This past July 4, as Chase Elliott was celebrating his latest victory in NASCAR’s Cup Series, Bob Bondurant was among the many watching and celebrating.
Bondurant’s name may not be to many NASCAR fans, but in the world of motorsports, he is very well known. The 88-year-old is among a handful of Americans who have competed in Formula 1, in NASCAR, in CanAm and at Le Mans, where he won driving for Carroll Shelby while sharing the ride with Dan Gurney in the 1960s.
An accident in 1967, however, changed the course of Bondurant’s racing, and his life. During a race in the CanAm series at the famed Watkins Glen International road course, the McLaren he was racing crashed, flipping eight times and leaving him with serious injuries. The horrific accident left those watching thinking he had died, something unfortunately not uncommon in racing in those days.
Bob wasn’t dead, however. He woke up in a hospital as nurses were cutting off his fire suit.
“Hey, stop, that’s $250,” his wife, Pat, said he recalled. “This is 1967. And of course, that scared the daylights out of the nurses that thought they were dealing with a morgue situation.
“He said the only thing he recalls is a short conversation with God saying, ‘You’re going back, and I need you to train people how to be better drivers because I’m losing thousands and thousands of people on the highways, and I need your help.’ And Bob said that was agreement.”
Bob opened the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in California the following year. It’s now located in Arizona near Phoenix. He borrowed lessons he had learned teaching actor James Garner for the movie Grand Prix and what he had learned on track as the basis for a unique training approach that not only allows racers to find speed but do so safely. Since its inception the school has trained actors ranging from Paul Newman to Tom Cruise. Recently he trained Christian Bale for his role in the movie Ford v Ferrari including the mannerisms of British racer Ken Miles, the person Bale was playing, because Miles, who was killed in 1966, was one of Bondurant’s closest friends.
But the school wasn’t just about training celebrities. Thousands of everyday people have taken the Bondurant courses, and 90% of NASCAR drivers as well.
“I went there 13, 14 years ago,” NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski said. “I probably could go back and use a refresher course or two.”
“It helped me to be smoother,” he added. “Helped me to be more cognizant of things to look for to be good at a road course track and got me mentally engaged in heightened ability.”
A refresher course for Keselowski, and anyone else, though is out of the question. For now, at least.
In a story that could form a script for an episode of Dateline, the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving was forced into bankruptcy in 2018. The trouble started when Pat said she allowed her adult son along with his wife, into the business.
“Bob was in his 80s, at this point 85; I was going to be 65 in 2020,” Pat said. “And we were getting the pressure to have a succession plan. And, you know, Bob will never retire, but he had to face the reality of we’re being pushed into this.”
Bob and Pat were presented with a set of financials that turned out to be fake, according to Pat.
“We were not hurting for money,” Pat said. Adding that the school was getting ready to enter its busy season which normally brings in $7 million in revenue.
Despite that knowledge however, at the time Pat still trusted her son.
“Now this is my son,” she said. “I don’t have one reason to question him, especially when the wife’s not in the room. So what he did was he faked numbers and told us that we were in financial difficulty. I didn’t think to question him. I didn’t know.”
The school was forced into Chapter 11 in 2018 with a reported debt of $3.5 million. Shortly after that an article which featured her son appeared and painted Bob and Pat in a very bad light, according to Pat.
“You know how the old saying goes,” Pat said. “’When toxic people cannot control you, they will control how everybody else sees you.’”
In the end, the Bondurant’s lost control of the facility where the school Bob founded was located, and that he had built. Turns out there was a secret investor involved, a former student of the school who read the article and said Pat’s son had lied to him about the school’s financial situation.
That investor called Bob and according to Pat said, “’hi, I don’t know if you’re prepared for this story. I’d like to fly in and explain to you what happened.’ He explained to us that, this was his words, that (Pat’s son) lied to him, duped him. He read the article and he called (Pat’s son) and said, ‘how dare you do this to Bob Bondurant and how dare you do this to your mother.’”
Lawsuits followed. And while earlier this year Bob and Pat Bondurant did win the right to keep the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving name along with Bob’s lesson plans, they now need to find a new home.
The former school was a purpose-built driver training facility so just renting a track won’t do. For Bob and Pat, the new one will be another purpose-built facility that includes a track.
And there will be a new one, on that account there is little doubt.
“I see good things,” Pat said. “I actually look at that dark cloud that was over our heads. I see a bright silver lining.
“I see picking qualified parties to help us go forward. I see carrying on the Bondurant name for the next 53 years that will fold in obviously electric technology and lots of other technologies that we’re privy to, that a lot of people don’t even know about yet.”
“I just see it as moving forward and despite how horrible all of this went; I actually think it was a blessing.”
“I have a theory,” Pat added. “No matter how bad it’s gone, I know in the end, I don’t need to get back at anybody. I don’t hold any grudges. God has the last word. And that’s what I hang my hat on.
“And I’m pushing forward with Bob Bondurant red, white, and blue, all the way; looking forward. I will not look back.”
When the school does open again it will once more become a gateway for thousands of other drivers to learn not just how to go fast but do so safely. And help make memories for many.
“I went to Bob Bondurant’s school in Phoenix, and they had a teacher named Cooper,” former driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on a recent episode of his Dale Jr. Download podcast. “He raced himself, so when you go to a driving school and the teacher or instructor has some racing experience, you’re like, ‘oh man.’ I was totally tuned in to what he was helping me with.
“Then we left there and we won Watkins Glen in the Xfinity car. We beat Ron Fellows, which is still one of my favorite wins of my entire career.”
It will also impart lessons that drivers like Chase Elliott will carry for many years. Elliott attended the Bondurant school when he was just 14. In his Cup career since then he has 13 wins, seven of those on road courses. That’s why on that recent July 4th Sunday Bob was celebrating another road course win for Elliott.
“I had a great experience at the school,” Elliott said. “I had a close friend that I did some go karting with, named Alan Rudolph, when I lived out in Colorado, and he also worked at Bondurant, so I had a chance to go on a few occasions and spend some time at their go kart racing school and the Corvette side of things. It was good.”
Elliott said the lessons he learned at Bondurant are still with him.
“I think so,” he said. “I think any time you have a chance to go drive with other people, you might spend two or three days and only pick up one itty bitty little thing, but that might be something that you carry with you forever and I remember a few of those lessons to this day.”
Elliott is also hopeful the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving will soon be born again.
“Giving people a chance to go have a school like that and be able to work with knowledgeable instructors is great so I am all about it,” he said.
The Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving story is also a lesson for all entrepreneurs.
“You know,” Pat Bondurant said, “it’s just a word to everybody in business, be careful who you trust, but you will overcome. You will overcome.”
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