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by Patrick Rall
For years, the SRT Experience has offered both SRT buyers and the general public a chance to drive high performance Mopars in a safe learning environment. With the move of the program to the Bondurant Racing School, students can learn to drive the most powerful Mopar muscle cars and supercars under the watchful eye of one of the most skilled American road racers.
Bob Bondurant doesn’t instruct the classes himself, but the legendary racing champion still spends long hours on the grounds, making sure that his legacy is being properly carried out by the team of highly skilled instructors. Instructors spend at least two years interning before they get to wear the red shirt of a Bondurant racing instructor, even after many of them have spent years racing in cars of their own. The result is a group of instructors who work together to not just help you have fun in these high performance Mopars, but they also want to make sure that you come away from the SRT Experience as a better driver in all situations — high performance or otherwise.
After spending some time in the Chandler, Arizona Bondurant Racing School classroom area, we headed out to the skid pad for some practice in handling a car under extreme oversteer and understeer conditions; before you can go out onto the 1.6 mile road course, you have to prove to your instructor that you know what to do in these conditions. Understeer is when you get into a turn too hard and the nose of the car wants to go to the outside; while oversteer is when you give a car too much gas in a turn, causing the tires to lose grip and the back end to kick out. You can certainly find oversteer when piloting the Dodge Viper TA2.0 or the Hellcat cars on the track, and if you get into many of the turns too hard, you will understeer towards the outside wall.
To make sure that you don’t hurt yourself, the car, or anyone else on the Bondurant test track, you must first hit the skid pad in a specially prepared Dodge Charger Scat Pack. The skid pad car has an extra set of wheels, attached to a hydraulic cradle; the instructor can raise or lower the front or rear end just enough to reduce the contact patch of the front or rear tires. Removing area under the front tires makes it harder to steer (understeer) while removing area under the rear tires makes it harder to get traction (oversteer).
As you drive around the track, the driver changes how the car handles each turn and, as the car reacts oddly, the student has to correct it. When this is being done incorrectly, the car will spin out or push past the cones and lines; when done correctly, the car will slide around a great deal – while always pointing in the right general direction.
This didn’t take me long, but the instructor said that some people who don’t have experience with high performance cars can spend up to 45 minutes going around the small track, chasing the back end. In some cases, even some of the journalists had a hard time keeping the car straight – as you can see in the video below.
After mastering the Charger Scat Pack skid pad car, it was onto the road course, where we were greeted by a fleet of Hellcat Challengers, Hellcat Chargers, and Viper TA2.0s. As luck would have it, my day began in the Viper, followed by stints in the Challenger with the manual transmission, the Charger, and more time in the Viper. There were three groups on the track, broken up by the type of car.
The Bondurant Track is 1.65 miles long in its full configuration, which is how we began our day. Unlike driving schools which have an instructor in the car, giving you hints, tips and orders from the passenger seat, the Bondurant program has an instructor in a lead car in front of a small group of student cars. This is the first time I’ve been to an instructional program without an in-car instructors, and it might be a little intimidating at first. We were given a schooling lap in a van with one of the instructors (after the classroom session) and we made one lap at lower speeds, but as soon as we crossed the start/finish line for the first time – it was time to put the hammer down.
The instructor leads the field and the idea is to try to keep up with him. As he picks up the pace, he pays close attention to how well the students keep up and the faster the students go, the faster he will go. More importantly, he makes sure that the students don’t do things like brake way too late and go careening into the tire barriers.
Now, some of you might be making a face at the idea of a lead and follow class, and I get that. I have been seen some lead and follow type events that were a total bore, more of a series of low speed parade laps than anything else. The Bondurant Racing School program is not like that.
In the SRT Experience, we were hitting over 110mph on the short front straightaway while cruising through the higher speed turns at anywhere from 60-80 mph. We were going fast enough through the turns to get the tires screaming for mercy and if you make a mistake, the instructor and the field will quickly pull away from you. Something as simple as spinning the tires coming out of a turn will allow the car in front of you to create a big gap and if you fall far enough behind, the lead car and the rest of the field will have to slow down to let you catch up. Unlike other lead and follow exercises, these instructors aren’t there to keep you from going too fast – they are there to keep you from going too fast for your skill level.
That brings me to one key note for those attending. Be honest with yourself and your instructor on how good you are behind the wheel of these high performance cars. We were running in groups of 3 or 4 vehicles (not counting the instructor) and when I was directly behind the instructor’s car, or when I was running with one or two other fast drivers, we would quickly create a gap between ourselves and the next group. However, in those sessions where I was behind a slower, less skilled driver, I found myself constantly on the brakes, babying the throttle as to not run over the guy. We were not permitted to pass, so a slower driver can have a big impact on a faster driver. Once I experienced one session behind a very slow driver, I made sure to get up with the instructor, where I could really push my skills to the limit as I tried to keep up with the pro.
During each session, we would run a handful of laps on the 15-turn course before heading onto pit road, where the instructor would offer pointers on what you could do better in order to improve your lap times. While on the track, the instructor offers the best line around the turns and you are left to execute those driving maneuvers as well as you can. This creates an incredibly empowering experience, as you are left to sort of learn for yourself after being given the information needed to improve your skills. You drive and learn, drive and learn – getting quicker each time if you follow the advice offered to you by the Bondurant instructors.
The autocross course helped us practice our handling skills in tight quarters on a slick surface. This time, our track car was an Challenger SRT 392 automatic. We made one lap as a group behind an instructor, but after that, it was every man and woman for themselves, with a practice lap and two timed laps. The course was a series of hard turns varying from opening hairpins to tight, decreasing radius circles with short straight between each of those tight turns.
My practice lap in the Challenger SRT 392 was a total mess, as I underestimated just how much the brawny muscle car would slide in and out of the slick turns. However, after performing what was more of a drifting exhibition, I came out for my timed runs ready to rock. The instructor told us that anything in the 24 second range was very good, with many drivers running in the 25-26 second range and some of the best times in the high 24s. On my first timed run, I laid down a respectable 24.58, putting me among the quickest in the field, but I did so with a bit too much speed going into the turns and a bit too much drifting come out of the turns.
On my second and final timed run, I got into and out of the first few hard turns very nicely, but coming out of the last turn and into the short sprint to the finish line, I spun the tires just a bit. The good news was that with a time of 24.12 seconds, I turned in the second best autocross time of the day. The bad news was that another writer from a major print publication ran a 24.11 – beating my time by just one hundredth of a second.
Finally, after my crushing defeat on the autocross course, we headed back to the road course for our last – and most exciting session – in the Hellcat cars and the Viper TA. This time, we were invited to pick whichever car we preferred. I opted for more Viper and Hellcat Challenger time and in these smaller groups, we were able to turn in harder laps on the big road course while also running more laps in each session. The instructors would give us pointers before and after each session.
The SRT Experience is free for anyone who buys or leases a new SRT product, but you can also purchase the SRT Experience for $699. The experience and the information is worth every cent; and for SRT buyers who can attend for free, this is something that you should most certainly not pass up.
This is a chance for everyone to drive the fastest sedan in the world, the most powerful muscle car in the world, and one of the most track-capable supercars in the world, all made by Dodge, in a safe environment under the watchful eye of skilled instructors. If you dream of driving any of all of these cars hard, Bondurant Racing School is the place to do it.
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