If you've ever wanted to find out what it takes be successful on a racetrack, yearned for the skills to be a safer driver on public roads, or just looked for the experience of a lifetime, Super Chevy knows where your metaphorical rainbow ends: on the outskirts of Phoenix at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving.
With suspension modifications and g-machine builds being all the rage in the world of Chevrolet performance, it doesn't make sense to modify your car in this fashion and not modify the driver at the same time. Without proper training, there is no way to take full advantage of all those expensive suspension parts you just installed. With all of the above goals in mind, this author has wanted to experience a course at Bondurant for some time. That's right, not just at any driving school-Bondurant. Nothing less would do. I hungered to learn the most I possibly could in the valuable time spent at a school, wanted to push my limits as far as I felt comfortable doing, and demanded the best instruction in the industry. I knew the one place to find all of this would be at Bondurant.
Started by racing legend Bob Bondurant back in 1968, the school has four decades of experience teaching drivers from every walk of life to be safer and more skilled behind the wheel, whether on a racetrack or out on the road. Today Bondurant is the official high performance driving school of General Motors, and features a full fleet of GM iron. The mainstay is its massive stockpile of pristine C6s, but there are also Cadillac CTS sedans, Pontiac Solstices, and Corvette Z06s, among others (plus, you'll soon see owners of ZR1 Vettes here as part of Chevy's two-day driving class included with every purchase). There's something for everyone, no matter what your experience level or your goals in attending. From racing courses tailored to novices and current racers alike, to safety courses that instruct anyone from teens to veteran drivers safe driving on the street-even military/executive security courses for training specialized personnel in how to get or evade the bad guys-there is a wide variety of programs available at Bondurant to fit any need or budget.
So when Super Chevy editor Jim Campisano and I decided to trek out to the Sonoran desert during June of 2008, we opted to go through the crme de la crme of racing courses that don't require a prerequisite or extensive racing experience: the Grand Prix Road Racing course. While it can be had in three- or four-day form, we chose to go the whole nine yards so that we could experience not only brand-spankin'-new Corvettes, but open-wheel Formula Bondurant race cars as well.
There is no earthly way that text on a page can do Bondurant justice; you simply have to experience one of its courses to truly appreciate not only what is taught (heck, the plethora of skills and subtle coordination you learn can't be expressed in words anyhow), but the courteousness and individual attention of a staff whose every member goes out of his or her way to accommodate your every need. Hopefully, we can give you just enough of a taste of it all to realize a Bondurant experience is one you'll not soon forget.
Thursday winds up with a ceremony where we each receive very classy graduation certificates and plaques. We also get our report cards: Jim and I both earn above-average overall grades, showing we took it to the next level-that's a major compliment coming from these instructors. We also are signed off as eligible for our regional SCCA licenses (both three- and four-day Grand Prix Road Racing courses qualify you for this). That's right, this isn't just a driving course where you get to haul ass and get patted on the back for a job well done-the Bondurant instructors are evaluating your performance every step of the way during a GPR course, and because they have a heck of a knack for what you're doing wrong and how to help you fix it, you become a better driver each day you are here.
We'll leave you with some wisdom instructor Corey Hosford imparted to us one day at the school: When you come here as a student, it's critical to keep an open mind. He said some folks come here having been the fastest at their local tracks, and start driving in a way that's either not fast or is outright unsafe. Unbelievable though it may sound, "Kid, I've been driving since before you were born!" is one thing he's heard as an instructor. In other words, what you get out of a course at Bondurant depends on what you put into it. Put in just a little, and you'll still get a lot. Put in a lot-like your complete faith and trust in the knowledge of the instructors-and you'll get more than you might imagine possible.
Check out superchevy.com for exclusive in-car video of both the Corvettes and the Formula Bondurant machines, as well as an interview with Bondurant himself. Special thanks to Anna Hackett, Corey Hosford, Les Betchner, Jerry Arms, Bob Bondurant, Rusty, and everyone else at Bondurant-we'll see you next time!
After some brief formalities and introductions, we get a 25-minute classroom introduction to vehicle dynamics, including information on weight transfer and quick primers on trail braking and the Accident Avoidance Simulator that we will be going through later in the day. Monday morning also brought a tour of the shop areas where the cars are worked on by Bondurant's skilled staff of full-time technicians. Here we're shown the underhood of one of the red LS7-powered Vettes used in the Z06 Experience classes.
By 8:15 AM, we're ushered out to do our first bit of driving. Before getting into the Corvettes, we receive some quick instruction on one of the skid pads in our instructor's Cadillac CTS, where we each get behind the wheel and practice throttle steering. During this exercise, one must negotiate the skidpad, but no changing of steering wheel position is allowed. This is one of the very basic tenets of car control: an understeer situation is caused by the use of too much speed in a turn. Backing out of the gas allows more grip on the front tires and immediately brings the car in on a smaller turning radius.
We were blessed with LS3-powered Corvettes so new, Bondurant didn't even have the school paint scheme on them yet. All cars used in the Grand Prix Road Racing course are identical yellow Z51 coupes. Mechanically, these puppies are factory, with the few notable exceptions including Performance Friction brake pads and higher-boiling-point Castrol brake fluid. This just goes to show what a race-ready machine the C6 is off the showroom floor! Stock Eagle F1 Supercar run-flats last an average of two, four-day sessions, and Mobil 1 oil gets changed about every 800 miles (necessary because of fuel contamination due to lots of on-off throttle situations). Engine failures are extremely rare, a testament to the bulletproof LS architecture. Bondurant even has a C5 with 40,000 track miles whose LS1s valve covers have never been touched.
Instructor, Corey Hosford, demonstrates seating position basics and how heel/toe downshifting is executed. Corey is a very laid back guy who we found has quite a talent for nurturing his students while simultaneously pushing them to their limits. After this, Jim and I each buckled in to our respective cars and headed off to practice lots of heel/toe downshifting on the skills pad. On these cars (and with my foot size), I found it pretty simple in principle: you basically place your right foot toward the right hand edge of the brake pedal and roll the bottom part your foot onto the gas, giving it a nice stab before releasing the clutch. Executing it well takes a bit of practice.
Before (and immediately after) lunch, we spend some time in the classroom getting instructed on the basics of understeer and oversteer, trail braking, how to hit apexes of different kinds of corners, and the like. Though a bit smaller than average (due to the oppressive summer heat), our tiny class size meant we were bestowed with even more of the personal attention Bondurant prides itself on. In fact, the only others in the four-day class were Erin Lindberg, a recent high school graduate looking to learn to drive her Infiniti G35 better, and Becky Anderson, a budding Corvette road racer with her own internet TV show on digitalcorvettes.com (as you might guess from the camera guy, her experience will be documented in upcoming episodes). Here, instructor Les Betchner grins for the camera.
Monday afternoon sees us engaged in the Accident Avoidance Simulator, which works thusly: you're at speed aligned with the center lane and staring at three green lights. As you come up to a 3-way split, one or more of the lights turn red, and you must go into a green lane without touching the brakes. The technique is lift, turn, and squeeze. Lifting off the throttle transfers weight to the front tires, allowing you to turn. Squeezing on the throttle then transfers weight back to the rear tires to keep from going into an oversteer situation as you steer back in the other direction. This was followed by all three lights going red for full ABS stops, both straight on and while executing a turn (ABS really is, after all, the Ability to Brake and Steer). Here a student in one of the other classes does it in a CTS-V.
We spent the rest of the afternoon session at the Maricopa Oval, where we practice left-hand turns through two different types of corners. As with all exercises, our instructor takes us through the paces first riding in his CTS before we get set loose in the Vettes. As with all corners at the facility, cones are used to demarcate braking, turn-in, apex, and exit points. Here, Corey notes placement for the exit cone coming out of the increasing radius turn of the Maricopa. This guy can drive like a champ even with one hand (something we are specifically told not to attempt), and can trail brake so smoothly and progressively I could barely even feel it.
After a much-needed night's rest, it's Tuesday morning and after hitting the Maricopa again (this time with downshifting included), we get our first crack at the skid car, which is a lot like the most instructive amusement park ride you'll ever experience. While traversing a small oval-shaped course at 25 mph, Corey hits a switch to hydraulically alter the weight balance of the car and induce oversteer. The trick to maintaining control of the car is to turn the wheel the opposite direction (don't get your hands crossed up), apply throttle to transfer weight to the back tires, and keep an eye on the cone at the start of the next turn (as opposed to the one demarcating the far side of the corner you're in). Otherwise, you end up somewhere you don't want to be, i.e., probably hitting that cone you are watching incorrectly. We'll tackle the skid car again Wednesday, but in an even-trickier figure 8 configuration.
Following an additional morning braking exercise and another excellent lunch courtesy of Bob, we have a classroom session on safety considerations on the racetrack. We jump in Corey's CTS for a drive-through of the main track's Lake Loop/Carousel configuration, and after this, we get suited up, strapped into our Vettes, and ready to go for our first solo laps on the main track. It's only midway through day two, mind you-they weren't kidding when they said you'd get maximum track time in this course. The Vettes are all stock inside save for Corbeau seats and a 4-point harness. (This is one of the worst pictures of yours truly ever taken, and I have only myself to blame.)
We start off doing a lead and follow of the instructors in their CTS Caddys, following their line around the course and gradually building up speed and comfort level. After this, we're on our own. Our instructor jumps in with each of us at least once during the open track session, letting us drive and then getting in the driver seat for demonstration. With so much information to process, it's hard to remember everything the instructors had told us about the best way to run the track, so the refresher and extra pointers provided now are great. For one thing, I had been messing up the braking in the first corner section, braking and turning simultaneously instead of braking and then turning while beginning trail braking at another reference point. I also had a problem scrubbing off too much speed before entering any given turn, and Corey was instrumental in getting me closer to where I needed to be.
Wednesday morning: During a classroom session, Les tells us he expects people learn more in four days here than in five years racing on their own. That's really saying something. After this, it's back to the track on the Lake Loop/Carousel configuration. After some more skid car time, we're back in the Corvettes running the final full-course track layout, which now incorporates the Maricopa Oval-there are some seriously cool elevation changes coming out of it. It's an action-packed morning, and we get to the point where the cars actually run out of gas-and then it's lunchtime.
At the start of the afternoon session, we're back in the classroom for a mock SCCA written test. After this, Corey discusses our next exercise: practicing race starts and restarts. Though we are not running an actual race, we are simulating the starts quite accurately. Race starts are performed double wide, restarts are single wide, both with a GTO pace car in front, lights on and all. Restarts are particularly tricky, as one must watch the flag tower from afar and mat the gas as soon as the green waves.
The rest of Wednesday is spent doing hot laps in the Corvettes, using everything we've learned so far and pushing ourselves as far as we feel comfortable doing. We run 'em hot and hard, and by mid afternoon, we're not only done with laps, but are good and sweated up ourselves. In 115-degree Fahrenheit temperatures like these, a cooldown period for the cars is necessary-they must be left running for a bit afterward with the hood open. Coolant temperatures can hit 255 F, which automatically shuts down the air conditioner, and oil temperatures climb past 300 F. The drivers, like Jim here, get pretty hot too, especially in fully suited garb. Day 3 is over, and sadly, so is our time in the Corvettes ... but we're still excited for some rear-engine, open-wheel action tomorrow.
A half hour after arriving on Thursday morning, we get fitted into the Formula cars, which have more of a laying down seating position and have to basically be crawled into. We get acclimated to these lightweight cars and the tricky H-pattern of their gearboxes on the Maricopa oval. Here we have no power steering, no power brakes, and the weight of the engine in the back instead of the front, so a somewhat different driving technique is necessary. Even a little too much steering input will have you spinning out. We then spend the rest of the morning doing Lake Loop and Carousel sections. We're finding they prove a great contrast to the front engine Corvettes, not only because of the different handling characteristics, but because there is no ABS, Active Handling, or anything else, for that matter-smooth inputs are greatly rewarded. Although only powered by 4-cylinder engines, these things actually cut faster times than the Corvettes, namely because they only weigh about 1,000 lbs.
After a nice relaxing lunch, we get the lowdown in the classroom about how to negotiate the full course with the Formula cars, including braking, and upshift/downshift points. We then do a lead/follow, and then we're off on own to rock and roll as fast and as hard as our abilities allow. The trackside whiteboard is useful during interim periods for the instructors to give us pointers on what we're doing right and wrong (it's not like they can ride along with us in these single-seat cars).
Words with the Master of Maximum Car Control
Here's the master himself, Bob Bondurant. He and his staff have trained over a quarter of a million drivers since 1968. For a full interview with this racing legend, please go to superchevy.com.