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.