Laid up after crash, he dreamed of starting a driving school
Up to 150 mph into Turn 4 – something doesn't feel right – off track – no steering, can't turn – SLAM into the embankment, lifting off the ground – this could be bad – shut off the fuel pumps, don't want to burn – where's the bottom of the car??? – flying, flipping, once twice three four times – shut off the ignition, save the engine – looking down at the trees now – four more 360s – this is really going to be a bad one – deep breath, relax shoulders, save my neck – upside-down, ground coming fast – HARD hit – black.
One day shy of 47 years after a horrific crash, Bob Bondurant will be back where it all happened, Turn 4 at Watkins Glen International, this week. He'll be walking, using the feet and ankles he was told would never function again. And he'll be grateful, for his life and the lives of countless others who have ducked disaster because of that crash on June 27, 1967.
Bondurant (center in photo, with Didier Theys and Derek Bell) was on a racing high. He had won the GT class at Le Mans in 1964, paced the Shelby American sports-car team to the International Manufacturers Championship in 1965, competed in Formula One in 1966 and joined the hot Canadian-American Challenge Series (Can-Am) in 1967. He was loving the 200-mph life, competing in a United States Road Racing Championship race, when a broken steering arm on his McLaren Mark II tossed him out of the championship chase and into the world of hospitals and rehab clinics.
Fighting back, Bondurant dreamed of a school that would give other drivers a chance to survive. With his smashed feet in casts and a buddy to push his wheelchair, he turned the dream into reality, opening the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving six months later.
"I believe the Man upstairs said, 'I'm going to take you out before you kill yourself in a Formula One car.' It changed my life," Bondurant said. "Now with the school, I know I've saved so many lives the way we train. It's wonderful!
"When I raced in Formula One, the drivers were talking about how we could minimize the physical damage to our body in an accident. One guy said take a deep breath – AAHH! – it relaxes your neck muscles, your shoulders, your arms, your wrists. That's what I did, and I flipped eight times without breaking my arms! I use that all the time now. That's the first thing I teach students in our school."
Bondurant is an international leader in advanced driver training and the school he envisioned from a hospital bed is now the largest purpose-built driving school in the world.
He still drives race cars – "Racing is like putting on a pair of gloves for me. I love it." – and continues to add hardware to his trophy room. He received his fifth Hall of Fame honor last week when he was inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame. Flying to the ceremony in California, the pilot recognized Bondurant and announced his achievement to the cheering passengers. After training so many pilots at the Bondurant School, he shouldn't have been surprised by the recognition.
Bondurant returned to race a Can-Am car at Watkins Glen a year after his crash. "I didn't think about the accident until we were doing the cool-off lap at the end of the race," he recalled. "Then I thought, 'Wow, those trees are pretty tall!'" This week's reunion will be calmer, just a few minutes quietly recalling the life-changing event as his wife Pat records a video for posterity.
Sylvia Proudfoot, Boundurant.com