By Dennis Gray | Photos as credited
Bob Bondurant has done a few things. The winner of a world championship with Carroll Shelby, the pilot of a Formula One car for Ferrari and the founder of an eponymous racing school, Bondurant can also count among his considerable talents the art of storytelling. A point we learned when Senior Photographer Dennis Gray interviewed the racing legend at the Bondurant School facilities in Phoenix, Arizona. We’d say more, but as you’ll see, Bondurant’s done a better job of that himself. Enjoy.
Sports Car Digest: Let’s start with your history and how you ended up becoming a racer. How did it all begin?
Bob Bondurant: Well I was born in Evanston, Illinois, on June 27, 1933. My parents lived there for two years. My Dad had a couple of car dealerships, and they had a big huge energy crunch back then, and he lost everything. So we packed up and moved as far west as we could go, and I grew up in West Los Angeles, in Southern California between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. I was a driver out there. It was a little more open back then, and I started out on a Wizard motorbike and then got into a James two-stroke motorcycle and that was fun. I went over to the Harley dealership with my motorbike and they all wanted to do wheelies on my James motorbike. My James could do it, so I said, “I want to drive your Harley.” I said, “I will let you do it drive mine if you would let me ride your bike.” So that is how I really got riding motorcycles. Near the dealership there was a huge undeveloped property, so we made a little dirt track oval and we raced around on that. When I was 18 I bought a 1937 Indian 101 Scout bike and I started doing flat track oval racing, quarter-mile flat track dirt, half-mile and then on the Del Mar mile. We raced at Carroll City Raceway in Southern California, Clover City Speedway, and in Bakersfield they had a little half-mile oval with soft dirt compound that was really good. So you started running handlebar-to-handlebar and wheel-to-wheel with your competitors.
One day my cousin came by—every year at Christmas time we had a family get together. I had just bought a new Mercury Montclair; I thought that was really cool. My cousin had a Jaguar sedan and I thought it was kind of ugly. I said, “Hop in and I will take you for a ride in my Mercury.” He said, “I will do that only if you agree to drive my Jag,” and I said OK. We lived up the Hollywood Hills. I drove his Jag and I was surprised, it handled really well. So we started talking about Jags, and we went over to the dealership that had Jags and other vehicles. The salesman was Ken Miles, at the time I didn’t know him, but we ended up working together at Shelby. I said I wanted to test one and he said OK. He said just go ahead and drive it, so I went up Mulholland Drive and just normal streets, came around the corner and there was some gravel and went sideways and saved it. I thought, “If I had been in my Mercury I would have been in somebody’s front yard! A Jag really handles.” I traded my Mercury in and bought a new Jaguar XK140 Coupe. Then I ran into a guy who had a 120 Roadster with chrome wheels and an exhaust that really sounded good, and I drove it and did a really good job. So I traded in my coupe and I bought that one, which I drove for a long time. It got me into going to the races and all that. My cousin took me to my first road race up at Santa Barbara, and I saw my first race there. They had more than MGs and Porsches there, they had a lot of homebuilts. So I watched the road racing for about a year, and I thought, “I can do that,” so I bought a Morgan Plus 4. Because of my motorcycle racing background I would have liked to get a sponsorship, but the only thing I could get was parts, so I decided that was better than nothing. Once I started racing my Morgan, after every race I had to put new rod bearings in. The sponsorship paid off, ha ha! Because I was in the production car I was stock, but little did I know not everyone was stock. I finished second, and third a lot, the worst thing was to finish fourth. You were racing against the Speedsters then, too, and so I had a few races with them. Then I sold my Morgan and bought the ’57 Corvette that Bob Thomas had built up that had won the championship the year before.
SCD: Who drove it then?
BB: Bob Peterson. I bought it in August of ’58. I was watching all the races, and that is when there were about 35 Corvettes in the race and I was in awe of these guys; they drove fast and a little wild. So I entered it in the first race in Santa Barbara and the car worked fantastic. The second race was at Riverside, and I went out and practiced and the crankshaft broke. I didn’t have any money to speak of and so I was out of racing. A young guy named Don Bettles was my motorcycle mechanic, but I hadn’t seen him for a while until I ran into him at a used car lot and asked him what he was doing. I told him my Corvette crankshaft broke and I didn’t have the money to fix it. He said he would make a deal with me. If I bought the parts he would rebuild the engine for me. And he said: “Every time you win you don’t have to pay me.” That was a fantastic inspiration. That is when I won 18 out of 20 races. And the other two times I came in second. We got a sponsor about halfway through. It was London Motors down in Southgate. They had a used car lot and it was mostly used Corvettes. He fixed the Corvettes and I sold the used Corvettes. There was a grocery across the street and we ate there. We moved down there so we could eat there, and that is how we started doing all those races. That was a fantastic time.
SCD: Did you find the Corvette brakes to be a problem?
BB: The brakes were never good in the Corvette, but Bill Thomas built it with different brake pads, and I never come up and slam the brakes on. In the Morgan I’d come up and squeeze the brakes on, lighter and lighter, kept putting more weight on them. After I was teaching for a few years, I learned to do what we call a trail brake, when you came up to a turn, you brake lighter longer, if you brake too hard then you have to gas it and so you brake lighter longer and power sooner and add the power. When I won the best Corvette driver of the year, or the Valvoline car of the year, I sold it as a winner in 1960. Then I started to drive for other people with Corvettes. With 35 Corvettes in a race, the first thing I learned was to get a body shop sponsor because you get fiberglass flying everywhere! Andy Porterfield was winning all the races before I began racing Corvettes, but then I started beating him. He was a really good competitor. At the gas station they had a body shop in the back, and the guy said, “Do you know you’re overweight? Don’t worry about knocking a fender off, because every time you do, we’ll make it lighter.” Toward the end of the season I think it was legal weight. So I kept racing Corvettes for a long time. We all cheated in one way or another to get more power out. Then I bought another ’57 that I found. It was a red one, all set up nice, and I won a lot of races in that one.
SCD: Didn’t you have some involvement in the Cal Club-SCCA battles?
BB: I was SCCA Vice President on the West Coast. Cal Club decided to have a race the same weekend and before the race they said anyone who races for SCCA is banned from Cal Club. I was Vice President, so I raced and I won. I got a letter saying I was banned from Cal Club. I called Lou Ventura, the Cal Club organizer, and said, “Lou, I have a question for you. If someone took away the thing you loved most in life what would you do? Well you took away the thing I loved most, which was racing with the Cal Club as well as SCCA, and that’s why I am so upset and mad at you. We both did it. You said you would ban members for racing with the other club, but you never did it, I was the first one.” He said, “We are having a meeting in about a month and I’ll bring it up at the meeting. Call me then because the ban is for six months.” I said, “As far as I am concerned, if you ban me for one day it is too long.” So I said screw it and I got interested in helicopters. There were a lot of helicopter places in Southern California, so I looked them all up and went over and introduced myself and said I would like to learn how to fly. They had heard that I was racing Corvettes and all that, so they let me hop in and it was my first seat. He asked me if wanted to learn how to fly, and I said yeah. He said, “I’ll give you the controls, but I’ll stay on with you.” That is how I learned to fly helicopters. Then I went to work at Compton Copters at San Fernando Airport. They rebuild wrecked helicopters. I never actually went to a school. I got to where I could do a great job, but I was having a difficult time hovering. When driving racecars I always sat up straight. In the helicopter I would lean over a little bit trying to hang on to it, and I went to bed one night thinking that with the Corvettes I sat up straight, and so I did that the next day and all of a sudden I could hover. I got to be a good helicopter pilot and have a fantastic 341 Gazelle, an ex-Army helicopter. It tops out at 119mph. Most of those do 147 or 148mph. I brought that down here in Phoenix and learned to fly it and I had another helicopter before that.
One time I was going to Sears Point, and the guy who ran the helicopter place said there was an FAA guy who liked to fly Gazelles and he could run me up to Sears Point and I said OK. So we got up over Southern California and were flying along the beaches looking at the girls on the beach, and I said, “I like your flying, it is really, really smooth.” And he said, “Thank you, would you like to really learn how to fly it?” I said, “I think so,” and so he said, “I will teach you how to fly.” So we got by Watsonville and by the winding river and he said he wanted me to go down to the river and follow the river and fly 50 feet above the river. I said something about the wires and he said he would watch for them with me. I was flying 100 feet and I thought it was 50 feet, and he said, “Down.” So we got down there and I really learned how to fly that thing fast and maneuver it. He asked me if I ever had a stall in it. I said in an airplane I had, but a helicopter will not stall. I didn’t know it would, most people don’t. He said, “Let’s take it up to 5000 feet and I’ll stay on the controls with you and I will show you how to do a stall.” And I thought if he fucks up it will be me and he and the helicopter. So we got there and all of a sudden he is flying backward down! I said, “Holy shit,” but he clicked a switch on the left panel and that is how you get out of a stall. So he did about four of them and he said, “It is your turn.” I said, “I don’t know if I can do this.” It took about half an hour to get to where I could really do it, and I said, “Why are you teaching me this stall?” And he said, “Very seldom you’ll get into it, but you’ll get into the mountains that are fairly low and you’ll get a lot of wind that will come down the top of that mountain and you’ll get into that situation and it could put you in a stall.” About five or six years later I was flying back to California, I had my son with me, and we were flying low in the mountains and all of a sudden the blades were up and down about ten feet and I said, “Holy shit were getting into a stall.” I saved it, and my son said, “Holy shit dad, we almost crashed,” and I said no, this guy taught me that. So we’re flying back to San Francisco with the FAA guy and he said, “I understand you race cars at the racetrack.” He said one thing I could learn to do is follow them around the track. So I dropped him off in San Francisco and I went on up to the school at Sears Point. I flew the helicopter every day. I got to where I would chase the students around.