“I love the power,” exclaimed Bob Bondurant as he fed in some opposite lock, caught the slide and got back on the throttle—hard. He was behind the wheel of a 2010 Corvette ZR1, I was in the passenger seat and we were hurtling around the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving road course in Chandler, Arizona. Since he owns the joint, Bondurant had momentarily brought the afternoon’s instruction to a halt in order to give me a few hot laps around the school’s full 1.6-mile road course, allowing him to stretch the ZR1’s legs a little. And let me tell you, Bondurant stretched this Corvette’s legs like only a former Grand Prix driver can, using every inch of the track he designed himself. It was a memorable thrill ride, and provided the perfect culminating experience for the two-day ZR1 Control Course I’d just completed.
I arrived early on the first day. After snapping some photos of the school’s fleet of Corvettes in the morning light, I went inside the main building, and, roaming the halls to kill time, I was drawn to the multitude of photos covering the walls. There was Bob Bondurant, photographed with the vast array of students that have come through his school over the past 43 years—famous race-car drivers, celebrities, Navy Seals. Most of the photos were signed with expressions of gratitude; take Corvette Racing driver Johnny O’Connell as an example. “The championships, wins at Sebring, Le Mans, everywhere…is because of you being such a great mentor and father figure,” O’Connell wrote. Bondurant is an American institution.
When his professional racing career came to a premature end as a result of injuries sustained in a horrendous 150-mph crash at a Can-Am race at Watkins Glen, Bondurant started his school at the Orange County International Raceway in 1968. In only his second week of instruction, Bondurant had a pair of Hollywood’s biggest stars as pupils: Paul Newman and Robert Wagner, who were preparing for their roles in the film “Winning.” Needless to say, Bondurant had gotten off to a good start.
The school moved to Ontario Motor Speedway in 1970, then to Sears Point International Raceway in 1973. It was not until 1990, however, that Bondurant was able to build his own purpose-built 60-acre facility located in Chandler, adjacent to Firebird International Raceway outside Phoenix. Though the school initially continued its use of Ford vehicles, it entered into an exclusive partnership with GM in 2002, with the Corvette serving as its premier street car. Following on the heels of its Z06 Experience, Bondurant began offering the two-day ZR1 Control Course in January 2009. Compliments of Chevrolet, new ZR1 owners can choose between it and a similar program offered by the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School at Spring Mountain in Pahrump, Nevada.
As is customary at driving schools, my instruction at Bondurant began in the classroom. Delivered by Chief Instructor Mike McGovern, a 28-year Bondurant veteran, the chalk talk was mercifully brief and to the point. “It takes a lot of effort to be a good driver,” said McGovern. The key to becoming one, he explained, is concentration. “Be engaged, be focused,” he implored us. This is necessary because high-performance driving involves the careful balance of power, braking and steering inputs. “The tendency is to get greedy with the power,” said McGovern. Considering the fact that I’d have a 638-horsepower Corvette at my disposal for the next two days, these were sobering words.
Before we knew it, the other student and I (our session had just two participants; there are usually six) were donning helmets and strapping ourselves into our Corvettes. With the instructors each piloting a Cadillac CTS sedan in front of us, we headed out on the shorter, 1.1-mile version of the road course. The pace was brisk; it felt a bit like being thrown into the deep end during a swimming lesson. Aren’t we supposed to build up to this? I thought to myself. As it turned out, we soon returned to the shallow end and started working on the basics.
Before those exercises began, however, we were given a brief tour of the facility. The first stop was the shop where the school’s vehicles are serviced. According to our guide, instructor Jesse Dunham, the fleet of Corvettes has proven impressively reliable, making little demand upon the wide assortment of replacement parts and turning the mechanics into Maytag repairmen—other than brake pad and tire replacement, they don’t have a lot of work to do on the Corvettes. Incidentally, the only non-stock parts on the school’s Z51s and Z06s are track-oriented Performance Friction brake pads. Because of their unique carbon-ceramic brake rotors, the ZR1s retain their OEM pads.