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.
Randy Wilson's view: An unforgettable experience
The experience at Bondurant was truly amazing! I never could imagine that i would learn so much in only 3 short days. From the moment we arrived it was so exciting, from entering the complex and seeing all of the different types of vehicles there were, then touring the complex and seeing the service garage, and finally the karting area (which I can't wait to go back and experience!)
The first time around the track was simply breathtaking! Especially since it was in a 14-passenger van at speed....LOL. That made me realize that there was a lot more to driving around a track than I was remotely aware of!
We then separated into our groups and headed to the classroom. This is where we met the famous Mr. Johnny O'Connell… what a great, knowledgeable, and funny guy. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to go through this coarse under his expertise guidance.
He is also a very good instructor as well as a great driver. He taught us that everything in the racer's world all revolves around weight transfer. I had always understood the concept, but never actually applied it in driving. Here all along I had thought I was this awesome driver, and that this course would be a piece of cake. I was wrong. My racing career has only involved going in a straight line, because I I am a NHRA drag racer. My dad and I have a '72 Nova that we take bracket racing on the weekends. It has a 548-inch BBC pushing around 900 ponies. I am no stranger to acceleration, so I figured how hard would it be to go around a track with a few turns….
We started out in the Grand Sport 'Vette which is no slouch of a car! We did some slalom, acceleration and braking tests, and then on to some smaller oval time. The progression of exercises were perfect. The instructors knew exactly what exercises we needed to do and in what order to prepare us for the faster and more powerful Z06.
Whoa…don't let me forget about the skid cars! These things are a riot! What an amazing tool to teach under steer and over steer. The Cadillacs we were in had hydraulic outriggers that the instructor could raise the front or rear of the car, causing the car to oversteer or understeer, which allowed us to learn how to correct the steering in order to maintain control of the car. The back seat is not for the weak-stomached.
The second day was even better! We hopped in the Z06 corvettes and headed out to the paddock to learn the fundamentals of the oval – breaking points, turning points, apex, and exit points. These areas were marked on the track by cones, which made it fairly easy to learn.
Once Johnny thought we were good enough to pay attention to the cones and maneuver around the track in a safe manner, he threw us for a loop and took the cones away! This opened up a whole new aspect. We actually had to think about things a lot more. We had to visualize the apex; it made us understand the areas of the track where we had to do the work, like braking, turning, and accelerating. What a great way to get that through our heads!
After that it was time for some autocross – very exciting! It looks so simple, yet it is oh-so challenging! To know precisely when to brake, turn and exit is more than just a guessing game, it is a skill!
The instructors gave us a few practice runs and then came the stopwatch. It was amazing to see how my times improved almost every lap. The instructors would be timing us and watching our whole run, so after each lap, they could give us pointers to help us out on the next run. Over the two days I went through the autocross track I had pick up over two seconds!
Being a drag racer, I just wanted to get out there and go as fast as I possibly could. Johnny O was quick to point out that is not how you win races. He taught me that it was all about the smoothness and consistency. I was out there trying to keep my foot in the throttle and not touch the brake! All kidding aside, when I actually settled down, paid attention to what was being said and focused, my lap times started getting faster and faster.
The third day was the best and the worst at the same time. The worst was because I knew it was the last. I was having the time of my life with good people, with great attitude and a good environment. I knew after today it was back to the daily grind.
I tried to forget about that and focus on the task at hand: It was time to do some full road course laps at speed!
The best part was Johnny O hopping in the driver's seat of the Z06 and taking me for a hot lap around the track a few times. Holy cow, what an amazing experience that was, one that I will never forget! He taught us more tricks about taking the turns and also taught us how to properly use the heel-and-toe downshifting technique.
Then it was my turn to take the Z06 out on the track. This was some of the best times I had ever had in a car – to be able to put these machines through the paces in a safe and controlled environment is just awesome!
At the end of the day Johnny gave us a nice little surprise. We walked around the corner to get back into our Z06s and there were some shiny new ZR1s in their spot. He said, “Hop in and lets do some lead-follow around the track.” That was music to our ears! We were comfortable in the Z06s so this wasn't as intimidating as it would have been on the first day. The power of the ZR1 is truly remarkable! Not to mention the handling around the corners. Truly a great piece of engineering from GM!
The Bondurant School of High Performance Driving was truly one of the best experiences I have ever had. I learned thing I can take with me to any track, and learned so much about simple everyday driving. This was a venture that I will never ever forget! Thanks to Bob Bondurant for creating such an amazing school and experience!
Full disclosure: Randy Wilson and Richard James were given a full scholarship to the Johnny O'Connell Premiere Three-Day High Performance Driving Course at the Bondurant School in order to complete this feature, including hotel and travel expenses.