Bondurant as seen from the...
Bondurant as seen from the air. Its 15-turn, 1.6-mile road course is where the majority of the training happens. Note its "Carousel" section at bottom right, the "Lake Loop" in the middle, and the "Maricopa Oval" at top left-there are several different configurations in which the track can be run. You can also see the asphalt "skills" pad where we'll be doing the Skidpad, the Accident Avoidance Simulator, and other exercises. Just out of view: Firebird International Raceway, portions of which are used for advanced courses and corporate events.
Perhaps more than any other vehicle in history, the Corvette attracts individuals with highly diverse interests. For example, many readers of this magazine enjoy Corvette history, while some take part in amateur or professional racing. And then there's the show-and-shine crowd. Varied though their Vette-related hobbies may be, we'll bet any of them can get excited about strapping themselves behind the wheel of a C6 for some serious on-track training and excitement.
The Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving has four decades of experience teaching racers and average citizens alike how to be safe and successful behind the wheel. While other marques have been used in the past, GM has been the brand of choice here for years-in fact, since 2007 Bondurant has been the official driving school of General Motors. In addition to the likes of Cadillac CTSs and Pontiac Solstices, the school has a plethora of what we really care about: C6s and C6 Z06s, all primed and ready for students to put through their paces. According to Bob Bondurant, who still runs the school, "Everyone wants to drive a Corvette. We've seen a big increase in attendance since we switched." And why not? As a world-class performance machine, it's the perfect vehicle in which to learn at the limit. At Bondurant, the name of the game is maximum car control, and this applies whether you're going flat-out through Turn 12 at Road Atlanta or are in the midst of your morning commute and suddenly encounter a roadway hazard.
Racing aspirations or no, literally anyone with a driver's license can benefit from Bondurant, and with a broad selection of course offerings, there are many ways to accomplish this. From veteran racers looking to sharpen their abilities further, to newly licensed teens in desperate need of basic safety training, there's quite literally a course for everyone. From its description, I figured the Grand Prix Road Racing course to be right up my alley: It doesn't require extensive racing experience, and completion of the course confers SCCA regional license eligibility. The only question was whether to stay for three days or four. Easy answer: After three days of Corvettes, why not stay one more and drive some lightweight, open-wheel Formula cars?
Actually going through a course at Bondurant is the only way to truly appreciate what is taught at the school, not to mention the courtesy and individual attention given by every member of the staff. Hopefully we can give you the tiniest taste of it all, so check out the photo captions for more information.
VETTE would like to sincerely thank Anna Hackett, Corey Hosford, Les Betchner, Jerry Arms, Bob Bondurant, Rusty Bondurant (CEO), and everyone at the Bondurant School for their fantastic hospitality, instruction, and assistance with this story.
Monday morning, Day 1: One of the first things on the to-do list is a tour of the Bondurant garage facilities, where the Corvettes and other machines are maintained. The yellow C6s are used for our course, white ones for more-advanced courses (they have fewer of the factory electronic safeties locked in). The red car you'll of course recognize as a Z06, used for the "Z06 Experience" courses.
No intro to the Bondurant grounds would be complete without a first-hand go-round of the Bondurant Road Course, and all students get one while seated in the climate-controlled comfort of Chevy Express vans. Good thing they've got the A/C on high, because when the instructors start rat-racing these bad boys, you might start to sweat! Instantaneously, it's clear that these guys really know their stuff-it takes serious skill to safely pilot a 2 1/2-ton passenger van at full bore.
After a classroom introduction to vehicle dynamics (including primers on weight transfer and trail braking), we walk outside to select our rides. Our '08 Corvettes were so new, they didn't even have the school paint scheme on them yet. Basically race-ready from the factory, these Z51 C6s require few alterations to prep them for Bondurant duty. Even the tire set consists of straight-off-the-showroom-floor Eagle F1 Supercar run-flats that, according to Bondurant's Jerry Arms, "Depending on the students, we normally get two four-day classes out of." Aside from providing excellent grip, they also work well with the factory tire-pressure-monitoring system.
Classroom instruction is an integral part of any course at Bondurant. Far from boring, it's very engaging and immensely helpful to learn the physics of what you're about to do for real. It does not cut into driving time at all, and in fact represents a much-needed break from physical activity. Here, instructor Pete Miller covers vision and concentration, crucial elements of what Bondurant refers to as the Four Main Principles of High Performance Driving: Concentration, Vision, Vehicle Dynamics, and Line Technique.
A good bit of Day 1 is spent learning heel-and-toe downshifting, which the favorable layout of the Corvette's pedals makes pretty easy to do (if a bit challenging to master). Then, we are exposed to the Accident Avoidance Simulator (aka emergency lane-change maneuver), an exercise consisting of three lanes and a corresponding array of lights that change color to indicate which ones are and are not "safe" to enter. The tricky parts? No braking is allowed, and the lights don't change until the last possible moment. The technique is "lift, turn, and squeeze." Lifting transfers weight to the front tires, allowing you to turn, while squeezing on the throttle transfers weight to the rear tires to keep you from going into an oversteer situation. Full-ABS stops are then practiced on the same part of the skills pad (shown).
After lunch on Monday, we have another half-hour in class being instructed on the basics of understeer and oversteer, along with techniques for hitting the apexes of different kinds of corners. Trail braking is also expounded upon further. A critical technique, it involves progressively easing off the brakes after turn-in to smoothly transfer weight to the back tires, preventing the fronts from abruptly losing grip. Our instructor, Corey Hosford (shown), then shows us how it's done in a CTS. After this, we spend the rest of the afternoon session in the Vettes at the Maricopa Oval, practicing left-hand turns. I find myself getting on the brakes too hard initially, then not being able to carry enough speed through the first part of the corner. Trail braking is the key to enabling serious corner speed: When Hosford jumped in my Corvette, I was amazed how smoothly he was able to do it. I could barely even feel him get on the brakes!
Tuesday brings some more classroom time, along with lots more time behind the wheel. At mid-morning, it's time to get into the skid cars, so called because of their extra set of outboard wheels that can be raised and lowered hydraulically in order to induce understeer or oversteer. This is a great way to learn car control in a safe, low-speed (25-mph) environment. You'll notice that it's also a great way to cook a set of tires! After we're done with the skid cars, we go through a braking exercise (which, among other things, demonstrates the life-saving benefits of ABS) before "braking" for lunch (pun fully intended).
Tuesday afternoon: Back to the classroom, where the instructors tell us about the Lake Loop and Carousel configuration, also about safety considerations on the track. Track, you say? That's right, after only a day-and-a-half, we're about to hit the real deal. It's 12:30 p.m., and we're in our racing suits, riding in the instructor cars so they can give us some pointers on the course, including braking and apex-reference points, line techniques, and upshifts/downshifts. Looking around that whole track riding in Hosford's CTS was slightly intimidating, but I had full faith in him that we were ready for it.
The "lead and follow" begins. The instructors drive their Cadillacs ahead of us, closely following the fastest line on the track. They increase their speed little by little and watch the group behind to make sure everyone is comfortable. At the end of the lead and follow, the instructors flash their four-ways, and it's time to pull into the pits. There's a quick Q&A in the trackside classroom, followed by an open track session that lasts the remainder of the afternoon session. The instructors hop in and out of the cars to make sure everyone is comfortable and to give pointers. Once the session ends, it's time to head back to the Radisson for some much-needed rest.
Wednesday, Day 3: Today's program consists almost entirely of track time in the Corvettes, running the Bondurant Road Course in a couple of different configurations. (We do spend a little more time in the skid cars, then take a mock SCCA written test in the classroom and practice race starts/restarts out on the track.) All students are out on the track at the same time, but since not everyone's experience and comfort levels match up, passing is permitted. It is conducted in a controlled, "point-by" fashion in designated areas only. This photo shows the end of the front straight, the fastest part of the track, where speeds in excess of 100 mph are reached before having to brake hard for Turn 1. (Look closely, and you'll see the camera hanging off the side of Becky "Vette Girl" Anderson's car. See more at www.digitalcorvettes.com.)
Thursday, Day 4: In our morning...
Thursday, Day 4: In our morning classroom session, Instructor Les Betchner posits that students learn more in four days at Bondurant than they would in five years of racing on their own. That's really saying something. Here, he talks with student Erin Lindberg about the rear-engine handling behavior of the lightweight Formula Bondurant. This is a whole different (and faster) ball game from a Corvette, and will serve as an exciting change of pace.
Corvettes--As Tough As They Come
This is, after all, a Corvette magazine, so we figured readers-particularly those who might be thinking of road racing their personal rides-would be keenly interested in how the school's cars hold up to the daily regimen of abuse thrown at them. I spoke with Jerry Arms of Bondurant to find out a bit about the robustness of the C6 Corvette, and what it takes to ready and maintain them not just for the battering of constant road-race training, but for the extreme desert environment of southern Arizona.
The first item of note shouldn't be much of a surprise: All of the cars are equipped with the Z51 performance package, replete with larger brakes, a better shock package, additional fluid coolers, and the like. Apparently, the Z51 has worked out to be a very good package for Bondurant, as I was amazed to hear just how stock these cars are. In fact, the most significant alteration has nothing to do with the mechanical abilities of the car; it's in the interior. Corbeau racing seats with four-point harnesses replace the stockers for additional lateral support and more effective belting. One of the only mechanical changes is to the brakes: While the factory cross-drilled rotors are retained, the pads are replaced with harder-compound units from Performance Friction. A higher-boiling-point Castrol brake fluid is also used, as, according to Arms, it works better with the pad package and extreme heat seen in this environment.
Other differences between...
Other differences between the Vette and the Formula Bondurant are the distinct lack of power steering, power brakes, and any electronics (ABS, TCS, Active Handling, and so on). The rear-engine setup's distinctive handling characteristics require less trail braking, because these cars are less prone to understeer. Once you turn in and are done braking, you need to get on the throttle to get the weight to the back and avoid a massive oversteer situation. The skid-car experience helps greatly here. Smoothness is key, and the Formula Bondurant rewards with a blast of a day spent behind the wheel-and a fitting end to the Grand Prix Road Racing course.
Now to the really interesting stuff: the engines. According to Arms, short oil-drain intervals of around 800 miles are needed because there's so much on-off throttling and heel-toe downshifting, contamination of the factory Mobil 1 with fuel is inevitable. Regarding the durability of the LS-series engines, especially at the extreme operating temperatures seen at Bondurant, you might think there would be a timetable for regular repairs (such as replacement of valvesprings or piston rings). Not so. "We go through clutches and things like that, as it's the nature of the environment and how each student drives. But we see virtually no engine failures, because of the rigorous upkeep. The LS has been a very good engine for us." I was assured they don't change anything in the engines, and no maintenance is needed aside from dropping the oil-they're stock as a rock, and stay that way. And metaphorical rocks they are. "We actually have a C5 with 40,000 track miles on it," Arms says. "We've never even taken the valve covers off its LS1!"
Overall, he says the Corvettes "really, really do a good job." Based on our experiences at the school, we wholeheartedly agree.
After our final day in the Formula Bondurant cars, everyone else in the class announced them as their favorite over the Corvettes. While they were certainly a blast and well worth staying another day for, I disagreed. Maybe it was because I had already driven open-wheel cars in college Formula SAE competitions. Or more likely, as a C6 owner myself, the opportunity to really wring one out in a safe environment and appreciate what it's capable of was very rewarding.
Either way, every day spent at Bondurant was invaluable, combining dynamite instruction and true-to-life safety exercises with tons of on-track time behind the wheel to acclimate you to the skills being taught. In no uncertain terms, Bondurant is well worth the investment. The price you pay not only will help you be a better driver, it could even save your life. Again, there are many courses to choose from, and though we found the Grand Prix Road Racing course to be hugely rewarding, you can't go wrong with any of them. (And in case you haven't heard, new ZR1 owners will be receiving a complimentary course at Bondurant with their vehicle purchase!) Our advice: Spend as much time at Bondurant as your schedule and budget allow. As our instructors put it, the more you put into a course at Bondurant, the more you'll get out of it.
An Interview With The Man Himself
He's a former F1 driver for Ferrari. He's won at Le Mans. He secured the '65 FIA World Manufacturers' Championship for Shelby. Bob Bondurant's professional racing career may have ended after an on-track accident in 1967, but he is still known as the Master of Maximum Car Control. I was privileged enough to talk with him, and here are some of the most pertinent things he had to say.
Probably the most significant question I had pertained to the relationship between what is taught at the school and situations students might encounter in real life. "In 40 years we've trained over 250,000 people," Bondurant responded. "What we really teach is maximum car control, whether you are going racing or driving on the street. Safety is a big emphasis. I look at that as, we've made people more aware; they're safer drivers, they save lives, they prevent accidents."
So what, then, are his top tips for safe street driving? "Learning to elevate the vision much further" is first and foremost on his list. "When I'm driving, I'm always looking 8-10 car lengths ahead and watching where traffic is around me. If I see someone ahead on the phone driving erratically, I make a lane change and go on by. When I see a brake light come on down the road, I can start slowing down or make a lane change. [In an emergency situation] if you learn our lift, turn, and squeeze technique, you can make a lane change in a much safer way than just jamming on the brakes. In most cases, you can avoid the situation much faster than you could just stop."
Even though he has decades of performance-driving experience under his belt, Bondurant still practices an emergency lane-change maneuver on an almost daily basis. "[Learning in] the skid car helps you control a car, too." He was adamant that even people who are used to driving in inclement weather won't fully appreciate how to recover from a skid situation until experiencing it-and practicing it over and over-in the Bondurant skid car. As a Northeast native myself, I wholeheartedly agree.
Bondurant also had some choice words for inexperienced drivers. "When I was a teenager, I thought I knew what I was doing driving. I didn't know s**t. I think teens today are the same way, except you've got faster cars and a lot more distractions-the cell phone, a car full of kids daring you to do this or that, and so on." He highly recommends that parents put their children through a driving course expressly designed for teenagers. This, he says, will endow them with a better understanding of how to deal with the dangers of the road-and in many cases, of themselves.
No matter what course you choose, says Bondurant, "it all comes back to maximum car control. Once you do the Accident Avoidance Simulator and the Skid Car, you understand what you must do if you get into a situation. We get phone calls and emails all the time saying, 'Gosh, you saved my life. I never would have known what to do!'"