About seven years ago I had the opportunity to attend the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Chandler, Arizona, just outside of Phoenix. Not only did taking the course help lower my lap times on the autocross and road course, it was a great education on how to become a better overall driver on the street.
I'm not going to lie; over the years some of the valuable information I learned at the school had slowly faded away—much like the algebra lessons from my sophomore year in high school. I suppose it falls under the guise of "use it or lose it." So when the opportunity once again came up to hit Bondurant for some driving fun, I grabbed my cohort, Henry De Los Santos, editor of our sister publication Chevy High Performance and headed out from Southern California for two days of getting our learn on at one of the most prestigious performance driving schools in the country.
Now, if you're thinking it's all driving from the get-go—think again. Although there is a good amount of behind-the-wheel action on the first day of the course, much of it was spent in the classroom with instructors explaining everything from proper apex entry and exit to understanding tire contact patch, and how those elements apply to quicker lap times.
One cool aspect is that Bondurant now uses late-model Camaros in their fleet of student vehicles. Besides upgraded brakes, springs, and larger front sway bars, the cars are basically stock SS's. Although what is taught throughout the course basically applies to every rear-wheel-drive car, it was good to take the course in something many of us can relate to.
As mentioned earlier, there is some behind-the-wheel instruction on the first day, but much of it was spent in the classroom with Bondurant instructors, who are either ex or current racers. To start the day off, chief Bondurant instructor Mike McGovern gave an informative introduction and spoke a little on the school's history and then went on to explain the importance of mental focus and looking far enough ahead in order to be prepared for what lies ahead on the track, along with the importance of how points of reference can be used for proper braking and turn-in points—all basics of performance driving. Mike also explained how this knowledge can help us to become better drivers on the street as well.
With a full morning of class time under our belts, it was time to get behind the wheel of the school's brand-new '13 SS Camaros. We were assigned a numbered car, which we would drive for the duration of the course. This is for two reasons: to become familiar and comfortable with the same vehicle and to keep track of any damage, as we were responsible for anything that happens to these cars. We break it, we buy it. So it's a good idea to pay a little extra for the insurance.
Our first driving exercise was the slalom. Starting out slow, we were instructed to take our first runs at 25 mph. From there, we gradually worked our way up to hitting the course at 40 mph through the cones. This was basically a way to get familiar with the car's handling ability and also to get used to the car's size, acceleration, and lateral motion characteristics.
01. More Classroom Time
With the slalom exercise completed, it was back to the classroom to reflect on our first driving experience. From there, Bondurant instructor Rob Knipe took over the instruction and led an in-depth and informative discussion on suspension load and weight transfer, and how those aspects affect the car's handling ability. He also he spoke on tire contact patch and how it relates to acceleration, deceleration, and hard cornering.
It's important to remember that a car is always offering "feedback," and it's up to the driver to pay attention and recognize what the car is saying so you can make an adjustment. That adjustment can mean braking a little sooner before turn in or even waiting a little longer to hit the brakes and going into a corner with a little more speed. Those are just two examples of what is explained throughout the comprehensive classroom sessions.
The Joys of Understeer and Oversteer
From there, Rob's instruction focused on the difference between oversteer and understeer, and the causes of both. Basically, understeer is when a car wants to go straight although the driver is requesting it to turn. At this point, the front wheels are turned but the car is not responding to the driver's actions. Oversteer is when the car's rear end wants to come around to the front. This is also referred to as the rear end "getting loose." This can happen with too much acceleration coming out of a turn and spinning the rear wheels. It can also be caused in certain braking situations where the weight is transferred to the front tires, causing the rear of the car to become lighter going into a corner. Just about every scenario of how and why a car acts and reacts the way it does is covered throughout the course.
02. Back in the Car
With more classroom time behind us, we headed out for more driving action. Rob took us out to the Bondurant oval course and had us work on efficiently entering a constant radius turn (one with equal entry and exit dimension). The key here is coming in to the corner high (on the outside) and using a "late apex" in order to accelerate smoothly and aggressively without upsetting the car. After about 30 or so laps, I was feeling very comfortable with braking and turning in at the proper time. At this point I was really getting a feel of knowing what the car could and could not handle.
After hitting the oval we then practiced heel-toe shifting. This is truly an art that takes quite a bit of practice to master. As Rob explained, "this exercise separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls." If you are not familiar, heel-toe shifting is when you are slowing down from speed with the heel of your foot on the brake pedal and the side of your foot on the accelerator at the same time with the idea of rev-matching the engine's rpm and speed while downshifting and braking. This is done so as not to upset the car before heading into a corner and having the rear end getting loose and coming around as you brake hard into a corner. It's definitely easier said than done and takes more than a few tries to get the hang of and perform efficiently.
03. Happy Hour
We ended our first day by strapping on our helmets for some lead/follow laps with our instructor around the Bondurant road course. Now, if you think having to follow the instructor is a bad thing and they keep the speed down; it's pretty much the opposite. The idea here is to not only keep up with your instructor but you are supposed to stay within two to three car lengths of his car as you navigate the course at a fairly fast pace. The laps get faster each time around as our instructor notices our confidence and ability improves with each corner. This is where all the class time comes together, and it also got our adrenaline pumping. It's a total rush to hit corners at speeds you never thought possible before taking the course.
04. Day Two
Similar to day one, we started our second day of instruction with some classroom time. Bondurant instructor Corey Hosford, a Formula Drift competitor and three-time podium finisher in 2012, brought us up to speed on straight-line braking and the proper way to utilize trail braking (the process of reducing brake pressure at the same rate of turning the steering wheel into a corner). This is another aspect of driving that will make you a much better driver and reduce your lap times on any race course. And that's the whole reason for taking the course, right?
05. Maricopa Oval
After Corey handed us the verbal version, it wasn't long before we were back in the Camaros working on our trail braking skills and corner entry and exit on Bondurant's Maricopa Oval. It's a great tool for the school as it features a decreasing radius turn on one end and an increased radius corner on the other. Both have different entry and exit points, so we got a ton of seat time learning how to get faster at both. This will pay off huge for us next time we hit the road course.
06. Skid Cars
One of the more fun aspects of attending the school was getting behind the wheel of the skid cars. If you're not familiar, a skid car is an instructional vehicle armed with a hydraulic system that lowers a set of outer wheels designed to induce either understeer or oversteer with a push of a button by the instructor inside the car. Needless to say, we had a blast shredding a set of rear tires, and we also found that oversteer is way more fun than understeer. We're just thankful we're not the ones who had to shell out the money for new rubber.
So with a good amount of seat time and classroom instruction under out belts, we hit the Bondurant autocross for some timed laps. This is when we found out where we stood going up against our fellow classmates. Sure, it was a ton of fun, but this was one aspect of the class where every student was looking to graduate at the top of the class, and to us that meant turning the quickest autocross lap time. The competition was tight as our group of six students was within one second of each other's time by the end of the session.
08. Road Hard
With the "friendly" competition on the autocross complete, it was back out on the Bondurant road course for some more lead/follow laps. Only now we were equipped with tons of knowledge and understanding about what it takes to get around the course much quicker. This time we were hitting speeds quite a bit faster than the day before and it was a little easier keeping up with our instructor around the course. We were able to do so with more control and confidence—two important aspects of performance driving if you want to be fast and safe around a road course or autocross.
This portion of the driving school is the most exciting, as only one car length separated ours and the instructor's vehicle. At about 80-plus mph on a fairly tight course is an awesome rush and a great way to finish off two days of performance driving instruction.
09. Mission Complete
So, even though I had previously taken this course, this refresher visit really helped me to re-evaluate my driving ability and to regain the skills that had slightly diminished over time. There's no doubt I'm a much better driver than I was prior to attending the course and am looking forward to getting on a road course as soon as possible to put all this knowledge to good use.