Champion racing driver Bob Bondurant, who returned from injuries sustained in a crash that ended his racing career to create an iconic school of “high performance driving,” has died in Paradise Valley, Arizona, at the age of 88.
While Bondurant was well-known in the 1960s for his dominating driving skill that brought him championship trophies and a coveted spot on Carroll Shelby’s racing team, he later became best-known to the public as the founder and proprietor of the groundbreaking Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving.
A cause of death was not revealed in an obituary from the family, but Bondurant had been in an assisted-living facility in the Phoenix area for some time.
Bondurant’s story is one of resounding success against all odds, working his way up from humble beginnings in motorcycle racing, rising to the top among American racing stars, and then turning a crippling injury into a life-fulfilling opportunity.
In 1963, impressed by Bondurant’s success in West Coast sports car racing, mainly in Corvettes, Shelby asked Bondurant to join his Ford-powered Cobra team. In 1964, Bondurant went with the team to Europe to drive Cobras, competing at Spa, the Nurgurgring, and in the Targa Florio.
Driving the Cobra Daytona coupe, newly designed by young visionary Peter Brock, Bondurant and Dan Gurney won the GT class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a stunning victory and a first for an American team. Bondurant followed that in 1965 by helping Shelby’s team win the FIA Manufacturer’s Championship.
He was at the top of the racing game by 1967, having driven to victory in a multitude of Corvettes, Cobras, prototypes and other competition machines, including winning in Europe in the company of such American racing heroes as Shelby, Gurney and Phil Hill.
“From the age of 23 to 34, Bob became one of the most iconic race car drivers in the world,” according to the obituary information. “He had won the National Corvette title, Le Mans GT, the World Championship and the Baja 500. Between 1961 and 1963, he won 30 out of 32 races in Corvettes.
“Bob is the first and only American to bring the World Sports Car Championship trophy home to America in the legendary Shelby Daytona Coupe #26. He then rose to the highest level in racing with Ferrari in Formula 1 and prototypes.”
Bondurant left F1 where he was just beginning to excel so that he could race in the fast and aggressive Can-Am series, along with close friend and team driver Peter Revson.
He was driving a Lola T70 Mark II at Watkins Glen on June 23, 1967, when everything suddenly changed. A steering arm broke at 150 mph, causing a violent crash in which the car rolled eight times. Bondurant was fortunate to survive, but among his various serious injuries was terrible damage to both feet.
Bondurant recalled later that one of his first questions to doctors was when he could drive again. They replied that he should worry instead about whether he would ever walk again.
(Note that Peter Revson was killed in 1974 in a tragically similar crash during practice for the South African Grand Prix, when a front-suspension failure on the Shadow DN3 he was driving caused the car to crash heavily into the track’s barrier wall.)
During the months of recuperation that followed the Watkins Glen crash, Bondurant pondered what should follow the end of his racing career. In his hospital bed, he mapped out plans for a driving school like none other, one that would teach students the finer points of car control, whether they were experienced or budding racers, or regular drivers who wanted to hone their everyday skills.
Bondurant already had experience as a driving coach, having taught actor James Garner how to drive on a race track so that he could perform with a realistic portrayal of a Formula 1 driver for the acclaimed movie Grand Prix, directed by John Frankenheimer.
Shelby had established a small performance-driving school at Riverside Raceway in California but was about ready to give it up, just in time for Bondurant to take it over. While Shelby had used three Mustangs for his student cars, they weren’t included in the deal, and Bondurant started his school using three Datsuns.
Datsun even featured Bondurant in an ad for 510 sedans:
As the story goes, when the school opened in 1968, he had three students. The following week, he had two more, but they were A-list Hollywood actors Paul Newman and Robert Wagner. Newman became a dedicated racing enthusiast and remained close friends with Bondurant.
From there, word spread and the school had reached such success that Bondurant in 1971 moved it to larger facilities at Ontario Motor Speedway in California.
But the total package came to fruition in 1990, when he relocated the school to his own purpose-built facility in Chandler, Arizona, just south of Phoenix, which had a technically challenging 1.6-practice course of Bondurant’s own design. Ford sponsored the school for a number of years, supplying Mustang and Formula Ford open-wheel racers, followed by sponsorship by General Motors and, currently, Fiat-Chrysler.
Celebrities are still part of the scene – Christian Bale went through the course in 2018 in preparation for his role as driver Ken Miles in Ford v Ferrari — but the main thrust of the programs is teaching car enthusiasts the finer points of performance driving, both for safety and for getting the most out of high performance automobiles.
The instruction also has included specialized classes for police officers and security personnel, as well as teen drivers being taught the rudiments of safety and control. And of course, budding and experienced race drivers honing their craft.
In 2018, the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving celebrated its 50th anniversary, but there were storm clouds on the horizon. In October 2019, the school – which was being operated by Bondurant’s wife, Patricia, as president and chief executive officer – declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and reportedly was looking for a buyer.
The school closed for business, then was sold to an investment group in March 2019, the new owners comprising three car and driving enthusiasts who named their company Stig Investments after the famous anonymous race driver in the British TV series Top Gear. The price tag was reported as $1.675 million.
The investors vowed to keep the school in operation with a hands-on approach, and they renamed it Bondurant High Performance Driving School. The school was soon re-opened with the new team at the helm.
Earlier this year, the owners announced Bondurant’s name was being removed, the school renamed as the Radford Racing School, partially because of copyright issues with the Bondurant family. Pat Bondurant remains the president and CEO of a business entity called Bondurant Racing School.
But even under the Radford name, Bondurant’s dream lives on, as the school continues to teach new generations of students the methods that the star driver devised during his racing career. And they are being taught on the practice course that Bondurant had designed to present a series of technical challenges to drivers, both experienced and novice.
Funeral service information has not been announced, although in lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Team USA Scholarships, which can be contacted [email protected].