The renowned Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving School, located just outside of Phoenix, boasts boasts numerous training tracks, including a complete, multi-option racetrack specifically built and solely used by Bondurant for high-performance driver training. Photos JP Molnar
A SkidCar is probably the single most beneficial training tool available to teach car control. Photos JP Molnar
On the skidpad course, students can practice proper visual and steering inputs, as well as ABS braking exercises, understeerinig and oversteering.
Photos JP Molnar
FEATURED IN TRAINING
Law enforcement training has always been a compromise between available budget, available time and available facilities. This is especially true when the training requires specialized locations with vast amounts of space. Because officers will spend most of their careers driving, and because the single greatest threat to their livelihood will be their experiences in a patrol or unmarked car, EVOC training could be considered the single most important training in the academy.
Unfortunately, the real estate necessary for this type of training is expensive. Paving real estate is really expensive, especially when that terra firma exists anywhere within earshot of civilization. This means that existing training facilities that are large enough to accommodate all the demands of a complete training program are few and far between. Yes, there are agencies like the California Highway Patrol and the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department that have fabulous facilities, but many agencies have to make do with dilapidated airfields, college parking lots and the occasional empty housing development.
Now, I would be the first to tell you that many EVOC instructors are some of the best driving instructors around. Unfortunately, though, even the best instructor can only do so much with a limited facility. Often the best parts of EVOC training can't be properly accommodated, or have to be severely truncated due to space constraints.
Another concern is the amount of training each cadet receives in EVOC training. Again, budget and time restraints usually mean that there are many cadets who need to be trained using only a few vehicles and even fewer instructors. Add in the fact that 20-30 cadets need to be trained and tested equally in a scant 40 hours, and reality shines through that there's only so much that can be accomplished. So, given that your law enforcement-driving career will both provide you with the most prolific opportunity for public image and personal peril, what options exist to help bolster this critical skill?
The Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving
The relationship between the racing school world and EVOC instruction has always provided for some different takes on tackling the responsibilities of real world driving. This is because the fundamental philosophy of EVOC training is to teach officers to drive with plenty of reserve, whereas racing schools push drivers to fine-tune their skills at the ragged edge. Is there something law enforcement can learn from the latter?
To find out, I spent three days at the renowned Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, located just outside Phoenix. Bondurant is considered the "Cadillac" of high-performance driving schools, having been around for 40 years. Its founder, Bob Bondurant, inked his reputation as one of the best race drivers in the world by helping win the World Manufacturers Championship for Ford and the equally famed Carroll Shelby in 1965. An unfortunate racing accident in 1967 left Bondurant with serious leg injuries, but he turned his unexpectedly sudden retirement from racing into something positive by fulfilling his dream of opening a high-performance driving school.
Originally opened in 1967 at the now-defunct Orange County International Raceway in Southern California, Bondurant's school has changed locations a few times, ultimately ending up at the Firebird Raceway racing complex just outside Phoenix. The current facility boasts numerous training tracks, including a complete, multi-option racetrack specifically built and solely used by Bondurant for high-performance driver training.
Of course, the training is only as good as the courses, instructors and vehicles. Here, too, Bondurant delivers on the goods, offering everything from one-day Highway Survival courses to advanced four-day Grand Prix road racing classes, executive protection training and specialized coaching. In total, there are more than 11 different training courses, with a multitude of combinations available. The instructors are equally qualified, with many of today's professional racecar drivers coming from the Bondurant instructor ranks.
Of course, excellent instructors can maximize their instruction with the use of top-notch vehicles, and Bondurant doesn't disappoint. Sponsored by General Motors, Goodyear, Dupont Automotive, Performance Friction and others, Bondurant has a fleet of more than 200 Chevrolet Corvettes, Pontiac Solstices and Cadillac CTSs for instruction. Chevrolet Tahoes and Crown Victorias are used for executive protection training, while open-wheel formula cars are also used for the four-day Grand Prix Course. The Corvettes range from base models to the fire-breathing 505 hp Z06, while the CTS is used in base and CTS-V trim. More on that later, but what matters is that every vehicle at Bondurant is pristine, new and equipped to take full advantage of the training experience.
So, given the availability of Bondurant's facility, instructors, vehicles and courses, what can officers learn there that will help them survive their daily shift?
The 3-Day High Performance Driving Course
Think of this three-day training course as EVOC on some serious caffeine. There are elements of EVOC that will be familiar to officers, but elevated to a much higher level. Here is how the training days broke down.
The first day starts identically for most Bondurant enrollees, regardless of the training course selected. This is when introductions are performed and the school's Chief Driving Instructor, Mike McGovern, leads the class on a detailed tour of the Bondurant facilities. The tour is impressive, giving students a sense of the school's capability, the professional level at which it operates and the mind-boggling array of cool cars to drive. After the tour, students are broken up into smaller groups and assigned to specific instructors. Mine was seasoned road racer and veteran Bondurant instructor, William Hawkins. I was teamed up with two other students, both teenagers enrolled in the school's two-day Advanced Teen Driving program. The three of us worked with Hawkins on all of the basic exercises that all Bondurant students complete during the first two days. On the first day, this included time on a traction circle, multiple runs though a slalom course and extensive time in a SkidCar. For those who haven't experienced a SkidCar, it's probably the single most beneficial training tool available to teach car control.
After playing with understeer, oversteer and proper visual and steering inputs on the SkidCar, we moved onto the more familiar accident avoidance simulator, followed by ABS braking exercises and more slalom work. It's important to mention that during all of these exercises, I never had more than two other students in my group, and I always had my own personal car to drive.
And what a car it was. For those not familiar with Cadillac's CTS-V series, think of it as a four-door Corvette. Powered by a very healthy 400 hp V8 culled from the Corvette, the six-speed CTS-V screams to 60 mph in a scant 4.6 seconds. It also stops with the same voracity, equipped from the factory with massive Brembo brakes. The CTS-V's suspension is also appropriately enhanced, creating one of the best performing, most precise four-door sedans I have ever driven. Did I mention it's fast?
The CTS-V is one of the main reasons I chose the Bondurant HPD course for this article. If you think about it, the Crown Victoria, V6 Charger and Impala are all compromise vehicles, built by accountants with fleet pricing in mind. Add in the fact that the Crown Victoria's chassis is older than many of the officers who drive them, which makes for an imprecise experience that can mask input errors by the driver. That can translate to a more forgivable car, but how are drivers able to fine-tune their skills if their vehicle can't provide precise enough feedback?
Another advantage of the CTS-V is that it is fast enough around a racetrack that students can use the speed to learn the fine balances of proper braking and vision points. Yes, proper scanning is important at any speed, but time spent approaching corners at 100 mph is a valuable commodity that simply can't be reproduced in an anemic Crown Vic on the typically small EVOC course.
Finally, having a responsive, sensitive car to drive means that driver inputs are amplified. Drive the CTS-V smoothly, and it's a positively euphoric experience. Drive it roughly, and you'll find yourself flying around on the tail of the tiger. By contrast, you can do a lot of stupid things in a Crown Vic and get away with it, which is probably good for some drivers, but the point is to be the best driver you can be in any car, not just the ones that mask your deficiencies. In this light, the CTS-V makes for an ideal training tool, and a very satisfying one at that. In fact, during my three days at Bondurant, I flogged the hell out of this mostly-stock car, and it performed flawlessly. The only hiccup was self-induced, as numerous hot laps around a tight-handling oval in 107-degree heat caused the brake fluid to superheat and give up the ghost. No matter, the car was handed off to the shop for a fluid flush while I hopped into another CTS-V specifically parked there as a back-up another Bondurant advantage.
Day two began with more time on the cornering oval, practicing proper corner set-up, apexing and trail braking techniques. This is one area where EVOC instruction can differ from performance driving theory. Because most EVOC training concentrates on ensuring that cops don't end up on someone's front lawn during a Code 3 response, training regimens are concentrated on the "70th percentile." For braking, this usually means teaching cadets to scrub off 80 to 90 percent of their braking in a straight line, releasing the brake and turning into the corner. By contrast, trail braking is a method in which much more braking is carried into the first part of the corner, with brake pressure gradually released towards the middle of the corner in proportion to steering wheel angle. This process allows weight created by braking force to remain over the front tires, thereby maintaining a consistent and maximized tire contact patch to make the most of steering traction and corner transition. This method is much faster and more stable than the traditional EVOC method because it doesn't disrupt the steady application of weight transfer over the front tires to assist in steering. However, many EVOC instructors are loath to teach it because the thought of an officer carrying any sort of speed into a corner while underbraking makes for a Pepto-Bismol moment. Consequently, many EVOC programs refuse to teach trail braking. As one who has spent 20 years doing trail braking and 17 years teaching EVOC, I can tell you that trail braking is better, but that's my personal opinion. For those who attend Bondurant, I think you will see the same thing.
On the third and final day, the two teens in my class were gone, and a student enrolled in an Executive Protection class joined me. After a quick debrief from Hawkins, we headed back out for more SkidCar training. We warmed up for a few laps, then moved back over to the autocross course for some more tune-up laps. Finally, we hopped over to the big track, and it's here that everything came together, with high-speed corners, trail braking, lighting-fast downshifts, proper positioning, proper vision and smooth throttle application making for several hours of intense driving fun. I am paired up only with Hawkins, who leads me around on a lead/follow in his own CTS. After several laps, we're moving with some serious velocity, especially in a car equipped with leather seats, AC, sunroof, XM and a trunk. It's on the bigger track that the skills taught at Bondurant really shine. Yes, they still concentrate on the basics, but add in a purpose-built facility, extensive seat time, a fantastic vehicle and top-notch personalized instruction, and learning curves skyrocket. In fact, while watching other students during my three days, I was amazed at how much everyone improved and how good they became in a short amount of time.
Hawkins led me around for a few more laps before turning me loose on my own. Now, one would think that being given the green light to rip around a racetrack for as long as you want would mean never, ever coming in for break, but that's simply not the case. Having been in racing for many years, I learned early on that driving at high speeds requires intense concentration, which translates to a toll on your body. Mental focus is at a premium, and that's even truer when negotiating a racetrack filled with numerous tight corners, high g-forces and 100 mph straights followed by extreme braking in concert with downshifting two gears. So, because driving is more a mental process than a physical one, I took breaks every 10 laps or so to assess my experience and mental focus and to grab some water. It left me plenty of time to drive, and actually added to my experience.
When the final flag fell, we all headed into the pits, and I parked my CTS-V in line, regretfully, at the mechanics shop. There, the staff check over the vehicles with a fine-tooth comb and ready them for the next class. I found it tough to walk away from such a nice car, but knowing that it provides for an excellent teaching platform means that future students will have as much fun as I did.
We all convened in one of the classrooms, where certificates were distributed, handshakes were exchanged and photos were taken. When asked what we learned most, I candidly admitted that driving skills are perishable, and that I was rusty coming into the school. There's no substitute for seat time in the proper environment.
The three-day HPD course costs approximately $3,275. Add $150 per day for the school's damage waiver that limits your liability to $3,500 if you happen to rearrange a CTS-V, and you're looking at about $3,500 for the whole enchilada. At first glance, that may seem steep, but as Hawkins puts it, it would cost a lot more to rent a racetrack, a quality racecar, an instructor and the support staff to accomplish the same thing. That doesn't even take into account the many different cars Bondurant has to drive and the multiple spares on reserve. As Hawkins points out, Bondurant can offer these courses at reasonable prices because of great sponsorship relationships with General Motors and Goodyear.
In terms of why a course like the HPD would be beneficial to an officer who has completed EVOC, I can offer these insights. You get a facility specifically built and operated for high-performance driving; you are taught by a highly experienced racer/instructor who does this five days a week; you get a tremendous amount of seat time in a SkidCar and your very own personal, street-based race car for learning and practicing under the watchful eyes of a trained instructor, which is something simply not possible in an EVOC class: you get training in brand-new vehicles, with state-of-the-art performance and capabilities, in which you can fine-tune your skills with a car that will work with you, not against you; and finally, it's cheap when you consider that driving is the mainstay of your law enforcement career, and that possessing performance driving skills will go far in keeping you alive, both on-duty and off.
I asked Bob himself what's the best thing officers can practice to keep themselves safer on the road. Without hesitation, he told me, "Practicing good vision." I knew he was talking about the importance of looking far ahead to assess information, but my personal take on his comment is that officers should have the vision to see the value in the driver training that they can receive through additional education. In this case, it's made possible by Bob Bondurant's realization of his own vision of providing an exceptional performance driving school. Many thanks go to Bob Bondurant, Anna Hackett, Todd Crutcher, William Hawkins and the rest of the Bondurant crew for the opportunity to experience driver training the Bondurant way.
Contact the Bob Bondurant School