The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Behind the Scenes at Bondurant Racing School

Photos by Steven Kuo and Patrick McCarthy

There’s a pattern we see all too often in the world of firearms and preparedness. People often think that just buying top-dollar gear automatically gives them an expert skill level. Why is it that so many look at consistent, qualified training to actually use that gear as something that should only occur at the obligatory level? Isn’t that kind of like the band that uses live performances to double as rehearsals? Too many out there believe that “stuff” will somehow compensate for (or improve) a lack of training. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nowhere is the microcosm of needing the software to run the hardware truer than in the automotive world. Just because someone can afford a new Ferrari doesn’t mean that they were magically blessed with Andretti-level driving skills. A quick YouTube search of “supercar fails” will quickly put that notion to rest. But whether you can afford a high-performance car or not, it’s easy to assume that once you’ve received your driver’s license that your learning curve and need for additional training has somehow plateaued. Think again.

Recently the RECOIL and RECOIL OFFGRID teams were invited to participate in Bondurant Racing School’s Executive Protection Driving Program. Driving is something we do every day, but grossly underestimate how often we succumb to “highway hypnosis” and assume we’ll be able to successfully navigate a split-second change in road conditions. Trust us, it’s a hell of a lot harder than it looks and having a misguided belief that your skill level needs no additional improvement could get you injured or worse.

You can check out some of the skills we learned by going to our sister publication RECOIL OFFGRID. To get a greater appreciation for why Bondurant is so much more than an excuse to burn rubber we thought we’d pick the brain of Jason Bondurant, VP of Bondurant Racing School and son of the legendary Bob Bondurant, who founded the school. Here we delve into the family’s impetus for opening the school and the skills one can expect to learn. You can’t walk away from enrolling in their courses without looking at driving with a great deal more respect than you ever had before.

RECOIL: How did the school first come about?

Jason Bondurant: It started with my dad [Bob]. He has a long history of racing and trained actors like Paul Newman and James Garner in movies like Grand Prix and Winning. He had a horrible accident in 1967 at Watkins Glen in a BRM open wheel, and that basically sent him to the hospital with shattered ankles; he injured his spine and ribs. Basically, from the knees down he was just shattered. The doctor told him his odds of walking again were pretty nonexistent, and he just couldn’t believe that. I’m sure his whole career flashed before his eyes.

The man, the myth, the legend Bob Bondurant with wife Pat.

The man, the myth, the legend Bob Bondurant with wife Pat.

He sat there and wondered what else he could possibly do, so he asked for a notepad and started designing the school. He reflected back on how much fun he had training the actors for the movies and just wanted to relay his craft and passion for anyone who could get behind a wheel, so in 1968 that’s where the Bondurant Racing School was born at the Orange County International Raceway. We then moved to the Ontario Motor Speedway and now we’re celebrating our 50th anniversary.

When did the school move to Arizona?

JB: We moved here in 1990.

Tell me about the various curriculums you offer?

JB: We offer quite a variety. We have the Executive Protection Program that you enrolled in. That’s where we train law enforcement, highway patrol, military, security drivers, Secret Service, and all that. The real core of our business, though, is high-performance driving. That’s where we have team classes. We give the students training in skid cars, training for accident avoidance, emergency braking, and go out on the track and do the lead and follows with the instructors, as well as slalom courses.

Learning to perform PIT maneuvers

Learning to perform PIT maneuvers

One of our most important training tools is our skid car because that’s how we simulate a car getting out of control. So folks who deal with a lot of ice, snow, and slippery roads, it’s the best way to practice and maintain control of your car to prevent an accident. We have one-day and three-day high-performance driving classes, and then a four-day grand prix road-racing course and that gives students the ability to apply for their SCCA race license. That course is geared toward the racecar driver, the up-and-coming race car driver, and obviously that has to be done before you’re able to move into our advanced road racing classes.

Is there sort of an overarching focus for all your courses you want graduates to walk away with?

JB: It’s what my dad’s whole focus to start this school was all about. It’s basic car control and the safety side of everything. He really prides himself on how many lives he’s probably saved or accidents prevented. We teach you things like vision, looking where you want the car to go, and what weight distribution really means in a car. When you’re feeling the back end getting lighter and that front end getting heavier, that’s telling you when you turn that wheel you’ll have more contact patch on the pavement for that car to go where you want it to go.

Racing in these open-wheel Mazdas is offered as part of Bondurant's four-day course.

Racing in these open-wheel Mazdas is offered as part of Bondurant’s four-day course.

Then of course, since our heritage is racing, it’s also knowing where to brake, what an apex is, what negative and positive cambers mean, what different race flags symbolize, and fundamentals specific to racing. That’s why when we simulate our races, it’s really the only controlled environment before these guys go on NASA or SCCA weekend events. We want them to get what it’s really like in those real-world situations, instead of showing up and you’ve got these other guys who’ve been doing it for years and you look like the jackass and walk away embarrassed. A lot of people like coming here for that practice so when they go out on the weekend, even if it’s their first event, they’re somewhat warmed up to it and know what they’re getting into.

How do you think Bondurant differs from other racing schools?

JB: We do a 3-to-1 student-to-instructor ratio because we’re all about quality, not quantity. You get 10 times the level of training for the price here than you would anywhere else. That student-to-instructor ratio is really what makes the difference. Instead of other schools where the ratio of student to instructor is much higher, you end up being the one lacking the understanding of what the instructor is trying to tell you and maybe feel like you’re questions are getting lost or you’re being ignored because the teacher is struggling with another student.

Classroom instruction gives the students exposure to the why before they get a chance to experience the how of high-performance driving skills.

Classroom instruction gives the students exposure to the why before they get a chance to experience the how of high-performance driving skills.

Here everyone walks away feeling like they got extra time and our instructors ride right seat, which is unlike any other school. In my opinion, our instructors are the best. They come from a professional background and all of them come from some form of racing, whether it’s dirt or street. For them to get in the seat next to someone they’ve only known a few days and teach them in a way that’ll resonate, that takes a special soul.

Who are some of your more well-known graduates?

JB: Paul Newman is definitely a big one. We work with a lot of the professional race car drivers from Jeff Gordon to Jimmy Johnson to actors like Tom Cruise for Days of Thunder. Chase Elliott has also been here. We’re definitely the go-to in the industry because we run the IMSA programs; my guys are the safety cars, the pace cars, they run the Hot Lap program. This is the Porsches, the Mazdas, the Lexus, and so on. These are the guys who want the Bondurant guys driving their car because they know it’ll come back in one piece and the folks that are taking that ride are going to get the same experience they would sitting next to a professional racecar driver. Our reputation is as strong as I could ask for. As far as competition, we’ve been in this 50 years. We’re family owned and will continue to be. I’m not sure if there’s anyone else out there who could come close to that.

Instructor Austin Robison has a racing background and has trained some big names in the industry. He also makes Ray-Ban Wayfarers look better than anyone else we've seen.

Instructor Austin Robison has a racing background and has trained some big names in the industry. He also makes Ray-Ban Wayfarers look better than anyone else we’ve seen.

What do you think some of the biggest misconceptions are that people have about performance driving?

JB: I believe what happens is that a lot of people think that they’re coming out to get into a NASCAR type of overly modified car and they’ll be in an F1-style open wheel by the end of the week. Another thing is that some people think you can only attend if you’re interested in becoming a racecar driver. That’s not the case. We have production cars for our students and we really don’t modify anything other than putting on race brakes since our temperatures here are extreme, but everything else is essentially stock besides our safety harnesses and harness bars. What we’re trying to do is get people to understand that it’s not the vehicle, it’s the driver.

People think that if they drive to work every single day and they go on and off ramps at 60 mph that they’re pretty good and don’t need more training. But these are the same people that if I put them in a Hellcat and my dad in a Smartcar they’d be surprised that he’d be lapping them because it’s really about the driver and the technique. When someone owns a Miata or a Ferrari, they need to get the most out of their car from themselves. It doesn’t matter what exhaust you put on or how many turbo whistles that you have. If you’re not a good driver and don’t understand how to drive the vehicle you purchased, you’re not getting anything out of the vehicle that you bought.

The skid car with hydraulic outriggers simulates extreme oversteer and understeer so people can get the empirical knowledge of high speed handling and how to combine eyesight and the tactile sense of racing and accident avoidance.

The skid car with hydraulic outriggers simulates extreme oversteer and understeer so people can get the empirical knowledge of high-speed handling and how to combine eyesight and the tactile sense of racing and accident avoidance.

What are some of the takeaways you hear from people after they graduate?

JB: The beautiful thing is that after the final day of instruction, they always come up, shake our hands, and go, “My gosh, I thought I knew it all, but I really know nothing.” What I hear most from everyone is also what they learn about vision and how to feel the car. When you really get in tune with your vehicle, no matter whether it’s a sedan or a minivan, you can start to feel if the left rear tire is low on air or if a rotor needs to be replaced. You start to feel the car in places you never really felt it before. People tend to only hear the wind noise or radio, but never really listen for what the engine sounds like or if you’re shifting at the right rpm. That all changes with the experience we provide.

I think a lot of students also leave with the knowledge of how to get themselves out of a bad situation. Take for example the oversteer or understeer of a car. It’s not till after an accident that you’re able to understand what that feels like. Coming here and being in a simulation of that situation allows you to leave with more confidence and know you’ll be able to get yourself out of a situation like that if it ever happens. The cars are the tools we use. Our instructors, our shop personnel, our executive staff, and everyone else is the pit crew. When you come to Bondurant, you’re coming for the knowledge and the experience, and the Bondurant method, which will last forever. Even when there’s flying cars maybe one day, we’ll still be a place for people who want to be the driver of their own race craft.

Student cars are Dodge Challengers with very few modifications so people have a sense of how to control an off-the-lot type of performance vehicle.

Student cars are Dodge Challengers with very few modifications so people have a sense of how to control an off-the-lot type of performance vehicle.

What are Bondurant’s plans for the future?

JB: We have our race series that we started a couple years ago with the Masters, so that’s 35 years and older. They get to go through a full season, participate in different races with practices, and go up on a podium for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd trophies. We’re also starting the Young Guns program, which is 15 years old to 24, and this allows entrants to compete through an entire season, but the winner will have a chance to get a seat to the Road to Indy, which is a $200,000 scholarship. Any person who wants to become a racecar driver, this is a great grass-roots ladder system to get them into a position to see if they have what it takes and get in front of the big boys to do it.

All of our old open-wheel cars that you saw will be leaving us in the next few months and we’re having a whole new fleet of open wheels come in. These newer ones will accommodate a larger student, have a fuel-injected Mazda engine instead of the rotary one, look more like an Indy car, and will have paddle shifters so they’re more current with today’s technology.

How to maintain control during changes in road conditions is part of the executive protection curriculum.

How to maintain control during changes in road conditions is part of the executive protection curriculum.

Any advice for the budding racecar drivers out there about how to get started?

JB: If you talk to a lot of our instructors, most of which have been in the racing world a long time, they all had to start somewhere. None of them really had a racing family that was able to provide any financial support, but what these guys did was no different than what students who come in for their SCCA license do. Whether you have a team Miata or a little Honda Civic, go out to those weekend races and SCCA events. The more experience, the more practice the better.

You also have to understand how to market yourself and be your own brand. When they go on Twitter and Facebook, they have to understand that a sponsor or team is going to be looking at that. If they’re persistent enough to test a car with a team, they have to be able to convince the team and sponsors that when they’re in front of a camera that they’ll be as professional as expected and carry on the brand of themselves and who they’re representing. Whether you’re in the Olympics or any other sport, all it takes is one bad move and your reputation can tank pretty quick.

We were happy to graduate and have the certificate to prove it although we were humbled to find out how much we really didn't know about performance driving.

We were happy to graduate and get the certificate to prove it, although we were humbled to find out how much we really didn’t know about performance driving.

Would you say there’s crossover between something like what it takes to be a successful MMA fighter and a successful racecar driver?

JB: Absolutely, look at Lewis Hamilton. He’s had some controversial topics out there. He’s flashy and flamboyant, but I’ll be damned if you don’t go to any of his social media and charity sites and see that, yes he has an opinion, but he keeps it professional and classy and that attracts the fans, which is the whole goal of the sponsor. Another example is Jimmy Johnson and Lowes. Whether it’s a Conor McGregor or a Michael Phelps, it’s all about sticking to your own brand, doing your own thing, being respectful, and knowing that every move you make you may have to answer for one day.

If there were three racecar drivers you could have lunch with, living or dead, who would they be?

JB: Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, and Ayrton Senna. Senna is without a doubt the one guy I wish was still here. He was a very special soul in the racing world.

Bondurant Racing School

www.bondurant.com

The Recoil and Recoil Offgrid class seen here with a few other attendees as well as some of the instructors and Mr. and Mrs. Bondurant.

The Recoil and Recoil Offgrid class seen here with a few other attendees as well as some of the instructors and Mr. and Mrs. Bondurant.

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