By Allyson Harwood
Motor Trend, December 2004
Photos by the author and Chris White; lead photo by Greg Fresquez
Bad guys have just kidnapped the governor's daughter and are speeding through winding city streets toward freedom. You run to your unmarked police car, slide across the hood, and throw yourself behind the wheel, bringing the 400-horsepower musclecar to life. It's time to do whatever it takes to catch up to the black SUV in your sights--including several smoky, yet nicely controlled, drifts around corners. Thanks to your capable driving, the girl's safe, the kidnappers are behind bars, and a sequel is surely in the works.
This is one of the cars students
normally learn to drift in--an
LS1-powered 2004 GTO.
Brian Eakins Photo
Few of us actually get to experience the high-speed car chases that are the things of police shows and action movies, but the Bondurant School of High-Performance Driving (located near Phoenix, Arizona) gives you the chance to learn how to drive like they do in the movies, and get these lessons from some of the best instructors in the world. Courses last anywhere from two and a half hours to four days, and the cost per course varies from $400 to $5645. While the school's courses include Advanced Teenage Driving, Highway Survival Training, Executive Protection/Anti-Kidnapping, and Grand Prix Road Racing, its newest is the one with the biggest buzz--Bondurant Drifting School.
During our training, the student to teacher ratio was 3 to 1.
Drifting has moved from being a visually effective technique used by stunt drivers to a sporting event that, when done right, can be downright graceful. The spectator sport began in the back roads of Japan and has exploded in the U.S., spawning regional and national competitions. Rhys Millen, who has competed in the SCCA Pro Rally Series, Pikes Peak, and more, has enjoyed tremendous success in drift competitions, with a modified GTO as his car of choice.
We've watched incredible examples of drifting, and jumped at the chance to attend Bondurant's school and learn how to do it ourselves. While our lesson plan was somewhat abbreviated, we did get to learn the ropes driving the 400-horse 2005 GTO. This isn't the model typically used (they usually employ the 2004 350-horse version), but Pontiac was kind enough to let us try the new Goat while getting a taste of what it takes to control a skid.
What is drifting? In essence, it's controlled oversteer. Here's how it works:
1) Create a skid
2) Control the skid
3) Win cash, prizes, and the adoration of millions of fans
It's not as easy as it sounds.
Our class began with a refresher course on driving dynamics. Instructors explained the proper ways to enter and leave a turn, why weight transfer is such an important thing to understand, and how to react if/when your car begins to skid. (See? Drifting's not just fun--there are actual benefits to learning about it.) We spent several hours observing and implementing these lessons on the Bondurant road course. We then moved to the drifting course.
The author, receiving a
last-minute pep talk.
Our amended school was split into three events: forward 180s on a wet course, drift corner, and going for a ride with Rhys in his drift car on the road course. Once you see him at work, it's no surprise he's one of the country's top competitors. Sure, his car's built for it, but put him behind the wheel of any car and he could make it dance.
We split into groups and rode with our instructor, three students per car, as he took us through the forward 180 course in the stock GTO, showing us how it was to be done. This course was where we learned the hand-brake turn, one of several ways to drift. Accelerate, pull the e-brake (being sure to hold in the button), and, after the rear wheels lock up, steer around the cones--being sure to put the e-brake down.
It took everyone a few tries...
Sounds simple, right? And, when the instructor does it, it looks and feels like it wouldn't be too hard. Once he took us around the figure-eight-shaped course, it was the students' turn. The course was wet down on one half, making it easier to get the rear end loose. When not driving, students were in the back seat--not always the best place to sit for this type of maneuver. After about 15 minutes, I got out of the car to "take some photos."
Once my stomach settled, it was time to take the new Goat for a spin. I listened to the instructor's directions, and, remembering what he'd done, accelerated, pulled the e-brake, and steered. Unfortunately, I hadn't even gone fast enough to lock the rear wheels. It must have looked like I wanted to drive somewhere and--wham--needed to stop in a hurry. There was no drifting. Just a start in a straight line and an abrupt stop. I found myself repeatedly saying, "Wait, wait. Let me try again," like someone trying to sound out "Pop Goes the Weasel" on the piano without sheet music. It took a few tries, but I got the general hang of it--all except for the control that is essential to the sport, something that comes with practice. My figure-eight moves looked more like ovals, but I drifted and by the end of the day I was grinning while doing it. In fact, that grin was plastered on my face for days afterward.
Instructor Kevin Krauss behind the wheel.
That was the easy course. The next section was the drift corner. This is the move that looks like something you'd see in the movies: the car enters the turn straight, but, at just the right time, the driver turns the car hard and drifts through the entire corner. This course was where we were taught the rally turn, where you load the car in one direction, in this case to the right, and snap it back to the left, overloading the outside tires. It looks great when done right; I'll admit I never got the hang of that one. But watching the instructors create smoke rainbows going through the corner made all of the students want to master it.
Rhys in his drift car.
Our time at Bondurant was coming to a close, and, even though I didn't master the drift corner, I had learned a lot about how to control a skid. While the day at the track was a lot of fun, many of the lessons learned will benefit daily driving. There's no better place than a closed track, and the guidance of incredible instructors, to learn what to do if the car is under- or oversteering, and how to keep the car (and any sense of panic) under control if things go awry on the highway. These lessons aren't reserved for rear-wheel-drive cars, either. Physics are physics: getting out of a skid depends on transferring weight back to the rear end and steering into the skid, no matter which wheels drive your vehicle. Driving school teaches you how to look further ahead than most drivers usually do, and how to anticipate and possibly avoid bad situations. If you're prepared to deal with understeer or oversteer when it happens, there will be less panic, and it'll feel like you have more time to deal with the issue at hand.
Owner Bob Bondurant was there
to watch us learn how to drift.
For more information on the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, visit www.bondurant.com
or call (800) 842-RACE (7223).