Supercar Control

A street car with a 205-mph top speed is certainly deserving of some additional driver training, which is why Bondurant offers its ZR1 Control Course—and why we recently enrolled.

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March 18, 2011

“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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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The skid car, a Cadillac CTS equipped with hydraulically controlled outriggers that independently lift the front and rear ends, makes proper use of weight transfer a necessity. By reducing the tire’s contact patches, it essentially simulates the experience of driving on ice. With the front end raised, the CTS would simply not turn in unless I braked into the corner. Understeer would immediately return if I got on the power too quickly before exiting the corner. I could hear instructor McGovern admonishing me for getting greedy.

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.

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It was a similar situation during the accident-avoidance drill: The ZR1 simply shrugged off the rapid lane-change and heavy-braking maneuvers. At the time, it seemed odd to switch from honing our racecraft skills to focusing on street-driving techniques, but, as the instructors explained, the aim of this portion of the course is the same as every other: to improve our car-control skills.

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.

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The car’s lateral acceleration is also worth relishing. With no body roll to speak of, the chassis never leaves the driver waiting; steering inputs are answered immediately. With so much stick from the ultra-wide Michelin tires, the front end bites well even if the driver has not paid attention to properly loading the nose. If you get your trail-braking right, though, the front tires dig into the pavement with magnetic force.

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.

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