Bondurant School: 45 Years, and the Future to Go

Bondurant School: 45 Years, and the Future to Go

As Bob Bondurant looks just up the road toward his landmark 80th birthday April 27, the world-famous racing school he founded celebrates its 45th anniversary in Chandler this week, Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day and Statehood Day.

For sure, the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving has had much to do with love, passion and contributions to Arizona.

Since 1990 at Firebird International Raceway, the only purpose-built facility of its kind in the world has trained nearly 500,000 people — professional NASCAR and Formula 1 racers, chauffeurs, military specialists, performance enthusiasts and day-to-day drivers such as housewives and teen-agers — to become safer and more proficient at handling the challenges of track, street and highway driving.

“I can remember the day we started in 1968 at Orange County International Raceway in Santa Ana, Calif., with our first four cars,” says Bob, the school’s founder and CEO, who still sizzles tracks taking hot laps and participating in vintage races. “We started small but with the same vision we have today: Offer professional and everyday drivers the best track-intensive training in the world. My objective is to save lives.”

“The school has been a terrific attraction for many, many years, bringing people to Chandler and the region from all over the world,” says Chandler Mayor Jay Tibshraeny. “It is obvious from the school’s success that Bob and his staff have developed a winning product that has evolved into a tremendous tourist draw.”

As a long-time economic driver for the East Valley, the school employs 61 and generates an estimated $20 million a year in economic value for Maricopa County — more than $400 million for the 13 years the school has been in the state (based on a 2008 study by the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, Tempe).

The school’s charity commitment is well known, averaging 50 charities annually, including donations of driving courses at the school as well as charity raffles, such as a 2012 Bondurant/Saleen Camaro at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction, for Cox Charities, with some proceeds for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Arizona.

The Go Red for Women campaign, benefitting The American Heart Association, for example, held its 2nd Annual Red Dress Cocktail Soiree in Chandler this year, with the Bondurant School a well-appreciated contributor, notes Meredith A. Dekker, a volunteer board member. “Heart disease is still the leading killer of women, causing one in three deaths each year,” she says. “Because of organizations like Bondurant, we can change this.”

The school supports the American Cancer Society’s annual Gala event by donating exclusive Bondurant courses for its auction. “Funds raised from the event allow the American Cancer Society to save lives by helping people stay well and get well,” says Dot Walker, distinguished events director for the group’s Great West Division.

In addition, annually, school hosts its Driving to Excel event with St. Joseph’s Barrow Neurological Institute of Phoenix, encouraging post-injury patients to participate in adaptive recreation.

More than six decades ago, Bondurant began competing with dirt bikes in Southern California. He raced Corvettes in the late ‘50s, winning the west coast SCCA B Production National Championship in 1959 with a stunning 18 of 20 wins. He followed this with USSRC success racing for the great Carroll Shelby. He won at Le Mans in 1964 and Sebring the following year.

For the Shelby American team, Bob participated in the 1965 World Manufacturers Championship, winning six of 10 races and besting Ferrari — almost a half-century later still the only American team to achieve this title. Immediately, Enzo Ferrari offered him a job competing in Formula 1 — Bondurant’s greatest thrill in his great career racing with and against fellow legends Stirling Moss, Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, Ludavico Scarfioni, Jackie Stewart and many more.

In 1967, while racing a McLaren MARK II CanAm at the Watkins Glen race track in New York, a steering arm snapped at 150 miles an hour, hurtling Bondurant as high as the trees. When he landed, all the bones in both feet and his ankles were broken and his ribs and back had been seriously injured. “The doctors said I would never walk again,” he says.

While recuperating in the hospital, and planning what to do when he was walking again, Bondurant recalled how, two years earlier, film director John Frankenheimer had asked him to train actor James Garner and others how to drive Formula 1 race cars for “Grand Prix,” released in 1966. 

He took a pen to a yellow pad and sketched the idea for the racing school. Just six months later, the school opened and remains the premiere performance driving school in the world, whose president, Bob’s wife Pat, is planning its future at the Gila River Community Chandler site and worldwide.

“In 1986, I told ‘Car and Driver’ magazine: ‘I want to improve upon the completely inadequate level of driver training in this country’” Bondurant explains, noting that he immediately included street courses, such as teen safety, which have benefitted many Phoenix-area young drivers.

Throughout 2013, the legendary driver is being honored.

On Feb. 15, during the celebration at the school, state and city proclamations fromArizona Governor Jan Brewer and Mayor Jay Tibshraeny were read — celebrating Bondurant’s racing achievements and the instructional expertise of the school. Entertainer and car-enthusiast Jay Leno will offer his humble reverence for Bob’stremendous success, and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio presented Bob with an updated “special deputy” badge.

 In March, at California’s Riverside International Automotive Museum, site of the track where he raced and won in the 1960s, Bondurant will be honored by generations of automotive dignitaries, Bondurant School employees, friends and his wife, Pat, president of the Bondurant School.

Six months later, during the weekend of Monterey Car Week, including the world-famous Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the school will celebrate again at Laguna Seca Raceway with various commemorative events Aug. 15 and 16.

“This is a year we have all been anticipating,” Pat says. “Bob and I and everyone at the Bondurant School are looking forward to celebrating both milestones with our cherished sponsors, employees, students and long-time friends from Arizona and throughout the world — and looking ahead to our great future in Phoenix.”

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