That’s young Bob Bondurant...
That’s young Bob Bondurant on his grandmother’s porch in Westwood Village. Can you guess what he wants to be when he grows up?
The Great Depression altered countless lives and maybe some for the better. Bob Bondurant was born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1933. Bob’s father owned a car dealership that sold fast cars in nearby Chicago; very fast cars—Cords to be exact.
The Depression caused Mr. Bondurant (and Cord) to fall victim to hard times when he lost his business, telling the family, we’re going to move as far west as we can. They moved to Westwood Village, near Beverly Hills, when Bob was 3 years old. Bob’s father bounced back, becoming a surgical instrument sale representative once in California.
Certainly Bob’s life was altered for the better as he was a bona fide Californian now going to Union High School in Westwood. More importantly, he was in hot rod country that flourished 365 days a year rather than the “Windy City” area whose average temp was 49 degrees F.
“I was always into cars and motorcycles. My dad took me to Gilmore Stadium when I was 7 to watch the races and that got me interested in racing. I delivered the Hollywood newspaper on my Schwinn bicycle,” Bob begins. “I did a jump on my bike and the springer fork came off and I went end-over-end, put the fork back together, and rode home. I talked my mom into letting me get a Whizzer motor bike. I paid for it with my paper route money. The Whizzer got me into two wheels and from there I got a 125cc James two-stroke motorcycle. It was really cool because I could do wheelies with it. There was a Harley motorcycle shop near where I lived and they wanted to ride my James motorcycle and do wheelies with it. I said, ‘OK if you let me ride your Harley’, there was a vacant lot and we made an oval out of it which had some jumps. That’s how I learned to ride motorcycles,” Bob laughs.
How far removed was Bob’s...
How far removed was Bob’s mean ’n’ nasty chopped ’34 coupe that he raced at Santa Ana Drag Strip (plus many a street race) than the equally nasty Cobra Daytona coupe? OK, the ’34 had whitewalls.
“A buddy’s mother would go to the movies every Thursday night. She had a Chrysler. He called me asking, ‘Do you know how to drive?’ Oh sure! I was riding motorcycles but I hadn’t driven a car yet. I learned to drive in my buddy’s mom’s Chrysler,” Bob chuckles.
“I talked my mom into letting me get a ’32 Chevy roadster when I was in junior high; at 14 you could get a Junior Operating License. She said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I told her it didn’t work. A buddy had a car so we towed it with a rope around a corner to my house and the rear wheels came off. The only thing wrong with it was the head and manifold were off. I had it running in two days. Me and my buddies drove all over in that thing. I bought it for $40.”
Bob acquired the ultimate for any hot rodder, a severely chopped ’34 Ford three-window coupe: “I found a chopped-and-channeled ’34 coupe on a used car lot and I went drag racing with it at Santa Ana. It was boring because you’d run down the dragstrip—that part was great, but then it took a half-hour before you got to do it again.”
Bob later had a ’40 Ford he drag raced at Santa Ana, but Bob, ever the hot rodder, was ready to slow down the pace a bit with one cool street cruiser, a tail-draggin’ ’41 Ford custom. “It had Edelbrock heads and intake manifold, plus a light flywheel; it was a sleeper.
“We moved near Pasadena to La Cañada by the Angeles Crest Highway. We used to go to my aunt’s house for Christmas dinner and my cousin had a big four-door Jag Mark VII. I took his Jag up the mountain road—it handled really well, much better than my Ford. He talked me into going to a sports car race at the Santa Barbara airport course. I’d never been to one before and I really liked watching them race.
“My mom and dad had divorced, then mom died when I was 16. I moved to Bishop, California, where I was living with my Aunt Ella.
Ah sure, Bob was one of those...
Ah sure, Bob was one of those future tea bagger sporty-car chaps. Why he probably had a spot of tea waiting for him just after he got off his ’45 Harley. Fact is, Bob raced motorcycles on dirt tracks like Carrell Speedway and knew few of his fellow competitors grew old doing it. Sports car racing was Bob’s entry into becoming a professional and he went for it.
“There was a road on the outskirts of Bishop off Highway 2 where there was a dirt oval track that ran jalopy races. I was taking my buddy around the track and said, ‘This is really great isn’t it?’ He didn’t answer. He’d fallen out of the car! I got a Model A roadster body and frame from Economy Auto Wrecking in Bishop and put it together. I lived in Bishop about a year.”
After graduating from high school, Bob dug ditches and unloaded furniture trucks at Bekins Van Lines, then later on, sold Corvettes to finance his racing. “I even tried selling insurance once, but that was boring.”
When Bob was 18 he started racing motorcycles at Carrell and Culver City Speedways: “In those days you didn’t have brakes; you went faster without brakes on the bikes. I was going with a girl who I liked a lot, but she said, ‘If we’re going to get married you’re going to have to stop racing motorcycles. It’s either me or the motorcycle.’ If you put it that way, I have to race.”
Bob made the big bucks—$8 a night because he was in the novice class. He was going to a motorcycle shop in Glendale where Don Bachtold worked—he was a top motorcycle mechanic. “Bachtold built a special motor and said, ‘Why don’t you take that little motor out of your bike and put this one in’? I raced an Indian 101 Scout motorcycle at De Anza Park in Riverside. I checked the board to see where I qualified; I wasn’t on the Novice board. I said where am I? ‘You qualified Expert, you were the quickest.’ I had learned how to ride the bike by now. I raced that bike for a long time.”
Bob raced motorcycles on a regular basis, but he didn’t want to be on a first-name basic with his orthopedic surgeon like many he raced against. Of course since Bob was an experienced dirt racer he could have picked up a used Midget or Sprinter and gone that route. But that was during a period when fatalities were commonplace … it was a dangerous business. Always in the back of his mind was going to Santa Barbara to watch the sports cars races, so Bob decided to try racing sports cars.
Bob turned heads (quickly)...
Bob turned heads (quickly) on the racecourses of Europe as they sped by at speed, but there was a time and a place for speed. His chopped custom was meant to turn heads alright—girl’s—as Bob slowly cruised to the Piccadilly Drive In. “A bunch of us hung out at the Piccadilly Drive-In on Sepulveda Boulevard to check out the girls and the hot rods. After, we’d street race on Sepulveda Saturday nights because it had a long straightaway. One guy would be the lookout and if the cops were coming he’d flash his lights and we’d take off in different directions. I never got caught,” Bob laughs.
That’s the Motor?
“I went to the Cal Club (California Sports Car Club) and said I wanted to go racing. ‘Do you have a license?’ ‘No.’ I handed them $5, they handed me a Competition License and said, ‘Now you can go racing.’ There were no driving schools then,” Bob laughs. He bought a British two-seater Morgan Plus 4 with four cylinders that put out 68 hp and raced it for a year, graduating to a Triumph TR2 with a blazing 90 horses stock.
You’re right, that’s “tea bagger” stuff … but wait! There’s a definite correlation between Dan Gurney’s budding start and Bob’s. Both raced Triumphs and both raced Corvettes, which got the attention of wealthy car owners who put them in their Ferraris and Maseratis.
When Bob stepped up to the Big Bore crowd and purchased a ’57 Vette with a fuel-injected, 190hp, 283 ci that had been successfully raced by Arcadia resident Jerry Austin, that’s when his racing career took off.
Bob was racing at Riverside Raceway when the crank broke in the Vette. He didn’t have the money to fix it but his motorcycle mechanic friend Don who built the hot motor for his 101 Scout came to the rescue. Bob happened on a used car lot where Don was working.
“I hadn’t seen Don in a few years and told him I’d parked the Vette because I didn’t have the money to fix it. He said you buy the crank and I’ll put the motor back together, and for every race you win I won’t charge you. (How’s that for motivation?) He put the motor back together and it ran strong. We started winning races. In those days there were as many as 35 Vettes on the track at the same time. There was a lot of fiberglass flying.”
Early on, when it came to...
Early on, when it came to racing Bob set his sights high. Bob mastered his craft on motorcycles by jumping his 125cc dirt bike then evolved to flat-track racing his Harley on the local dirt tracks, to sports cars and finally to the highest level of international racing, Formula 1.
Bob won 18 out of 20 races in 1959 in the ’57, which smartly won Bob the “B” Production Championship and “Best Corvette Driver of the Year” in 1959. That’s when other car owners took notice of Bob’s driving ability.
The pair needed money to race so Bob and Don went to work for Peyton Cramer who owned Dana Chevrolet in South Gate, known for its high-performance Corvettes, as well Camaros. “They had a used car lot there, Don worked on the cars and I sold used Corvettes.”
Dick Guildstrand of Guildstrand Motorsports in Burbank was the manager: “Dana was number one in sales on the West Coast because we were racing,” Guildstrand states. “The whole difference was the crowds who gathered around the Corvette with Dana Chevrolet on the door at the races and who sold cars. The other dealers weren’t racing like we were. We had a meeting with Peyton Cramer and he wanted to go to Le Mans in 1967 and I said we gotta get one of the new L88s.” (That was the 427 with solid lifers, aluminum heads—just one bad-glass, 500-horse Vette capable of 170-plus mph down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans.)
Look for the Burning Ferraris
“I had never been to Europe before so it was exciting to be able to race there,” Guildstrand continues. “We get off the plane at the Paris-Orly Airport and there was just a small diesel truck but no trailer and an Opel waiting for us. We barely got the spare parts in the truck.”
No question, Bob was a stone...
No question, Bob was a stone hot rodder and it was hard to break the habit with as many Flathead Fords that he owned, like this ’50 Shoebox Ford. Certainly, Bob was last guy you’d think would buy a sports car, but Bob’s decision to race on a regular basis meant a sports car was a means to an end.
Guildstrand and Bob decided to fill the Corvette’s tank with essence (fuel) and drive it to Le Mans. “It wouldn’t idle under 70 mph. We’re blasting down the road in a red, white, and blue Corvette with the side exhaust pipes making a huge amount of noise down a lot of dirt roads. Of course we’re blowing dirt up in the air from the exhaust so you could see us coming. One little Gendarme (French police officer) was standing on a box directing cars at this traffic circle and saw us coming right at him in a cloud of dust … you can imagine the noise. We damn near blew him off the box but he gives us this great big French salute. (The two Yanks didn’t realize the French national colors are blue, white, and red, which might have had something to do with the salute.)
“We got there two days before the race and the GT 40 Ford guys opened up their great big trailers and let us use the machine shop to make stuff and weld … they had a huge effort.”
Bob knew the circuit well, having raced Le Mans in 1964, winning the GT Class in a Ford Daytona Coupe with Dan Gurney. Guildstrand asked Bob how to tell when he was approaching the Tertre Rouge corner at the end of the long (4381 feet) Mulsanne Straight at night. Bob says, “Look for the burning Ferraris.”
Guildstrand set a record of 171.5 mph down the Mulsanne. After 13 hours their lone Corvette packed it in with a broken wrist pin. “We still finished 17th, we were that far ahead,” Guildstrand laughs.
Bob’s first entry into Formula 1 was one that almost took his life in the ill-fated ATS Grand Prix Car he was about to drive on one of the deadliest tracks in racing—Monza. ATS was formed by disenchanted team members who broke away from Ferrari, including Phil Hill.
Over the years 52 drivers and 35 spectators have lost their lives on the 3.6-mile track. Bob was told that the high-speed corner, Curve Grande, was taken flat-out. Of course it would take some laps before he would build his confidence not to lift.
Many Formula 1 drivers felt it was better to be thrown clear than be in the car when it crashed; in fact belts weren’t mandatory until 1972. Masten “Kansas City Flash” Gregory, another American who drove in F1, once stood up in the seat of his car and jumped out just before impact. Gregory was at Monza instructing Bob on the difficult course.
If you got it, flaunt it....
If you got it, flaunt it. Bob didn’t just pop the hood, he lost the hood to show off his Flatty. “My buddy Jim ‘Jake’ Jacobs clued me in on the manifold (he has one). ‘Edelbrock Regular’ is stamped on the intake that Vic Sr. elevated so the Strombergs could clear the generator 4 inches. Jake says it didn’t do anything to increase performance. Yeah Jim, but it looked racy.” (Later Mr. Edelbrock fabbed a bracket to move the generator out of the way allowing the 97s to drop down.)
“I decided that when I went to Europe, I was somehow going to get a testdrive in a Formula 1 car. It turned out to be the ATS at Monza, Italy. If I did well on the testdrive, I’d be driving the car the following year.
“I figured the ATS wasn’t as fast as the Ferraris and after a few laps I began taking the corner flat-out at 150 mph. They gave me the signal to pull in and I decided to take one more lap.”
As Bob went through the corner the rear axle broke sending him off the course backward and down a ravine. He was thrown out of the car. After he regained consciousness, Bob crawled out of the ravine, saw the hole in the hedge where the car went through—it was sitting with the windscreen and rollbar sheared off. (You can judge by this account how quickly the safety crews got to Bob.) He was flown to England to receive medical attention.
“If I’d been strapped in the car I would have been decapitated. Do you wear belts or not? I read later the axles were the weakest part of the ATS.” In Bob’s case, not wearing a belt saved his life.
Formula 1 came to the United States on a course steeped with racing history dating back to 1956: Watkins Glen. Located in the Catskills of New York, the Grand Prix was held at the “Glen” in 1961 and continued until 1980.
It was in October 1965 that Bob drove a V-8–powered Formula 1 Ferrari for the North American Racing Team entered by Luigi Chinetti, the U.S. Ferrari distributor. This comes under the heading of “this stuff doesn’t happen today!” Instead of being kept at the track garages, the Ferrari F1 cars were at a Chevy dealer in town. When the transporter to take Bob’s car to the circuit didn’t arrive, it was decided that Bob should drive the Ferrari to the track.
Bob and his ’46 should have...
Bob and his ’46 should have been on the “California Dreaming” album cover of the Mommas and Papas because his top-down, cruisin’ around town on a winter’s day ragtop nailed the lyrics. Bob’s lowered Ford in front of his mom’s house with twice-pipes, primer spots, wide-whites, and soon-to-be custom taillights had that “take your girl to a drive- in chick flick” written all over it.
Bob must’ve pinched himself: it was one thing to cruise the streets in his hot rod, but in a Formula 1 Ferrari! Bob had never driven a Grand Prix Ferrari at all, and now he was about to go cruising not only through town, but out through the countryside to the track in a full-blown F1 car. How many sharing the road with Bob that day did double takes to make sure they saw what they thought they saw? “What a great feeling,” was Bob’s comment on the occasion.
The Scottish World Champion, Jim Clark, was on the pole with a time of 1:11.35 around the 2.3-mile circuit. Bob’s time was 1:12.9, which put him on the outside of the seventh row next to Jochen Rindt from Germany (Rindt was killed at Monza in 1970).
It’s important to note that Bob was driving an eight-cylinder Ferrari while the factory drivers had V-12s. Bob had a faster qualifying speed than Pedro Rodriguez at 1:13.0 in the 12-cylinder Ferrari. During the race it started to rain; it was cold with 40-mph winds. (But this was Formula 1, it’s supposed to rain, be windy, and cold.)
After 12 laps Bob moved up to Eighth from his starting position of 14th on a completely wet track. With the wind, plus rain, Bob’s goggles were blowing off his face; the elastic strap had stretched and at one point his goggles blew down around his chin with the wind gusts. Being new, he was unaware the drivers carried spare goggles around their neck. Bob had trouble seeing but by turning his face into the wind, the goggles would stay pressed against his face as long as he kept one finger on them while shifting with his other hand and grabbing the steering with his knees.
The veteran F1 guys were spinning out; Bob being a newcomer to F1, but a seasoned dirt-tracker, weathered the storm, so to speak. Jack Brabham spun, Rindt spun twice, Bob worked his way through the spinning field driving a masterful race considering his handicap, and finished Ninth. Graham Hill won the event in a BRM.
Bob would soon learn what...
Bob would soon learn what it was like to drive an F1 car, how fragile they were, as well as how dangerous Monza in Italy was in 1965. Bob was told most of the top drivers took one particular corner flat-out at 150 mph. It took some laps before Bob felt comfortable doing so. When he did, the rear axle of the ATS GP car broke, it hit an embankment, and he was thrown out. Bob did not wear a seat belt. “The windscreen and the rollbar were sheared off. If I had been strapped in, I would have been decapitated.”
Twice, Bob was badly injured, not from driver error, but from mechanical failure. It could happen again, if it did and the results were worse, how would he make a living, Bob wondered?
Lying in the hospital bed with broken bones didn’t break his desire to get back on track, in more ways than one. Bob formulated a plan to open a high-performance driving school. After all, he tutored the likes of actor James Garner during the filming in 1966 for his role in Grand Prix, and enjoyed passing on what he’d learned driving race cars to Rockford (who became a gifted race car driver in his own right), and the other actors in the film.
Bob realized his dream, opening the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving at Orange County Raceway on Valentine’s Day 1968 with a Vee-Dub van (minus the peace signs and daisies), a Datsun 510, and a Formula V for starters.
In the interim, Bob did get back on track (or the horse so to speak), knowing he had a growing business to fall back on should anything catastrophic happen again, entering a Can-Am race June 1970 driving a Chevy Lola T160.
When Ontario Motor Speedway opened in 1970, Bob moved his school to the $25 million complex, but the track’s troubled management forced him to then move to Sears Point, north of Frisco, which he outgrew, then finally to Firebird International Raceway in Chandler, Arizona. Bob’s fleet has grown to 200 race-prepared Cads, Vettes (naturally), open-wheel Formula cars, and karts.
Bob came in Fourth, driving...
Bob came in Fourth, driving a privately entered V-16 British Racing Motors (BRM) Formula 1 Car at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1966 for Team Chamaco Collect against the factory BRM enters of Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill. Stewart won the race with Lorenzo Bandini finising Second in a Ferrari, World Champion Graham Hill Three in a BRM, and Bob Fourth. Not too shabby for a guy who raced flat-track Harleys.
Bob competed in 36 different events after his crash up to 2004, which included Daytona, 24 Hour of Le Mans, Nurburgring, Germany, and the Sebring 12 Hour. At 62, Bob grabbed a Third place podium finish at Road Atlanta in a Saleen Mustang in 1995.
Bob’s massive 60-acre complex in Arizona is designed to show students the fastest and safest way around the 1.6-mile road course. Since Bob has never stopped racing (he still enters vintage events), he still has some sneaky moves his experienced instructors have never seen before.
Bob is living a hot rodder’s fantasy; he can race anytime he damn-well pleases and the only red lights in his mirrors are the cop cars on the track taking his Law Enforcement training class. Bob is definitely the kid who owns the candy story!
Bob learned to drive in his buddy’s mom’s Chrysler that they sorta borrowed. The next thing you know, he’s driving a Cobra down a dark straightaway at 190-plus mph in France, not once, but for hours. Bob might’ve thought, if just for an instant, if the guys at the Piccadilly could only see me now! Bob should be an inspiration to anyone who has a dream … he followed his.
Bob went from racing on Southern...
Bob went from racing on Southern California’s (relatively safe) airport courses outlined with hay bales and snow fencing to racing though perilous public mountain roads and hairpin curves in Europe. Bystanders lined the 45-mile-long course on the island of Sicily at the tip of Italy where Bob and co-driver John Whitmore drove a pre-production GT 40 Spyder in the 1965 Targa Florio endurance road race. Bob placed the Prototype as high as Fourth before, on lap 9 of the 10-lap race, he hit some loose gravel spread by another car and smacked a wall, tearing off the front wheel.
This extraordinary photograph...
This extraordinary photograph captures the fatigue, the relief, and the jubilation showing on the faces of Bob and Dan Gurney winning the GT III category for the United States in the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe, a full lap ahead of the Fifth place 250 GTO Ferrari after 24 grueling hours. The scuttlebutt was the two hot rodders from Southern California driving a small-block Ford hot rod didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Ferrari at Le Mans. The emotions of the moment have stayed with them both all their lives, not just finishing Fourth in class, but finishing Fourth overall in June 1964. (That wasn’t a Ford or Shelby man about to whisper congratulations into Bob’s ear, but the Porsche racing director Fritz Huschke von Hanstine, saying to call him if Bob ever wanted to drive for Porsche. Bob later took the “Racing Baron” up on his offer.)