When I signed up for Bondurant’s four day Grand Prix road racing course, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. As I found out, the Bob Bondurant School was definitely about teaching students tried and true racing techniques. And it may have been a bit more hardcore than some of us expected. As luck would have it, I was fortunate enough to be part of a fairly small class, with only nine students, compared to the usual 20 or so. Some came just for fun, while others took it much more seriously and came specifically to enhance their driving skills and work towards becoming professional race car drivers.
I arrived about 30 minutes early the first day, to kind of look around a bit and get acquainted with the layout of the facility. The professionalism of the school is immediately apparent, from the clean, well-kept grounds to the rows and rows of precisely parked, gleaming Corvettes and Cadillacs.
The Bondurant School is spread out over about 60 acres, located adjacent to Firebird International Raceway. The facility boasts a 15 turn, 1.6 mile (2.57 kilometre) road course designed by Bob Bondurant himself, and can be broken down into several smaller tracks for various training exercises. Also on the premises is an eight acre skidpad, used for training exercises on car control, accident avoidance, autocrossing, and a handling oval.
The vehicles used for training are currently provided by General Motors and include fleets of C6 Corvette Z51 and Z06 coupes, several ZR1 supercars, Cadillac CTS sedans, and various police package Chevrolet Tahoes and Impalas. The fleet also includes specially equipped Cadillac “skid cars” which have been fitted with hydraulic outrigger wheels used to alter the weight transfer of the car, and make teaching understeer (or “push”) and oversteer (“loose”) conditions very obvious and a lot of fun. Additionally, on the final day of instruction, we would have the opportunity to get into Bondurant’s race-prepped Formula Mazda open-wheel, rotary-powered, wing-equipped cars.
After check-in and the highly recommended purchase of insurance, we were herded into a classroom where we met Mike McGovern, the school’s Chief Instructor. Mike made everyone feel at ease, and assured us we were in for a lot of fun, and at the same time, the opportunity to learn a lot about being better and safer drivers.
Professor Bob himself stopped in to say hello, and chatted with each of us on why we came, and what we hoped to learn. After a group photo op with Bob and our instructors, we went back to the classroom where, in his easy going manner, Mike introduced us to the four main principals of high performance driving: Concentration, Vision, Vehicle Dynamics and Line Technique.
Then, we were invited to take a van ride with veteran instructor Les Betchner, to see the track and the skidpad. We were told it may be a bit faster ride than we’d ever previously had in a long-wheelbase, 12 passenger van. Les introduced himself, grinned and said, “Okay, hang on to your breakfast!”
He then proceeded to give us a very good look at the facility with a running commentary on where we were and what he was doing with the van, all the while drifting this behemoth of a van with 10 people on board, at 70mph (112.7km/h) around corners! In the same van he demonstrated accident avoidance techniques that seemed impossible to do even in a Corvette, let alone this monstrosity. It was then that I realized Les was an incredibly skilled driver, and I had an awful lot to learn.
Day one progressed with the class being split into several groups, each with our own instructor. At the Bondurant School, they try to provide as much personal instruction as possible, and for our group, three of us more or less assigned ourselves to Les Betchner.
The small groups allowed our instructors to watch each of us carefully, and provide constructive criticism and instruction as we went through the drills. We began by learning some basic performance driving skills such as heel-and-toe downshifting under braking, and some accident avoidance exercises that not only showed us the performance capabilities of the Z51 Corvette, but also taught us the importance of looking far ahead and not fixating on what is directly in front of us.
For me, heel-and-toeing was pretty foreign although I later realized I do it all the time on my motorcycles. The goal is to match the engine revs to the vehicle speed as we are braking and downshifting for a turn. As Les described the process: “Brake, brake, clutch in, Whooomba!, downshift, clutch out.”
After a lot of practice, and some excellent advice from Les on where to correctly place my right foot on the brake pedal, I began to get the hang of it and have fun. We moved on to learning the racing line with different types of corners, and how the apex of the corner changes depending on the type of corner it is. We did enough laps to actually get a bit tired, but after a quick break, came back to practice heel-and-toeing again before we finished for the day. And I have to say, I was very impressed with the amount of “seat time” we got. Even on the first day, we were in the Corvettes for several hours.
Each day began with a 30-minute “ground school” where we were encouraged to ask questions, and go over what we learned or struggled with on the previous day. On Day Two, we were taken back to the short oval, and incorporated our heel-and-toeing technique. It made a lot more sense on the second day, and I was much more comfortable with the technique. Les would ride along with each of us, and offer instruction and suggestions as we drove. The one-on-one instruction was, for me, probably the most valuable part of the exercises, because Les could patiently talk me though my mistakes and explain what I needed to do to correct them. And when I got it right, the results were immediately obvious.
One thing became very apparent on the second day of the school.
Without any doubt, the Bondurant instructors are seriously talented professional drivers, but they also possess the ability to communicate extremely well. They understand our level of skill, anxiety, fear and desire, and work with us to reduce the negative stuff, and enhance the fun of the school, while making us better drivers. And for drivers at their levels of expertise, I’d have to say they showed infinite amounts of patience with all the students, even when we made some really boneheaded errors.
After an hour or so of hot lapping the short oval, we moved on to skid cars on the skid pad, and learned how to control the car’s direction using just the pedals. We learned more about weight transfer and how vehicle dynamics are affected by applying the brake or throttle, and when to use each to our advantage.
In the afternoon, the entire class was taken out to a course that used about two thirds of the 1.6 mile road course. Here we were shown the correct lines, first in the instructor’s car and then by following behind them for several laps each, trying to put our car in his tracks, while remembering to look “through” him and watch ahead for our apex and exit points. Then we were turned loose to hot lap on our own for a while, before our instructor joined us.
Again, the one-on-one time greatly helped me to understand how aggressive you need to be to make a racing line work and to correct a few mistakes I’d been making along the way.
We had been told from the beginning that each day would bring new challenges and require full use of the skills we had been practicing. Day three would involve the entire track, and much higher speeds than we had seen previously. It also provided us with even more seat time than any day so far. Later in the morning, we switched things up and spent some time in the skid car, learning to drift a car in a figure eight. Luckily, this came naturally to me, as I grew up “drifting” cars on deserted, icy parking lots during cold, Canadian prairie winter nights!
After lunch we went back to hot lapping the full track, and getting a bit more comfortable and braver with each handful of laps. As the day came to a close, I realized my neck was sore from the G forces in the Carousel turn, and I had bruises on my legs from the console, but man, what FUN!
I was really excited and a bit nervous at the beginning of the final day. Although my driving and technique had improved markedly each day, the Formula Mazda cars are serious, purpose built racecars. They did not have any of the technological crutches we’d been occasionally leaning on in the Corvettes, like Stabilitrak or ABS brakes. Hell, they didn’t even have synchromesh gearboxes, so good heel-and-toeing on downshifts was going to be important!
But, I needn’t have worried. In the same professional, patient, methodical manner, our instructors explained the cars to us in detail, and we were given instructions on how to get in and out, how the five-point harness worked, and how the four-speed racing style non-synchromesh transmissions worked. I knew the Mazda 13B rotary motor didn’t have a lot of low end grunt, and I had been worried about the car stalling when getting underway, but the clutch engagement was smooth, precise and had excellent feel, and stalling was not an issue.
We headed out to the track behind our instructors’ pace cars and proceeded to do a dozen or so laps around the small oval while the slick tires, brakes and fluids came up to temp. The laps got progressively faster, and eventually the instructor waved us by individually and followed us, critiquing our driving techniques. These cars are fantastic fun to drive, and much faster around the tight, technical course than the Corvettes, and you could feel all the chassis dynamics in a much more amplified way than in the Corvettes.
As the day wore on we eventually worked our way up to the full course, at much higher speeds than ever before. In these cars, if we hadn’t learned to look far ahead to the next apex or braking point, if we hadn’t learned to heel-and-toe, if we hadn’t learned how to shift the chassis weight to get the car to turn or to tighten up, we’d have been completely lost, and probably off the track more than on it. Everything now made complete sense, and I began to actually feel like I knew a little bit about driving a car at speed on a race track.
All too soon the final day came to an end, and we were presented with our certificates and grades. After four days of driving fast cars in a very safe environment, I was sad that it was over, but very pleased with the personal progress I had made, and the techniques I’d been taught that will make me a safer street driver as well.
This was a “bucket list” experience for me. I had been putting it off, mostly because of the cost. (My four day GPR4 class was US$4,795.) But after completing the course and abusing Bob’s cars for 4 days, I realized it’s actually a very good value.
The real value, however, comes from what you take away from the instruction and the knowledge shared by Bondurant’s incredibly professional instructors. Sure, I got to go fast, and drive the snot out of Bob’s cars.
Sure, I had more fun than is almost humanly possible. But what I really valued most is what I took away are my improved driving skills and awareness of what even a normal vehicle can do. That’s priceless. And I can’t wait to go back.