The news that surfaced in October 2018 sent shock waves through the motorsport community, that the acclaimed Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving was up for sale following a tumultuous Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The driving academy was founded a half century ago by Bondurant, a champion racing driver whose career was cut short because of injuries suffered in a crash. The school is known for providing professional instruction for race drivers, celebrities, police officers, teens and anyone else who wants to hone their skills at the wheel, all based on the car-control fundamentals developed by Bondurant and taught on a track of his own design.
But in recent years, the Chandler, Arizona, school hit hard times. By 2018, it was swimming in debt and operating on a shoestring with a cut-back contingent of instructors and support crew, and with facilities badly in need of expensive repairs. There was a walkout by employees who claimed hostile working conditions.
Things did not look good for the future of the school, still headed by Bondurant along with his wife, Pat, and many were concerned that it would close down for good. Even so, classes continued throughout most of the difficult time, most students unaware of the drama going on behind the scenes.
In January, an investor group comprising three businessmen and avid racing enthusiasts started negotiating to buy the school. By May, the deal was done and Stig Investments – named after the anonymous pro driver in the Top Gear TV show – had bought the entire operation for $1.675 million.
Things moved quickly after that. Bruce Belser, one of the three buyers along with Jeff Hunter and Pat Velasco, acted as chief executive after the sale, assessing the physical condition of the property and estimating that another $3 million would need to be spent on building repairs and track resurfacing.
The team negotiated new contracts with the Gila River Indian Community, on whose land just south of Phoenix the complex is located, and with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which since 2015 has provided such cars as Dodge Vipers and SRT Hellcats, as well as Fiat 124 sports cars, for driving instruction, along with support services and event sponsorship.
In October, Stig hired a new chief executive and general manager, Franki Buckman, for the school, which was renamed the Bondurant High Performance Driving School. She now leads strategic planning as well as the team of employees, with goals to expand the offerings at the academy.
Drag-racing classes already have been added to the curriculum, and Formula 4 instruction starting in 2020 was recently announced.
Throughout 2019, the roar of high-performance engines continued unabated as classes and special events were held at the school. Now, the Bondurant instructors and staff feel that the danger has been averted and things are back on an even keel.
“Right now, it’s almost a sigh of relief,” said Bondurant’s long-time chief instructor Mike McGovern shortly after the sale was made. “The new owners are great people and they’re excited about it and we’re all excited about it, so we’re all looking forward to the future, and all the potentials that are there, that this school can be great again.”
The Bondurant school was back in the news recently as word came out that actor Christian Bale had gone through the driving classes in preparation for his role in the film Ford v. Ferrari. He also had lengthy conversations with Bob Bondurant, 86, who back in the day competed on the world’s race tracks along with Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles and other racing legends.
And in November, another Hollywood celebrity landed at the school as actor and activist Gary Sinise held a fund-raiser at the facility for his foundation that supports veterans, first responders and their families. The school also announced that the Gary Sinise Foundation would become its official non-profit partner.