Today he’s best known for his racing school, but bacon in the 1960s Bob Bondurant was showing them how it’s done in Cobras, Corvettes and Formula 1
By Rob Widdows
This man is not a superstar. He is not a household name in Europe. But you are about to get a glimpse of why he is part of American motor racing folklore. Say Cobra, say Corvette, and you say Bob Bondurant. But there is much more to this man who was a key figure in the development of one of the great American sports cars.
As a teenager in Illinois he raced bikes on dirt ovals. “You learn a thing or two doing that, I tell ya.” But more from the man himself later. Switching to cars, and moving to the sunshine of California, he hooked up with Chevy dealer Shelly Washburn, winning 30 out of 32 races in Washburn’s Corvette between 1961 and ’63. Then Carroll Shelby called: he had a Cobra on offer, and in 1965 they won the FIA GT Championship, trouncing those “pesky Ferrari GTOs”. Then came Formula 1, Can-Am — and a life-changing accident. That’s the nutshell.
Bob doesn’t hear too well these days, probably a result of all those exhaust pipes coming back past his seat on their way from big engines. But his memory is sharp, and when it’s not, new wife Pat soon gets him back on track.
It was Carroll Shelby’s mighty Cobra that made his name in America, he and Ken Miles doing the bulk of the early testing and development. Their task was to take the Cobras to the Corvettes, and beat them, and Shelby reckoned he’d found the car for the job.
“People said it would never happen, the Corvette was unbeatable, but Shelby had really hit on something. It was lighter for a start, and the brakes were a lot better. The Corvette wasn’t great on the brakes; it weaved left and right, so you closed it down at the end of the straight.” The yankee drawl is now in full flow, Bondurant recalling his early days with a grin.
“Yeah, I was racing Corvettes, then the Cobra came along and blew us all off, and the writing was on the wall. Shelby had told me he had a Corvette-beater and when I first drove it I realised it handled better than a Corvette. But it was a different driving style — you were in a four-wheel drift a lot of the time. It was exciting to drive, and when we got into the Daytona Coupe we beat the Ferrari GTOs. We’d tried to make the roadster more aerodynamic by tilting the windshield back!” He laughs at the memory. “But that didn’t work, and the Coupe was kinda the obvious next step. The first one was built in California but the rest were made in Italy and the Italian fans weren’t too happy when we beat the Ferraris.
“I remember Dan Gurney and I were seeing 197mph on the Mulsanne at Le Mans in that Daytona Coupe, and when in 1964 Ferrari took the first three places with their prototypes we led home the rest and won the GT class. That was a great feeling. Nobody told me you had to slow down over the finish line at Le Mans so when I came over the line there were all these people coming onto the track — that was a bit scary.
“In ’65 Alan Mann ran the cars and when he met me at the airport for the first race he said to me: ‘You may want to go straight back to California — I have two English drivers, so you’re always going to be coming third.’ I thought: ‘Hey, screeeeeew you’ and sure as hell I went out at Monza and I was faster than both John Whitmore and Jack Sears. In the race I was ahead and they kept hanging out the boards telling me to slow down, slow down. So I slowed down past the pits and then caught back up again. I won the race, beat them both, and afterwards Jack said to me: ‘Hey, why didn’t you wait for us?’ I was taken aback. ‘Wait for you?’ I said. ‘I don’t know how you guys race in Europe, but in America we race to win’. And I beat them a few times after that.”
Bondurant’s speed in the Cobra had come to the attention of Enzo Ferrari, who had not been at all pleased by the pace of the American interlopers. So after the American had won another race, this time at Reims, he summoned Bondurant to a meeting in Modena.
“Wow, the God of racing wanted to see me,” chuckles Bob. “So I went to see him, and there he was behind this enormous desk with a kinda floodlight shining down on him, and John Surtees was there to translate for me. Ferrari asked me if I’d like to live in Italy and I said, ‘Si, if I’m driving Formula Uno,’ and he said, ‘Ah, no, first you drive Prototipo,’ and then he took me into the Formula 1 workshop and showed me his cars, all lined up. I said, ‘When will you let me know about driving for you? In a week, two weeks?’ and he looked at me very sternly and said, ‘I decide when I decide,’ so I guessed it was time to shut my mouth.”
A week later Bondurant went to Monza for Formula 3, having found himself a late entry in a Lotus 35 run by John Willment that people told him was underpowered. Amazingly he won.
“It was done in heats and we were four abreast through Curva Grande and slipstreaming most of the rest of the way round. Well, it had been pouring with rain and the track was still damp under the trees at the Lesmos. So I took it easy, and got up to second behind Andrea de Adamich. Then he went off through the hedge and I was leading, and I won. I couldn’t believe it. After the race [Eugenio] Dragoni was there — not my favourite team manager — but he must have put in a good word because Ferrari signed me for my first Grand Prix, at the end of 1965, at Watkins Glen [as substitute for the injured Surtees]. I’d never driven there before. They gave me a Dino with the V8; it felt real good and I got up to sixth, but my goggles blew down in the rain and I had to hold them on, steering with one hand, which put me right back. Ferrari seemed to like what I did, but Lodovico Scarfiotti drove the car in Mexico. It was dry there, and he did a better job. I raced a Lotus 33 for Reg Parnell in Mexico but it didn’t go so well.”
Earlier that year Ken Tyrrell had entered Bondurant for the Formula 3 race at Monaco in a Cooper T76-BMC. —You’re not going to be as quick as Stewart,’ he told me, but he gave me the drive and I knew I could learn a lot from him.”
Bondurant took pole for his heat and battled for the lead, in a very wet race, with Roy Pike.
“It was pouring down with rain and after about 14 laps I’d passed Peter Revson in a pretty crazy move out of the tunnel and was pushing Pike for the lead,” he recalls. “Then he spun in front of me. I had to put it sideways, and we collided, which was a shame because I knew I could beat Pike that day. I was fired up because in the paddock the day before Pike told me he was the fastest driver out there and he won all the races.
“Well, I thought, ‘We’ll see about that,’ and we very nearly did. Ken had said to me before the race: ‘If you keep pushing him [Pike], he won’t be able to stand it,’ and Ken was right. In those days, if you won the Formula 3 race in Monaco you were assured of a Formula 1 drive, and that’s what I wanted.”
And he made it, in 1966, with drives for a privately entered BRM and for Gurney’s new Anglo American Racers team. But his best result was a fourth, in the BRM at Monaco, and he finished the year with just three points.
“Yeah, I was road racing in the States, did well, but I always wanted to go up against the best in the world. Europe was where every American wanted to be, racing the top guys, and they respected you for that. I had some success and I learned a lot. And I guess that’s how I got into the movies.”
“Well I was an F1 driver, right? So John Frankenheimer called up and said he wanted me to teach James Garner how to drive Fl cars for his movie Grand Prix. We had a lot of fun. We used the Jim Russell school in England for some of it — I’m not sure Jim liked me being Garner’s teacher, but we got round it and Garner got pretty good by the end. That sequence at Monaco was very successful, I think. Later on we did some work with Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise.” As you do.
This year Bob was a guest at the Goodwood Revival for the 50th anniversary of the AC Cobra. Predictably he was in seventh heaven, surrounded by some very familiar machinery along with many of his old rivals and buddies.
“Yeah, I guess sports cars were always my big thing and it was just great to be at Goodwood. The Cobra is my car, you know, and I drove car 98, the red one which was the actual Cobra I first won with in the 1960s. The new owner was pretty surprised when I told him. I tell ya, I felt like a kid again — the vibrations, the noise, the feel of those cars. The car wasn’t set up the way I remember it, I told the guys who were running it, and…
A good-natured jab in the ribs interrupts his flow. It’s his wife.
“Hey, Bob, you aren’t set up the way you used to be either…”
“Anyway, the set-up on the Cobra. Ken Miles and I did so many miles of testing, we knew those cars inside out, back to front. Sitting in old 98 I looked around me, saw Dan Gurney, Jack Sears, all those guys, and I don’t see them how they are now, I don’t see the grey hair and stuff, I see them as I knew them back then. That’s a kinda special feeling. So, yeah, Goodwood was just so great, to be back with those cars and all those friends, to see people like Jacky Ickx who was a hero of mine.”
At this point wife Pat interjects again.
“His real hero is Juan Manuel Fangio. An entire wall of his office is just covered with pictures of Fangio.”
“You know, he was standing there in Monaco when I crashed with Pike in that F3 race and afterwards he invited me to do the Temporada Series in Argentina. That was something, especially the old circuit in Buenos Aires.”
Not everything in the life of Bob Bondurant has been quite so hunky-dory. In 1967 a steering arm broke on his McLaren in a Can-Am race at Watkins Glen. The car rolled; he was badly hurt, and he was told he’d probably never walk again. But while recuperating he had an idea.
“I thought about the teaching with James Garner and reckoned I could start a pretty decent driving school under my own name. So we started at Orange County Raceway and Nissan came in as a partner,” he tells me, handing me a card for the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Arizona where Chevrolet and Goodyear are now his partners in what is still a very successful venture.
Now 79 years old, Bondurant only recently married the aforementioned Pat.
“Why don’t you tell him about our wedding, honey?” she says to him but looking at me.
And what is interesting about a wedding?
Well, it’s about where they got married. We’re back in Monaco again, and Bob is laughing.
“We’d been invited to the race and Pat went looking for a local wedding planner. I said, let’s get married on the track. I always loved the place, so we went to see Bernie. ‘It’ll never happen, Bob’, he said. ‘It just won’t happen, there’s no way’. But hey, the circuit was open to foot traffic on the Friday, so we did it, got married out there on the track just before Rascasse. How about that? The following day I knocked on Bernie’s door, told him we did it, and he was amazed. I told him, ‘Bernie, you should know racers never give up.’ I had to tell him, the pictures were already in the local newspaper, and there were a lot of people there.”
As he says, racers never give up, and this one shows no sign of giving up any time soon. He has been called ‘America’s Uncrowned World Driving Champion’ and while that may be something of an exaggeration, Bob Bondurant has rightly taken his place in the USA’s pantheon of top-line international racers.