We all like to think we're good drivers. The painful reality is most of us are fair at best, and that's just in a street environment. Take your average Joe (or Jen in the case of our female readers) strap them into a Camaro SS, then send them forth on either an autocross course or an actual road course. Quickly you'll see that we all have overinflated opinions of our driving prowess.
As school owner/founder and 24 Hours of LeMans class winner Bob Bondurant himself put simply, "Many people can drive. Not many can drive well."
Neither tech editor Calin Head nor I ever had formalized driver training. While that can be helpful when we're relaying our opinions and feelings on a car's handling that our average readers will understand, there have been times both of us knew our limited driving skills were making us leave something behind during tests. We needed professional instruction, and as luck would have it, we were given the opportunity for some of the best.
The Bondurant School of High Performance Driving (we're just going to call it Bondurant for the rest of this story) has been in existence for 45 years. The school's namesake was involved in a horrific crash while racing a McLaren Formula One car at Watkins Glen in 1967. During his convalescence, Bob became convinced for the need of a professional driving school that could teach the skills, theories, and concepts he had recently taught to actor James Garner during his preparation for the role of Pete Aaron in the John Frankenheimer racing epic, Grand Prix. (You can learn more about Bob Bondurant's history at the school's website, www.bondurant.com).
Once recovered, Bob opened his school in 1968 in California, with three Datsuns, a Lola T70, and a Formula Vee to begin teaching prospective racers the skills necessary to compete, and win. Soon things grew to teaching actors preparing for roles, hobby racers, and pretty much anyone else who wanted to be a better driver. The list of former students is loaded with drivers from NASCAR, IRL, Grand Am, and others, along with some of Hollywood's most recognized names.
One of the great ironies of the past 10 years is that as more and more people either build superb g-machines with aftermarket parts, or buy late-model Camaros and Corvettes with race car-like handling, very few have the talent to extract a large percentage of their potential. Schools like Bondurant can help you realize every bit of performance you build into your hot rod, and make you a better, safer driver in your daily commute.
Located in Chandler, Arizona (outside Phoenix), the school's campus consists of a 1.6-mile road course that can be set up in multiple configurations and distances to satisfy the school's needs. There's also a skidpad, autocross area, and flat area for defensive braking and avoidance drills. All of the instructors have been professionally trained at the school, along with personal experiences in various forms of racing.
After some classroom instruction from Austin Robison, two-time Baja 100 class winner, SCORE off-road champion and our designated instructor, we headed for the test cars, picked out our steeds from one of the 50 some odd '12 Camaro SS on the property, and headed for the first lesson involving line-of-sight driving. Line of sight/Line Technique follows the pattern that where you're looking is where you'll instinctively steer the car to go.
On a race course, the instructors showed us that where you want to be looking is not where you are, but where you're going/want to be. So, going into a turn, you want to be looking to where you want the car at in the turn's apex, then on to where you want the car to exit the turn.
To give everyone the most from our experience, both Calin and I will describe our experiences separately from time to time.
Hill: Being used to street driving, getting a feel for looking down track was difficult at first, until my peripheral vision started picking up and helping me keep track of what was in front of me while looking ahead. The technique really started clicking as I made more laps around the track, and found I was entering and exiting turns at the optimal points more frequently.
Head: The line-of-sight thing for me was the hardest to overcome, and something I never really got much better at. Being from California and always driving an ultra low vehicle, my vision has been trained to be right in front so I could avoid pot holes, dips, and more importantly, avoid slamming into the back of the guy who cuts me off in traffic. Austin noticed this issue right away, and got in the car with me and kept saying "look ahead" and once I did, the car was smoother and I could actually go faster. So, the theory obviously works. It's just hard to break bad habits.
During this exercise, we also started learning about the effects of braking on the car's handling, and how it relates to understeer/oversteer situations. Going into a turn, braking begins to shift the car's weight to the front wheels. This shift helps with steering, giving the front wheels more grip to direct the car. But, too much braking (or mistimed braking) can create oversteer, where the rear tires lose grip and the back of the car begins to come around. We learned the key is to feel when the rear tires start to lose traction, then reduce braking and/or add throttle to shift weight back to the rear tires. The other part of the equation is understeer. Understeer is when you turn the steering wheel but the car doesn't respond accordingly (continues straight) because the front tires don't have enough grip. To correct this, either braking is applied and/or throttle reduced to shift weight to the front wheels, increasing grip and thereby increasing directional control.
Later in the day, we got a chance to learn more about understeer and oversteer on the school's skidpad using cars equipped with a hydraulic system that when engaged by the instructor lifts the front or rear of the car reducing traction. That helped exaggerate both conditions so we could better learn how to react properly and bring the car back under control. Basically, if the car is in an understeer situation, you must reduce steering input, lift off the gas and even apply the brakes until the front tires get enough traction to turn the car. In an oversteer situation, we would countersteer the car and modulate the gas to bring the car back under control. The skidpad exercise also helped reinforce the line of sight driving method, especially when the car went into a spin.
Line of sight also went into another exercise we did the first day, practicing avoidance. Three simulated lanes were set up, and on cue the instructor would randomly mark two of the lanes as being blocked, and we had to maneuver the car to the clear lane, or if none were clear bring the car to a controlled stop. Looking where you wanted the car to go instantly made you instinctively steer the car that way.
On the street, this ties in with accident avoidance. If a car in front of you stops suddenly, instead of focusing on the brake lights, look at where you want the car to go to avoid a collision, and steer accordingly. Keep the stopping car's brake lights in your peripheral vision, but focus on where you want the car to go.
Our other exercise for the first day was the slalom. For the newbies out there, a slalom course is a line of cones equal distances apart, where you maneuver the car through the cones (left-to-right, right-to-left) as fast as you can without hitting a cone. This helped teach better car control along with quick maneuvering in a tight space.
We learned the basic theory of slalom is to get up to speed, then hold that speed into the first cone. Then it's a turn-pause-turn-pause-turn-pause scenario. This controls the side-to-side weight transfer as the pause gives the suspension a chance to catch up and reset before the next turn. Also you need to look one cone ahead, if you are turning the wheel right when the cone disappears from view you are too late. You need to turn a little in advance as it will take time for the steering input to relate to turning, and as speed increases the advance on the turn needs to increase accordingly. Smoothness in a heavy car will be rewarded because it takes more time for the mass to shift from left to right.
Day two rolled around and we started again in the classroom, going over the things we'd learned the day before, and how they would tie in for the second day's exercises. After having a brief flirtation with heel/toe downshift and braking during day one, day two would see us incorporating it more into driving on the school's Maricopa Oval along with trail braking.
The concept is to match your engine rpm with your wheel speed as you downshift. The technique is to blip the throttle while braking before a turn, so when you release the clutch, you will be in the proper gear for the best acceleration. This technique also keeps the car smooth by alleviating the harsh jerking action of releasing the clutch without having the rpm at the proper speed This should be complete before entering the turn, as letting the clutch out in a corner could send you into an under- or oversteer situation.
Complementing the heel/toe technique is trail braking, which is basically the procedure of maintaining slight brake pressure while turning before the apex, which keeps the weight transferred to the front tires that need the traction in the turn, and also controls the rebound of the shocks. By the corner's apex, you should be off the brakes entirely, unwinding the steering wheel, and be back on the throttle.
Hill: The heel/toe downshifting and braking was, quite frankly, a pain in the arse to get a handle on. It required a lot of coordination. After my first few laps of not getting it right, I headed for the pits, where instructor Austin climbed in and rode along to help while I was driving. This was where the awesome staff at Bondurant really showed its worth. Austin pointed out I was thinking everything out too much, and just needed to relax and let it happen naturally. A few deep breaths later, I was able to put together a decent repetition of heel/toe shifts, and feel what the benefit was.
Head: I was already familiar with heel/toe braking and downshifting, but had not practiced it for at least 10 years, so it took a few laps to get back into the swing of it. I will say the hardest part of this for me was getting used to the feel of the Camaro's shifter. It was very buttery and smooth when shifting, and I think a short throw that required a little more muscle to shift would have been helpful. The other issue I had was the pedal spacing, which is pretty wide, and I was wishing I had brought a set of boots instead of my slip on Vans.
For lunch, we got a real treat, as Bob Bondurant himself joined us for the afternoon meal, and shared stories about his career, what motivated him to start the school, and his more memorable experiences as an instructor.
From there we headed for the autocross course, so we could practice everything we'd learned before heading out to the big track for some laps.
Hill: With the timers on, both Calin and I started our runs, our lap times dropping every run we made around the course. In the spirit of friendly competition, I'll admit Calin bested me by breaking into the sub one-minute time range.
Head: This was what I was really waiting for, as I will have more access to autocross courses than road tracks. With each lap I got more aggressive with all the things I had learned, and eventually was able to break the one minute lap time. The course was pretty tight, and there was only one shift point, but using heel/toe and trail breaking at that one section is where all my time improvements came from.
From there it was graduation time, and everyone, except Calin was lead out to the big road course for some hot laps, and a chance to put everything we'd learned to full use.
Hill: It was in the middle of my second lap that I had the brilliant epiphany when everything I'd learned over the last two days came together in a cohesive formula. I was using the techniques and methods without really thinking about it, and when the last lap was called, I felt a pretty big thrill that I was able to put everything together and enjoy pushing the '12 Camaro SS nearer its limits.
Head: I decided to take photos of Patrick running the road course so I didn't get to run this part of the school, but I didn't just sit around after I got my pictures. I asked the instructors if I could go back on the autocross course and get more laps there. They graciously said, "go ahead" and I spent the next half hour or so in autocross heaven, running back-to-back laps till the Camaro started to get a bit hot, which happened to be right when Patrick was coming off the big course.
The cherry on top for the experience was after we'd finished up, and Bob pulled up in one of the school's ZO6 Corvettes to take us around for some hot laps. For a man in his '80s, he was throwing that C6 around the road course like a wildcat. And all the while he was just as calm and cool as if he were having a drink with you at a bar. Truly impressive!
The Final Word
The benefits of the course were numerous, and when we started driving on the street again, we were able to use a lot of the Bondurant schooling to improve driving on public roads, and we are both itching to find the local autocross club and get some hot laps with them. Now we both have an understanding of vehicle dynamics and the basic tools needed to test cars without making arses of ourselves.