Few things compare to what you'll experience behind the wheel of a Dodge Viper in the middle of the Arizona desert.
"Left, right, left – gun it!" All 645 horsepower roared from underneath the hood of the track-focused Viper GT I was driving. Quietly mumbling to myself, trying to remember everything I had been taught just a few hours earlier. The rugged tarmac bounced the car up and down like it was riding on jello, my foot three-quarters of the way down, trying to get to 100 before having to slam the brakes and quickly pitch it into a right turn.
This was Bob Bondurant's dream, as he watched on willfully from the pits, critiquing me like a stern librarian. He wanted me to push the limits of not only the car, but myself, on a course that's arguably one of the most technical I've ever driven, not to say that I'm some sort of track expert or anything. It was on that Tuesday in the middle of the Arizona desert that I learned to drive. Truly, actually, learned to drive.
It's the same experience anyone who buys an SRT product, or Hellcat, or Viper goes through, all paid for by Dodge, of course. Except we were getting the condensed version of that. Before I was able to work my way up to that curvy little track, though, we had to start from the bottom; learn our ABCs of basic driving. That meant a bit of time going sideways – controlled, of course – all perfectly coordinated by the team at Bondurant's racing school.
'Chargers on stilts,' is the best way to put it. Two SRT Chargers controlled vaguely by a surrounding brace and four rotating wheels on the corners. Instructors are able to lift or lower the cars, depending on the exercise. Our exercise was to be mostly sideways, and learn how to control the car.
"Feather the throttle; use it as a sort of rudder," the instructor urged as the car was the other way from where we had initially started. "Just gently turn in, don't toss it." Normally owners get 45 minutes on this course – we got about five to perfect our drifting skills. I never did, I was mostly sliding around crazily before they told me to get out as two of my colleagues giggled from the back seat.
But you definitely do learn, if even just marginally. Always keep your vision forward, even if the car isn't, use the throttle not just for moving forward, but sideways. For a group of so-called "experienced" journalists, it all seemed a bit trivial. But for any new owner of one of these cars, it's a much-needed exercise.
Move from the sliding course into a Ram Van, seat belts buckled, as one of the many instructors takes you on a run through of the track. Hitting an apex in a Ram Promaster, even as a passenger, is a hilariously entertaining experience. It would be even more thrilling when we put on he helmets and did it ourselves, in slightly more track-worthy vehicles.
Charger Hellcat, Challenger Hellcat, and Viper. All three models lined up side-by-side, emblazoned with the "Bondurant" logo across them in green and yellow. "Work your way up" from Charger to Challenger, and eventually Viper, someone said. It should have been the other way around.
I got in the Charger Hellcat and immediately regretted everything that had led me to this point. This car wasn't made for the track, and my vague knowledge of the track didn't help either. Spinning tires when I shouldn't have been, skipping the car angrily under hard braking; but I did make it around, thankfully, even if it was slower than almost everyone else in attendance. After lunch we got back to work. This time I needed to get in the Viper, even if it was the most viscous vehicle of the three. Thankfully, it wasn't so much vicious as it was just really damn good.
Love or hate the Viper, it's one of the most beautifully focused vehicles one could take to the track. If you're an owner, it's something I couldn't suggest doing more. It carves corners, making you clench your butt cheeks as it slides perfectly into position. The power band between second and third gear is intoxicating. Bondurant fit a huge wing on the back of its cars a la ACR, which gives it something like 200 extra pounds of downforce at speed. Much needed downforce.
"Left...", I was finally getting the hang of it, after 10 or so laps. "...right", the technical aspects of the track forced you to push your limits. "....left", the final turn before the straight that almost forces you to overcook it and end up the wrong way. "Gun it!", the Viper bouncing up and down angrily, Bob Bondurant standing in the pit watching me try and make up ground – on a lead follow, mind you.
At that moment – 100 mph down a bumpy straight – you feel Bob Bondurant's racing spirit living in you. You feel like you're at Le Mans, or Sebring, pushing your limits with the knowledge of Bondurant behind you, if only a teaspoon's worth. In reality, you're blasting down a course that most expert drivers would shrug off, but it's all the techniques learned throughout the day that makes it that much more of an experience. The Bondurant Driving School wants you – nay, forces you to be a better driver. Something everyone should aspire to be.
Photos: Jeff Perez