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Iíve seen the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving ads in the car magazines even before I had a driversí license, so this is a 20-plus year-old dream. You know how it is - money and time never came together at the same time. So, in December 2000, I decided to push my credit card limit, and change this situation to make this driving experience a reality. And yes, it was totally worth it.
I wonít go into the details of the class or vehicle descriptions, they are all contained within http://www.bondurant.com. This article is basically a journal of my "fast weekend in the desert."
When and if you go, I HIGHLY recommend bringing a video camera so you can document some of the more exciting lessons. A video camera might also be easier to use, since youíll want to spend your time driving, instead of shooting pictures. Hereís an idea: Bring your wife or girlfriend or friend along, so they can shoot photos. Spectators are welcome. Especially the skid car. Read on.
The schedule: Registration. Welcome, facility tour and a class photo. Instructor introduction. Throttle steer circle. Slalom. Classroom instruction (ground school). Lunch break. More ground school: Briefings on driving basics, including finding the proper line ("late apex") through a turn, seating position, safety. Accident simulator/skid control. De-briefing.
The brochure says something about a "famous van tour." I had no idea what that meant, nor did I have any idea what to expect. That van tour sets the stage about what the Bondurant experience is all about - driving very fast. The "tour guide" told us to buckle up for the tour. I thought, "OK, this is a liability and safety issue."
What a surprise the tour turned out to be. Just imagine a totally stock (except for the American Racing wheels and Goodyear tires), off-the-shelf Ford passenger van, fully loaded with people, driving along a racetrack - but driving fast enough to raise the wheels off the ground as we rounded the corners! I never knew that a "soccer-mom van" could kick some serious butt!
On the very first day of class, we get behind the wheel. Classroom sessions are very short, a pleasant expectation. The throttle steer circle is an interesting "experiment." You can try this at home: With the steering wheel cocked into a turn and held firmly in one position, and driving in a circle, slowly accelerate. Go faster and faster, but do not adjust the steering wheel. Notice how the radius of the circle gets bigger and bigger. Now, slowly decelerate, again without adjusting the steering wheel. The radius will shrink. It is interesting to see how the circle "expands" or "contracts" based on speed.
The first day has an emphasis on safety, how to avoid mistakes, and how to correct mistakes, such as over- and under-steer. A lot of the corrective actions are counter- intuitive, like applying more throttle instead of more brake during over-steer. The accident simulator is a "three-light decision," with several variations. In one exercise, students accelerate in a straight line, and, at random, a light changes from red to green, signaling you to brake and turn to avoid a simulated brick wall or another stalled car.
The skid car was amazing. You MUST video this one. Iíve driven in snow and ice, and this is a great lesson to do if youíve ever wondered what would happen if you hit a patch of oil from someoneís blown engine. . . .
The skid car is equipped with hydraulic wheel lifters at each corner, all independently control-able by the instructor. The skid car is a real lesson in under- and over-steer. And how to pull out of a spin, and what a "mistake" feels like. I guarantee you will spin like a top when you do this one, or get really close to hitting the plastic K-barriers. You might want to eat a VERY LIGHT breakfast on the first day . . . .
Sorry, no pictures here, it was much too busy in the cockpit.
I couldnít sleep after the first day of class. I was too anxious and excited and ready to do more driving!
The schedule: "Heel-toe" down-shifting, finding the proper apex around a curve (late apex), "trail braking," brake and turn. Practice heel-toe down-shifting on the handling oval (Maricopa Oval). Brake and turn. Lunch break. Ground school. Autocross, drive the oval some more, de-brief and a homework assignment (written test).
Although I always knew about heel-toe downshifting, I never actually knew how to do it. I learned that what I was doing prior to the course was "engine braking," an old habit from my dirt bike days. (And very hard on the engine, transmission and clutch!) Classroom instruction on this skill was minimal, and the best way to learn heel-toe is to just do it.
We did more skid control and then the autocross - a timed exercise through a "sea of cones." Autocrossing is fun, having to negotiate through a twisty left, right, left, left, straight, brake, turn sea of cones. Autocrossing is great practice to help you find the correct line through a turn, and practice of trail-braking technique. The still pictures cannot capture the excitement of driving quickly through the twists and turns (bring a video camera!).
Trail-braking is a handling technique - you use the brakes as a handling tool, rather than for just "slowing down." You actually apply gas and brake at the same time, and is a part of the heel-toe technique. It is based on the concept of weight transfer - when you accelerate, the weight moves from the front to the back of the car, and increases traction, but sacrificing steering. The opposite is true too - when the car slows down, even a slight amount, like when you just lightly lift your right foot - weight transfers from the rear to the front, increasing traction to the front, and increasing steering ability (bigger footprint on the tires).
After the autocross, itís on to the track to practice heel-toe down-shifting on Maricopa Oval. Speeds increase, as high as 60-70MPH, and use of third gear.
I still couldnít sleep - way too much excitement. The third day is a chance to put all new skills into practice.
The schedule: Review homework assignment. Maricopa Oval, with shifting to third gear. Autocross and more skid control. Lunch break. Suit-up (full racing suit and helmet) and ground school: Briefing through the Bondurant road racing course, a 1.6 mile, 15-turn race track. Review of the recommended line through the course, where to brake, down-shift and up-shift. "Lead and follow" on the track. Passing rules. Ride and drive. End of day: Graduation.
On the track: More timed autocross. Still only in second gear, maximum speed 40MPH. Continue to the track, with a "lead and follow" through the course, turn-by-turn. Then, solo driving through the track, critique with instructor, and more solo driving. (This is when the school photographer makes his sales pitch - still photos or a video. I opted to rent a video camera. They also sell or rent the camera mount, which clamps onto the roll cage. I highly recommend bringing your own video camera, and rent the mount, so you can video the entire three days. Since the mount clamps onto the roll cage and is not a djustable, the camera mount would have limited use outside of the course. Toddís mount is better for us Prelude owners.)
In the in-car video, there is a noticeable difference between the beginning of the tape (the initial minutes on the track), the instructorís turn at driving with me in the passenger seat, and my turn after the one-on-one. I just wish I had more in-car video, since Day Three really is the best part of the class.
At the end of the course, you get a nice glass-framed photo, a diploma, some stickers and a Graduate patch.
I really must say the Bondurant instructors and staff are top notch and first class all the way. Mr. Bondurant even came out to meet us all personally.
I highly recommend bringing your photo gear, especially video. The school is completely open and accommodating, and allows photos and videos to be taken everywhere, with almost no restrictions. This includes the garage area and museum/conference room.
I also highly recommend taking the Four Day class, which letís you drive the open-wheel Formula Fords. As a bonus, the 4-day class is SCCA approved.
NTPOG would like to extend a special thanks to Wayne for generously donating this article!