In 1980 I was the on-site manager, in San Francisco and Hayward, CA, for a supplier who had won a contract with the Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) system. It was a high-stress endeavor, so at the end of the contract, I rewarded myself with a four day course at the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving at Sears Point (now Sonoma) Raceway in Sonoma, California, just over the Golden Gate in California wine country.
Bob Bondurant began our instruction by running us around the track in a 15 passenger Ford van, tires howling the whole time. Talk about “scared straight”!
Bondurant mentioned that we would be sharing the track with some NASCAR drivers-Kyle Petty and Ricky Rudd. He told us that in no way were we to RACE them, but to let them pass when then came up behind us. He counseled us that although NASCAR drivers mainly turned left, they had something that none of us had, and that was seat time.
On day two, before I had mastered (hah!) trail braking, I noticed that Kyle Petty was coming up fast from the rear. I vowed that Petty would not pass me. He passed me. I then became determined to stick to his tail. I then watched as his car became smaller and smaller.
On day one we began driving rear wheel drive Datsun 810s. Not very exciting but instructive. Not hard to get into trouble with these things. Day two we began driving Datsun 280Zs. 280s were fuel injected so they dispensed with the crappy throttle linkage on the 240s and 260s which had a lot of stiction. The 280s were redlined at 5500 rpm, but above 5000 they pretty much just made noise. They were just torquers. The Zs had 4-speeds, and once up and running, we used only 2nd and 3rd gears. The engines were unmodified but the suspensions had been beefed up a bit. The cars strongly understeered, so trying to horse-f**k these things around the track just didn’t work. Only when I began to understand and apply the Bondurant technique did these things become fun to drive.
After the second day we switched to driving Formula Fords. My Ford had big problems going from 2nd to 3rd and the other way around. That really screwed up my rhythm. Plus I think that the front shocks were dead as under heavy braking the front tires basketballed to the point where braking was ineffective. So I much preferred driving the 280Zs. I was faster in my 280 than one of my classmates in a Ford. We weren’t allowed to pass without the lead car waving us by so I just had to sit back and follow this dude. Frustrating.
My instructor was Dominic Dobson, a future CART (Champ Car) driver for the Pac West team. On day three, I brought my 280Z in and complained that the car was undriveable-too loose. Dobson hopped in and we approached Turn Two faster than I had ever attempted. I thought I was dead, and sure enough, the rear end came around big time. But Dobson, with some deft steering and throttle control, kept us on the track. His laconic comment was that yeah, the car was loose. He then taught me how to drive it that way. That was the turning point. Driving the 280Z became fun after that.
I wouldn’t say we “bonded”, but my classmates and I did have a feeling of a shared experience. I don’t remember any of their names but I do remember some particulars. The guy on the left was from Louisville (Loovull), KY, owned a ‘57 Mercury Indy Pace Car, and restored Model As, or in his words, A Models (took me awhile to figure that one out-I’m not that bright); the next guy was from Calgary, Alberta, drove a big Mercedes, and obviously had oil money, he lived in LA; the tallest of the group was a nice guy from Vancouver, BC, and drove a second gen Chevy Monte Carlo; I’m the next guy in line just dying to light up; and the guy on the right is our instructor, Dominic Dobson.
The Formula Fords that we drove were 1600 cc Crosslé units built in Holywood, Northern Ireland. They were the polar opposite of the 280 Zs-super responsive steering and very light. They demanded very smooth treatment, and would switch ends in a heartbeat if you were so injudicious to lift in the middle of a corner. Ask me.
The Fords didn’t feel fast in the sense of having tremendous acceleration, but that was very misleading. They would run away and hide from the Zs.
These days Turn 6 is not used in the NASCAR race, which is too bad since it demands a bit of finesse. Following Turn 5 is a long downhill section, then a quick rise which crests just as you begin to enter Turn 6. This photo gives a pretty good indication of how sharp the crest is. If you don’t lightly hit the brakes and ride them through the crest, the suspension will unload, you will lose steering input, and you will end up right about where my wife was when she took this picture. Back when NASCAR ran Turns 5 and 6, it was not uncommon to see a car stuffed into the embankment on the outside of 6. Physics is physics. Before you can race your competitors, you gotta race the track.
So what did I learn at Bondurant?
1. Car control
2. Application of the cardinal rule-smoothness
3. That exploring a car’s limits is best done on a racetrack without oak trees or other large, immovable objects that tend to compact your ride should you run out of room, or talent, or both
4. That I am not a race car driver
I think it was Sam Moses, an auto racing contributor to Sports Illustrated, who said that one attribute a good race car driver needed was a complete lack of imagination. Otherwise, who would ever do this stuff if they thought about it?
The head mechanic for the Formula Fords was a woman that hated the Zs, but nonetheless couldn’t get my Ford’s problems resolved. So, on our last day, I chose to go back to driving a 280 Z. Didn’t have the performance of a Ford, but I was comfortable exploring the outer limits with it.
As we were changing back into our street clothes in the locker room at the end of the day, Kyle Petty asked me what it was like to drive a Ford? None of the pros were allowed to drive anything but the Zs. I was knocked out. Here’s a pro asking ME what it’s like to drive a Formula Ford. I think I said something like, “totally orgasmic, dude”. I was lying through my teeth. My Bell Star still has the roll bar rash that it picked up that week. I never got comfortable in the Fords.
Let me add one item to the things I learned list. I learned that it was a lot cheaper to go to race car driving school than to actually prepare and race a car. And a lot more fun.
The majority of the photos in this article were shot by my wife, Sue (Suzie) Martin.