Somehow, it had all come full circle, that actor Christian Bale, who would play racing legend Ken Miles in the film Ford v Ferrari, would take driving lessons at the Bondurant High Performance Driving School in Arizona in preparation for his role.
Champion race driver Bob Bondurant was there when the action depicted in Ford v Ferrari actually took place, a friend and competitor of Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill and other motorsport greats of the era.
In 1965, Bondurant won the FIA Manufacturers’ World Championship for Shelby American and Ford, driving the Cobra Daytona coupe to beat out the Ferrari 250 GTOs that previously had reigned. Bondurant’s name is mentioned several times in the film, and he and Miles were known to have been buddies.
He also had a deep connection with training movie actors to drive race cars; two of the first students when he opened his school in 1968 in Southern California were Paul Newman and Robert Wagner, who were taught how to drive race cars in preparation for the film Winning. Dozens of other celebrities, and many future pro drivers, trained at his school over the years.
So, there was some sense of a deep-rooted back story as Bale took lessons from the Bondurant school’s lead instructor, Rob Knipe.
“He came in for the four-day Grand Prix road racing class, which is our flagship class,” Knipe said. “It offers three days in our (Dodge Challenger) Hellcat and a fourth day in our Formula Mazda, a pure race car and a great way to finish what you learn.”
Knipe had been contacted by Robert Nagle, the movie’s stunt coordinator, who told him that an actor would arrive for lessons, but didn’t say who it would be. When Knipe saw it was Christian Bale, he said he was excited to teach the actor he knew from the Batman films.
“I said, OK, cool, it’s Batman,” he recalled, adding with a laugh, “I wish I had a trade there: You let me drive the Batmobile and I’ll teach you to be a racecar driver.”
Knipe said Bale was a great student, eager to learn and understanding of the nuanced performance-driving lessons that were being taught.
“He was one of those guys, very in tune at working what he could get out of it. Like a sponge,” the instructor said. “He was super easy to teach. You’d tell him change something and he’d change it. He was very adaptive.
“He definitely takes his job seriously, as you can tell by his acting and stuff. He was trying to understand every little piece that he could.”
Bale is known to be a “method” actor, fully immersing himself in a role. The Bondurant experience also fed into that since he was able to spend plenty of time with the 86-year-old Bob Bondurant, hearing stories of how it was back then and what the racing people were really like.
The training classes were held early in the day, Knipe explained, because it was summer in Chandler, Arizona, and the temperatures were hitting 110 degrees later in the day. Bale would leave the specialized track around 2:30 or 3 p.m., he said, and then go spend hours in conversation with Bondurant.
“I don’t know how he retained it all but he was getting as much information as possible,” Knipe said.
Bondurant even took Bale on a fast lap on the tightly winding course, which the veteran driver designed before opening the school in Arizona in 1990. The hot lap caused some trepidation among the instructors, Knipe said, because Bondurant is known to be losing his eyesight.
“Bob getting older and can’t see as well,” he said. “But he wanted to drive Christian on the race track.”
Bale had been driving a Ford GT40 like the one he would drive for filming, and that’s what Bondurant used for the thrill ride.
“Christian Bale and a high-end car – so I was a little bit nervous,” Knipe said. “But Bob took him for a ride and I think he did pretty good because he came back in one piece.
“He knows the track so well that he doesn’t really need to see it. But it can be nerve wracking for us.”
Knipe recently saw the movie and was impressed, particularly with the racing action. He also was impressed with how Bale positioned himself correctly behind the wheel in the in-car shots, as well as perform driving scenes with confidence.
In the movie, Bale appeared to react in the right way to crashes that happened in front of him on the track, not looking at the wreckage but instead seeking an escape route, which is something taught at the school, Knipe added.
“This was the stuff that Bob was teaching us when we first came to Bondurant,” he said. “When something happens in front of us, it’s natural to look at it. But if I look at the crash, I am now part of the crash. What we teach at Bondurant is to look beyond, as far ahead as you can. So if something happens, then you can plan a safe way out.
“There were a lot those parts in the movie, when he had to avoid the whole situation. He might have felt that, what we taught him, and applied it to the movie itself.”
Knipe also said he liked that the movie did not rely on computer graphics for action sequences, including the crash scenes, but staged them in actuality.
Knipe said he had a sense of pride while sitting in the theater watching the movie, that he had been part of it, just as Bob Bondurant had been with actors years ago.
“It was an honor, to be sure,” Knipe said. “Just having a little piece of behind the scenes was way cool.
“It was even an honor for Christian to go for a ride with Bob Bondurant.”