Driven: Vipers and Hellcats run wild at Bondurant driving school

Driven: Vipers and Hellcats run wild at Bondurant driving school

So there I was, piloting a 645-horsepower Dodge Viper around the tight turns of the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving.

A squad of Dodge Vipers roars around the Bondurant school's purpose-built track | Bondurant School of High Performance driving

A squad of Dodge Vipers roars around the Bondurant school’s purpose-built track | Bondurant

So there I was, piloting a 645-horsepower Dodge Viper around the tight turns of the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. And seated next to me was the man himself, Bob Bondurant, instructing me on how to get the car around the track in the shortest time possible.

This was actually an awesome flashback. More than two decades ago, Bondurant sat alongside me as I drove a race-prepped Ford Mustang so he could teach me the proper way to heel-and-toe downshift. He was pretty harsh, too, smacking me on the leg if my technique got sloppy. I loved every moment of it, and I’ve never forgotten what I was taught.

Bob Bondurant just celebrated his 83rd birthday | Bob Golfen

Bob Bondurant just celebrated his 83rd birthday | Bob Golfen

On this recent outing, he was OK with my shifting and most of my lines through the turns, but he thought my hand position on the steering wheel was too casual. “Three and 9,” he repeated whenever my hands drifted from the correct placement. “That’s how you keep control.”

Car control is what it’s all about in Bondurant’s world. Now, everyone who buys or leases a new Viper or a Dodge/SRT Charger or Challenger will have the opportunity to learn his driving tricks and techniques.

Most of the time when you get a new car, driving it is simply a matter of plunking yourself behind the wheel and pulling away from the curb. But with hyper-performance cars that are built to thrill, getting the most out of them requires more driving skill than the average driver possesses.

That would be the case with such potent machines as the V10-powered Dodge Viper coupe or the mighty SRT Hellcat versions of Challengers and Chargers that crank out 707 horsepower from their supercharged V8s. Things happen quickly with these high performers, so you’d better know what you’re doing before you hit the gas.

With that in mind, Dodge/SRT makes this offer to those who take up driving a new Viper or SRT model: a free day of instruction called the SRT Experience at the famed Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Chandler, Arizona, just south of Phoenix.

The Bondurant school has about 100 Dodge/SRT performance cars | Bob Golfen

The Bondurant school has about 100 Dodge/SRT performance cars | Bob Golfen

The Bondurant school recently changed over its entire fleet of cars to Vipers, Chargers and Challengers after forging a partnership with Dodge/SRT in November, with about 100 of the top-performance models being used to teach students the finer points of skilled driving on the street or track. Most recently, the school used Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1s, Camaro SS coupes and Cadillac CTS cars, and before that, the tweaked Ford Mustangs.

The Viper and SRT cars are largely in stock condition, with the exception of racing brake pads for better wear and a tire switch from the stock Pirellis to Goodyears because of the Bondurant school’s marketing relationship with Goodyear. The Hellcat Chargers and Challengers make up much of the SRT fleet, with 392 Hemi R/T models used for some of the exercises.

The Vipers are primarily GT 2.0 models or the more intense TA (for Track Attack) versions. Advanced driving students get the opportunity to drive full-on Viper ACR race cars in a special program.

A Charger 392 Hemi turns in on the autocross course | Bondurant

A Challenger 392 Hemi turns in on the autocross course | Bondurant

The school offers programs for everyone from teens just learning to drive to professional race drivers honing their techniques, although the focus is on driving enthusiasts who want to learn from the knowledge and precision of the Bondurant road-racing method.

Dodge/SRT recently invited several groups of journalists to experience the one-day SRT Experience driving course that will be presented to the newbie Viper and SRT drivers. The sampling of driving experiences includes the bizarre skid-pad class that uses a hydraulic outrigger system to reduce the car’s traction to something like sheer ice, autocross runs through a tight course delineated by traffic cones, and an accident-avoidance drill with sudden unexpected lane changes.

The day was highlighted by lots of “lead-and-follow” track time in the Vipers and Hellcat Chargers and Challengers on Bondurant’s challenging road course.

The Viper GT 2.0 feels ideal on the tight turns of the track, responding nicely to throttle-steer inputs and rocketing out of the corners. The Hellcats are shockingly fast, but they are less poised than the Vipers on the track.

A Charger set up as a skid car teaches low-traction control | Bob Golfen

A Charger set up as a skid car for teaching low-traction control | Bob Golfen

It was an exceptional day of noisy, tire-smoking fun, and for most of the visiting students, a day of learning. The instructors worked to settle down the hot dogs of the group who wanted to show off their driving abilities than learning from the experts. For example, the guy who was driving up my tailpipe in a Hellcat as I calmly followed the instructor’s car leading us through the curves. The purpose of the lead and follow is to watch and learn the correct lines for best negotiating the course, but my rear-hugging friend was having none of it. Too bad because he could have used the instruction.

The journalists varied in their levels of driving proficiency; some had to skip the Vipers because they didn’t know how to manipulate a clutch and manual gearbox. But most followed the rules laid down by the instructors, and went home better drivers for it.

Obviously, part of the push for offering the free SRT Experience is to hook the Viper and SRT drivers into signing up for a three- or four-day course on their own dime. Having been through the training, I can say it’s well worth it. And always, so much fun, pretty much an adult amusement park.

A Charger Hellcat running through the turns | Bondurant

A Charger Hellcat running through the turns | Bondurant

When you take the more immersive multi-day Bondurant courses, they include classroom time to teach such nuance of car control as weigh transfer and the fastest ways to negotiate a curve.

Champion driver Bob Bondurant, best-known for being part of the Ford/Carroll Shelby racing team that beat Ferrari at Le Mans, started his racing school in California in 1968, a year after he was permanently sidelined from competitive driving by a crippling crash at Watkins Glen. Although he was told he might never walk again because of severe foot and leg injuries, Bondurant managed to recover and begin his new career.

Bondurant realized his dream of a purpose-built performance-driving school in 1990 when he opened the Chandler facility, featuring a training track he designed that implements technically challenging features that drivers might encounter on the world’s race tracks. More than half a million drivers have taken instruction there, the school says, including professional race drivers, celebrities, even police officers.

Bob Bondurant was on hand during the journalist event, and we all had the opportunity to wish him a happy 83rd birthday. He said that the Vipers and SRTs are a great addition to the school, and as always, he was ready to jump in and teach his driving method first hand, as he did with me.

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