As his health was failing in recent years, I don’t know how long it may have been since the last time Bob Bondurant took a bunch of fledgling students at his high-performance driving school, had them climb into a boxy old passenger van, and gave them the thrill of their lives as he demonstrated on the winding track his amazing car-control skills, he so calm and seemingly inattentive at the steering wheel while they rode with him in terror.
But that was Bob, who died recently at age 88, making sure his students realized what they didn’t know about driving before he and his team of instructors rebuilt their capabilities as drivers.
Bondurant operated his school — first in California, and for many more years just south of Phoenix — for more than 50 years, years during which he taught everyone from Hollywood celebrities to secret service and military personnel to budding racing drivers, and those who already were champions but realized even they needed his tutelage, to teenagers armed with fresh student driver permits, to, well, folks like you and me.
Many people revere Bob Bondurant as a world-championship racing driver, a winner at Le Mans and one of the few Americans competing in Formula 1, but his most important legacy isn’t in those racing records but in how for so long he worked to make the rest of us better and safer drivers, and whether we were on at speed on the race track or pulling back into traffic after a run through a local fast-food drive-thru.
Yes, high performance at Bondurant involved high speeds and squealing tires, but safety on the street was just as important, even more important, if not nearly as sexy.
Although I’d known Bob since sometime in the mid-1990s, and had been on his track numerous times in a variety of vehicle and tire-company media programs, I hadn’t officially gone through one of his formal school sessions until I was 61.
Oh, it wasn’t that he hadn’t offered the opportunity. I moved to the Phoenix in early December 1999 and Bob was our first speaker when we organized the Phoenix Automotive Press Association (aka “papa”). I had interviewed him several times through the years, usually with his constant companion, an Australian Blue Heeler named Rusty, beside him. Each time, he’d remind me I hadn’t yet been through his school.
So, at the age of 61, I went to school, but not for racing. I enrolled in Bondurant’s school for teenagers, in part because I wanted to see what his team was teaching new drivers and in part because I thought the session would be a good exercise as I approached senior citizenship.
One of the exercises we did involved what amounted to emergency lance changes. We were in one of three lanes when lights ahead flashed, indicating the lane in which we were to steer. Speeds increased with each pass through.
That exercise was the last of the morning session and before heading to lunch, our instructor asked the students for their reactions and they were unanimous about the level of concentration they’d needed.
The instructor then noted that the skills they’d used could be called on at any time, such as having to avoid a car turning into a parking lot without signaling or making a right turn on red without stopping, and then asked them to think about how much more difficult avoiding a collision would be while reading a text message on a cell phone.
I’ll never forget the look of epiphany that spread across the young faces.
Making more than half-a-million people, multiple generations of us more alert and safer drivers, be it on the track or especially on the street, that’s Bob Bondurant’s legacy.