chief Instructor Danny Bullock introduces us to the school, the grounds, the cars, and lets us know exactly what we have in store over the next two days.
For those who don't know, Bob Bondurant is a legendary racer who got his start in flat track racing (motorcycles) in 1952. Seven years later he was awarded Corvette Driver of the Year after winning 18 out of 20 races in the SCCA West Coast Championship (in his '57 Corvette). His success continued in various production-based classes throughout the 1960s including the Lemans GT Class in 1964, beating the front-running Ferrari GTOs. A few years later he began his Formula 1 career with Ferrari and trained the actors and drivers for the movie “Grand Prix.” After a terrible accident at Watkins Glen nearly ended his life, Bob started his school in 1968 at Orange County International Raceway. The school changed locations several times before finding its present home at Firebird International Raceway in 1990, where Bob was able to help design the track. Today Bondurant is armed with a whole fleet of GM vehicles for a vast array of classes, all equipped with Goodyear tires and some with a few aftermarket performance mods, too.
The goal of the Bondurant instructors in the high performance driving classes is to help the students attain maximum car control. That starts with using your vision to look where you want to go (not where you are going), and looking even beyond the A-pillars. Weight transfer was the next topic followed by using smooth inputs. Since you are still getting your bearings at this point, it is nice that they do not overwhelm you with information. After a little seat time, though, (and some lunch) things get a little more in-depth.
Later in the day we returned to the classroom to discuss proper seating position, hand position, shift position, vision, and vehicle dynamics. These basics are essential to receiving proper feedback from the car, and being smooth and consistent while also being aggressive with your maneuvers. Proper use of vision is also essential to timing and adjustment to the driving line. Bondurant warns of “target fixation,” instead a driver should be constantly scanning ahead and looking where you want the car to go (not looking where the car is going). Understanding how weight transfer affects grip is emphasized as the key to maximizing vehicle dynamics, with illustrations showing how the tire's contact patch is increased when weight is on it. Essential terminology such as understeer (front wheel slide) and oversteer (rear wheel slide) are defined as well as potential causes and corrections before setting us loose again – this time on the skidpad to see it in action.
Day 1 Seat Time
Every visit to Bondurant is kicked off with the infamous van ride, during which you either hold back your desire to vomit or marvel at the instructor's ability to push this less-than-nimble van right to its edge around Bondurant's 1.6-mile road course. The van ride emphasizes vehicle dynamics, and understanding them will allow you to do things in a car you never thought possible. Once paired with our vehicles of choice, [we] the students were given a quick review of seating position and thrown into the slalom course amidst the 8-acre paddock area.
As we previously discussed vehicle dynamics, it was important to keep your foot on the gas and maintain a constant speed to keep the weight neutral through the slalom. Lifting off the gas or braking would transfer weight to the front tires and potentially slide the back end out. Turning the wheel should be done quickly and smoothly, while giving a slight pause to let the suspension settle before turning back in the other direction. Seating and hand position is crucial here. As with several exercises, it became apparent that it is much more difficult to find the limit of grip in the Z06 compared to the Camaros also on track.
Things got a little trickier in the emergency lane change exercise. As you drive at a progressing rate of speed, you approach three paths with lights above them that turn green or red when you get close. In most instances, you must lift off the gas to transfer the weight forward, turn, and then squeeze on the gas to transfer weight to the rear. However, when all three lights turn red, you must slam on the brakes and engage the ABS braking system. The amount of time it takes your brain to process the light change is staggering.
After lunch and the second classroom session we headed out to the autocross area for practice at heal-toe downshifting. This is one area that definitely needed some refinement (on my part), and Corey was quick to notice that my method was very inconsistent as the result of how I was moving my foot. By rotating at the ankle while keeping the ball of my foot on the brake, it was much easier to duplicate turn after turn and much more reliable (and smooth). Corey does this effortlessly, which is the result of a lot seat time along with proper technique. Also of note, for those of you that are worried about blowing up your transmission or clutch: heal-toe downshifting is not for engine braking. While it may have been in the ‘50s before we had such amazing brake systems, today it is just to ensure that you will be in the proper gear when exiting a turn and can get on the gas as soon as possible.
Rather than jump right into the 15-turn course, Bondurant has the students try their hand at the Maricopa Oval, a small section of the course with two turns. The oval helps dial in timing, vision, proper line technique, and trailbraking. Cones mark the braking zones, apex, and corner exit, which definitely helped develop timing. Again, the immense level of grip in the Z06 was evident as I slowly pushed the car harder and harder, still not even close to its limits – a fact established when Corey took the wheel for a few laps. The ample torque and horsepower definitely requires some respect during corner exit as you feed in the throttle. Despite daily driving a C6, my comfort level still wasn't 100% just yet, but I did find it easy to gobble up Camaros with ease and even establish a little rhythm. Brake 1, 2, 3 and turn, look ahead to apex, trail-off brakes, turn more, hit apex, look ahead to exit, start unwinding wheel, squeeze on gas, look ahead to the next turn. It was all starting to come back, and I was even getting a much better feel for trailbraking than I've ever had.
The last exercise of the first day is definitely a popular one – Bondurant's famous skidpad. We were put in the driver's seat of a Pontiac G8 GT with a fresh set of tires and the most awesome set of training wheels you'll ever see. Bondurant's custom skid cars use a set of wheels fore and aft that are hydraulically controlled to induce understeer or oversteer. Typically these are Cadillac CTSs, however, Corey took us out in a G8 GT in which he happily demonstrated his drifting skills before handing the keys to us. The focus of our session was on developing finesse with the throttle and wheel amidst oversteer. When the back end slides out you must first turn into the slide and then start applying the throttle, and as the car straightens out you let the wheel unwind and back out of the throttle. Historically I have had issues with overcorrecting, but Corey instructed that using your vision (to look where you want to go not where you are going) and feel of the car are instrumental in avoiding this mistake.
While the other classes were packing it in for the day, Corey took me out on track for a little lead and follow session. The oversteer exercise helped build up some confidence, and I couldn't wait to stretch my legs on Bondurant's 1.6-mile course. After all, Bob helped design it himself, and it is filled with a nice mix of rewarding and technical turns. As the result, there are a few turns that are a bit frustrating and you more or less are just sacrificing to make a nice long straightaway or setting up for the next turn. However, a good majority of them are high-speed turns that inspire confidence with every lap you make. The Z06 emphasizes the difficulty in finding the limit of a car with tremendous grip, light weight, and ample power. In short, it is thrilling. But you will have no idea how far you are from the limit until you sit shotgun while your instructor or Bob Bondurant takes a few hot laps.
Day 2 Classroom
In the second day Bondurant goes into more advanced techniques such as heal-toe downshifting, hitting the apex, trailbraking, and threshold braking. All shifting is done in a straight-line, thus heal-toe downshifting is all about gear selection. Matching the RPM and not upsetting the balance of the car is essential to proper heal-toe technique. Taking a line through the track involves dissecting each turn in to three points: turn-in, apex, and exit. First you begin to change direction, using your vision to spot the apex, and then to the exit. If you have hit the apex correctly, you will have come as close as possible to the inside without going off the track and have the car pointed at an angle down track that will allow the driver to simply unwind the wheel and start feeding in the throttle. A poor angle will cause the driver to either run out of road or use the brakes to slow the car.
Speaking of brakes – that brings us to trailbraking, a valuable tool for aiding weight transfer. The idea is to utilize the forward weight transfer directly after you apply the brakes to increase front grip for turning. If you were to let off the brakes abruptly and then turn, the front end would rebound and weight would transfer back to neutral. This is an underappreciated art that can make a large difference in increasing grip, but when done improperly can get you in trouble. The more steering input, the less brake you can apply, so the idea is to “trail” off the brakes as you increase the steering input, and the same concept can be applied to the throttle as you exit the turn and decrease the steering input. The other two forms of braking are threshold braking, using constant pressure and finesse to shed speed quickly, and ABS braking, letting the electronics do the work.
Since day two involves more action out on track, the instructors also hone in on the types of turns and the basics of executing them effectively. The Maricopa Oval is the perfect demonstration of two types of turns: the early and late apex. Turn 4 is a long sweeping turn that requires patience and trailbraking, staying mid-track well after turn-in and apexing way late. When done properly this is a very fast turn. However, it is also very easy to run out of track here. Meanwhile Turn 5 is a little more typical, with a much earlier apex and a long exit that challenges you to go on the throttle as soon as possible to extend the straightaway. And of course the braking zones are discussed and clearly marked, which really helps to dial in your timing.
Day 2 Seat Time
In the morning I strapped into my Z and headed back over to the paddock where we started with an ABS brake and turn exercise. A series of cones guided us into one lane where we had to jam on the brakes to enact the ABS system and then turn the wheel out of the lane before hitting the cones immediately ahead. This demonstrated what the ABS braking system does, and how best to use it. Had the brakes completely locked up like in a traditional brake system (or during threshold braking) you would not be able to turn the car at all. Conversely we were also put through a threshold braking exercise, which used 3-2-1 braking zones just like on track. During threshold braking were able to slow the car dramatically by not enacting the ABS system and using the weight transfer to the front tires for maximum grip.
More than half the morning session, though, was spent back at the Maricopa Oval where it became evident that my comfort level was now at 100%. I fell back into the rhythm with ease – hitting the braking zones, turning in, and trailbraking with much better timing, pushing the car even harder while working less (physically). Corey made a correction to my seating position and instructed me to shuffle steer when needed, so as not to stay bound-up with my hands glued to the 9 and 3 o'clock positions mid-turn. This relieved tension in my shoulders and back, and made it much easier to make laps. And being able to relax my body made it easier to relax my mind, which in turn allowed me to be more consistent and effortless with my driving. During this session we were also instructed to utilize heal-toe downshifting, which I did with much greater ease than the previous day. The correction that I made yesterday was bearing fruit as I was able to do so much more easily and consistently. Corey noted the difference as well.
Our last on-track session of the class put us first on the autocross before hitting the road course. By this point, we all felt ready. Confidence was at an all-time high. The instructors had stopwatches, something I had never seen at Bondurant before, and gave us the go ahead as we took turns trying to best our previous run. The course was tight, and was pretty much a Second gear course with decreasing radius, constant radius, and hairpin turns as well as a kink and sweeper. The course challenged your vision and ability to make balanced weight transfers. Again the Z06's grip and weight were huge advantages.
Just as I started to whittle my time down a few tenths, it was time to strap on a helmet and head out to the road course. With Corey in the instructors' CTS, I was right on his rear bumper for most of the course, as he pushed the sedan right to its limits and even a little beyond. We ran the Carousel and the Lake Loop, and it was clear that Corey's experience was a large factor in turn 1 and 2, but from my last outing at Bondurant I knew I could really push this car through the kinks with no fear and the Z06's horsepower gobbled up the CTS. Again Corey would out-drive me on the back half of the Carousel leading on to the straight where the LS7 evened the playing field. This game of cat and mouse got the adrenaline pumping as the two-day stint reached its climax, while I used all of the tools that Corey and the other instructors had given me – heal-toeing at the end of the straight, trailbraking around Turn 2 and then again at the Carousel, keeping neutral balance (like the slalom) through Turns 7-9, constantly scanning ahead to the next turn, etc. At the end of the session I inevitably yearned for more, and can't wait for my next track time knowing that I will be armed with the tools for a rewarding and fun (not to mention fast) experience.