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Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile

Bob Bondurant portrait

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.

Bob Bondurant, number 51 1957 Chevrolet Corvette
Bondurant won 18 of 20 races in his #51 1957 Corvette during the 1959 racing seaon. (Bondurant Collection)
Bob Bondurant, Chevrolet Corvette number 614
Under the bridge at Pomona in his 1958 Chevrolet Corvette #614. (Bondurant Collection)
1961 LA Times GP, Bob Bondurant in his 1959 Corvette.
1961 Los Angeles Times Grand Prix, Riverside CA. Bob Bondurant in his 1959 Corvette. (Bondurant Collection)
Corvette grid, Santa Barbara 1961.
Corvette grid, Santa Barbara 1961. (Bondurant Collection)

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.

Riverside 1961 LA Times Grand Prix, Bob Bondurant, Corvette
Riverside 1961 LA Times Grand Prix. Bob Bondurant in his 1959 Corvette. (Bondurant Collection)
Riverside 1963, Bob in his 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Coupe. (Bondurant Collection)

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.

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Continued

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Page Two

SCD: Let’s go back to the 1963 Stingray. What can you tell us about that car?

BB: It had drum brakes, because the brakes weren’t that great. At the time, well, I had retired from racing because of that Cal Club deal, had the helicopters, but I had raced with Shelly Washburn, who was a Corvette dealer up in Santa Barbara, and had done real well with him. He asked me to do just one race, and I said I would do that for him. That one race was at the same time that Shelby got the Cobra together for the first time. Blew us all off. The handwriting was on the wall, Dave MacDonald and I tried real hard all the time. Sometimes he would win and sometimes I would win, he was a fantastic driver. We really got to know each other really well, friends on the same trip. We were really racers. So the Cobra dropped out of that race with a broken shaft or something, but they took it home and fixed that. The Cobra was a very good racecar and I raced against it all the time. I out qualified Davey McDonald that year, and he was by then in the Cobra. My car always worked perfectly. I did a warmup Sunday morning like we always did and I was quicker than Davey. He had that car jacked up on stands because he couldn’t believe it. No way. So I felt good, but when I went to fire the car up it wouldn’t start. I thought, “Holy shit what happened!” The smog had damaged the O-rings and so it wouldn’t start. So I got on the PA and I asked anybody with a Corvette to let me borrow their fuel injector so I could race against Davey. So two guys came over and said, “Take it and put it on your Corvette.” I had to hold the race up a little bit for it, but finally they said they couldn’t hold it up any longer. Just as I got it on, they had started the race, so Davey is already in Turn 1, Turn 2. I started dead last, caught up with him on the last two laps but couldn’t pass him because the brakes were bad, the Cobra had better brakes and was lighter. The Cobra handled better, but he knew how to drive it really well.

Bob Bondurant, Corvette 614, 1963 Dodgers Stadium race
Bob Bondurant in his Corvette during the 1963 Dodgers Stadium event. (Bondurant Collection)

After that is when I got a call from Carroll Shelby, who said, “You’re driving Ken Miles’ Cobra.” I told him I didn’t say if I wanted to or not. That is just the way he talks. He said he was at such and such a hotel and I said, “Am I driving for you?” And he said, “No, just this one race,” and I said, “Well I don’t know if I want to drive just one race. If I drive it I will find the weak points in the Cobra and then I will jump back into my Corvette and beat Dave.” This was at Continental Divide, in Colorado. So I drove the race, Davey ran too, but I won the race. Carroll said, “Great job.” And I said, “Am I driving for you?” And Carroll said, “No.” Then I got a call two or three weeks later from Carroll, and he said, “You are driving a long distance race at Elk Grove.” So we ran the race together, I won the class. Then I finally started driving for Carroll. The next time was the L.A. Times Grand Prix at Riverside, really a big race. There was a preliminary race before the big race, with everything including Ferraris and it was real fast. I made a deal with Shelby, I said, “If I win the pre-race will you enter me in the Times Grand Prix?” He said sure. Dan Gurney and I and Lou Spencer were on the front line. Lou was driving the 289 Roadster. Dan got a great start, Allen Grant got a great start, and Lou was third in line and coming up on Turn 6 I got right behind and he starts to lose it. It looks like I hit him, but I never did. Allen I never hit you. Even 50 years later he claims I hit him! I never hit him. He had a Cobra too, but had more power because he had a bunch of guys build a special engine for him. He was sure he was going to beat all of us. Dan was in the lead, and probably about five or eight laps into the race the coil wire fell off of Dan’s car so he pulled off on the straightaway and jumped out and put it back on. I went on by, and ended up winning the race. As I came across the finish line I blew a left rear tire so I am sitting there by the side of the track on the dirt and Dan comes by laughing like hell. Dan came in second and Allen was third. So I started dead last in the main event and finished eighth. That car was a good car and I learned how to drive it. You really had to learn how to drive a Cobra.

Bondurant, Shelby Cobra, 1963 Riverside GT Race
Bondurant finished first overall in the Shelby Cobra during the 1963 Riverside GT Race. (Bondurant Collection)
1963 LA Times Grand Prix Riverside, Shelby Cobra, Bondurant
1963 LA Times Grand Prix at Riverside. Shelby Cobra #299 finished 8th overall in the GP after winning the 1 hour GT race earlier. Note the oil dripping out of the side vents. (Bondurant Collection)
Shelby Cobra 289, Bob Bondurant, 1964 Sebring 12 Hours, Lew Spencer
Bondurant finished 5th at the 1964 Sebring 12 Hours with Lew Spencer. (Bondurant Collection)

SCD: How good was the Cobra out of the box, or did you have to do a lot to make it win?

BB: Shelby-American built the car and then did all the modifications on it. Then it had problems in the early part and they finally got it sorted out. Over the years it won everything. When I was over in Europe I won the GT class at Le Mans (1964) with Gurney, which was fantastic! The first time I had won. Dan asked how many times I had run at Le Mans, and I said six times. Never did finish. I said the car seems to be really good. It was just finished when I got over there, had not turned a wheel yet. So I took it out and said it runs good, handles good. I had never run that fast before. And according to the data we were running 179 mph down the Mulsanne Straight. That was 1964. I said to Dan, “Do me a favor, if we can drive it a little bit smoother, and a little easier, I’ll drive it as fast as I can driving it smooth, and I bet we can win. Can you do that?” He said, “I don’t know, I’ll try.”

1964 24 Hours of Le Mans, Daytona Cobra Coupe, Shelby
1964 Le Mans pits. Bondurant awaits the arrival of the #5 Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe. Carroll Shelby with his bull horn in hand. Bob’s co-driver was Dan Gurney. (Bondurant Collection)

So we were winning the race and had a nice lead against the Ferrari GTOs. They were really good, they had never been beaten before. But at 4 a.m. I had an oil cooler go bad and did not have a spare, so we had to bypass it to make sure we finished. I was at the wheel as we were running to the finish, fourth overall, several laps ahead of the GTOs. So all of a sudden I saw the third-place car go off the road and stop, and another lap or so I saw the second-place car go off and stop. Were they having mechanical problems? Then the lead car pulled off the road, so I said, “Shit, are we going to win this race now?” It was about 4 o’clock when we finished, and they all finished three abreast over the finish line at the same time. No one ever told me that you slow down when you go across the finish line. We had lost track of the GTOs and how much further behind they were, so I was still running flat out when I came into the last corner, and Holy Shit! I started braking and downshifting to stop before I ran into all the slow cars, and we won. It was the most fantastic period of my life, winning at Le Mans. Just two of the Cobra Daytona Coupes were in that race, The other one had Chris Amon and Jochen Neerpasch driving, and they were in the number 6 car and we were in number 5. They came in and somehow the battery got drained, but you can’t put another battery in, so they were out.

1964 24 Hours of Le Mans, Bob Bondurant, Dan Gurney, Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe CSX2299
1964 24 Hours of Le Mans. Bob Bondurant and Dan Gurney take the Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe CSX2299 to 4th overall and 1st in GT. (Bondurant Collection)

SCD: That was a Shelby team car, wasn’t it?

BB: Yes, in 1965 he was over there because most of the races were over there. The Targa Florio was the first race I drove in Europe. He said he wasn’t going to send me over there because I would never learn it. I said I would learn that son of a bitch. Almost a thousand turns and 42 miles a lap, so I went over there two weeks early and drove it every day, eight hours a day every day. Then I would go out in the morning and race three villages, and in one of them I’d see the horses go out in the morning with their mules and load the mules up and they would go this way and I would go that way, lines in the road, and I came around a corner and here is a mule and I said, “Oh shit!” I had to get over to the side of the road.

SCD: What were you driving for a training car?

BB: A Cortina. Later on they had a Falcon rally car, so I could really drive it. I was going pretty fast through villages because I heard they all knew the race was coming up and they were used to it. Masten Gregory got there a day before I got there, and he said, “I will show you how to learn this thing so you will know it.” So we drove 12 kilometers and then we would turn around and go back. Once you saw the road and the little pits, then we would go back. Then we drove 24 kilometers and did the same thing and went back. We drove the whole circuit like that. It must have been three or four days and then I just started driving the circuit. Over here most of our circuits are just two miles long, Elkhart Lake is four. To do that and go quick it is total concentration. So again, I drove it every day, ten hours a day, seven days a day. Shelby arrives and Jerry Grant arrives—he had never been there before and he spent a week driving around—and Phil Hill and myself. We did not know who Shelby was going to push, I thought it would be Dan because they both had run the circuit. I was doing my best to qualify, and they sent Dan out and he was a couple of tenths faster than I was. Then Shelby put me with Phil Hill. Phil knows that track like the back of his hand, and Dan does too, but he taught me so much about racing over there and different things you want to look for whenever you can and get out there and learn the track. We were racing Cobra roadsters mostly. We didn’t run the coupes except at Le Mans and the Tour de France. We were there to learn the circuit well so we had a chance to win the race. Phil is always nervous before a race, and he was saying Dan was going to beat us. I told him, “No he is not. You’re fast and I am fast. Jerry hasn’t driven the track and the lap time is like 42 minutes, so six laps.” So Phil started, and Dan caught him right at the end of the first lap, then it was my turn and I was going great. When it came to be Jerry’s turn to get in the car I passed them and then Jerry started and then we were doing really well, probably because Jerry wasn’t driving really well, he didn’t know the track as well as I did. In the end we lost a bushing in the rear suspension, so they won and we took second.

Bob Bondurant, Phil Hill, FIA Shelby Cobra, 1964 Targa Florio
Bondurant co-drove with Phil Hill in the 1964 Targa Florio. They failed to finish with suspension problems. (Bondurant Collection)

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Continued

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Page Three

SCD: What can you tell us about running at the Nürburgring?

BB: The Nürburgring was a new race for me. I had never been there before, they were all new circuits. It was 14 miles a lap, 176 turns. When I got there I found out there was a Hanseat Driving School there, so I enrolled in it. One of my instructors, Jochen Neerpasch, had raced there and he already knew about the Cobras, that they were very fast and very competitive. What they were doing at the school was teaching people who bought Porsches how to drive, so they teach them the safe line. Because he knew I was going to race, Jochen said, “I’ll show you the real line.” So I learned the real line and it was different. That took about four days. At night I would have dinner there at the hotel restaurant and then you could go do a lap, so I would have dinner and then do a lap every night. The first night I was there I met a guy, a really good driver, very fast, can’t remember his name. He said would you like me to show you the track, I said sure. Pouring down rain, scared the hell out of me, he was really fast and sliding through the corners. “Holy shit,” I thought, “this is going to be a tough job.”

What Shelby would do in every single country where we raced, he would hire two of their best drivers to drive the fourth Cobra. So I knew he was going to hire two guys, and I said that I had gotten to know Neerpasch and he is really good, and so we hired him. We were doing really well. At the first Le Mans start we learned never to use seat belts, the others just fired up and went, but I was putting my seat belt on and the other drivers were driving away. It was a poor start. Before the race I was talking to a German driver and he said, “Is your name Bondurant?” And I said, “Yes, Bob Bondurant,” and he said, “You think you’re pretty darn fast?” I said, “No, actually I haven’t driven here before.” I started out quick and he didn’t, but there was one steel post by the track and he came up behind me and hit me and put me into that post and blew my tire out. So I had to drive 14 miles around with a blown tire. I thought, “If I ever see that guy again I am going to put him out.” The mechanics cut the fender out and put a new wheel on and I took off. We were pretty quick. I finally saw the guy up ahead, but he had blown his engine and dropped out, because he hit me so hard it blew his radiator out. I said, “Thank you God, you didn’t have to do that.” So I went on by, but then we lost a crankshaft and did not finish. The second year, 1965, we went back with three Daytona Coupes and one roadster. I was in a Coupe and I had three laps to qualify. The first lap was 9:23, the second 9:21 then 9:18.5. I hadn’t got down to shaving tenths of a second yet. Those were our qualifying times and they were the fastest. Then we ran the race and won, Neerpasch and I, and it was really nice because he had never won. Everyone loved the Daytona Coupe. An American car, wow! Going that fast, unbelievable. Beating the Ferraris, wow. That was so cool! About 1980 I had a guy go through my racing school at Sears Point and he said, “You know your record just got broken last weekend!” I said, “You have to be kidding.” It lasted for 15 years, I was amazed. When next I saw Jochen and his wife, he said he was surprised it lasted that long.

1966 Nurburgring, Bob Bondurant, Porsche 906E, Paul Hawkins
1966 Nurburgring, Bondurant drove the Porsche 906E with Paul Hawkins, finishing 4th overall and 1st in GT. (Bondurant Collection)

SCD: Didn’t you race at Sebring in a Daytona Coupe with Jo Schlesser?

BB: Yes, I drove with Jo Schlesser in ’65 at Sebring. We were having breakfast and he orders a glass of red wine, I said, “Joe, what in the hell are you doing?” He said he always had a glass of red wine at breakfast. I said no. I let him only drink half the glass. That was the year they had a terrible rain, and we were both very, very quick. I knew I was getting close to coming in, then I got the signs for three laps, then two laps, and then the last lap. It had just started to rain as I was coming in. Now in Europe for the first two years I raced it never rained, and I was surprised. But in ’65 it rained every single race at practice, qualifying or the race—or all three. So I said, “It’s yours, Jo,” and he said, “Thanks, Bob.” We came in and changed drivers and tires and took on fuel. Our car did not leak, the car that Phil Hill was in was full of water. He took a center punch and punched holes in the floor to drain it. He went back out in it and there was water on his lap. Then it was my turn and it was still pouring like hell, but we won our class and finished fourth overall in the race. That was fantastic. Every time we won we had a wonderful time together. We drove well together. He was quick, he never damaged the car, he was very easy on it.

When we did the Tour de France at the end of 1964, it was a 10-day race and I had to trust someone that I could ride with who wouldn’t put us off somewhere, so I chose Neerpasch, even though he never used a seat belt. We went on the Tour, we went to each hillclimb and we practiced it in between races. We would get together and go to the next hill town. At Rouen, coming in to Rouen at the next race I could feel the throttle cable starting to come out of the fitting and so I told the mechanic. He checked it and said it didn’t look like it, but I said well it is. So we got a good start and got into the lead, and with about three laps to go, at the bottom of the hill the throttle cable came off. So I jumped out of the car and looked under the hood, and I had one French Franc that I folded up to use as a screwdriver, and it fit perfectly on the idle screw. So I set the idle at about 3000rpm, put the hood down, put it in gear and took off and finished the race that way.

Bob Bondurant, 1964 Freiburg Schuansland Hill Climb, FIA Cobra
Calm before the storm – Bob Bondurant in line for his run up the 1964 Freiburg Schuansland Hill Climb in his FIA Cobra. He finished 4th overall and 1st in GT. (Bondurant Collection)
1964 Freiburg Schauinsland hill climb, Bondurant, Shelby Cobra FIA
1964 Freiburg Schauinsland hill climb. (Bondurant Collection)

SCD: How would you describe your driving style?

BB: I was quick, and very smooth. I always wanted to take care of the car. I learned that in the Corvettes and in Old Yeller and every car I drove. I would always try to go as quick as I could in the first five laps. After the race at Rouen we had to put a new throttle cable on, so we lost a lot of time. You couldn’t work on the car before the race, the only time you can work on it is after the race. In the meantime all the race traffic is on the highway and going to downtown Rouen, a big town. Jochen was with me, and I told him we don’t have time to make a little pit stop because we always had a pit stop down the road maybe a mile or two because we needed to change tires on a longer track and change the gear ratio and make it a little higher. So we pulled into the first gas station we came to and I told him to grab one hose and I would grab the other one, and we filled it up with gas, jumped inside and took off. I said we didn’t have time to change the tires because if you’re late to the next checkpoint you’re disqualified. We’re going down the highway and we were doing 160mph or 170mph, pretty much flat out, a couple of times and Jochen said, “Bob please be careful,” and I said, “I am!” So he put on his seat belt and the harness for the very first time. We got to the checkpoint with 19 seconds to spare. If we had changed the tires we would have been disqualified.

SCD: Tell us more about your driving style.

BB: I was smoother, I knew the white line and I controlled the weight of the car with the brakes and the throttle. I never called it trailing brakes until after, at the school, but I would squeeze brakes on and I could brake later. I really learned to do that a long time ago in the TR2. I have always been smooth. I was when I was racing the bikes, too. I learned to be smooth and judge my distance coming into a corner and judge my entry point, exit and all that. When I learned hillclimbs I got up at 4 a.m. I had never done one before; it’s rough. So I would get up at 4 in the morning and drive up and down the hill. Around 7 a.m. people who lived up there started coming down the hill. I was using all the road in my VW bug. I was thinking that the Cobra was going to understeer in this corner and oversteer going into this corner, and in my bug you just drive around it. I would do like four or five runs and visualize the right corners and then I would do it again and change something. As you ride it down it stays in your head; I didn’t know I was doing that. The only other people who were doing that were the Porsche team and Abarth, but I was up there early before they got there. One time Edgar Barth was coming down the hill and I was using all the road going up, and he came around the corner and I said, “Oh Shit!” Later we met down at the bottom and he said, “I think we should do this together,” so he taught me something, too.

SCD: Did you ride together in Barth’s car?

BB: Yes. I got to know every driver on the hill. Over here the tracks are so short. Over there everything is much longer and much more difficult. Spa and Reims were the two fastest circuits over there at that time. Spa was all down hill and up hill, mountain roads, and people would live along the sides, and so you had to learn how fast you could really go into the corner. I would always go, lift a little bit and maybe the next lap lift a little less until I found the point that worked for me going quick like that. That’s how I set the lap record at the Nürburgring.

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Continued

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Page Four

SCD: Can you tell me who the other Cobra drivers you shared with were?

BB: Well the other two were mainly Neerpasch and Schlesser, and then Allen Grant drove with me at Monza. That was very interesting, because it was the last year they raced along the banking. The banking was so rough your vision would bounce all over.

Not seen before in America - FIA Manufacturers Cup won in 1965 by the American Shelby Cobra Team
Not seen before in America – FIA Manufacturers Cup won in 1965 by the American Shelby Cobra Team. (Bondurant Collection)

SCD: Then in 1965, you came back to win again at Reims and sew up the Manufacturers title, you and Schlesser.

BB: Yes. On the 4th of July, with Jo Schlesser.

SCD: Was that Manufacturer’s title as big a deal as the F1 crown then?

BB: It was bigger.

SCD: Did they make a big deal about it?

BB: Over here they didn’t make such a big deal. I was in France, and Shelby was not in Europe at that time. Ford said, “You’re going to work on the Ford GT40 Mark IIs. We need more horsepower on those cars, and this is the last race that you do with the Daytona Coupe.” I didn’t know it at the time. We were all so excited that I did that in the Coupe, and then at the next race, which was the Coppa Citta di Enna, we won our class again and that was fantastic. We were all excited, and I am sure Shelby was excited. I was just glad that we won it, all of us competing together. It was fantastic. So I had a driving jacket, my Cobra jacket, and I had a patch made up that said “FIA World Manufacturers Championship,” and another that said “Winner” on it. Shelby never made one. I am the only one who made one. Maybe ten years ago, I saw it—I still fit in my jacket—and I thought, “Wow, that is good!” I thought that it was good, and he said, “Well, I’d like to make one.” I said “Go ahead,” but I have never heard whether he made one or not. To my knowledge I am the only one who has one. I’m sure Carroll and the guys at the shop were all excited, but that was never expressed much to me. Ford never said anything to me about it.

SCD: During 1965 and 1966, how many times did you race the Ford GT40?

BB: The GT40, I raced it twice, at the Daytona 2000 kilometers and at Le Mans. I have a hell of a story from Daytona, where we finished third. I wasn’t paying attention to the drivers well enough, I went around the oval for some reason twice. I don’t know what I had on my mind. I pulled away from John Surtees, he was in a Ferrari, coming out of Turn 2, and I was probably at least 10-12 lengths ahead. Coming out of Turn 4, he was going probably 200mph, and I was way ahead. Then I saw the cone set up to turn in, I saw that and I thought, “Shit, I am never going to make it,” and if you pass it you are disqualified. I was braking, downshifting, and then I turned in, but I didn’t come across the part where you come back in on the oval properly, and they wouldn’t let me back on the track until the last car had gone past. They didn’t like me or something. So we took off, and we ran real hard, and then it was time for another one of those little “Shelby said slow down, because Ford was there.” Ken Miles and I had both tested those cars, and they had a lot of miles on them. The car had a Colotti gearbox, and Ford was worried that I was going to break it, but I did not, you just drive a little slower and smoother. Ford wanted me to slow down. Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby were in the other GT40, and they ended up winning. Surtees and the Ferraris dropped out and didn’t finish. My co-driver was Richie Ginther. Richie was a fantastic mechanic. We had understeer with that car, so he took some aluminum and made two dive planes, one on either side in the front. It handled perfectly from that point on. We ended up finishing third overall and second in class. Once I came in to make a pit stop and let Richie take over and it wouldn’t restart—the condenser had failed. You never think of a condenser failing. They never even looked for it. They couldn’t find the problem and we lost a whole lot of laps just waiting for them to figure it out. I slowed down when Shelby was out there. He came out later with a knock-off hammer. Slow down! I would slow going by the pits and then I would go like hell. It was kind of a trademark after that. He had me come in and told me to get out of the car. I said I’m not getting out of the car. So we had a little tiff and after that I found out it wasn’t Carroll who wanted me to slow down it was the Ford guys. I told Shelby “We are losing a lot of time, we just lost two laps so let me go back out.” And he finally said go ahead. So we lost a couple of laps there and we started un-lapping ourselves from everyone and Richie, who was a fantastic driver himself, and I started catching up. Jo Schlesser in the Daytona Coupe was second and we were third. Jo was a fantastic driver. He was the better of my co-drivers, because he knew how to take care of the car. He was really quick, and when we qualified we were always within a few tenths of one another.

Daytona 1965, Richie Ginther, Bob Bondurant, Ford GT40
Daytona 1965. Richie Ginther and Bob Bondurant drove the Ford GT40 to 3rd overall. (Bondurant Collection)
Bob Bondurant, Daytona 1965
Bob Bondurant, Daytona 1965 (Bondurant Collection)
1965 Targa Florio, Bob Bondurant, Ford GT40 Roadster, John Whitmore
1965 Targa Florio. Bondurant shared the Ford GT40 with John Whitmore. (Bondurant Collection)

SCD: Did Ford ever say why they wanted you to slow down?

BB: Well they were worried that I would break the gearbox. Just because if you shift a little slower and smoother it doesn’t give you a whole lot of time. But they didn’t know that, they didn’t understand that.

SCD: You also drove the GT40 at Le Mans?

BB: We were third fastest qualifier. Ford had two of the seven-liter MkIIs. Phil Hill was in one big-block 427 with Chris Amon, while Bruce McLaren and Ken Miles had the other. Amon was quickest, the Ferrari was second, I was third and McLaren was fourth. I had a 351; and that thing worked perfectly. I was going 212mph down the Mulsanne Straight. We’re doing 212 into the Kink and I finally made it flat. It took me four or five laps to make it flat. Then you crest the hill and brake down to where you’re going 35mph. The quickest part of the track followed by the slowest. The car and brakes worked perfect. The night before the race they pulled all the engines in the GT40s with 351s and put another engine in. Somehow the heads did not match with the blocks and water started sputtering. So we were all out in just over two hours. Before the race I said don’t change it! It worked perfectly. Well, they said, “Orders from headquarters.” Then they send the wrong heads for the blocks. They (Ford) never wanted to admit it.

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Continued

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Page Five

SCD: When did you get the phone call from John Surtees about joining Ferrari?

BB: Well we were at Monza for the F1 race and testing the week before, and I was there and had been promised tests with a couple of teams. Honda was there, and if they didn’t have any problems they would give me a test drive, and Cooper had promised the same thing. Jack Brabham was there and said if he had time he’d put me in a car. Well, Surtees was out there in a Ferrari testing and he asked me what I was doing there? He said, “No, the factory did not call you? The Old Man wants you down there at the factory, he wants to talk with you.” So the Goodyear guys lent me their car and I drove on down and I got there and the gates were opened and the guard stopped me and asked me who I was and who did I want to see? I said, “Bob Bondurant,” and he said, “Bondurant and the Cobra, come on in.” I got to know all the Ferrari mechanics in ’64 and ’65, we all got along great. I am a people person. So that was great. But Mr. Ferrari was not there, and everyone said they’d let me know when he was coming. John thought he was there. So I was given a tour through the entire factory by the team manager, Mauro Forghieri. I saw everything. The foundry, the race engines, the street engines, building and assembly of the cars and engines and everything. I literally saw the whole place. The race engines were in the race shop, and no one gets to see that. When Enzo arrived he did not show me that, he just showed me the cars. So I was kind of laughing under my breath, “Ha I’ve already seen that.” Cool. Enzo was very, very proud of Formula Uno. I told him “I want to race Formula Uno, when will you let me know?” And he said, “One week, two weeks, when I decide.” I said, “OK, Bondurant, shut your mouth, ha,” and went back up to Monza. I did not have a ride. I was trying to get a test ride with any of the F1 teams.

Bob Bondurant, 1965 Ferrari Dino Formula One
1965. Bondurant in the Ferrari Dino F1. (Bondurant Collection)
Nino Vaccarella, Bob Bondurant, Ferrari Dino 206S, 1966 Spa 1000km.
Nino Vaccarella / Bob Bondurant, Ferrari Dino 206S at 1966 Spa 1000km. This car did not start due to an accident. (Bondurant Collection)

SCD: Can you tell us more about meeting Mr. Ferrari for the first time?

BB: That was fantastic. I think I told you about checking into the hotel and then for an hour sitting in the restaurant across the street with David Piper. Then Surtees called and said, “Mr. Ferrari is here now, would you like to come now?” I said, “Well we just ordered dinner and it’s an all you can eat.” He said, “Well, Enzo wants to see you now!” Dinner arrived just minutes after he said that and we scarfed it down fast. We had a Ferrari, so we drove out to the factory. The gates were closed, of course. The gates magically opened and we drove on in and parked. Ferrari’s right hand man met me at the window and said, “Bondurant, you must come with me, and David Piper you must stay here in the car.” So he had to sit there for almost an hour, and I didn’t know what else to do. I walked up to the office, it was a very long narrow hallway, and off to the right of Enzo is the memorial to Dino, Ferrari’s son, where a candle burns 24 hours a day. Then you walk forward and there is a huge desk and it has six floodlights shining down on it and this is in the evening. We shook hands and I sat down and John Surtees did translation for me. I just felt neat meeting Enzo Ferrari in person for the first time. I mean hardly anyone gets to do that, especially Americans. I felt, “Wow!” He didn’t ask me anything about racing. He asked if I was married. I said no, divorced. He asked if I had any children, and I said one. He asked if I would like to come live in Italy? I said if I was driving a Formula Uno. “But you must drive a sports car before you can drive a Formula Uno.” That’s fine. I said I have been doing a lot of test driving with the Ford GT40s in ’64 and ’65 when I was home. I said Ford is going to have more horsepower next year. They are liable to beat you. “Ford will never beat me!!” He said, pounding his hand on the desk. I said, “OK, I am just letting you know, so you can be prepared maybe you need more horsepower in your cars.” That was the last part of that conversation. He said I would love to have you here, I know you are very quick because you just beat us and no one had ever done that before. I said, “Yes, that was the whole mission, to beat you in the World Manufacturers Championship. No one has ever done that.” He said, “Yes, I know all that.” I said, “OK, time to stop talking to you about that.” He was very pleasant and just asked me chit-chat conversations, nothing strong, then he said I would like to show you the racing garage. I said I would love to see that. I kept pushing Formula Uno in our conversation whenever I could. I said I would really like to race F1. So then we went to the garage and he showed me all the photos of people. The way he did it he was very proud. Formula Uno is over here. The cars are very beautiful and very fast. I never asked him if he would let me drive, I just said be sure to let me know.

Bob Bondurant, Jochen Rindt, 1966 24 Hours of Daytona, NART Ferrari 275LM, NART Ferrari 250 LM
Bondurant paired up with Jochen Rindt to finish 9th in the 1966 24 Hours of Daytona in the NART Ferrari 275LM. (Bondurant Collection)
1966 Sebring 12 Hours, Bob Bondurant, Ferrari 330 P3 , Mike Parkes
1966 Sebring 12 Hours. Bob inserts his seat into the SEFAC Ferrari 330 P3 he shared with Mike Parkes. They left the race with gearbox issues after qualifying 2nd. (Bondurant Collection)

SCD: Was the Ferrari your first F1 drive?

BB: Yes it was, and the amazing thing about that is I went back up to Monza and got a ride in a Lotus F3 car and ended up winning the race. I kept waiting for a phone call from Ferrari. One week went by, two weeks went by and I thought I pushed too hard. Then two days later I got a call from Ferrari to come back to the factory and be fitted for my F1 ride. That was incredible. I was so excited I was beside myself. So I flew over and got fitted for my ride. It was a Dino F1 car, they only had a couple of those.

SCD: Why did the seat become available?

BB: Surtees had had a big accident at Mosport and broken his leg. I don’t know why they didn’t give me a V12, but the V8 was really strong, too. In my first F1 race, at Watkins Glen, I started out 13th and worked my way up to sixth. I had goggles with elastic bands that I’d had for two or three years, and when it started raining the elastic in the goggles stretched and the goggles blew down. I thought, “What a horrible time for that to happen. My first F1 and in a Ferrari.” But I had another pair of goggles in my helmet bag in the pits. I didn’t know if I could speak Italian very well yet, so what am I going to do? If I leaned out the side of the car, the goggles would blow off and it would be very difficult to see. I had to pull them back up and put them on with my forefinger and go the rest of the race like that. I put my knee against the wheel and shifted with my right hand. I still ended up ninth. I got behind someone and he kept blocking me, and I could not get by, but it felt so great and the car was fantastic. When I drove the Ferrari, my whole mental picture of that chassis and car was super strong. I had driven Lotuses that were fragile, but I just drove the Ferrari and had confidence in it. I had never driven one before. When I flew over to get fitted for the car I just drove it around the factory in first gear. You are just sitting there and thinking: “I am really sitting in a F1 Ferrari at the F1 factory!” So I raced it at Watkins Glen, and the first few laps I am getting used to the car. Everything worked, it handled well, braked good. I got quicker and quicker and felt comfortable with the car. I qualified 13th and got a really good start. I did practice starts in everything I drove. I passed two or three cars and I was doing really well. They didn’t give me any pit signals so I didn’t know I was up to 6th place until after the race in the rain. The V12s had more power, but you couldn’t use it in the rain. I had a V8 that didn’t have as much. Everyone else was using V8s at that time. I finished 9th. Graham Hill was 1st, Gurney was 2nd, Jack Brabham was 3rd, and Bandini was 4th, Pedro Rodriguez was 5th, Rindt was 6th, and Ginther was 7th, Jo Bonnier was 8th—he was the guy who kept blocking me—and I was 9th. Richard Attwood was 10th, Jo Siffert 11th, Moises Solano was 12th. Jackie Stewart had suspension problems.

SCD: Did they ever say why they gave you a V8 rather than a V12?

BB: I never questioned it. I was so happy to be driving a Ferrari. I guessed that it was my first time in an F1 car and they probably did not think I would win. I qualified ahead of Pedro and he was in a V12.

SCD: F1 cars, not a lot of torque but a lot of revs?

BB: The cars are super light. You do not have the torque the V8 has, but you are running higher rpm.

SCD: Did you have to make a change in the way you drove?

BB: No, I had driven F3 then F2 then F1s so I was ready. The V8 had more torque than the V12. Five-speed transmission. When I was racing here I drove Old Yeller and that had a lot of torque. With the Cobras we were racing the Daytona Coupes against the Ferrari GTOs, again V12s, so our advantage is we had more torque and more initial acceleration so that helped a lot. None of us could beat the Ferrari until we raced against them and that was at Le Mans, and I thought Wow! They were very quick. We ended up, I believe, one lap ahead of the GTOs at Le Mans, and then we had the oil cooler break and we had to bypass it and bring down the rpm a little bit. We were going slow around and looking in the rear view mirror like a hawk to see if anything red was coming up.

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Continued

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Page Six

SCD: After Watkins Glen where did you race F1 again?

BB: Mexico, the next race. Scarfiotti drove the same Ferrari in Mexico that I had driven. I went down there with my helmet and suit, just in case. I ended up driving a Lotus for Tim Parnell. He was getting pissed because (his driver) Innes (Ireland) was late and so I was hanging out and Gurney was there. And Tim said, “Bobby, did you bring your helmet?” I said I did. “If Innes does not get here in time then I am going to put you in the car. Are you good with that?” I said, “Yeah.” It wasn’t a Ferrari, but I would get experience in another F1. So I got in the car and Innes finally came back about an hour later, and I asked Reg if I should get out, and he said no. Probably pissed off Innes, ha ha. So the car really worked good, but after about three-quarters of the race a trailing arm broke and put me out of the race. I was coming to a left-hand corner and when it broke a guy with his camera looked like he was falling over backward trying to get out of the way. So I talked to him afterward and asked if he was OK. He said, “You were doing really well. I’ve never seen you drive before.” I said it was my second race. That was the day Richie gave Honda their very first win.

SCD: Didn’t you drive an F1 Eagle?

BB: Yes. The next year I drove for Gurney in the Mexican and American Grands Prix. In the V12 Dan was having overheating problems and the four-cylinder car was working well, so he took over the smaller one and I took the V12. It never overheated when I drove it. He was probably driving it harder, I am guessing. Something happened to me at Watkins Glen. I missed the straightaway and went off once and got back on, but they said I was disqualified, I did not know I was disqualified. In Mexico, we were 16th. The fuel system failed, that is what happened. We were in 8th place. I was racing against the best. After Mexico then I got a ride for the Tasman Series in a BRM alongside Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill. The next F1 race for me was Monaco, where I ended up fourth. I had run that race before in a F3, so I knew the circuit well. The first time I ran it I was the fastest qualifier and set a new lap record.

Monza, 1965, Gurney Weslake Eagle, Bob Bondurant
Monza, 1965. Gurney Weslake Eagle V12 3-liter and Bob Bondurant. Do images come any better then this? (Bondurant Collection)
Bob Bondurant, AAR Gurney Eagle Weslake V12, 1966 Mexico GP
Bondurant in the Gurney Eagle Weslake V12 during the 1966 Mexico GP. (Bondurant Collection)
1966 Mexico Grand Prix. Bondurant in the Gurney Eagle Weslake V12. (Bondurant Collection)
1966 Mexico Grand Prix. Bondurant in the Gurney Eagle Weslake V12. (Bondurant Collection)
1966 Mexico Grand Prix. Bondurant practiced but did not race the Gurney Eagle Weslake V12
1966 Mexico Grand Prix. Bondurant practiced but did not race the Gurney Eagle Weslake V12. (Bondurant Collection)

SCD: How many years did you race F1?

BB: I only ran F1 for one year; the end of ’65, those two races U.S. and Mexico, and almost all of ’66. My car was a two-liter BRM, and the early part of the season the other teams all had engine problems with the new three-liter engines, so it was like a sixth-place car. Then as the others got their engines going it became a ninth-place car. It was a private team, and they weren’t quick about getting things fixed. The last time I drove for them in the pouring down rain at Watkins Glen they got the car there late and never even cleaned it up, so I grabbed a handful of wrenches and checked every nut and bolt. Some were a half turn loose, and I thought, “This is not the way I want to go racing.” I never thought I would give up an F1 ride, but I told them, “You know, I just can’t drive for you. I need to find a ride where I can trust the car.” The guy was not a F1 mechanic. He worked on some rich guys’ personal cars. Nothing big like F1 cars. He got to Monaco late. I was working on the movie then, Grand Prix, so we were driving the track every day shooting film. So my car arrived but he never brought it to the track on Friday. So I didn’t get to drive it until Saturday. The battery was dead. It died going through the tunnel. I thought, “Oh shit, this is not good at all.” It was never a great car. So they fixed it and I started last and had to work my way up. I went the distance and finished fourth, and it was wonderful and they gave me points. All the other F1 racers said their car was better. The English Grand Prix, I was doing well there and finished ninth. It was really becoming a ninth-place car.

Bob Bondurant, 1966 Monaco Grand Prix, Tasman BRM P261 Formula One
#19 BRM F1 at the 1966 Monaco Grand Prix. The car is a 2-liter Tasman BRM P261. Bob was racing against 3 liter cars. (Bondurant Collection)

I always liked racing F1. I had always wanted to do it, and I would have liked to have stayed. When I thought I was going to drive for Gurney, I was real excited about that possibility and I knew I would do well. But then he felt he needed Richie to help him sort the cars because Richie was good at that. Jimmy Clark taught me a lot. I met him before I was racing F1, when I was driving Cobras. A lot of times the Cobra was a support race to the F1 in places and once I lost a rod coming around a corner. I sat down and talked to him later and I asked him when you brake for a corner trying to slow down do you brake hard? He said no. I said, “Do you brake a little softer and carry the braking longer?” And he said, “Yes I do. How did you know this?” I said, “That is what I do in the Cobras.” Graham Hill also taught me. He was driving for BRM too. Jackie Stewart was really helpful, and we all got to know each other pretty well. For me, F1 meant not having a real competitive car to teach me how to drive F1 and drive with those guys. I drove them hard and it surely was a super experience for me. I was really hoping in ’67 I could drive for Dan, and I knew we would do well. Both cars were set up well and he was always tinkering with little shit and it always worked. Then some little thing broke and I just figured if I just drove and left the car alone then I could do pretty well.

Jimmy Clark, John Surtees, Denny Holmes, Bob Bondurant
Jimmy Clark, John Surtees, Denny Holmes and Bob Bondurant. (Bondurant Collection)

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Continued

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Page Seven

SCD: You then came back to the States and started driving Can-Am?

BB: Every year before that I would come back at the end of the season to race in the USRSRC. Then I ran a Corvette in ’67, racing against Jim Jeffords. He is hysterical, a real funny guy and a good driver. I usually beat him, but he was right on my tail in those years, ’59, ’60, racing Corvettes. It was very competitive, lots of good drivers and you had to work hard for it, so you had to learn to drive well.

1965 Riverside 200, Bob Bondurant, Lola T70 Chevrolet
1965 Riverside 200. Bondurant did not finish in the Lola T70 Chevrolet. (Bondurant Collection)
Bob Bondurant, 1965 Nassau Trophy Race, Lola T70 Chevrolet
Bondurant finished 8th at the 1965 Nassau Trophy Race in the Lola T70 Chevrolet. (Bondurant Collection)

SCD: Do you remember racing against the Northern California driver, Paul Reinhart, in purple and orange?

BB: I always beat him. It was always the Northern California Corvette driver against the Southern California Corvette Driver. We were usually quicker and I beat him almost every time. They were sure I was cheating. I had a hard time qualifying a car at Riverside, it was always overheating. There was another driver at that time who we wanted to beat, Jim Jeffords in the Purple People Eater Corvette. So I said to the other guys, “If you can catch up to me I’ll move over and let you go by and you can go after Jeffords.” At Turn 7 it was uphill then downhill then left-hander followed by right-hander then straight. So I moved over and Paul ran straight off the track and crashed, rolled the car and ended up in the hospital, but he turned out OK. I asked him what happened and he said he just wasn’t thinking. I moved over for him and he watched me go by and Jeffords was right up ahead and so he was really close to Jeffords, too. I was following him and he was really quick. On the long straightaway downhill I just moved way over to the far side, outside of his rear view mirrors where he could not see me, then I drove right on by him. He chased me for about eight or ten laps, then he gave up and I pulled away and I won. We ran our Corvettes back then 155mph or 160mph and never got higher than that. We were racing on retreads. I found a guy in Pasadena who built really good retreads and he made them nice and sticky. Jeffords was complaining that he had brand-new Goodyear casings so it looked like Goodyear. He tried to protest us, but we all ran those tires. He said, “I’m not going to race against you guys with those tires,” and said he was going to protest them. I told him, “Well then you’re going to protest all of us. You’re going to look mighty stupid out there by yourself.” We’ll all chip in and get you a brand-new set of Goodyears. Our tires worked a little better. Then after the race he protested me. My mechanic crawled under his car and found the chassis was drilled and a whole bunch of other things. I said I was going to protest back, and he said for what? I said for a drilled chassis for one thing. So he dropped the protest. He didn’t like getting beaten by some young California thug.

SCD: In 1967 you came back to run in the Can-Am but before that ran a couple of USRRC rounds. Who did you drive for?

BB: A guy who used to work with Shelby from Ford named Peyton Cramer bought a Chevrolet dealership in South Gate, and wanted to have a racing team. He was supposed to buy two Lola T70s, that was the car to buy, but he got a deal on a McLaren and they weren’t quite as good. So Peter Revson and I were teamed together, but the cars just weren’t that great.

1967 McLaren M1B Can-Am. (Bondurant Collection)
1967 McLaren M1B Can-Am. (Bondurant Collection)

SCD: Then you had a big crash before the USRRC race at Watkins Glen, didn’t you?

BB: Yes. The McLarens weren’t as good as the Lola T70s and we always ended up in third or fourth. I went out for the warm-up, and the car just didn’t feel quite right. I had no idea it was going to break the steering arm, but I didn’t feel really confident in it. I qualified seventh and got a good start, so I get down below and coming around on the fifth or sixth lap doing 150 or so. The curbs in those days were higher, and coming out of a turn, on line, perfect, something broke. I thought something in the rear suspension broke, but it was the right front steering arm, so the right front wheel turned right and it came up on the curbing and it just took off. You’re doing 150 and it’s like, your mind works so quick it is unbelievable. In those days we had a fuel switch to turn the fuel pumps off, and another switch for the engine, so I turned the fuel pumps off because I didn’t want it to catch fire, you were always thinking about fires. And I turned the engine switch off, and then took a deep breath and relaxed the muscles in my neck, shoulders, hands and wrists. I remember seeing the embankment coming up and thinking, “Shit, it is going to be a bad one Bondurant,” and it was. It took the bottom off the car the aluminum belly pan and I was so high that I saw the treetops as I was coming down. Then as I was coming down and it hit and I don’t remember anything after that. I broke my legs, my feet and my ankles. I broke three ribs and had a mild concussion. All I remember is hitting the embankment, seeing treetops and hitting the ground. It had rained the night before and the ground was a little softer. I flipped half the distance of the straightaway. The corner where straightaway was, they ran over first. I had blood on my feet, the shock brought me to, and it’s funny what you think about. I landed in a mud puddle—how embarrassing! And then I looked up and I saw the crowd I thought, “Oh man, I hope I stay out of the crowd,” but they had run over to where we were. I tried to take my helmet off and that was the last thing I remember. Then I woke up on the other side of the track in the ambulance. The body is a wonderful thing, I had no pain whatsoever. I didn’t feel anything; the shock takes care of that. I remember thinking I must have been in a bad accident and I had no pain. Then I passed out and woke up in the hospital a little bit later. They already had my legs and feet in casts. I went out for a pretty good time after that, and when the doctor came in the next day I asked him, “How soon am I getting out?” And the doctor said, “Young man, you’re not going anywhere. I’m amazed that I am looking at you. I saw the last part of the accident. I was the doctor at the track and I thought you were dead. But then you’re not, thank God.” He said, “Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?” I said I would take the good news first thank you, and he said, “You have a mild concussion, you will be fine, you broke three ribs and that will be fine.” I thought I would break everything. Then he said, “You have two broken legs, below the knees, and they will heal up, but I cannot allow you to sit up because the lower vertebrae in your back is damaged and if you sit up there’s a risk you can become paralyzed. So don’t sit up.” I said OK. He said, “You broke nearly every bone in your feet and ankles and you’ll never walk again.” That scared me and I said, “Wow! Never?” He said, “I am a bone specialist and I put you back together and I will do everything I can do, but they will never heal right.”

Bondurant High Performance Driving School 1968
Bondurant High Performance Driving School 1968. (Bondurant Collection)

I thought, “Damn, what am I going to do now?” I was thinking of Grand Prix, when I trained James Garner and the other drivers. I had more time with Garner at Willow Springs, had him in a Mustang GT350, then in a Cobra then in a Formula Ford, then we rented an F1 car. He was going pretty decent with that and every day he got better. When we were doing that it felt good to my heart, so I thought, “Maybe I’ll do a school. I have to make a living somehow, and if I can’t walk I need to doing something.” For about two or three days I wrote down on a legal pad how I would do the school. The cars, the parts, to do a school, everything I could think of. I needed sponsors. So I put it away and didn’t look at it for a little while. They put me in an ambulance and put me in a small plane and sent me back to SoCal, and I was in the hospital there for about two weeks and then they brought me home. They said they couldn’t do anything more for me, just let me heal up. I found out who my real friends were, and who they weren’t. A lot of guys would visit you in the hospital to see how beat up you were and then you never see them again. I had people who I met and knew a little bit and they turned out to be my real friends, and a there was young guy who worked in a really nice restaurant in Beverly Hills, and he brought me dinner every night. So I just spent time healing up and since I can’t sit very long I was in a wheelchair. I was doing wheelies in my wheelchair down the hall and flipped over backwards a few times. When I got myself back up and went down to Club Porsche, because I raced for them, too, and I put down on my list that Porsche would be my preference for my school cars. I had a really good friend help me write a good proposal. They were listening to my proposal and looking down at my feet and casts, I was still in a wheelchair. I said I would like to have Porsches as my school cars because they are the best. They said they were not going to say no and were not going to say yes, they were just going to observe how I did with my plans. I said, “I won for you.” They said, “Yes, you did a good job.” I said I was going to do the school, and if you’re not going to help me with it then I understand, I know my broken legs and feet don’t look very good. So I went down to Datsun. My buddy loaded me up in my Camaro and drove me down there and I talked with the PR guy with my good proposal. I had three proposals written up for three car manufacturers. He said, “Well that looks pretty good, let me get Mr. Katayama, I think he is here today and he is the president of Datsun and created Datsun here.” So he came down, a really neat guy. I started calling him Mr. K. We looked eyeball to eyeball and I started telling him what I wanted to do and he just asked me what I needed. I said I needed a 4-door 510 sedan for an instructor car. I have three students, and I need at 1600 roadster and we can graduate up to a 2000 roadster (which I have in the museum), and I need parts. He asked what parts I needed, and I said, “I have no idea. It depends on how your cars are.” They were starting to win races. Pete Brock was running the race team and he said, “I’ll do that.” He is the one who got me started. He is now 101 years old, and I called him on his birthday and he said he wanted me to take him on hot laps. His wife was with him and she is a little petite gal and said, “Mr. Bondurant, can you take me for hot laps?”

1968, Robert Wagner, Bob Bondurant, Paul Newman
1968, Start of the school with Robert Wagner, Bob Bondurant, Paul Newman and an unidentified man. (Bondurant Collection)

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Continued

Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Page Eight

SCD: Am I correct in understanding that you laid out the Firebird track where your school is now based with signature turns from European tracks?

BB: What I did is I came down here and looked at the area when it was just all dirt. There had been a motocross circuit, but then people were having a lot of accidents so he just leveled it and it sat for quite a while. I was looking at the area, so I laid out five different layouts thinking about the corners at Monaco and the Nürburgring; one corner in the last straightaway coming out onto the front straightaway at Reims; from Spa there were a couple of different corners I was thinking about. What I need to do, and we have been talking about it for ages, is name all 14 corners. We have labeled them 1-2-3-4 but I was thinking of naming different corners after different circuits, but we haven’t sat down long enough to go and do it. I designed the track so it is demanding, but we don’t have a long straightaway because of the length of the area. When I first came here I was with Ford, so we also designed it around Mustangs. Then we had Corvettes, which are a lot quicker, so on Turn 1 we needed a chicane, and we made it smoother. We also needed a runoff area for students, it makes them learn. Maricopa Turn it is down by Maricopa Highway. What I did first was evidence of Le Mans. At the end of the straightway you come down from 200mph to 35mph, and I put a sandbag down there at first. That worked great at first, except the wind blows down here and it blows sand on the track, so I had to stop that. Then I dug down about two feet and put gravel down there. That is what we use today. We have it real deep now, and if someone goes off into the gravel it will stop you. We had a situation where it rains and then the gravel gets too hard and doesn’t do such a good job. What I did is dig it down much deeper, about 18 inches deep now, and that works very well.

1975, Clint Eastwood, Bob Bondurant
1975 – Clint Eastwood and Bob Bondurant. (Bondurant Collection)

SCB: Could you verbally “drive” me around the track on the fastest line and explain your insight, your technique?

BB: We have flat curbs. We had higher curbs, but it was hard on the suspension so we flattened them all out. Come out of the pits—I have designed the pits like you would have at any other racetrack—and it brings you out into Turn 1. Then you are in 2nd gear and you’re in Turn 2, going over the hill to Turn 3 you’re coming downhill and you’re in third gear, down around Maricopa now in second gear, I have shutoff markers, and they number 4, 3, 2, 1; Maricopa is 2nd gear late apex, then I have a handling section there, a little bit you can take two different ways, we do it both ways. Come out of Maricopa go straight make a fast right corner over the hill, coming down the hill into Turn 7, go wide, two different lines, and into Turn 8. A quick line and then there is a front line for hot laps, let the car slide a little bit. You are in third gear, and you go through Turn 9, it’s a left-hander, a little curbing and sets you up for Turn 10 a right-hander. You come in there pretty quick, leave it in third, come out of there in third, come on down for Turn 11 slow down to Turn 11 sharp left turn, sharp right turn, Turn 12 you come out of there in second, grab third gear and go into Carousel, and I don’t go out as wide as everybody else, I take a shallow, smooth entry, come out of the Carousel in third gear, stay on it down to Turn 13, fairly quick long, long, apex and then Turn 14, onto the straightway, a fast corner on down there. I run either third or fourth gear. Students have to use fourth gear. There is another shift, and to go quickest you don’t go to the rpm redline. Then you come down to the chicane, shut off markers 4, 3, 2, 1. Chicane is a tight right, tight left, both short apex, brings you out over the hill again. I laid the track out and different ways you can do it. Turn 3a, you go left a bit wide and slightly downhill and into there in second and grab third puts you in Turn 7 to Turn 8 and all through the same circuit. We also have a drag strip here so I designed Turn 11 so that you come out and you don’t go right out of the Carousel. You stay in third gear, come out of there in second, then go into third to the shorter track.

Grand Sport Corvette on the Bondurant Firebird Track
Grand Sport Corvette on the Firebird Track. (Bondurant Collection)
Grand Sport Corvette on the Firebird Track
Grand Sport Corvette on the Firebird Track. (Bondurant Collection)
Grand Sport Corvette nose to tail on the Firebird Track.
Grand Sport Corvette nose to tail on the Firebird Track. (Bondurant Collection)

I can run it in different sections. We have four-day students, and they will all be out on the paddock area first, learning heel-toe downshifting; learning basic emergency maneuvers, learning to look ahead, where you want to be. Emergency evasive maneuvers. We teach them about controlling weight transfer; braking brings weight transfer forward, a right turn transfers weight to the left side, stepping on the gas transfers weight to the rear. We teach them how to do that. Then we have three lanes. Three lights at the far end and they are all green. Two lights will turn red and the instructor controls that. We start out at about 30mph and go to about 50mph. And teaches them emergency evasive maneuvers. We also teach them ABS braking. A dealer came through years ago when ABS first came out and he had just totaled his new Lincoln. I said what happened? He said, “I got on the brakes in a puddle and the car started jumping all over the place.” I said, “Yeah, what did you do?” He said, “I got off the brakes and I crashed.” When they buy the car they don’t have a clue. So, from that day on I started doing the ABS training. And I do that with every single student.

SCD: Your Corvettes, what speed do they reach?

BB: With our straightaway the fastest you can go is about 120mph; maybe 125 in the Z01s. Then we have the West track over here and it is all on private property. Then we have the East track along the freeway, those have longer straightaways so you can go a lot quicker with that. This main track is demanding and makes you concentrate and really work hard; then we’ll move you to the West track or the East track. Like we do in the advanced racing. We’ll advance you. If you are racing or have been racing we will teach you how to go quicker. We have done a lot of the vintage guys over time. We have been teaching vintage, but we really haven’t called it vintage, just advanced racing.

SCD: When someone is taking one of your Corvettes around, how many times do they shift?

BB: They run mainly in second and third; coming down the straightaway mainly in third or fourth, mainly in third. Down to second, then after third three times down to Maricopa you’re down to second. Coming out of Maricopa you’re in third gear up over the hill down the hill and Turn 7, Turn 8. I have students stay in third, but I’ll come down to second, you’ll get a quicker exit out of the corner, then you’re in Turn 11 and 12 in second. Come out of that and you’re in second and shift to third, and through the Carousel you’re in third shift down to second, take a left hander and back up to third gear. Then we come down the straightaway and you are downshifting and you are in Turn 1 to second. Now you can run the students in third gear all the way around. For our purposes the first thing we teach them is heel-and-toe downshifting, the most difficult thing for most drivers. Even guys who have been racing, their heel-and-toe shifting is not real smooth, so we straighten that out. Then the next thing we work on is braking and weight transfer, controlling the car with brakes and the accelerator,. One of the first things I teach them is to sit up straighter so they can feel the car better, and I have everyone sit up and take a 3-9 hammer and tighten your fist as tight as you can, your shoulders, and steer with me. Feel the way, now take a deep breath and now turn. It’s smoother. So what happens is everyone is driving fast, and they want to do the best job they can do. Somewhere in the course, if you find it too hard, the corners are real jerky, or if you are scaring the shit out of yourself, take a deep breath, relax, take your feet off the 10 percent and now you’ll be feeling better. When you’re going fast you don’t want to be gripping the wheel. When I am driving I want you to watch my hands and feet work and you can see where I am looking because you want to look where you want to go. Ken Miles was a fantastic driver. At Sebring a few years back he was coming through a fairly fast corner, there was only one little tree, he started losing it he was heading for the tree, and he wasn’t looking at the tree. You go where you look. Your hands take you there. He hit the tree. It was really embarrassing. He didn’t hurt the car too bad. You get fixated if you’re coming off the track. Take Maricopa, if you’re too deep and it’s too late to brake and you’re braking and you’re not going to make it, if you’re looking at the wall, you’ll drive to the wall. If I can get you to look further left at Maricopa, even though you’re all out of shape you won’t hit the wall. You might go through some of the sand trap, but you won’t get into the wall. Students panic, so we start them out slower, do all the basics out here in the paddock. A very important area. We have handling over there, and explain what we are doing, because that is how you teach people to drive fast, you don’t just stay on the gas and hopefully make the right apex entry and exit.

SCD: That’s the first and second day, what happens the third day?

BB: We get things going much quicker. We still ride with them and they still ride with us. And all the time I’m doing that I’m watching their hands and feet, where they are looking. Not driving into the corner too hard. When we get them quicker and smoother they settle down and they like that. It’s interesting, every time I set a good lap speed somewhere, I felt I was too slow, I was so smooth. And then I would try harder the next lap. We used to give the pit signals in the old days: “I went quick, I can go quicker,” but then I went slower. And we explain that, too.

SCD: For the first day students are in a Corvette, second day in a Corvette, third day half a day in a Corvette and finish up in a Mazda?

BB: We try to do that. Then we want to put him in his own car. Actually anyone going through the four-day Grand Prix course, for the last day and a half you can go through in your own car. And this year the same thing with the Colorado Vintage.

SCD: First day in their own car or Corvette, and you would prefer them to be in the Corvette? Second day in Corvette, three-day course, last day in a Corvette for the morning and afternoon in their own car?

BB: Third day you can run in your own car, but most everyone doesn’t want to wear out their tires and brakes. They want to spend your money. In the four-day Grand Prix course you go through a set of tires in three days.

Bob Bondurant takes the Duntov 63 Grand Sport out. Bondurant School of High Performance Driving
Bob Bondurant takes the Duntov 63 Grand Sport out. Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. (Dennis Gray)

SCD: So the third day is an option. They can run your cars or their car. But you think it is better running the Corvettes all three days because it is constant?

BB: Well If they race a single-seater, the third day they will be in our Mazda single-seater all day, might be in there—it depends how they do—all afternoon.

SCD: If somebody races a Formula 5000 they come down here to you and they spend two days in the Corvettes and you put them in the Mazdas because that is what they race, open wheels.

BB: If they race a Formula 5000 car, I would try and have them bring it out here, and then the last part of the last day I would have them run their Formula 5000. We can balance that pretty well.

SCD: The course is highly structured, but it is also highly adaptable for the vintage guys if they want to bring their own car or not. Right?

BB: Yes. I’ll always run our cars first. I’ll always drive their cars first so I know what it does and doesn’t do. And mechanically, they should really bring their mechanic, to try to sort it out. Our guys, while beautiful on any vintage car and their buddy works on it, but you don’t know what has been and not been. Like when we ran Can-Am. After every race, we would pull the car down, take all the suspension off, have a Magnaflux and Zyglo. Ironically, when I had my crash, they found the steering arm had a crack in it but you couldn’t see it, it was cracked internally. The only way I found out is I was talking to the Magnaflux and Zyglo guys who said, “We are curious to see what happened in your crash.” I asked why? They said, “We had one steering arm that had an internal crack, and we circled it in red. Did they ever replace that?” I researched it. No. And that is what broke. So that is important too.

SCD: So the guys come down here. Can you describe to me how they are going to leave?

BB: When they leave they will have learned a lot! They will always be quicker, at least two seconds a lap. Definitely three seconds quicker on our track. And they feel more comfortable and they are amazed they go quicker and they feel a lot more comfortable going quicker. With something like a Can-Am car, I need to make sure the car has been checked over thoroughly. Because it’s like my car that broke, I did not know it had a crack in it. I would say on our track the first day, all day, possibly the second day, the third day possibly the West track or the East track.

Today, Bondurant continues to teach daily at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Phoenix, Arizona. The school maintains over 200 race-prepared vehicles, sedans and open wheel cars, making it the largest facility of its kind in North America. The heart of the school is the 1.6-mile, 15-turn multi-configuration track that was designed by Bondurant to challenge and reward first-timers and pros alike.

For more information, visit Bondurant School of High Performance Driving.

[Source: Dennis Gray]