Racing schools abound. Nearly every track in the U.S. and Canada offers some kind of performance driving school or courses designed to get you a racing license. But if you want one of the most successful – and still active – American sports car racers sitting next to you offering his opinion on what you're doing right, what you're doing wrong and how to go faster, your options are limited.
In his years as a factory driver for Nissan, Panoz and now GM, Johnny O'Connell has done more than most. He counts four class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, eight class wins in the 12 Hours of Sebring, three championships in ALMS GT1 and, most recently, the Pirelli World Challenge GT Championship in the Cadillac CTS-V. Now he's added vice president of global operations at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving to his résumé.
As part of that, he's teaching his own course, Johnny O'Connell's Premiere Performance Driving Course. He's not new to teaching, having taught at two other schools early in his career, around the time he was winning the Formula Atlantic-Pacific division championship, before settling at Bondurant in 1988. However, O'Connell's still a busy guy, between racing and television commitments…it seems like he might be spreading himself thin with another project.
“Bob [Bondurant] is 79 years old, and he comes out to this school and gets in a Corvette every day and he goes for it. He loves driving,” says O'Connell, explaining his motivation. “Ages ago, when I worked for Bob, I let him know, if ever there was a time you could see working me into the company, I believe in what you do. I love teaching. I love motorsports. Then they came to me last year.
“I have something special that I've spent a lifetime learning, and to share that with others is a pretty cool deal. I am here at this school again because of my relationship with Bob, and wanting to see his school carry on into the future. It's been here 44 years. I'd like to be one of the stewards of Bob's legacy.”
O'Connell's course is the first step. Limited to six students a few times a year, it's exclusive. It includes time in all three Corvette models present at the school – the Grand Sport, the more athletic Z06 and the tire-incinerating 638hp ZR1, plus one of the school's skid cars. Also included is a dinner with O'Connell; if a student is lucky, that may be joined by Bondurant COO and an accomplished racer in his own right, Darren Law.
While it maintains the Bondurant 3:1 student-to-instructor ratio, O'Connell's course is not a racing school. Bondurant offers the three- or four-day Grand Prix Road Racing course for that, which includes instruction on passing and race starts. Students will, however, cover every other aspect of driving while exploring the limits of traction as they progress from basic exercises to the autocross course to the small Maricopa oval and finishing on the Bondurant-designed road course at the school's facilities at Firebird Raceway in Chandler, Ariz.
RACER reader Randy Wilson was one of the first students to go through the course, along with your author. Wilson is a crane operator by day – he assisted in moving the Space Shuttle Endeavour to its new home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles recently – and a sportsman drag racer on the weekends, racing a '72 Nova with his father. He knows about going fast in a straight line, but many of the principles he of high performance driving were new to him.
“I thought I was a lot better driver than I was,” he says. “I thought I was going to know a lot more, but after the first day I realized I didn't know much about driving. For Johnny O'Connell to be teaching this class – for one thing, he's a legend – and to be showing us in a Corvette, which he knows his way around pretty well, it's amazing.
“The progression from day one to day three has been tremendous. Day one was slow; day two, picking up seconds here and there; and day three, just blowing it out of the water. I feel more confident.”
That is one of the basic goals of the course – confidence. It's a tool that applies not only to track driving, but driving on the road every day. Accident avoidance – “lift, turn, squeeze” – is one of the basic skills covered on the first day, along with skid control, smooth braking and more racing-oriented fare such as heel-and-toe downshifting.
“You get a guy who's an enthusiast, but who doesn't have skills, then you can start giving him skills,” explains O'Connell. “It's interesting, because the first day of school is always one of the worst driving days they've had in their life. They've built up tendencies. They don't know what the technique is, they've never thought about how the pedals steer the car, they've never thought about the geometry of a corner. To me, driving and racing is ninth-grade math, it's geometry. It's connect-the-dots. It's understanding that cars do things well in a straight line and learning how to make them do things well in a corner.
“Randy was awesome, because the joy and enthusiasm that that guy has for speed, he's still a kid. And that's the kind of guy that you can really mould and their enthusiasm is very contagious. When they start recognizing that, ‘Holy cow, I knew nothing!” then they start gaining their skills. There's a great deal of personal satisfaction because here was this guy who was soooo late on the brakes that the idea of hitting an apex was just never going to happen, to the last day nailing his apex and accelerating out of corners. I'll look in my rearview mirror and see a guy smiling. I know he feels better about his lap time, but also know that his confidence has tripled and, yes, he'll be better on a racetrack, but he'll also be better on the street.”
It would be easy to dismiss Johnny's course as too basic for many drivers, but O'Connell is a firm believer in the fundamentals. He'll tell you that if heel-and-toe is not like breathing to you, then perhaps a school is in order. And any school you go to will start with the basics. But there are things that even more advanced drivers can learn in a few days at school.
Having done a little racing myself – I have no claims to greatness, or even of being slightly above average – I know some things about high-performance driving. However, O'Connell was quick to point out several bad habits, including my tendencies to crab inside prior to corner entry, rest my foot over the clutch instead of the dead pedal and, yes, not being authoritative enough with the throttle blips on my heel-and-toe downshifts. He may not have completely broken me of those habits, but I think about them every time I step in the car, and that's a start.
The small class size allows the lessons to be tailored, so if driving needs to be refined in one case and completely rethought in another, the teaching can be adjusted accordingly. For Wilson, it required more of an alteration in mindset, but one that O'Connell and the other instructors were able to achieve.
“I was out there trying to go fast and I ended up going a lot slower,” he explains. “We talked about oversteer and understeer and how that slows the car down, Well, I was coming in too fast and you get all that understeer; I could feel the car scrubbing off speed. I knew it was slowing me down, but I wanted to get in there fast, and that's not how it works. You want to come in kind of fast, slow it down and then get out of there fast. Just by slowing the car down, you could get around the track a lot faster.”
Having a recognized master of the craft instructing you only makes it that much better, Wilson notes, pointing out how O'Connell had him looking for paint on the track and other markers to help him pick out lines. And, yes, it did ignite a passion for further exploration of the performance driving arts. He says he'll always be a drag racer, but he'd like to go back to Bondurant and experience the school's karts and Formula Mazdas.
For any driver, wannabe racer or otherwise, there is a place at school. Today's high-performance cars are very forgiving and modern accident avoidance technology is amazing, but that hasn't lessened the need for well-trained drivers. O'Connell repeats his boss's platitude that the capabilities most cars far outweigh the capabilities of most drivers, before adding: “We just try to even that up.
Next page: how Randy Wilson saw it.