Editor’s Note: We’re visiting the top driving schools in the country to get a feel for what each has to offer the enthusiast driver; our hope is to encourage more owners to understand driving at the limit and have fun doing it. Look for more write-ups in the coming months, and check out our complete listing of U.S. high-performance driving schools.
Performance driving schools are often overlooked by parents in favor of mall-headquartered driving academies — after all, they sound dangerous — and at first glance it’s easy to get the impression that Challengers, Chargers and Vipers are for those who aspire to race or drive getaway cars for a living. With a name like Bondurant Racing School, you’d assume you’d need letters of reference from at least three IndyCar or NASCAR drivers, a passing score on NASA’s centrifuge test and the ability to handle a 12-speed semi-truck manual transmission to get in.
But in reality, all you need is a driver’s license and a mastery of the Slush-o-Matic transmission to get an acceptance letter, making the racing school just as approachable for car-friendly millennials who want to learn car control as for experienced drivers who want to sharpen their skills in Viper ACRs. All the ingredients for both types of drivers and everyone in between are here, in the desert in Chandler, Arizona.
Bob Bondurant himself greets the class and advises students throughout the day.
Upon our arrival at the school, we are met by our stern headmaster for the day, Bob Bondurant, who had just turned 83, and his wife and president of the school Pat Bondurant, who is a racer herself. Both introduce us to our instructors and the cars; Bondurant Racing School has just forged a partnership with SRT, fielding dozens of Challengers and Chargers of the 392 Hemi R/T and Hellcat variety, in addition to Viper GTs and ACR models. And we’d get to drive all of them during our one-day crash course, hopefully without crashing.
“The class will start off with the ground school, then people will be broken up into teams and they’re going to rotate between the skid car, accident-avoidance simulator, they’re going to do the autocross, lead and follow on the track, and then hot laps,” chief instructor Mike McGovern tells us.
First up is the skid pad, featuring Chargers fitted with dolly wheels to simulate traction akin to a skating rink. This exercise is part of the teen driving program, and even though it’s the slowest of the exercises, speed-wise, it is by far the most educational when it comes to car control.
Drivers start off with spin recovery on the skid pad.
Here we once again hear the “look where you want to go” mantra — a performance driving mantra for a reason — and learn to avoid target fixation. The Chargers slide around with predictable ease, like in a 1970s cop show minus the gumball beacon on the roof, but doing figure-eights with finesse is not as easy as it looks. Truth be told, we could have spent a day on the skid pad, the same way golfers will spend hours on the practice greens and in the greenside rough developing a touch for the greens. The skid pad rewards a measured approach, instantly doling out punishment just when everyone thinks, “Yeah, I’ve got this.”
Next up is the accident-avoidance exercise involving acceleration, lane choice and emergency braking in response to stoplight changes. It helps that the Chargers are wearing performance brake pads, which get plenty of exercise as we accelerate down the straight and are forced to make a split-second choice in response to a changing light, controlled by the instructors. They’re eager to give us curveballs with the lights, and after just a couple of runs it becomes obvious why this part of the program is useful for teen drivers.
Lead-and-follow exercises on the track are the culmination of the day.
As we move on to autocross exercises, this is the first part of the program that lets us combine the skills we hopefully learned on the skid pad and in the accident-avoidance drills. Our instructors let us open up the cars a little bit, and this is also where we really get a feel for just how modern cars keep us out of trouble as we try to keep it together and avoid knocking over cones. Pushing the Challenger harder and harder through the curves, the electronic nannies manage to keep us out of real trouble as we try not as much to test the limits of grip, but to find it.
Our day concludes with lead-and-follow exercises on one of the main tracks as a gaggle of Vipers is introduced into our mix of Challengers and Chargers. The instructors in the lead cars take it easy on us for a couple of laps to let us get a feel for the track, but it’s not long before we decide to put things into track mode to keep up with the lead car and the pressure. This is when we realize that for racetrack first-timers, the Charger and Challenger may be perfect cars for learning track driving and car control — they’re wide and stable enough to keep us out of trouble while giving us the generous footprint of a family sedan. But they also have more than enough power on tap to keep things interesting and let us explore our limits.
Chief instructor Mike McGovern advises the class before the start of track laps.
Pretty soon we’re flying over chicanes and desperately trying to remember the racing lines we saw used on the “Top Gear” U.K. test track and the “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” segments, recalling how The Stig did it. Those bits of “knowledge,” along with memories of F1 racing footage from the early 1990s, flood back unexpectedly as we keep up with the lead car in this exercise.
We ask McGovern, what lies beyond the one-day program that SRT offers all Hellcat buyers?
“What people are doing now, they call up the school and they ask questions about it, and then the sales staff are offering them an opportunity to step up to a two-day high-performance driving or four-day Grand Prix road-racing class. Just depending on — again each customer is a little bit different — but they have that option,” McGovern says. “And the school is giving them a thousand dollar voucher to go toward those different classes, which is a great deal.”
“When they get into the individual classes, that student-to-instructor ratio is three-to-one; each student gets their own vehicle for the time that they’re going through that program, and then there’s that personal attention that they get from that instructor. We’ve had a lot of people do that, a lot of people have gone from that to like the four-day Grand Prix road-racing class, so first three days are in Viper and then fourth day is in the Formula Mazda — real big step up.”
The program offers plenty of track time — at the end of the day, of course.
We finish out the day behind the wheel of the Viper in the same lead-and-follow exercises, but now without the ventilated seats — just like real racing drivers. The real racing drivers then give us a whirl around the same track, making us realize that we were “Driving Miss Daisy” the whole time.
Price: $1,225 for one-day high-performance driving, $2,450 for two days, $3,999 for three days.
Dates/Locations: Various dates available, all in the Phoenix, AZ, area.
Contact: bondurant.com, (480) 403-7600.
Pros: Various levels offered, cars are comfortable, long and varied track.
Cons: Pricey, one day is probably not enough for the skid pad and accident-avoidance exercises.
Things to know:
– Dress to cope with the heat if you sign up for spring, summer or fall classes. This is Arizona.
– Proper footwear helps.
– Don’t need your own helmet — one will be provided — but bring glasses that will work well with a snugly fitting helmet without being uncomfortable.
– The day will be over before you know it.
– Remember to consume water and snacks regularly, or your energy level can drop at an inopportune time.
– NASA centrifuge test not required to sign up.