Even an old dad can learn new tricks at a Grand Prix driving school.
CHANDLER, Ariz.—It all started with the bus. My father and I were sitting on a nondescript 15-seater that could have been used to pick up school kids. And we were about to get taken to school. "Come on, you guys, Corey's gonna take you around the track in the bus," said our head instructor, Mike McGovern.
Corey was Corey Hosford, a gifted driving instructor. The track was the road course at the Bob Bondurant School of High-Performance Driving. I was here for a two-day session of Grand Prix driving school with my father, Otto, as a birthday present and a belated thank-you for making me a better driver 20 years ago in a red Volkswagen GTI.
My father has always been the best driver I have ever known. He was the first one to teach me the principles of looking ahead. He taught me the fun of driving a manual transmission and the concept behind up-shifting and down-shifting. And he showed me how to have a lot of fun, whether it was driving go-karts or enjoying the handling on a perfectly tuned German performance car. He has always believed driving was not just an exercise in finding Point B from Point A. It's no small coincidence that I spend my days writing about driving and automobiles.
Everyone thinks they know how to drive, my father always says. He and I thought so, too. But two days at driving school would make us both even better. And that's where the bus comes in. "All right, y'all," he warned, "hang on now." Corey slammed the gas pedal, jerked the wheel, slammed the pedal some more, hit the corners, exited the corners, and floored it on the straightaway. In less than five minutes, he left us all in awe, if not a bit green. He had turned a basic—and clunky—form of transportation into a race car. And how? "Because he just knew how to drive well," my father said. "Anyone can do what he just showed us."
Over two days, we would learn how to drive race cars, street cars, cars in simulated snow and rain conditions, and cars that need to avoid collisions. We learned how to brake correctly, how to accelerate out of a problem, and how to do the opposite of what you might think is right. For my father and me, it was instant competition again, a reminder of the times when we would go-kart when I was a kid or see who could get home from the same location quicker. Legally, of course.
We were put into small groups and got started in a white Cadillac CTS on the skid pad: a long piece of black asphalt where Bondurant does most of its limited, low-speed tests. Our instructor Kevin Krauss showed us the first rule that would come in handy later in the Formula Ford, open-wheel race cars that we would later take to the track. Krauss had me follow the outline of a small, white circle that had been painted on the parking lot, gradually increasing my speed. As we got faster, the CTS moved farther and farther away from the center as the energy of the vehicle and the pressure on the tires forced it outward. At maximum speed, Krauss asked me to suddenly take my foot off the gas. Presto. Off the gas, the vehicle's weight shifted, and the car immediately dove back to the center by itself.
By taking my foot off the gas, I could see how fast the weight shifted. Good driving is all about knowing where the inertia of the car is. Hit the brake, it all shifts to the front wheels. Hit the gas, it goes to the back. Understanding inertia can help you avoid other drivers in sudden stops. My dad did an even better job at holding the car on the circle. "Taught the kid something, didn't you, Otto?" Krauss joked. Our mutual experience blossomed from there.
We learned about proper vision and racing lines, accident avoidance, and acceleration techniques in our own Corvette on a race track. We started in our bright yellow Corvettes by driving in straight lines for half a mile, then making sharp U-turns, followed by another half-mile of acceleration. We saw the benefit of braking in a straight line, upshifting, downshifting and learning the practice of heel-toe driving (braking with your right heel while accelerating with your toe to keep the engine speed high). And we learned how to drive fast: in and out of turns, down straightaways. All the while, I chased my father around the course, trying to outdrive him.
We learned that looking 50 feet ahead of your own car can help you anticipate and allow you to better steer away from crashes that happen in front of you. We learned how to really use the car's ABS brakes (that vibrating feeling you get when you depress the brake pedal hard). The instructors had us race to 100 mph, then slam the brakes while turning the wheel. They showed us that the Corvette (and any supercar of this class) was capable of being driven around objects while stopping on a dime.
At the end, we put on red racing suits and helmets and were allowed in the open-wheel race cars for about 30 minutes. We both applied all of the principles we learned to that point, including that first lesson on the skid pad. Now when we approached a turn too quickly, we both realized that if we immediately got off the gas pedal, the race car would hug the corner. We got faster and faster. Again, chasing each other out there under the desert sun along with the rest of our group. No one won, but the experience was exhilarating. We were Grand Prix drivers, if only for a brief moment. Talk about perfecting the journey.
Jason Stein is an automotive writer based in Munich, Germany.