If You Want to Race, This Is the Place : Motor racing: Bob Bondurant has a pretty impressive list of pupils who have gone through his driving schools over the past 22 years.
What Bob Bondurant started 22 years ago as a part-time business for a crippled race driver--a driving school at Orange County Raceway with three Datsuns and a Formula Vee--has turned into a multimillion dollar school for high performance driving near Phoenix where movie actors, bank presidents, police chiefs and everyday folks learn to drive, as well as race drivers.
Paul Newman, James Garner and Clint Eastwood were early pupils of Bondurant’s. So were Rick Mears, Don Garlits, Bill Elliott and Al Unser Jr. And Robin Yount, Elke Sommer and Candice Bergen.
Donald Petersen, then president of the Ford Motor Co., attended Bondurant’s class and when he graduated, it signaled the start of Ford as the official car of the school. A fleet of the latest V-8 Mustang GTs and single-seat Crossle Formula Fords are used in the class room.
The Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, which started on the Orange County dragstrip in Feburary 1968, moved to Orange Motor Speedway in 1970 and north to Sears Point International Raceway, near Sonoma, Calif., in 1973, is now located at Firebird International Raceway, 15 miles south of Phoenix.
Bondurant took lessons in driving a bulldozer before personally building a 1.6-mile course for his school on ground adjacent to an existing road course. The two can be hooked up to make a 2.6-mile race course. He also built a $1.2 million facility that includes offices, classrooms, garages and a 10-acre asphalt skid pad. It is also night-lighted for after dark instruction.
Firebird Raceway, which is operated by former drag racing champion Charlie Allen, also includes a National Hot Rod Assn. drag strip and Firebird Lake, a drag-boat racing facility.
“Moving to Firebird, and being able to start from scratch so I could incorporate all the ideas I developed while at Ontario and Sears Point makes this a dream come true,” Bondurant said. “It also helps having Charlie Allen as the proprietor because he’s been a racer, and I’ve been a racer, so he can relate to what I need.”
Bondurant helped Carroll Shelby win the world manufacturers championship in a Cobra in 1965, drove Eagles for Dan Gurney, Ferraris and BRMs in Formula One and a Can-Am McLaren for Paul Newman before he decided that teaching was more profitable--and safer--than racing. He also worked with Newman in the racing film “Winning” and with Garner in “Grand Prix.”
The decision to open a driving school came while Bondurant was recovering from injuries suffered in a USRRC race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 1967.
“I was driving a Can-Am McLaren and I was running third when the steering broke just as I was coming out of a high-speed turn onto the straightaway,” Bondurant recalled. “I went into a slide going about 130 (m.p.h.) and slid into sort of an earthen guardrail. It had rained the night before and that may have saved my life.
“The last thing I remember is seeing the dirt coming at me and thinking, ‘Bondurant, this is going to be a bad one.’ They tell me the car flipped end over end eight times.”
Doctors told Bondurant that he might never be able to walk again, his legs were so badly mangled.
“All I could think of was ‘What am I going to do?’ and each time I thought about it, the more the idea of starting a driving school kept popping up. I had taught Garner and some other guys for “Grand Prix,” and I’d enjoyed it. So when I got out of the hospital, I started my first school with a Datsun 510, a 1600 and a 2000 roadster. The office and classroom was a VW camper.”
Three years after the accident, Bondurant had recovered sufficiently enough to resume racing, but he never let the driving school drop.
“I knew I wasn’t going to drive forever, and after struggling the first couple of years I actually began to make money,” he said.
After 13 years with Datsun, Bondurant changed manufacturers after Ford’s Peterson went through the course.
“I asked him why he enrolled,” Bondurant said, “and he said he had been an engineer, and when people asked him why such and such an idea was used, he wanted to answer them from a driver’s viewpoint. He found out what I’ve been preaching was right, that the capabilities of most cars are way above the capabilities of most drivers, and that was what we try to even out.
“He was so impressed that he had a number of other company executives, including Edsel Ford, take the course, and it led to Ford coming along as my major sponsor.”
In addition to his school, Bondurant also is a consumer adviser to Ford, traveling around the country promoting safe and advanced driving skills among dealer personnel and consumer groups.
Bondurant estimates that about 40,000 students have taken one or more of his courses during the past 17 years at Sears Point, a figure he expects to grow at Firebird.
“At Sears Point, because of the testing and the racing, I was only able to use the track about four days a week. At Firebird, with my own track separate from the race track, I can operate seven days a week. That should be a big help, especially for people who want to go to class on weekends.”
When Bondurant vacates Sears Point next month, the Skip Barber Racing Schools will open a West Coast headquarters there. Barber has been operating part-time schools at Riverside, Willow Springs and Las Vegas, but will make Sears Point one of four permanent home bases. The others are in Lime Rock Park in Connecticut, where the school was founded in 1975; Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.; and Sebring, Fla.