I got the call on Saturday night from a friend in Istanbul and the news was not good.
The legendary American racing driver Bob Bondurant, had died the day before at the age of 88 from an unspecified illness.
Even though I wasn’t Bob’s friend, my boyfriend was and he will likely attend the funeral in Phoenix, Arizona, where he and his wife Pat lived and operated the Bob Bondurant high performance driving school.
I also had the chance to interview him once, over the phone, and the man couldn’t have been nicer, more polite, or more honest in his answers.
Let me relate part of this discussion today, in tribute to this great man.
There was a time when Bondurant and the American automakers faced the insurmountable task of knocking Ferrari GTs off their FIA pedestal in European races – a story that was told in the recent Film, Ford vs. Ferrari.
I asked about it and he recounted his baptism by fire at Le Mans in 1964.
He can still conjure up the image. The Shelby Cobra Daytona coupe literally rolled out of a box at the Circuit de la Sarthe, never having been tested – a top notch racing no-no.
And he, having never been there before. His teammate Dan Gurney had done it, but DNF had four times.
The strategy was simple. âI said Danâ¦ do me a favor. You’ve been here, four times, you’ve never finishedâ¦ imagine this car as a beautiful, beautiful woman, and don’t drive it too hard. Take care of the engine speedâ¦ and of the gearbox.
They had an advantage. Bob, said one driver, “had a Hollywood look.”
While Bob laughed at the suggestion, there wasn’t much else to brag about at the time, especially with the chuckles from the Ferrari paddock.
Built in a small ‘hole in the wall’ store in Modena, Italy, the Shelby’s wheels turned for the first time in a test session. Think about it for a moment – the car came to Le Mans, never touching a track.
Yes, the prototype had been tested in America. But this car was not meant to be raced.
Worse yet, his rival Enzo Ferrari – âIl Commendatoreâ himself – had actually visited the Modena store, looked at the Shelby Cobra being assembled and was unimpressed.
As workers hand hammered the aluminum bodywork from blueprints, Ferrari burst out laughing upon seeing the rear cut and saying, “This will never work.”
Well, not only did it work, but Bondurant and Gurney, paired with the relentless 385bhp Ford 289 engine with Weber two-barrel carbs, easily beat the Ferrari 250 GTOs, finishing 4th overall and winning the GT class.
The car that had literally been “shot from a cannon” and survived lap after lap after lap – this Ford 289 running all night, without a hitch – mightily awaken the wizards of Maranello.
It is said that even the prancing horse logo did double duty.
Bondurant recalls that the car had no problem reaching 197 mph on the imposing 6-kilometer straight Mulsannes straight line. A real death zone for drivers lacking in concentration.
To make the ending even more exciting, Carroll Shelby didn’t tell Bob what normally happens at the end of a race when the prototypes cross the finish – fans will immediately climb over the walls and go wild before the end of the race.
With Ferraris âon my butt,â Bondurant says he did his best to avoid hitting anyone and come home victorious.
He won the 1965 FIA World Championship for Shelby American and Ford, winning seven out of ten races – his biggest achievement to date.
His surprising GT lap record at the Nurburgring – marked the so-called “Green Monster” by Jackie Stewart – would also hold for 15 years.
Stewart, by the way, still credits Bob with helping save his life in a horrific crash at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1966, when he and two other pilots freed him from the wreckage.
If anyone knows how to be competitive, it’s Bob Bondurant. Whether it rode in a GT car, a Formula 1 car, or a CanAm car, it was smooth and fast. With half a chance he would dominate a race.
His talents were so great that Hollywood came to his doorstep to help teach movie actors to drive in the epic movie. grand prize, still considered one of the greatest racing films.
That spike in brilliance was interrupted by a near-fatal crash at Watkins Glen, New York, in 1967 – due to mechanical failure – but it also spawned the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving – an idea that he had it while he recovered in a hospital bed from extensive injuries.
Of course, I had to ask the big question: how can we to win race. What was his secret to succeed, to be so fast.
“Tenacity,” he said in a neutral tone, as if it was imprinted on the visor of his helmet. âYou have to believe in your carâ¦. mentally you have to convince yourself that you are going to win the raceâ¦ not worry about the times or being faster.
âDon’t let the race get so big in your head that you’re not in your own head. You cannot lose sight of the fact that you have a job to do, and it will take concentration. Don’t focus on assumptions.
Team chemistry is also important, although in Bob’s day they only had two pilots, not three or four, and they existed on baloney sandwiches, candy bars and Orange Crush pop. .
The rest areas were simple trailers pulled behind cars. They alternated 21/2 hour shifts.
âThe way I ran, I was looking far, far ahead. If you drive too hard, you run the risk of blowing up the engine or gearboxâ¦ The key is to get into a bend smoothly, and get out of it quickly. If you come too fast you will have to brake too hard and this will reduce your lap times.
The skill was taught at Bondurant’s racing school, of course. Although the school went into receivership a few years ago and is about to relaunch in a new location, it has lasted for over 50 years and has gained an international reputation for training the best pilots.
Interestingly, some of his school’s very first racing cars were Datsuns, and as such he became a long-time friend with the president of the Japanese automaker, the legendary Yutaka Katayama.
For the latter’s 100th birthday, Katayama took Pat and Bob to Japan, to fulfill his only birthday wish – for Bondurant to do hot laps with him on a test track in Japan.
In conclusion, and out of intense curiosity, I ask him what he thinks about the incredible technological advances, where racing drivers have to juggle engine modes, traction control tuning, tire wear, fuel consumption. and more.
Bondurant, who had just turned 85, burst out laughing.
He has no sympathy for the “crybabies” who have cool costumes, culinary chefs, hyperbaric sleeping rooms, and masseuses.
The Shelby Cobra only had a small window for fresh air and that was largely unnecessary. Their only communication was a small blackboard after the Mulsannes straight.
If someone on a current racing team complains about anything, they have no patience for it.
“He shouldn’t be part of the team, outright,” says Bob, who believes in a strong and positive team atmosphere.
âToday’s race is so sanitized,â he says, but not in a way that demeans anyone or anything.
âI don’t know how these pilots can handle it. But the truth is, they don’t go much faster.
He’s right, they don’t. And in Bob Bondurant’s day, racing was largely driven by passion, from the very beginning of the car to the circuit and the drivers.
A lesson, perhaps, which remains true.
A statement on his death reads, in part, “Bondurant is the only American to bring the World Championship trophy back to the United States while racing for Carroll Shelby.” He won his class at Le Mans and was inducted into ten motorsport halls of fame. Bondurant Racing School was founded in 1968 and has graduated celebrities from automotive films like James Garner, Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, Nicholas Cage and Christian Bale, as well as more than 500,000 graduates around the world. His legacy will stay with us forever.
Dave Makichuk is a Western Standard contributor.
He worked in the media for decades, most notably as editor of the Calgary Herald. He is also the military editor of the Asia Times.