When Bob Bondurant took Ferrari to school, and won
Chinese government officials approached the Bondurant school in hopes of establishing a high-performance driving facility in Asia
Legendary American race car driver Bob Bondurant understands fully the challenges faced by Jackie Chan’s DC racing team, as they approach yet another Le Mans challenge in mid-June.
In fact, the underdog parallels are striking. While Chan’s Oreca-Gibson entry is facing far superior prototypes and big money teams, Bondurant, along with American automakers faced the insurmountable task of knocking the Ferrari GTs off their FIA pedestal in Europe.
Reached at his home in Phoenix, where he and his wife Pat are marking the 50-year anniversary of the highly acclaimed Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, he recalled his baptism of fire at Le Mans in 1964 for Asia Times.
He can still conjure the image. The Shelby Cobra Daytona coupe literally rolled out of a box at Circuit de la Sarthe, having never been tested — an auto racing no-no of the highest order. And he, having never been there before. Teammate Dan Gurney had, but DNF’d four times.
The strategy was simple. “I said Dan … do me a favor. You’ve been here, four times, never finished … picture that car as a nice and beautiful woman, and don’t drive it hard. Take care of the revs on the engine … and the gearbox.”
They had one advantage. Bob, said one driver, “had Hollywood looks.” While Bob laughs about that now, there wasn’t much else to brag about at the time, especially with the sneers from the Ferrari paddock.
Built in a small “hole-in-the-wall” shop in Modena Italy, the Shelby’s wheels turned for the first time during a practice session. Think about that for a moment — the car showed up at Le Mans, having never touched a track. Yes, the prototype had been tested, in America. But that car wasn’t meant to race.
Worse yet, rival Enzo Ferrari — “Il Commendatore” himself — had actually visited the Modena shop, looked at the Shelby Cobra being assembled, and was not impressed.
While workers hand-hammered the aluminum body from blueprints, Ferrari laughed openly when he saw the chopped off rear end, saying: “It will never work.”
Well, not only did it work, but Bondurant and Gurney, coupled with the unrelenting 385-hp Ford 289 engine with Weber two-barrel carbs, handily beat the Ferraris, finishing 4th overall and winning the GT class.
Much like Jackie Chan’s off-the-rack JOTA Oreca Gibson, the car that had been literally “shot out of a cannon” and survived lap, after lap, after lap — that Ford 289 churning all night, without a hitch — delivered a mighty wake-up call to the wizards of Maranello. It’s said even the prancing horse logo did a double-take.
Bondurant recalls the car had no problem hitting 197 mp/h on the imposing Mulsanne straight, which was then 6 km long. A death zone for drivers lacking concentration.
To make the ending even more exciting, Shelby hadn’t told Bob what normally happens at the end of a race when the prototypes cross the finish — fans will immediately climb over the walls and run rampant before the race is actually over.
With the Ferraris “right on my ass,” Bondurant says he did his best to avoid hitting anyone, and still come home victorious.
He would go on to win the 1965 FIA World Championship for Shelby American and Ford, winning an amazing seven out of ten races — to this day, his greatest achievement. His startling GT lap record at Nurburgring — tagged the so-called “Green Monster” by Jackie Stewart — would also stand for 15 years.
Stewart, by the way, still credits Bob with helping to save his life during a horrible crash at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1966, when he and two other drivers freed him from the wreckage.
If anyone knows how to be competitive, it’s Bob Bondurant. Whether he stepped into a GT car, a Formula One car or a CanAm car, he was smooth and fast. Given half a chance, he would dominate a race. So great were his talents, that Hollywood came to his doorstep to help teach movie actors how to drive in the epic film Grand Prix, still considered to be one of the greatest racing films.
That peak of brilliance was halted by a near-fatal crash at Watkins Glen, New York, in 1967 — due to a mechanical failure — but it also gave birth to the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving — an idea he came up with while recuperating in a hospital bed from extensive injuries.
As the topic shifts to Le Mans and the Jackie Chan DC racing team, it’s hard not to ask the big question — just how does one win Le Mans.
“Tenacity,” he says, matter-of-factly, as if it were imprinted on his helmet visor. “You have to believe in your car …. mentally, you have to convince yourself you are going to win the race … not worry about times or being faster.
“Don’t let the race get so big in your head, that you are not in your own head. You can’t lose sight that you have a job to do, and it’s going to require focus. Don’t focus on the what-ifs.”
Team chemistry is also important, although in Bob’s day they only had two drivers, not three or four, and they existed on baloney sandwiches, candy bars and orange crush pop. Rest stations were simple trailers pulled behind cars. They alternated 2 1/2-hour shifts.
“The way I raced, I was looking way, way ahead. If you drive too hard, you may blow the engine or the gearbox … The key is to enter a corner smooth, and come out fast. If you come in too fast, you’ll have to brake too hard, and that will cut your lap times down.”
The skill is taught at Bondurant’s racing school, of course. Bob’s talent for churning out top drivers (he graduated three from Hong Kong last week), drew the attention of Chinese officials, who asked what it would take to create a Bondurant school in Asia.
At that time, the recession loomed and nothing was decided, but Bondurant was asked to attend further discussions in China.
While the idea remains intriguing, Pat, who is president and CEO, admitted they are currently “just too small” to be making that kind of jump. However, the franchising aspect is on the table and they are working on something she calls “Bondurant in a box.”
The latter concept would make it possible to set up a Bondurant racing school anywhere in the world. The school has had similar enquiries from Canada, Australia and Argentina.
Standards, including safety and the certification of instructors, would have to be very high for Bondurant to put his “brand” on it, he insisted.
Bondurant’s strong ties to Asia are not new. Some of the very first race cars at his school were Datsuns, and as such he became lifelong friends with the Japanese carmaker’s president, the legendary Yutaka Katayama. For the latter’s 100th birthday, Katayama flew Pat and Bob to Japan, to satisfy his one birthday wish — to have Bondurant do hot laps with him on a test track in Japan.
In closing, and, out of intense curiosity, I ask what he thinks of the incredible advances in technology, where race drivers must juggle engine modes, traction control setting, tire wear, fuel usage and more.
Bondurant, who recently turned age 85, just laughs. He has no sympathy for “crybabies” who have cool suits, culinary chefs, hyperbaric rest chambers and masseuses. The Shelby Cobra only had a tiny window for fresh air and it was largely useless. Their only communication was a small blackboard after the Mulsanne straight.
If anyone on a current WEC team complains about anything, he has no patience for it. “He should not be on the team, plain and simple,” says Bob, who believes in a strong, positive team vibe.
“Racing today is so sanitized,” he says, but not in a way that demeans anyone or anything. “I don’t know how these drivers can stand 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 fuelled by passion— from the very inception of the car to the circuit and the drivers. A lesson, perhaps, which should be heeded.