(Editor’s note: During the month of March, the Journal will present a series of stories about driving schools, including some first-person accounts.)
“Look ahead! “Look far ahead!”
Those were the three most-important words thrown at me during my time at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, where I was incredibly surprised to learn just how little I really knew about driving.
This happened about three decades ago just after famed racer Bob Bondurant had moved his driving school in 1990 to the new facility in Chandler, Arizona, with a track that he had designed to teach the nuanced skills of getting around it as fast as possible.
Back then, I was the newly minted auto editor at the Arizona Republic newspaper, and I thought I knew it all, or at least a lot, about cars and trucks and how to drive them. It didn’t take long to blow that notion right out of my head; I now know that I’m still learning, will always be learning and still have a lot to learn.
“Look far ahead” describes how a pro driver sees through the windshield, watching into the distance for dangers and opportunities, planning for how to approach turns, and being prepared as early as possible for whatever comes up. Those same words should be applied for driving on the street as well.
How to watch the road ahead was one of the major themes in the professional driving training, along with car balance and control, how to quickly and safely get around corners, how to steer and brake most efficiently, and how to avoid crashes and obstacles by seeing escape routes (Watch where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go, I quickly learned).
“The fastest drivers are the smoothest drivers on the track,” I was also told.
Thirty years later, the lessons I learned at Bondurant are second nature, and skills that I use every day in my normal driving.
I also learned Bondurant’s own story, how the acclaimed driver had been injured in a crash during practice that damaged his lower legs and feet so badly that he could no longer race professionally, and how he had stayed in motorsports by establishing a performance-driving school on a shoestring in California.
His school was a resounding success, and soon he and his small band of racing experts were training professional drivers, students and teen drivers, police and celebrities how to control cars at speed. They helped actual race drivers at all skill levels to hone their track skills, and taught movie stars how to portray race drivers in films.
Some of those movie stars, such as the legendary Paul Newman, set out on racing pursuits of their own. Just recently, the school trained actor Christian Bale in preparation for his role as racer Ken Miles in the Hollywood film Ford v Ferrari.
The school is now under new ownership as Bondurant reluctantly retired due to his advanced age. It now has a revised name, the Bondurant High Performance Driving School, although the mission remains the same.
The cars have changed, too. When I went through the school, it was sponsored by Ford, and Roush-prepped Mustang GTs were the mainstay student cars, with open-wheel Formula Ford race cars for advanced training. Some years later, General Motors became the sponsor, and the school featured Corvettes and Cadillacs.
Nowadays, it’s Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcats making up the bulk of the student cars (alas, they once had RT-10 Vipers to drive, but Dodge stopped making them and they’re all gone). Ligier JS F4 open-wheel cars are available for formula racing instruction.
I took the main 4-day High Performance Driving course, which includes classroom instruction and lots of time on the track or going through the specialized training methods, such as piloting the wacky “skid car” on a vast asphalt-covered lot – it’s equipped with hydraulic outrigger lifts that replicate losing traction, as on black ice.
The hydraulics are controlled by the instructor, and the student driver must react to the “slippery” conditions without losing control. There are a lot of spinouts.
A favorite memory of my training was driving on the track in a Mustang GT learning heel-and-toe shifting from the master himself, who would smack my leg when I messed up. Being taught directly by Bondurant was a genuine thrill, as well as humbling.
I was in with a group of students on the first day of instruction when Bondurant had us all pile into a big van ostensibly for a tour of the track. The van was an unwieldy, top-heavy thing, especially with a bunch of people on board.
Yet Bondurant, a grin on his face, raced around the track at remarkable speed, sporting through the tight turns and generally showing off his magical driving skills, while we all hung on, wide-eyed, as he oh so smoothly demonstrated how it should be done, on the remote chance that any of us would ever get to be as good as him.
I’ve been out to the Bondurant facility many times since my instruction, which also included taking the Advanced Road Racing course in the Formula Fords. There are many events and driving opportunities there, and I feel totally familiar with the place, which is a good feeling.
One thing I also learned was how cool and professional the instructors are, most of them experienced racers, some pro drivers and some who went through Bondurant classes themselves as students.
Really, you have to be pretty unflappable when teaching a bunch of racer wannabees, some of whom undoubtedly feel too cool for school and set out to prove out great they are on the track, usually with humiliating results.
A few years back, I was there with a group of journalists going through a 1-day introductory course, and there was a guy like that, who apparently thought he was the hottest hotshoe at the place.
Driving on a tight autocross course, which is marked off with traffic cones, he totally lost it, spinning and smoking the tires and generally making a mess of it.
The instructors watched his shenanigans with amusement. At the end, he was awarded the prize for killing the most cones.