Back to Driving School, Willingly III: Real Life
Apr 17, 2012 |
Photography by the author
Like Skip Barber, Le Mans and Grand Prix racer Bob Bondurant started small: his first class at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in 1968 had only three students but his second had two — Robert Wagner and Paul Newman — getting ready for their movie Winning. Bondurant’s school is situated now on the southern fringe of Phoenix off Interstate 10. It is a huge complex that calls itself “The Fastest 60 Acres in America.”
At the time of my visit, the school had put more than 45,000 persons of all ages through their paces. I’ve come with my son-in-law, Mark Abramson, who is convinced he’s a better driver than I am. We’ll see.
The skid training ends our one-day advanced street driving course. The “skid cars” fitted with outrigger caster wheels scampering around the track look more like beetles than automobiles. The instructor can alter how much “bite” the tires make on the road by altering the outrigger casters. Under-steer, where the car continues to plough ahead, is easily simulated and corrected — the remedy: get off the pedal, whether it be accelerator or brake. Over-steer, where the rear wants to overtake the front, is more difficult to control. Novices overcorrect and don’t respond fast enough.
I’m driving a black Taurus and rapidly blowing any brownie points I’ve earned so far. My instructor keeps muttering, “That’s too much over-correction. That’s too little. . .” as the car whirls around in circles like a tumbleweed caught in a tornado.
His voice trails off as I do another imitation of a dog chasing its tail. The other students in the rear mutter something. “You all right in the back?” I cry out. “Oh, we’re fine,” comes the reply, “but you’re scaring our instructor!”
And so I develop, somewhat, another driving skill.
We’d previously signed our lives away with the all-important waivers — and checked out the framed photographs of Bondurant School graduates: average people like Clint Eastwood, Candice Bergen and Tom Cruise. We’d heard Bondurant expound his views on driving, saying that the only skills American drivers have are standing on the accelerator or slamming on the brakes.
Now we were to learn a third skill — slalom.
Zig-zagging through a set of plastic cones seems simple but there’s a right and a wrong way. The exercise, we are told, is designed to show us what our input does to the car.
“Most people try to move the steering wheel the least,” our instructor says. “Instead, we want aggressive steering that transfers the car’s weight from side to side, followed by a gentle return the other way to neutralize.”
We hop into his car for a demonstration although the kid looks so young any father would hesitate to give him the keys to the family car. A moment later we’re charging through the slalom course with his finesse none of us will achieve that day.
“It’s important to look far enough ahead,” he says, “otherwise everything is rushing past you too fast.”
Next comes accident avoidance, the lesson using an approach leading to three lanes served by red or green lights. We will approach at 40 mph and when the lights come on or switch we will have 80 feet to make a decision, the choices being one, two or three red lights. If we see a green we go for it, taking our foot briefly off the accelerator to improve the steering. Unless we get three reds, we mustn’t brake, in case we lock our wheels and lose steering. When we get into the lane with a green light, we accelerate — in a real highway accident that lane could be blocked within 10 seconds.
“It’s easier to move a car eight feet to the side than to stop 3,000 pounds at 40 miles per hour,” the instructor explains.
In a sudden, multi-lane accident, if all lanes ahead are blocked and you have no hope of stopping, he advises we go to the right. Better to roll over on a soft shoulder or hit another moving car from the rear, where the energy is dissipated slowly, than to go left and have a head-on collision.
The Handling Oval gives us a chance to put into practice what we’ve heard all morning. We drive around first with the instructor at the wheel.
“Notice how I try to be smooth,” says the instructor, hurtling his car around the corners. “Look ahead on turns at your apex as you start, then at your exit point. Brake in the first half of the turn. By the apex you should be starting to accelerate.”
He grins: “And if you get tired and develop brain fade — come in.”
The next hour was the most fun, belying Bondurant’s remark that this would be the worst day we’d ever spend in a car. It was our chance to explore the car’s limits and react more intelligently to the car’s behavior.
“Today’s cars are real smart,” Bondurant had said. “They’ll do exactly what you tell them — right or wrong.”
When they handed out our graduation diplomas, I felt the instructor look at me when he said the school offers an extra half-day on the skid car for any alumnus who wanted to return. I wasn’t worried: I’d put my score sheet in my son-in-law’s envelope and taken his.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician’s Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He is a long time member of the Motor Press Guild, the largest automotive media association in North America. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor’s Life.