My Experience at the Bob Bondurant Grand Prix Road Racing Course
This last June I was fortunate enough to attend Bob Bondurant's four day Grand Prix Road Racing Course in Phoenix, Arizona. For days one, two, and three I was assigned Car #59, a near new 2015 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray 1LT with the Z51 package and less than 700 miles on the odometer. At the beginning of each driving session I walked out to a row of freshly washed Stingrays in search of Car #59, my faithful steed of speed and excitement. Although not my preferred make of sports car, the Stingray was a drastic step up in horse power and torque from the only sports car that I have driven on the track, my naturally aspirated 1987 Porsche 944. 'Drastic' probably doesn't do justice but you get the idea. Needless to say, the Stingray was extremely modern with handle-less doors, ventilated seats, a heads-up-display, push-to-start, rev-matching, traction-control, and magnetic ride control… none of which I had ever previously experienced. It was also a large step up in size and weight at approximately 1,100 pounds heavier than my stripped out 944. Despite all of this, it was still a two-door, two seater, production based sports car and I looked forward to getting to know the beast. To ensure that myself, and the other students, would be able to confidently propel the Stingray to the limits of adhesion on the school's 15 turn, 1.65 mile race track, we spent the first day reviewing a few of the basics.
We spent the first driving session practicing heel-toe-shifting and threshold braking, with rev-matching turned off, in a football field-size area of pavement. This was the first time I had ever experienced being thrown back into the driver seat from the application of such copious amounts of torque. What a rush! That first session was extremely exciting and thrilling for me but there was still more to come. We spent a small amount of time conducting accident avoidance drills to ensure that we could each avoid colliding with spun out cars on the track, which would actually happen quite often on the last day. Post lunch, we thoroughly reviewed the art of driving through a turn before taking our Stingrays out onto the Maricopa Oval which consisted of a constant radius turn and a decreasing radius turn. We were instructed to leave the transmissions in third gear for this exercise to ensure that we were solely focused on the turn-in, apex, and exit of both turns. After several laps of the oval, it occurred to me, as I was concentrating on hitting my marks, that the Stingray's 465 ft-lbs of torque was quite easy to control coming out of each turn without the slightest hint of wheel spin or drama. Oddly enough, It was just as easy to control as the 140 ft-lbs that my humble 944 generates. Something wasn't right. This was definitely an issue I would have to explore later while stationary and I had a strong suspicion of where to start.
We ended the day with another session of heel-toe-shifting in the large paved area. Before actually turning off Car #59 for the day, which I had already started referring to as "my Stingray", I took a minute to explore the different suspension and traction control settings. My options were Weather, Eco, Tour, Sport, and Track. I definitely wouldn't be needing the Weather setting given that we were in Phoenix and the temperature was reaching close to 120 degrees with zero humidity each day. The Eco and Tour settings were also not going to be used for obvious reasons which left Sport and Track.
Fortunately, the next morning, Day Two, my Instructor explained that if I selected Sport mode and then held down the button for 12 seconds it would turn off all form of traction control. With this new-to-me setting in the Stingray selected, we ventured back out on the Maricopa Oval while also incorporating some heel-toe-shifting before each turn. The game had just changed. Now, as I accelerated from each apex, my Stingray's backend desperately tried to swap ends with the front… and I loved it! This new phenomenon was what I had been looking forward to ever since registering for the course… the challenge of accelerating at the highest speed possible without spinning out uncontrollably! I know this is familiar territory for most track day participants but for those of us driving 944s and 914s it most certainly is not. As I rocketed my Stingray toward each exit I reveled in finding that limit of adhesion in order to obtain the highest speed possible before threshold braking for the next turn. So this was what it was like to drive a car with real power!
Next up was some time on the skid pad in a Pontiac G8 equipped with two extra wheels in the front and two more in the back that are operated on a hydraulic system from the passenger seat. At the flick of a switch my instructor could raise the front of the car to induce understeer or the rear of the car to induce oversteer. This was familiar territory for me from all of my skid pad time at Summit Point Motorsports Parkway so I had a blast improving on my ability to modulate the throttle and steering. After lunch we were finally allowed to attack more of the race track in an open-track session. But first we had to learn it! We began a lead-follow session of the Carousel and Lake Loop portions of the track, the Instructors in their individually assigned Cadillac CTS-Vs and us in our respective Stingrays. We started out slowly enough and gained a little more speed with each lap until the Instructors were confident that they could let us loose to finally explore the capabilities of the Stingrays. So when my Instructor finally gave me the point-by, I mashed the throttle, shot past him and began my exploration of "my Stingray's" adhesion limits.
Even with traction-control off, the Stingray was still very easy to drive and felt very neutral through the turns. Although, I did have to engage in some quick sawing of the wheel to keep the back end of the car under control until I found just the right amount of throttle to use on each exit. After being left to my own devices for 10 minutes or so, my Instructor signaled me to pit in and pick him up so that he could observe my driving. He complimented me on my heel-toe-shifting before pointing out that I had a habit of braking too late for some of the turns causing too much trail-braking. I was still braking while approaching the apex when I should have already been off the brakes and gradually squeezing on the gas. I was basically hindering my ability to exit the turn at the highest optimal speed. I quickly adjusted my braking points and then we worked on smoothness. The answer to my lack of smoothness was the most simple and basic of driving tenants… LOOK AS FAR AHEAD AS POSSIBLE. This reminder was all it took to drastically smooth out my driving. With these critiques covered, my Instructor told me to drop him back off in the pits so that he could attend to his two other students. The open-track session lasted for the rest of the day and allowed me to work on my Instructor's critiques.
Day Three continued where the previous day left off with an open-track session with the addition of two passing areas. We were now allowed to pass on the front-straight and again on the short-straight between T13 and T14. These passing areas were beneficial as the experience of the group ranged from zero track time to a handful of track days and all the way to the most experienced of the group, a 13 year old karting champion from Idaho, Sting Ray Robb (yes, his legal name is Sting Ray!), who was looking to make the jump to open-wheel race cars. This 13 year old had traveled to Spain, twice, for the world championships of karting and great things were expected of him. Sting Ray was easily the fastest on the track and he and I had fun playing lead-follow with each other and then comparing notes afterwards. Yes, it was interesting comparing notes with someone who was a little more than a 1/3 of my age but that’s how it goes in racing. Overall, he drove some turns faster while I took some other turns faster but basically we were fairly evenly matched with a slight advantage going to him. More on that later.
After breaking for lunch, we returned to our cars and were now allowed to use the entire track. This turned out to be a vey exciting prospect because it created a section of high speed Esses between T4 and T8 and opened up a third passing area. After several laps, and a large amount of confidence, I was able to drive the Esses in 3rd gear with the throttle pinned to the floor. However, this was a little tricky because there is a quick riser halfway through the Esses that, when taken fast enough, causes the Stingray to become light and shift to the right by half a car width or more. After letting the car settle, and then violently hitting the curbing for T8, the braking point for T9 comes up quickly but patience is required in order to let the car settle again before applying the brakes. I felt like I was at the helm of my own roller coaster ride. It was exhilarating!
Also incredible was the temperature that day at 120 degrees which matched the previous record for Phoenix. It was so hot that my engine was overheating and reaching a maximum allowed temperature which required me to take a few laps at an easier pace every so often. In order to spend more time at full speed, I even turned the heat on full blast which allowed me to extend my full-speed sessions by one more lap while also producing a level of perspiration that I had never before experienced. Try and imagine 120 degrees outside of the car with the heat on full blast inside the car. It was a good thing the school had plenty of free water on hand!
After concluding the sweat-session, we retired to the ice cold air conditioning of the classroom to discuss race-starts and re-starts. This was another aspect of racing that I had never previously experienced that I had been looking forward to for quite some time. After a thorough instructional period in the classroom, we hopped into our Instructors' cars to observe them conduct one practice start and one re-start. My car-mates and I were extremely excited for this observational excersice after learning more about our instructors. All of the Instructors had extensive racing experience in a wide variety of cars and included two current Continental Sports Car Tire Challenge competitors, Andy Lee, co-driver of the #22 Goldcrest Motorsports Porsche Cayman and Tyler Cooke, co-driver of the #84 Bimmerworld BMW 328i. Our Instructors didn't disappoint us as they each fiercely gamed both exercises while repeatedly redlining their CTS-V engines with each shift. But now it was our turn...
We entered our Stingrays, strapped in, and headed out onto the track to line up. We would conduct two starts and one re-start. On the first start, we made our way onto the front-straight at about 20mph. As the pace car pulled off of the track, I was on driver's left in P5 (position five) and anxiously watching for the green flag to drop. When it finally dropped, I smoothly floored the accelerator and shot forward like a rocket. I had completely gotten the jump on the car in front of me and steered toward the outside to pass him on the left but I had to wait until I crossed the start line before I was allowed to overtake him completely. This required slightly feathering the throttle before hammering it down again just before crossing the start line. Fortunately, my timing worked and I was able to get completely ahead before having to slow down at the end of the front-straight at which point the exercise was over and we lined back up for another attempt. The next iteration went much the same as the first although I was lined up on driver's right. What was interesting was practicing a re-start in which the flag would drop while the lead cars were traveling on the curved bend between T13 and T14. This time I lined up in P3, single-file, and we began one lap of the track. As we passed T13 I was darting my eyes between the car in front of me and the flag station that was 90 degrees and one hundred yards to the left of me. A few seconds before I expected the green flag to drop, I remained focused on the flag station and was rewarded. I saw the green flag hurled over the side of the station as I slammed the accelerator to the floor and immediately overtook the P2 car on the inside. This was great except for the fact that I was now at a terrible angle to approach T14 and didn't have time to move to driver's right to set up for the turn. I began braking as I approached the turn but never scrubbed enough speed. As I turned in, the back end came wildly loose and I quickly sawed at the wheel to regain traction which completely disrupted the car and induced a "tank slapper." Fortunately, I was able to recover from the tank slapper without spinning. However, I had completely botched the re-start but not without learning a powerful lesson about keeping the adrenaline in check and not letting it cause you to drive faster than you or the car can handle. As we pitted in, I immediately knew that this was a lesson that I would never forget. These exciting and educational exercises concluded the day, the Corvette portion of the school, and unfortunately ended my relationship with my Stingray. The separation seemed abrupt and felt like it just came too soon... however, there was still something even more thrilling in store for us.
Day Four, the last day, started with an introduction to the Formula Mazda. The Formula Mazda is a single seater, open-wheeled, carbuerated, rear wing-equipped race car. It also has only four forward gears, no synchros, and the pedals are positioned very, very, very close together. To make things even more interesting, the extremely tight "H" shift-pattern allows for such short throws that first gear feels almost like neutral to the uninitiated, such as me. We spent an hour reviewing the nuances of the Mazda, adjusting the seating position, and getting comfortable with the car before dawning racing suits, balaclavas, and helmets. After strapping in and being pushed out of the garage by the mechanics, we fired up our new steeds and followed an Instructor out onto the race track.
As in the Stingrays, we slowly built up to the full track by first starting on the Maricopa Oval. This was wise because the Mazda felt completely foreign to me and to most of the students. It was like nothing I had ever driven. Where the Stingray merely felt like a bigger and more powerful version of my 944, it was going to take some time to get used to this Mazda. To start with, the seating position just didn't seem natural to me. I felt like I was lying on my back with merely my head propped up as opposed to a very upright position in a sports car. The shifter didn't have that spring to it so if not in gear, it just slapped around in neutral. The H pattern was so tight that it was difficult at first to find the correct gear even though you would think it would be extremely easy given that you only have four choices! The pedals were so close together that I had to use a completely different part of my right foot to hit the gas pedal during the heel-toe down shifts. The brake pedal was extremely stiff and only offered about a half of an inch of travel before you locked up the wheels. Lastly, the engine was behind me so we were warned that we would most likely spin out at least once during the day.
The Mazda was extremely exhilarating to push faster and faster through the turns. I had never driven anything with the aid of aerodynamics providing improved down force so it was fun to experience the added grip that was obtained from higher speeds. On the front-straight, the wind buffeted my helmet like someone was slapping each side of my head. These Mazdas were so light and nimble that the braking point for T1, at the end of the front-straight, was twice as deep as it had been for the Stingrays. The Mazda was capable of shedding speed very quickly with the brakes applied. It definitely took some confidence and a few laps before I was braking as late as the instructors had stated was possible. However, despite all of the fun I just never quite felt like I got the hang of the car's clutch. Every time I down-shifted with a heel-toe combination I was convinced I was inflicting damage on both the transmission and the clutch components. Hearing the gears grind was an absolutely terrible sound that I never want to hear from another car… and of course I felt extremely guilty and disappointed in myself.
Interestingly, all of these foreign-to-me aspects of the Mazda were in starch contrast to Sting Ray's experience. After a couple of sessions we each took a break to compare notes and allow ourselves and our Mazdas to cool off in the near 120 degree heat. Where the Mazda felt completely foreign to me, Sting Ray finally felt at home and explained that the Mazda was very similar to his racing kart, albeit with more power, grip, and stopping force. He explained that the Corvette was what had felt totally foreign to him because he had never driven a car before! So here is this 13 year old kid driving a car for the first time and I was almost having trouble keeping up with him! But then again, our Instructor, who was well aware of Sting Ray's karting career, explained to me that the kid definitely had the skill and potential to progress very far in the racing world. Sting Ray had his immediate sites set on racing F1600s, a feeder series that can eventually lead to Indy-lights and then Indy itself. So I didn't feel too bad about almost not being able to keep up with him in the Stingray. Although he completely left me in the dust when it came to the Mazda.
Even though I had a blast in the Mazda, I never quite felt like I got the hang of it and wished I could have spent much more time in it and with additional instruction. I was proud that I never did spin out despite how much the front and back of the car tried desperately to swap positions on every lap. I absolutely know that I pushed that little race car to my own limits as a driver and I learned that I definitely prefer sports cars to open-wheel cars.
The Bob Bondurant Grand Prix Road Racing course was an extremely rewarding experience. The race track was very technical with different layouts that each had their challenges. My Stingray allowed me to experience three times the horsepower that I was used to which really forced me to be smooth with all of my driving inputs. The Formula Mazda challenged me even further and on every aspect of performance driving. The cars and facilities were all obsessively clean and well maintained. The Instructors and instruction was top notch and very informative. Being able to meet and talk with the legendary Bob Bondurant himself was an experience all by itself. Overall, I highly recommend this school to anyone interested in getting on the race track for the first time and to any experienced drivers looking for some fun and something different to drive on a very technical track.