Bob Bondurant Race School Review
With the instructor at the wheel, we barreled over the back hill and into a series of chicanes. Having arrived only an hour before I was already into the fray. Tires screamed for mercy while swallowing ever inch of road and then some. Upon entering the final carousel, I was thrown sideways, gripping the side of the seat for dear life. For a split second I pondered if I too would be able to pull off a lap like that in a few days. I glanced up and saw the same wondrous fear splashed across the eight other faces. And this was just the van tour.
Like most automotive enthusiasts, I felt I was a pretty good driver. Prior to attending the school, I attended numerous track events and accrued some decent experience. While admittedly no Mario Andretti, I felt the barrier between my current abilities and some impressive speed was simply more track time. The Bob Bondurant School has been operating for over four decades and solidified a reputation. Having produced many of the most notable racing talents from Indy to NASCAR, I decided to give the school a shot and test my theory. Over the next few days, and at a dizzying pace, I would come to realize the difference a quality program can make.
|Thanks to a partnership with GM, Bondurant benefits from having the absolute latest Corvettes for use in their school. At the time of writing this meant a brand new Z51 C6 with a healthy 430hp. Not being the Corvette type myself, I was needless to say surprised by the balance and ease to drive fast. With a good weight distribution, permanently on stability control, and a tendency towards understeer, the bright yellow Corvette was controllable at and beyond the limit. This enables students to get a great feel for weight shifting and liberal use of trail braking. Combined with the grip and thrust levels and you are left with a great learning tool that’s a blast to drive. And while the Stabilitrac system was often quite aggressive, reducing power for seconds at a time, the system teaches students to be smooth to avoid it. For those seeking something a bit more advanced, the white Corvettes of the Advanced Road Racing program have selectable stability control systems including off. |
With every class, the students range dramatically in experience with my class being no different. The group was made up of racers and test engineers to husbands (and wives) that received the class as a fun present from their spouse. In the classroom we pour over diagrams and basic lessons, and then break down into our small groups. The instructor assigned to my group of three was Pete Miller, a veteran of World Challenge and Grand Am among other series. Things were looking up, and got even better when we were greeted by our naked yellow C6 Corvettes. Having only arrived a short time ago, they were not even graced by the telltale vinyl decals that adorn the rest of the 150 or so cars in Bondurant’s fleet.
Unlike many schools with low hp cars or progressively increasing rev limiters, Bondurant believes students should start with the full 430hp. This allows students to feel out their own comfort levels. Under the guidance of the instructors and the safety of the circuit, the world is not toned down, but amplified. Objectively, this eliminates a variable, but let’s not kid ourselves, subjectively, this is a hell of a lot of fun. The theme for day one is back to basics. Heel toe shifting, threshold braking, lines, car balance, and evasive maneuvers were among the lessons. 60 mph lane changes in C6 Corvettes are a great way to get your feet wet.
Throughout the drills our small but diverse group is gained confidence and in some cases were brought up to a more level playing field with the more experienced drivers. Even the most experienced driver benefited greatly from this time in a new car. In my case, the practice and repetition of the drills helped me become more comfortable with the nuances of Corvette, a car unlike any I was used to. As the day progressed Pete introduced vision and managing balance. Focused drills are followed by a hurried lunch and more practice. With the sun beginning its long trek toward the west, the real fun starts, and what might have seemed like a slow day of basics to the more experienced quickly turns into a test of skill.
We quickly become acquainted with the misleadingly titled Maricopa Oval; a section of the main track that when closed off forms a challenging asymmetric duo of odd apex corners. Here we practice trail braking; the technique of using the brakes post turn-in to maintain the proper balance and controlled weight-transfer prior to reaching the corner apex. This skill would be drilled in repeatedly as a major theme over the next few days. We couple this technique with our basic lessons form the morning. Hearing the instructor’s voice in my head, I concentrate on my vision as I attempt to feel out the balance and apply what I have already learned.
By that evening the entire group was getting the hang of things, including those that were far greener to start. Tired and full of a newfound familiarity with our vehicles, we headed in for a debriefing thus completing day one.
Up early and excited about the day to come, I downed some bad hotel lobby coffee with extra sugar and headed out. Much like the day’s forecast, the program was heating up. Day two promises the first real track time, and a lot of it. Like everyday, we start off with class before heading back out for some additional practice on the Maricopa Oval.
After a morning session on the oval, we switched from our corvettes to a specially equipped Cadillac CTS’s. These CTS’s were skid cars, which meant that that they had weight bearing hydraulically activated training wheels at the front and back. These could be tuned to provide excessive understeer or oversteer. This allows students to explore the extremes of each in a more sane and controlled manner than normally possible. While circling a small oval, one end of the vehicle’s grip would be decreased without warning teaching the driver the not so intuitive proper method of correction through management of speed, steering, and weight transfer. While understeer is equally important, oversteer was certainly more entertaining requiring extended smoky power slides to keep the back end in check. Keeping with the school’s philosophy, speed was once again based on the individual’s comfort level and skill.
With drills completed, we were introduced to what the entire class had been eagerly anticipating. The 1.6-mile, 15-turn Bondurant Road Course is an onslaught of carefully engineered corners including a couple challenging elevation changes. Additionally, the course offers several configurations for the differing levels of instruction. The course was discussed in detail with a brief classroom session, immediately followed by full speed ride alongs with Pete in an instructor CTS. With a brief period of getting accustomed to the track, it was then open lapping for the remainder of the day giving students stretch the legs on the stout C6. Although one is not aware of it at the time, this also allowed the instructors to carefully observe each student from different angles to give individualized lessens and counseling.
The rest of Day Two flew by. We spent most of the afternoon on various sections of the course. Classroom sessions were short throughout the day, but they offered much needed breaks. By now Pete knew how each student would learn best, and as we applied the points mentioned in the classroom, he extended himself to give us each a little more.
|Want an extra shot of adrenaline? While you are at the Bondurant race school, or if you just have a serious interest in karting, there is nothing like the 6 speed shifter kart experience. I opted for the 3-hour intro course, which was potentially the most intense motorsports experience ever. With a 35hp engine, road holding up to 3 G’s, and a top speed of about 90mph, the Corvettes seem docile by comparison. For karting beginners, this will seem less like racing and more like an absolute assault on the senses as you hang on for the ride. The intro course offers very little in the way of speed training and is more just a course to get used to driving one of these mini monsters. Advanced and individualized programs are also offered for any level of karting experience. |
As the culmination of the class, day three is nearly all track time starting first thing the morning. For any track junkie, you will have surely had you fix by days end. To mix things up a bit and prepare for the race starts, several track configurations are used throughout the morning. With constant feedback from the instructor I linked corners together and worked on smoothness and speed. The benefit of having a purpose-built teaching facility showed here as we used the turn in, apex, and exit markers to practice. However, using the lessons taught, the markers become less important as one gains the ability to read the track and figure points on their own. A critical point, as no two tracks are the same.
From time to time, Pete advised on techniques and changes that may work best for me. Midway through the morning with Pete at the wheel however, I made the mistake of asking, “if one could go flat out through the back sections of the track? With little response, I found myself a passenger to the scariest ride of the week. After which, my seemingly simple question was answered in words I won’t soon forget but already knew: “Yeah, but it’s a bit hairball and probably not the best idea”. Advice noted.
With the morning session over, there was just one last drill; oversteer figure eights in the skid car. While this may sound like simply a joyride, it drove home the importance vision in a way that simply cannot be taught through words. Any decent racing guide will tell you to look where you want to go and where that should be. But when you are sliding around this specially equipped Caddy in continuous figure eights, you build a muscle memory of sorts. At any moment I looked away from my turn in, apex, or exit points, the car instantly responded and I found myself offline or facing backwards.
We rounded out the schooling with the formalities of grid starts and single file restarts required for SCCA license eligibility. Referred to by one employee as “the shortest race you will ever do”, these starts are just that, lasting only a few seconds and are over by corner one. The final hours dwindled down as we took back to the full course for the last chance of the class to hone our skill set. By the end of the day, I was reminded of my very first track day a couple years back. In that one day, I learned more about driving than in my 12 years prior on the street. In these 3 simple days, I was shocked to realize I had learned and improved more than in the two years of numerous track days. On that note, I reluctantly unbuckled my harness for the last time and said my goodbyes with hopes of returning back to Chandler, AZ. Did someone say Advanced Road Racing?
Whether you are looking to become a better driver, or serious about racing, attending a school is a no-brainer. Yet, with numerous options out there, all bearing not so insignificant price tags, it is essential to make the right choice. Bondurant’s staff, facility, and program not only make it unique and personal, but effective. I learned that knowing and doing are two different things. Bondurant teaches you to do, and to do well. I can take what I’ve learned here to any track event and actually work on getting faster. With 40+ years of experience, Bondurant provides tried and true insight towards the combination of vision, control, line, and smoothness, which all factor into fostering speed. There’s no question why it’s referred to as the “Fastest 60 Acres in America.” If that doesn’t help you make up your mind, I know of another 430 reasons to drop the hammer and just do it.
In Car Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fbl5IvKw7o8
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|Bondurant Racing School |
PO Box 51980
Phoenix, AZ 85076