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.
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.
In our first exercise, the slalom course, we built up speed gradually, maintaining a steady tempo through the cones while focusing on our steering inputs. At the 30- and 35-mph increments, the ZR1 felt completely non-plussed. At 40 and 45 mph, it was still well within its limits, but I was sure working hard, cranking the wheel as quickly as I could. It’s amazing how much bite the ZR1 front tires have—understeer is simply not in this car’s vocabulary. Wheelspin definitely is, however; getting up to 45 mph before the first cone required judicious throttle input.
Back in the classroom, the focus turned to the all-important concept of weight transfer. Dunham told us that, like a balloon being squashed in your hand, a tire’s contact patch grows larger under load. As a result, a car turns into a corner better under braking because a significant portion of its weight has been transferred to the front. Similarly, rear tires have more grip when the rear of the car is loaded under acceleration. Applying this simple principle takes practice. Fortunately, the use of a Bondurant skid car rapidly speeds up the learning process.
With the skid car’s rear end raised, oversteer was just a flick of the wrist away. Stopping the drift, though, involved both corrective steering lock and concerted throttle input. Getting off the gas resulted in an instant donut. As I drifted around the oval cone course, I could feel the day’s lessons sinking in, especially the importance of looking where you want to go—being sideways has a way of highlighting this point.
On the second day, we started adding more tools to our car-control arsenal. We practiced heel-and-toe downshifts, a crucial skill in maintaining smooth weight transfer under braking. Fortunately, the Corvette’s pedals are well placed for this fancy footwork. We also worked on threshold braking, that is, attempting to brake as hard as possible without activating the ABS system. While pulsing calipers help maintain steering control, they can increase braking distances. The ZR1’s brakes provide such huge reserves of stopping power that it was actually quite hard to get the ABS to activate, even when simulating a panic stop from 65 mph. I couldn’t feel the system’s pulses through the pedal, but I did notice a flickering ABS light on the dash.
Those skills were put to the test later in the afternoon, when we headed back out on the road course—armed with newfound knowledge, as well as a pair of Nomex overalls. Driving the circuit felt surprisingly different than it had at the outset. Given all that I’d learned, I had so much more to think about. With each passing lap, the lessons became a bit more ingrained—my inputs more natural and the speed a bit higher.
With the ZR1, there is a constant surplus of power on tap. So eager is the LS9 to unleash its 638 horses that using a higher gear proved to be a helpful—and recommended—way of preventing the ZR1 from behaving like a bull in a china shop. Despite its tight corners, the entire course can be navigated in third gear without causing any fuss from the engine. Of course, coming out of corners in second was a lot more fun. As long as I squeezed on the throttle gently as I unwound the steering wheel, the ZR1 could get its power down without too much drama or electronic intervention. (At the behest of the school, I left the driver-aid systems fully engaged; in advanced courses—see sidebar—drivers are allowed to turn them off.) I couldn’t truly floor it until halfway through third gear on the short front straight. Even if only for a few brief moments, experiencing the ZR1’s full acceleration is something one never tires of—Bob Bondurant certainly hasn’t.
On the other hand, the ZR1 never feels darty or skittish. Sure, at any given moment, oversteer is just an over-enthusiastic prod of the loud pedal away. However, the car’s neutral handling characteristics make gathering up a wayward slide fairly easy. Around the Bondurant road course, I never felt like the ZR1 was waiting to bite me. It’s no cuddly koala, but a lethal snake it is not. The aptly named ZR1 Control Course definitely made me more comfortable behind the wheel of Chevrolet’s fastest Corvette. Most importantly, it made me a better driver.
Riding shotgun with Bob Bondurant definitely kept me humble about my newfound skills. His passion for driving, however, is something that we all share. Having recently shaken up his school’s management and taken back its reins as CEO, Bondurant is particularly energized at the moment. He said that he has placed a renewed emphasis on the quality of the school’s instruction; its workforce is now leaner and more focused. As we learned in the classroom, you have to look where you want to go.