Car Crazy

Go Racing with Jim Markel and his Father at the Bondurant Racing School

Are you car crazy? The folks at Red Oxx are. Like most Americans the need for speed is always twitching our throttle. Jim and his Dad decided to fulfill that need and headed south to the Bondurant School of Racing. This is a great story about a Father and Son who bonded with their enthusiasm for cars. As much American as apple pie, bonding this way has been a part of American families as that tasty apple pie. Let’s check in with Jim before we end up eating his dust.

BONDING BETWEEN FATHER AND SON

The gulf between father and son varies from person to person each with their own moving perspective. For my father some of his greatest memories are of tearing through the Italian country side in his Alfa Romeo. His infant son bundled in the back seat in the days before car seats.

He would wind the little car up and negotiate the narrow country roads at a high rate of speed. Something about being on the go was instilled in me at that time and it has never left me. A primal bond between father and son built out having adventures for the day. In the time before memories begin I can not recall the details of how our closest bond was formed. Except that foundation has been the architecture for my life.

For him it was a brief respite from the war in Vietnam. For me it was the last time I would see him until I was walking and talking. The letters always came in a steady stream from the jungles that defined a generation. They would come again many years later as I made my way the world through my own service in the military. My father has some of the most beautiful writing I ever have seen. There is something about his letters that brings to mind Kanji. A warrior’s strong hand yet with an elegant stroke that ensnares the reader. My own skills in the penmanship department are in direct proportion conversely horrible. Finding a way to communicate between father and son has been a symptom of the human condition for eons. Finding a way of writing back has always been a problem for me.

CARS AS A MEANS OF COMMUNICATION

Cars can work as medium between father and son. We’ve had some awesome cars through the years like our 1963 Volkswagon beetle. Dad had picked it up for a few hundred bucks and we did a quick fix up. The best part was the paint by numbers camouflage paint job that he drew on by hand. A couple of junior high friends and I did the painting with some left over paint from the motor pool. He was always making improvements to his vehicles depending on the need.

Another cream puff was the 68 Dodge Dart set up for dog training. I can still recall rolling around on the plywood deck where the rear seats should have been. Pops has never been big on the safety gear if you know what I mean. It was all about getting his dream rolling. Sometimes this methodology can lead to some interesting discoveries along the way. Making decisions and analyzing the problem with whatever system it entailed was instrumental in learning to think fast.

BONDURANT SCHOOL OF RACING, HERE WE COME

His latest passion has been Corvettes and modifying them to meet his desires. Still having the correct place and skills to play with your toys is always an issue. Here is where the Bondurant School of driving steps in and provides a purpose built facility for the motoring enthusiast. Courses range from High Performance Driving to Grand Prix Road Racing. A father and son road trip down to Phoenix was going to give us the opportunity to reconnect.

The last big country road trip that we had taken was a coast to coast move to Camp Pendleton. Twenty five years ago he was my age. Now he was turning sixty five. The intervening years had been quite eventful. People always ask me how Red Oxx came about and what it took to bring the company to its current iteration. It all started in 1986 and both pops and I were in the Marines. He was transferring to Billings for his final duty station as NCOIC of training for 4th Recon Battalion and I was shipping out for Okinawa. An avid weightlifter he had started making some lifting straps for the local gym. These simple straps go around the wrist and then you wrap them onto the bar for added grip.

THE CHANGE OF DIRECTION IN MY LIFE

After my tour with 1st Force Recon I decided to move to Colorado and live the mountain lifestyle. Four years of hard training and discipline had left me with a hankering for some freedom. First order of business was to buy a Harley and move into the mountains. Having to heat water on the woodstove and hunt for my supper was a nice change from the unit. Life was hard but simple and at the time just what I needed. I was still lacking direction and not sure what the next step was going to be. Just then a fateful visit from my father was to change my direction in life. He explained that he wanted to take Red Oxx to another level and he wanted my help. The ultimate father son project has to be getting a business off the ground.

My gypsy blood was ready to move on, so north to Montana I went to seek my fortune. Arriving in town with Harley in tow and less than twenty bucks I moved into my parent’s basement right next to the sewing machines. Between a couple of part time jobs and going to college we worked on building the company. Dad and I along with his parrot “Gunny” would set to work with the radio dialed in and ear open for the UPS truck.

THE OXX IS BORN

Slowly but surely we started to take over the house with our operation. First the basement and then into other parts of the house as the different manufacturing processes were added to make the new items. Pops had invented a lifting hook that made heavier dead lifts possible. So a steel working operation was set up smack dab in the middle of the garage. Then one day while burning nylon on the kitchen stove we were informed that it was time to get our own shop. It is possible to convert an ordinary household stove into a nylon searing machine with a quarter inch thick piece of steel plate. The biggest problem is all the squawking from the smoke detectors. That and it probably breaks about half a dozen safety rules. But as I said earlier Pops is more about getting the dream rolling rather than being a stickler on such petty details.

With each move and expansion the business became more complex. Soon the complexities of building a beast would threaten to tear us apart. My father has the ability to see opportunity just about anywhere. Once he has an idea he will pursue it with a vengeance and intensity that borders on obsession. His drive for getting things rolling has a tendency of leaving some crucial things behind. My methodology differs slightly in that I take a systems approach to business. While both of us have the same traits we tend to differ on what should be done first. It was during this phase that we brought Perry on board and life was set to take another turn.

If you were to ask my father if I paid attention to the things he tells me, I am sure he would say that I never listen to him at all. But I have listened carefully to every word. Taken some key advice along the way and then again gone my own way. My decision to join the Marines instead of the Foreign Legion was influenced by his sage words. Moving to Montana and pursuing an entrepreneurs path was most certainly guided by him. His words again were crucial in my decision to partner with Perry as he broke off a piece of the company to pursue the embroidery business.

For those that believe in fate and destination these events all seem to happen for a reason. But so much of what happens in life is in our own hands. Seizing the day and making things happen is something that was hard coded into my DNA. The fires of conflict between father and son have tempered the way in which I act. Those who have taken the entrepreneurs path know all to well the pain and ecstasy of building something from a dream. Through it all I have one person who has been my hero and sometimes my nemesis. The duality of our competitive father son relationship has put mountains between us. Yet my desire to communicate with him would manifest in the only way I knew how. Challenging these mountains has led to the genesis of a multi-million dollar global enterprise. Finding the words to show my gratitude for everything he has taught me has been much harder.

HITTING THE ROAD

Traveling cross country in a Vette gives you a slight advantage over a motorcycle in the cargo capacity but not much. Packing light is essential and soft sided bags are the luggage of choice. With such limited space we opted for what we call the Weekender. This luggage group consists of a PR 5 Safari Beano, Gator Bag and Tri-fold Shave kit. When traveling to warmer climes this set up is all you really need for minimalist bliss. As a small luxury I toss in my Travel Basket for good measure. Fill my Rigger Wallet with some cash and we are ready to hit the road.

Now when I am on the show trail I tend to get out of bed whenever and the road is always there waiting. Now pops on the other hand loves his O dark thirty departure times. Still half asleep I stagger out to the car and can’t help but marvel at the quicksilver paint scheme glowing in the yellow side marker lights. Weird how certain scenes play out in your mind with past and present experiences mixing. I can remember piling into the old station wagon for our family weekend trips. Gettysburg and other civil war sites were a big favorite. Loading the cooler with fried chicken and stuffing the whole family into the car for a day of exploring. Always out the door before first light my sister and I would sleep halfway there.

I still have issues with falling asleep if I’m not driving. The old dog was fired up and told me to sit back, shut up and enjoy the ride. True to form I promptly fell asleep as soon as we entered the freeway at a high rate of speed. By the time I cracked an eye open we were already halfway across the state. With a beautiful spring day in the works we pulled over to let the top down and enjoy the sun. Our early start had put us way out across the plains and the Great Salt Lake was fast approaching.

My preferred method of navigation has always been a map. Having been taught land navigation from a true master. I have been competent with a map and compass since I was nine years old. So it was a big surprise to see that Sr. had gotten all high tech on me. His GPS land navigation was quite impressive and even had a way to find restaurants. Okay I guess it is pretty cool so I spent the better part of the afternoon checking the diagonal of his system. It was not like he was going to let me behind the wheel yet. I still had to pass my high performance driving class before he was going to turn loose the keys to his baby.

Zooming in and out on the terrain was keeping me amused just like Google earth but moving in real time. Seeing that Bryce Canyon National Park was only slightly off course he steered the coupe onward to an interesting waypoint on the trail. With the sun setting fast he dropped the accelerator down as we cut off the main highway. It is surprising how comfortable a Corvette is on a cross country trip. The seats are quite comfortable and the riding angle is recumbent enough for some major snoozing.

All modes of transport have their unique experience whether you’re twisting the throttle on a bike or snaking through the turns on a two way in a high performance car. Bikes have their own set of challenges which mainly involve the elements. While a sports car makes sure you’re not taking any large luggage either. The travel philosophy for both encourages self sufficiency and containment. Having the right kit for each situation is really evident when you’re out there experiencing the world. Take too much and you suffer. Take too little and you freeze at night or at least that is what you think will happen. Understanding what to take and having the correct bag for each situation takes some planning.

I like to think in two basic categories when it comes to packing for a trip. “Folded” clothing immediately sets you in one category of Red Oxx bags. While “Stuffed” clothing sets you in the opposite end of the spectrum. The Weekender set is definitely in the “Stuffed” category and well suited for just this type of trip. Having a small bag for those quick photo ops is a must have and the Gator fits right behind the seat on that little raised area in the convertible.

CAPTURING THE IMAGES OF LIFE

I was anxious to try out the new Nikon D300 on the vistas of Bryce Canyon. I had been checking out all the online reviews and they were all encouraging. With the transparency on the web today you can do a little digging and get a pretty good idea if you’re going like a product. The online process is getting to be pretty streamlined. Top performing companies seek to deliver fast and accountable services globally. While the online community is the other side of the equation with the people that have a true passion for something like cameras.

After careful study I decided on the 18 to 200 mm lens. The product reviews and advice sites where all telling the same story but I still kept checking for a few months anyway. The camera has been a joy to use and it is still teaching me things. It also fits right in the Gator with room to spare. Standing there on the edge of the canyon taking pictures sucking in the last minutes of light I could feel the temperature dropping steadily as the warmth of the day was drawn away. Pops was digging the view and directing me to which shots he wanted.

I had spotted several Mexican restaurants in Cedar City with the GPS. Trusting on past experiences I spied what I turned out to be a solid three fly strip rated restaurant. Now that I had lured him into my stomping grounds he was not all to keen to get back on the Interstate. Plotting a back country run into Phoenix we turned in for the night.

Halfway through the next day after shouting over wind I finally figured out that my dad did not have his hearing aids in. “So where are your hearing aids?” And the response “the dog ate them”– you got to be kidding me? This was going to be an interesting trip. If you have ever had to carry on a conversation with someone who had his hearing aids eaten by the dog well all I can say is that it makes for some interesting mis-communications. After a couple grouchy exchanges it was time to find a medium we both enjoy.

Popping in some Ramstein we had the top down and heater cranked as we swooped out of Flagstaff. The crisp mountain air was letting our burned skin not feel a thing until it was too late. Approaching the city you can see vast housing tracts sitting vacant. The idle equipment along with tattered for sale signs dotting the landscape. The sheer scope of the over building is really something to behold. Companies taking investments to build homes that really never had a chance in the market. Maybe these guys forgot the sunscreen as well.

IMAGES OF GREAT CARS FROM ITALY CIRCA 1967

Old Sports Cars at Monza

Old Sports Cars at Monza

WELCOME TO THE BONDURANT SCHOOL OF HIGH PERFORMANCE DRIVING

Arrival at the Bondurant School of High Performance driving is an orderly affair. The staff are all well trained and prepared for swift registration and badges were issued in short order. Students range from teenagers to some serious sports car enthusiasts. Still a good mix of all skills and ages promised for a fun class. After a brief introduction we were all loaded into the van for a tour.

Word of advice, sit close to the front and that’s all I am going to say about it. The school is structured with a balanced approach between classroom times and hands on with the vehicles.

Bob’s cars have a bit of work done to them so they can withstand the driving conditions they’re subjected to. Starting with a stock Cadillac CTS they work their way through suspension with some Eibach springs and Goodyear tires. You’re likely to wear out at least two sets of tires during your training. They pay special attention to the brakes with PBR calipers and Performance Friction Carbon Metallic Pads.

Who thinks this stuff up? Carbon Metallic just sounds like something from Star Trek. I mean these guys even coat the headers with a substance from the space program called Jet Hot.

Driving is one part of the equation the other half is the mechanics of it all. When I found out we were going to be driving Caddy’s I have to admit I was a bit puzzled. A stick shift Caddy with a Luk clutch and Borla exhaust is not something I see zipping around my neck of the woods everyday.

You can spend years driving and still never understand vehicle dynamics and the cause and effect of driver input and speed. Bob has determined four the main principles of high performance driving. The basics are the building blocks for learning the finer points of racing. The time required to become a true master of the track would take more than three days of instruction. The skills taught here are meant to become instinctual with particular attention paid to the “why” something happens.

THE FOUR MAIN PRINCIPLES OF HIGH PERFORMANCE DRIVING

First and foremost is “concentration.” The driving sessions are short but intense and exhaustion from adrenaline rush is something to watch out for.

The second principle is “vision” or looking ahead and using technique to properly control inputs to the vehicle. Target fixation occurs when you stare directly at an object and drive or fly right into said object. This is where the first rule of concentration is applied back to the second rule of vision. Finally in respect to vision you need to be able to judge rate of closure or depth perception. This aspect of driving is improved with practice at slower velocities until you build up the skills to negotiate the turns at a higher rate of speed.

As the speed increases Vehicle Dynamics become more evident. Friction is the key element and here is where some of the fancy suspension upgrades really come into play. Weight transfer is a compromise moving the weight or inertia around in a moving balancing act. The softer a vehicle is sprung, the longer it takes for weight to transfer and the smoother your inputs need to be. You can control where the car gets the most grip. Car control at the edge of adhesion is something that you can be taught and mastering two fundamental skills essential. Understeer and Oversteer both have predictable cause and effect scenarios. Learning to recognize the cause and responding with the proper vehicle inputs is something that Bondurant’s training really emphasizes.

The final principle to learn is Line Technique in regards to track driving. Since applying this skill to a mountain road would endanger oncoming traffic. Every turn has three main sections called turn in point, apex and exit. You pick the best line for the corner and the turn in point is where you want the car to begin changing direction. The apex is the clipping point of the corner or where you come closest to the inside of the corner. Coming to the exit the vehicle should stable and ready for another turn or full throttle acceleration.

Learning these four fundamental skills and then moving right out to the vehicles to practice is why this course is so effective. Heel toe downshifting is another skill that you will have plenty of chances to practice through the time you’re here. The technique combines simultaneous braking and downshifting to maximize braking and car control while cornering. The basics in place, we set to regular routine of classroom instruction followed by some wheel time. Each skill builds on top of the next.

One of the best training tools at the school is the skid cars. Each car is equipped with a set of hydraulic outriggers that make it possible for the instructor to simulate Oversteer and Understeer conditions at a lower rate of speed. This is where you learn to feel what the car is doing. With practice you learn to instinctively react to the input you’re receiving from the vehicle. Building the confidence to balance the vehicle on the edge of adhesion takes practice. With the completion of each section we start to move around the facility using different set ups to instruct.

TIME FOR THE STOP WATCHES

They set up a standard road course and break out the stopwatches to get the competitive juices whetted. In the end pops beat my best time by a full four seconds and a class best. He may be a bit round in the middle these days, but make no mistake he still has mad skills when it comes to eye-hand coordination. With the course all set he asked to run his Vette through the course. While the Caddy’s are nice, the Vette was made for fun like this and he was having a blast running his car for a couple of runs.

Pops was posting even better times in the Vette and he was curious to know just what the car could do. So he asked our instructor to give her a run. Watching a professional driver handle the course from a few feet away is something to experience. The acceleration and line technique all synchronized with the shifting. Dad had just experienced a ride of a lifetime and I could see it on his face. My thanks go out to the awesome staff at the school that made this such a memorable experience.


With our days spent driving hard, our nights were spent camped at a soul-less chain hotel. Beauty is where you find it and all you have to do is keep your eyes open. Our hotel was nestled up under a major artery of interstate overpasses dominating the landscape with a mass of concrete. The area under the freeway was void of vegetation more like a post industrial Zen rock garden. The huge swoop of the overpass perched above in space like the outer ring of Saturn.

Wanting to soak up as much of that warm desert air I was out enjoying the night when I noticed people gathering at the building next door. Watching the gathering at the Hindu temple I was at first intrigued by the colorful clothing. Between India and the rest of the world lies a huge cultural divide. When cultures relocate they seek to maintain some connection with the old world while they are here in the new one. One by one they started to gather more of a trickle of people arriving in no rush.

Finding a spot under a tall palm I began working my yoga practice as they gathered for an evening social. With Bollywood as my major source of Indian culture I was playing out in my head all sorts of reasons for the gathering. Pretty soon they were setting up tables and a feast of sorts was afoot. Smelling the curry on the wind my stomach almost invited me over for dinner. For now I was content to just be a voyeur to this small moment in time. Still my curiosity to visit India has never left me and I think an extended tour of the subcontinent would be a life shaping event.

PUT THE PEDAL TO THE METAL

With our last day upon us we were all set to hit the big track and put it all together for some full out driving. After a few runs through with a lead and follow style the instructors got off the course and turned us loose. Reminding us that there was no speed limit we were excited to put ourselves to the test. Keeping focus during the runs was easy; everything came rushing up as I floored the accelerator.

Using the “Heel toe downshifting technique” I was able to negotiate the corners effectively rolling on the throttle as I exited the turns with confidence. The hard work of the previous days had instilled some knowledge and basic skills. Like any well trained skill the effort put in is generally proportionate to the gain in ability. The real enthusiast is always working on the skills needed to competently drive at high performance levels. This course is an excellent way to improve your driving and explore the car culture in America.

By the time we were rolling home I was hoarse from having to repeat myself time and again. With the stunted exchanges that went nowhere except louder in volume taxing my larynx to the breaking point. Still we managed a few spirited debates and worked through some of the issues that had been keeping us apart.

The best moment of the whole trip was cranking the AC-DC up and moving the Vette out to warp speed. Confident in my new skills pops had finally relinquished the keys.

The circle of life had come around and it was now I who was driving the car over the high plains as my father relaxed in the passenger seat without a care in the world. Free in the perpetual motion of life as his son focused on the road ahead.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAD!

~Jim

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