Bob Bondurant: Maestro Behind the Wheel

Put a Cobra and L88 Chevrolet Corvette together with that livery, and you know something special is going on as both were driven the same man…

Bob Bondurant’s professional racing career began in a most unusual way: an unexpected phone conversation. As an amateur racer in California in the 1950s, he competed against Carroll Shelby, and the two formed a great friendship along with a healthy respect for each other’s abilities.

In the summer of 1963 Bob was 30 and, as he puts it, “semi-retired from racing.” He was working as a helicopter mechanic in southern California, intent on becoming a helicopter pilot—that is, until Shelby called.

By now Carroll was no longer racing, and the former Le Mans winner and Sports Illustrated’s Driver of the Year was making an even greater name for himself as a constructor of seriously fast sports cars. The Ford V8-powered Shelby Cobra had burst onto the scene in 1962, and was creating migraine headaches for most everyone else on the track and the street.

Cobra for the Win

That person is Bob Bondurant, who celebrated his 85th birthday on April 27 at his famed High Performance Driving School facility in Chandler, Arizona. Here he is seen with his wife Pat, and just two of the many trophies he’s won over the decades.

“What are you doing this weekend?” Carroll asked in that laconic Texas drawl. “Nothing,” Bob replied.

“You are driving Ken Miles’ Cobra,” was Carroll’s response. A few days later Bob found himself several hundred miles away from home, on the Continental Divide racetrack outside of Denver. There, he piloted a 289 Cobra to fifth overall while winning the GT class.

With the wave of the checkered flag, Bob was no longer an aspiring helicopter mechanic, but living his dream as a professional driver. He raced twice more in Cobras that year, and either won the race or the class.

Bob, Pat and their High Performance Driving School crew gather for a shot behind a Bondurant edition of the Cobra made by Shelby in Las Vegas.

On to the Championships

In 1964 Bondurant was one of Carroll’s stalwart drivers, taking on Ferrari and more for the FIA’s world championship. Stellar results continued, Bob finishing 5th overall at Sebring, 4th overall and 1st in class with co-driver Dan Gurney at Le Mans in a Cobra Daytona Coupe, and 9th overall at Spa-Francorchamps. But there were also a handful of dnf’s for Bob and Shelby’s other drivers, and the team narrowly missed beating Ferrari for the world championship.

Over the winter Bob was part of Carroll’s development team that turned Ford’s fast but problematic GT40 into a race winner. At Daytona in February 1965, Bondurant would finish 3rd overall in a GT40 to give the model its first-ever

Bob blowing out the birthday candles…

win. A month later he was 5th overall and a class winner in a Cobra Daytona Coupe at Sebring, then 8th overall and 1st in class at Monza, and 5th overall at Spa-Francorchamps. At the ultra-challenging Nurburgring, during practice, Bob shattered the GT class lap record by nearly 20 seconds in a Cobra Daytona coupe, and he and Jochen Neerpasch would go on to finish 7th overall, and 1st in class. He would also finish 5th overall and 1st in class at Reims, and 3rd overall and 1st in class at Enna, all coming behind the wheel of Cobra Daytona Coupes. (He also raced a 427 Cobra to 1st overall at Brands Hatch, and an Iso Grifo A3/C to 7th overall at Zeltweg.)

A Wheel of Variety

With the championship now in hand, for 1966 Shelby focused its efforts on Ford’s campaign to win Le Mans with the GT40. The world now knew Bondurant could drive most anything very quickly, and in 1966 he raced three fabulous Ferraris—a 250 LM, 330 P3 and 365 P2—and a Porsche 906, which he and co-driver Paul Hawkins finished 4th overall and 1st in class at the Nurburgring. He also competed in Formula 1 in a variety of cars (Ferrari, BRM, Eagle-Climax, Eagle Westlake), Formula 2 and Formula 3, and a Lola T70.

Unbeknownst to Bob, wife Pat had a present for him—a Bondurant edition of the Cobra Daytona Coupe. Most fitting, seeing that he still loves an enjoyable drive.

Crashing to a Halt

In 1967 he raced a Chevrolet Corvette L88 with Dick Guldstrand at Le Mans, and McLarens in that year’s United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC). in the latter his career literally came crashing to a halt when the steering broke in a McLaren Mk 1C at high speed at Watkins Glen, and the car rolled a number of times.

As he rehabbed in the hospital, Bondurant pondered his future. He decided if he could no longer race he would teach others how to do it, and that idea was the start the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. He began with a handful of Datsuns—510 sedan, 2000 Roadster and 240 Zs; today the school uses Dodge Challengers, Fiat 124 Spiders, and has branched out into other areas of competition such as drag racing.

Back Behind the Wheel

The new Bondurant Cobra Daytona Coupe is a serious performer. The Roush-built 302 V8 is topped by a glorious brace of Weber carbs, makes 475 horsepower, and is mated to a 6-speed Tremec manual transmission. Which would be marvelously analog fun in a package weighing less than 3,000 pounds.

Intriguingly, Bondurant’s racing days weren’t done after that near-fatal crash. He competed in Can-Am for two years (1970-71), NASCAR in the 1980s the Baja 500, Sprint Cars and more up into the 1990s.

For these reasons and more, there was much to celebrate at Bob 85th birthday party on April 27 at his facility in Chandler, Arizona. His wife Pat surprised him with a Bondurant edition Cobra Daytona Coupe (Bob still enjoys a good drive), but what really caught my eye was the Bondurant edition Shelby Cobra sitting out front, done in the smashing light blue livery seen back in the day. And the 1967 Le Mans Corvette L88 replica also looked quite tasty, though that one was not for sale…

As the festivities wound down Bob and I spent a few minutes reflecting on his life and career. When I asked him what he would prefer to win outright, Le Mans, Indy or Monaco, almost without hesitation he replied, “Monaco. I raced there four times, and the highest I came in was 4th. Indianapolis really interested me, but when we lost (former Shelby teammate) Davy McDonald there in 1964 (to a horrendous crash), that really kept me away. And at Le Mans, I won the class.”

You know you have made the big leagues when your signature is on the seat of a car—let alone your own personal example…

His Favorite?

His favorite car to race surprised me: Ferrari. When I mentioned I thought he would say a Shelby, he quickly retorted, “I like both. After all, I won more with the Daytona Coupe. I really liked racing against and beating Ferrari’s 250 GTOs. They were the best, and I beat them all.”

His favorite track was “the Nurburgring, all 14.7 miles of it. When I won the GT class in 1965 (with a Daytona Coupe), we weren’t supposed to win anything. But I broke the GT class lap record. For me the Nurburgring and Targa Florio were two of the most difficult and interesting European circuits.”

Jo Schlesser was his favorite co-driver because “We got along great, and he was fast! We really thought alike…” When asked what would he like to race today, “an F1 Ferrari,” he beams. “I saw Sebastian Vettel, and was hanging out with him. It turns out he’s a huge Bondurant fan…”

…And one of my favorite covers seen on the prestigious annual Automobile Year. This particular edition is from 1964, and that’s Bondurant’s pal and sometime co-driver Dan Gurney behind the wheel at Sicily’s famed Targa Florio race.

Happy Birthday!

Here’s to hoping the celebration for Bob’s 90th will be just as memorable, and enjoyable!


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