Dodge’s muscle gets flexed at Bondurant Racing School

On sweltering asphalt on the edge of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, a relationship is blossoming.

This is the Bondurant Racing School, a classroom/playground where Demons and Hellcats can be unleashed in all of their intimidating glory, and students become captivated by their course materials.

At the beginning of Dodge’s high-octane alignment with Bondurant in January 2016, the school doled out thrills in the Challenger and Charger Hellcats alongside the Viper at its 100-acre complex in Chandler, Ariz.

The discontinued Viper has since been phased out, but the track has expanded its roster with other vehicles plucked from the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles fleet: the energetic Fiat 500 Abarth and 124 Spider Abarth.

Plus, the school is rolling out the new Challenger SRT Hellcat Widebody and the 840-hp Challenger SRT Demon, with both vehicles testing the mettle of drivers in a new one-day drag racing class that began in March. The drag course, which also features the standard Challenger Hellcat and the 485-hp Dodge Challenger SRT 392, is already sold out for the next two years. Demon owners get in for free.

The muscle car movement lives on at Bondurant through the sounds and smells of screeching rubber and revving engines. It’s a place where driving enthusiasts who want to sharpen their skills, exotic car owners who’ve added Demons and Hellcats to their collections and even Hollywood fixtures come to get their performance fixes.

An actor who could afford any vehicle he wants went through Bondurant training recently and said he was buying a Hellcat when he got home, recalled Pat Bondurant, CEO of the school and wife of its founder, former race car driver Bob Bondurant.

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When the school had the Viper, she told Automotive News that Corvette, Ferrari and Porsche owners would come to get a feel for it.

Top and above, the Bondurant Racing School has begun offering a one-day drag racing class to test drivers’ mettle.

Perk for owners

Experiential marketing has been a calling card of Dodge in recent years as it cements itself as FCA’s performance brand and tries to offer an alternative to what’s sold by the exotic European makes. The Bondurant alliance has been a fruitful piece of that strategy, but the brand hasn’t stopped there. Dodge has been treating the public to Hellcat thrill rides with pro drivers at various locales over the years and hosting events such as Roadkill Nights that surrounds the Woodward Dream Cruise near Detroit.

The experiential element of the Bondurant partnership extends to current owners and Dodge outsiders, but owners get an extra perk through a special deal. Bondurant offers a free day of high-performance driving lessons to buyers and lessees of SRT and Abarth models.

Most owners who get the free class rarely stay for just one day. They usually turn it into a multiday excursion, with many opting for the four-day session.

The future of the Bondurant arrangement will be determined at the end of 2019. If it continues, Pat Bondurant said she’d like to see products from Alfa Romeo and Jeep added to the school’s lineup. The Jeeps, she said, could make use of the off-road course.

New to the school’s roster are the Fiat 500 Abarth, left, and the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth.

‘Forward question’

The courtship between Bondurant and Dodge began while the school’s deal with Chevrolet was winding down. Chevy had provided Camaros and Corvettes to Bondurant for more than a decade before Dodge swooped in.

During an event commemorating Ferrari’s 60th anniversary in 2014, Pat Bondurant had a chance to speak with Sergio Marchionne, the late CEO of Fiat Chrysler. Marchionne, who described himself to her as “just a schmuck in a sweater,” approached Pat Bondurant with what he called a “forward question,” she recalls. He wanted to know if the day would ever come when FCA and the Bondurant school would partner up. Pat Bondurant, who had owned a Viper for seven years, was open to the possibility.

Tim Kuniskis, then head of FCA’s car brands, took a trip to the school soon after — unbeknownst to the Bondurants — to check it out. Kuniskis realized then that it was a can’t-miss branding opportunity for Dodge’s speed-driven portfolio.

“I’m looking at all these Chevys, and I’m going, ‘Wow, all these people that are coming to this class are being trained on these cars,’ ” Kunsiskis told Automotive News in 2016. “This is subliminal marketing at an unbelievable level. How do I become a part of this?”

Kuniskis later struck a deal with the school, which was announced in November 2015. Pat Bondurant sent a photo of herself standing with her husband and Kuniskis to Marchionne, who “got the biggest kick out of it,” she said.

Kuniskis relished the conquest opportunity. He said the partnership lets those who own competing models get a firsthand look at what the Hellcat craze is all about.

The school also became a backdoor way for consumers to reserve Hellcats. Bondurant auctions vehicles after 12 to 15 months to make way for new models, so some past students have called dibs on the Hellcats and Vipers they drove during the classes.

“One of the most genius things Dodge has done is to allow people to get in those cars and find out what all the excitement is about,” Pat Bondurant said of the partnership. “We are a force I don’t think even Dodge anticipated.”

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