Bob Bondurant: Always on Track

Guest Writer: David M. Brown

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Bob Bondurant, left, and Carroll Shelby chat on way to their Le Mans victory, June 1964. Photo courtesy Bob Bondurant School

About a month ago, the Valley’s Bob Bondurant, World Champion race driver and legendary driving educator, drove into history again with another honor by the automotive community.

Accompanied by his wife Pat and car-racing enthusiasts, the 81-year-old legend was inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame as a member of its Class of 2014. The annual event, this year in Napa Valley, honors those who have significantly contributed to the sport’s development and history –– including designers, engineers, mechanics, drivers, racetrack owners, promoters, publicists and members of the motorsports media.

“Wow, I was racing the stock cars before NASCAR made it cool,” says Bondurant, whose world-famous Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving at the Phoenix Wild Horse MotorSports Park on the Gila River Community will celebrate its 47th anniversary in February 2015.

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Bondurant guides one of the famous 614 Washburn Corvettes. Photo courtesy Bob Bondurant School

“I raced with great ones such as Dale Earnhardt Sr., Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, and I have also been fortunate to train most of the current NASCAR drivers for their road racing,” he said. “I am humbled to be inducted with so many past students and champions.”

The school has helped train approximately 90 percent of the NASCAR drivers everyone watches each week on television or at landmark tracks nationwide. One of the most recent NASCAR graduates is Kyle Larson, who, a few weeks after visiting the Bondurant School, won his first NASCAR event at Sonoma Raceway, north of San Francisco.

Additionally last month, the automotive world saluted the 50th anniversary of the Le Mans-winning team of Bondurant and long-time friend Dan Gurney. In June 1964, the two drivers, in the new #5 Cobra Daytona Coupe CSX2299, developed by the great Carroll Shelby and his team, won the GT Class at the world-famous race in France, coming within a bypassed oil cooler of winning the race outright, observers have said. Races such as Le Mans categorize cars into classes, based on engine size and other components, although all cars participate together.

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Bondurant, 81, is at the school daily, teaching and driving. Photo Ty Woodhall

“The Bondurant family and all of those associated with the school he’s made famous are so proud of Bob and so appreciative of the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame for recognizing both his achievements as a driver and educator,” said Pat, president of the Bondurant School. “That this honor comes in conjunction with the historic Le Mans win 50 years ago makes the moment so much more important for the Bondurant family and team.”

At Every Bend, New Beginnings

Achievements such as hall of fame inductions and the win at Le Mans are among many mile marks of the six-decade-long Bondurant story. These include contributions to motorsports, to educating almost 500,000 professional and everyday drivers at the school and to helping the Valley community through charities and benefit events.

His love for the track began early. After his father took him to midget races in the 1940s, Bondurant began competing with his Indian Scout 101 motorcycle, then drove a Morgan automobile at races in southern California.

This opened the door to Corvettes, in which he won the West Coast “B” production championship, with an extraordinary 18 of 20 wins in 1958/59. That year, Valvoline named him Corvette Driver of the Year. In the famous Washburn Corvette roadster and Stingray (both numbered 614) he won 30 out of 32 races between 1961 and 1963.

For these and other notches, Bondurant was inducted into the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Hall of Fame, Class of 2014, in a ceremony last April in Charlotte, North Carolina, home of NASCAR.

Bondurant has driven with the best and for the best: Enzo Ferrari, Carroll Shelby, Phil Hill, Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti, Peter Revson and many others.

He competed in nine F1 World Championship Grand Prix events. He’s raced and won at Sebring and Daytona and Nürburgring, at Riverside and Reims, on the streets of Monaco and the hillsides of Sicily. He’s competed in Corvettes and Cobras, Lolas and Ford GT40s, Ferraris, Eagles and won his class in the first Baja 500.

In 1965 for Shelby, he won seven of his 10 races in Shelby Cobras and Daytona’s to deliver to Ford and Shelby American theFIA World Manufacturer’s Championship — still the only American team to achieve this title.

The following week, he was invited by the indomitable Enzo Ferrari, whose unbeatable GTOs he had just beaten for the championship, to race in the Formula 1 World Championship — Bondurant’s most cherished achievement in a lifetime of honors.

The school was, so to speak, accidental. While driving a McLaren MARK II CanAm June 23, 1967, at Watkins Glen, New York, as he entered a corner and toward the backstraight, the steering arm snapped at 150 mph.

Concussed, with three ribs, both legs broken and both feet and ankles crushed, he took out a yellow pad, which he still cherishes, and sketched his vision for the world-famous school, recalling how he had trained friend James Garner for the driving scenes in the film classic “Grand Prix.”

Six months later, an ambulatory Bondurant welcomed his first students: movie stars Paul Newman and Robert Wagner. He also has instructed other of Hollywood’s leading men including Clint Eastwood, Nicholas Cage and Tom Cruise.

“I can remember the day we started in 1968 with our first four cars,” Bondurant recalls of the school’s Orange County International Raceway opening in Santa Ana, Calif. He moved the school to the Arizona location in 1990 from Sears Point in Marin County, now Sonoma Raceway.

“We started small but with the same vision we have today,” said Bondurant, who’s on the track daily at the school, running hot laps. “Offer everyone –– professional and everyday drivers, teens just starting out, executives, amateur racers, law-enforcement officers and military specialist and moms hoping to ensure their children’s safety to and from school and soccer –– the best track-intensive driving training in the world.”

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Bondurant is congratulated by a Porsche official after he and Dan Gurney, right, win the GT Class at Le Mans, 1964. Photo courtesy Bob Bondurant School

Child Help and Other Help for the Valley

An economic driver for the Valley and state, the Bondurant school employs 61, many of them East Valleyites, generating millions annually for Maricopa County.

In addition, the school’s active charity commitment is well established, averaging 100 charities annually.

Of particular importance, the Bondurants will again be the chairs of the Childhelp Gala, “Drive the Dream,” Jan. 10, at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, Phoenix. Celebrating its 56th anniversary in 2015, Scottsdale-based Childhelp was founded by Phoenix-area residents Sara O’Meara and Evonne Fedderson, nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Focusing on the physical, emotional, educational and spiritual needs of abused, neglected and at-risk children, Childhelp provides advocacy, prevention and treatment programs and community outreach. The 10th Annual Childhelp Drive the Dream Gala raised approximately $1.3 million.

“Last year, as with this coming event, Bob and I are humbled at the opportunity to have served these children,” she adds. “Bob and I remain in the afterglow, and we are looking forward to the Jan. 10 event to further the Childhelp cause.”

And, each December, the school’s Driving to Excel event hosts more than 100 Arizona wheelchair participants, many East Valley residents, as well as staff and volunteers from the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, recognized worldwide for its neurological and neurosurgical expertise.

The one-of-a-kind Bondurant School event encourages post-injury patients with disabilities access to adaptive recreation.

“Each year, my heart feels thankful when I know I am one of the few places in the world who can give a challenged or partially paralyzed person an opportunity to drive a car again,” Bondurant said after last year’s event, recalling his near-life-ending injury years before. “It just feels great!”

Brown is a Valley-based freelancer (azwriter.com).

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Pat and Bob Bondurant in front of their Paradise Valley home. Photo Alison Tyler Jones

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