Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Page Two
SCD: Let’s go back to the 1963 Stingray. What can you tell us about that car?
BB: It had drum brakes, because the brakes weren’t that great. At the time, well, I had retired from racing because of that Cal Club deal, had the helicopters, but I had raced with Shelly Washburn, who was a Corvette dealer up in Santa Barbara, and had done real well with him. He asked me to do just one race, and I said I would do that for him. That one race was at the same time that Shelby got the Cobra together for the first time. Blew us all off. The handwriting was on the wall, Dave MacDonald and I tried real hard all the time. Sometimes he would win and sometimes I would win, he was a fantastic driver. We really got to know each other really well, friends on the same trip. We were really racers. So the Cobra dropped out of that race with a broken shaft or something, but they took it home and fixed that. The Cobra was a very good racecar and I raced against it all the time. I out qualified Davey McDonald that year, and he was by then in the Cobra. My car always worked perfectly. I did a warmup Sunday morning like we always did and I was quicker than Davey. He had that car jacked up on stands because he couldn’t believe it. No way. So I felt good, but when I went to fire the car up it wouldn’t start. I thought, “Holy shit what happened!” The smog had damaged the O-rings and so it wouldn’t start. So I got on the PA and I asked anybody with a Corvette to let me borrow their fuel injector so I could race against Davey. So two guys came over and said, “Take it and put it on your Corvette.” I had to hold the race up a little bit for it, but finally they said they couldn’t hold it up any longer. Just as I got it on, they had started the race, so Davey is already in Turn 1, Turn 2. I started dead last, caught up with him on the last two laps but couldn’t pass him because the brakes were bad, the Cobra had better brakes and was lighter. The Cobra handled better, but he knew how to drive it really well.
After that is when I got a call from Carroll Shelby, who said, “You’re driving Ken Miles’ Cobra.” I told him I didn’t say if I wanted to or not. That is just the way he talks. He said he was at such and such a hotel and I said, “Am I driving for you?” And he said, “No, just this one race,” and I said, “Well I don’t know if I want to drive just one race. If I drive it I will find the weak points in the Cobra and then I will jump back into my Corvette and beat Dave.” This was at Continental Divide, in Colorado. So I drove the race, Davey ran too, but I won the race. Carroll said, “Great job.” And I said, “Am I driving for you?” And Carroll said, “No.” Then I got a call two or three weeks later from Carroll, and he said, “You are driving a long distance race at Elk Grove.” So we ran the race together, I won the class. Then I finally started driving for Carroll. The next time was the L.A. Times Grand Prix at Riverside, really a big race. There was a preliminary race before the big race, with everything including Ferraris and it was real fast. I made a deal with Shelby, I said, “If I win the pre-race will you enter me in the Times Grand Prix?” He said sure. Dan Gurney and I and Lou Spencer were on the front line. Lou was driving the 289 Roadster. Dan got a great start, Allen Grant got a great start, and Lou was third in line and coming up on Turn 6 I got right behind and he starts to lose it. It looks like I hit him, but I never did. Allen I never hit you. Even 50 years later he claims I hit him! I never hit him. He had a Cobra too, but had more power because he had a bunch of guys build a special engine for him. He was sure he was going to beat all of us. Dan was in the lead, and probably about five or eight laps into the race the coil wire fell off of Dan’s car so he pulled off on the straightaway and jumped out and put it back on. I went on by, and ended up winning the race. As I came across the finish line I blew a left rear tire so I am sitting there by the side of the track on the dirt and Dan comes by laughing like hell. Dan came in second and Allen was third. So I started dead last in the main event and finished eighth. That car was a good car and I learned how to drive it. You really had to learn how to drive a Cobra.
SCD: How good was the Cobra out of the box, or did you have to do a lot to make it win?
BB: Shelby-American built the car and then did all the modifications on it. Then it had problems in the early part and they finally got it sorted out. Over the years it won everything. When I was over in Europe I won the GT class at Le Mans (1964) with Gurney, which was fantastic! The first time I had won. Dan asked how many times I had run at Le Mans, and I said six times. Never did finish. I said the car seems to be really good. It was just finished when I got over there, had not turned a wheel yet. So I took it out and said it runs good, handles good. I had never run that fast before. And according to the data we were running 179 mph down the Mulsanne Straight. That was 1964. I said to Dan, “Do me a favor, if we can drive it a little bit smoother, and a little easier, I’ll drive it as fast as I can driving it smooth, and I bet we can win. Can you do that?” He said, “I don’t know, I’ll try.”
So we were winning the race and had a nice lead against the Ferrari GTOs. They were really good, they had never been beaten before. But at 4 a.m. I had an oil cooler go bad and did not have a spare, so we had to bypass it to make sure we finished. I was at the wheel as we were running to the finish, fourth overall, several laps ahead of the GTOs. So all of a sudden I saw the third-place car go off the road and stop, and another lap or so I saw the second-place car go off and stop. Were they having mechanical problems? Then the lead car pulled off the road, so I said, “Shit, are we going to win this race now?” It was about 4 o’clock when we finished, and they all finished three abreast over the finish line at the same time. No one ever told me that you slow down when you go across the finish line. We had lost track of the GTOs and how much further behind they were, so I was still running flat out when I came into the last corner, and Holy Shit! I started braking and downshifting to stop before I ran into all the slow cars, and we won. It was the most fantastic period of my life, winning at Le Mans. Just two of the Cobra Daytona Coupes were in that race, The other one had Chris Amon and Jochen Neerpasch driving, and they were in the number 6 car and we were in number 5. They came in and somehow the battery got drained, but you can’t put another battery in, so they were out.
SCD: That was a Shelby team car, wasn’t it?
BB: Yes, in 1965 he was over there because most of the races were over there. The Targa Florio was the first race I drove in Europe. He said he wasn’t going to send me over there because I would never learn it. I said I would learn that son of a bitch. Almost a thousand turns and 42 miles a lap, so I went over there two weeks early and drove it every day, eight hours a day every day. Then I would go out in the morning and race three villages, and in one of them I’d see the horses go out in the morning with their mules and load the mules up and they would go this way and I would go that way, lines in the road, and I came around a corner and here is a mule and I said, “Oh shit!” I had to get over to the side of the road.
SCD: What were you driving for a training car?
BB: A Cortina. Later on they had a Falcon rally car, so I could really drive it. I was going pretty fast through villages because I heard they all knew the race was coming up and they were used to it. Masten Gregory got there a day before I got there, and he said, “I will show you how to learn this thing so you will know it.” So we drove 12 kilometers and then we would turn around and go back. Once you saw the road and the little pits, then we would go back. Then we drove 24 kilometers and did the same thing and went back. We drove the whole circuit like that. It must have been three or four days and then I just started driving the circuit. Over here most of our circuits are just two miles long, Elkhart Lake is four. To do that and go quick it is total concentration. So again, I drove it every day, ten hours a day, seven days a day. Shelby arrives and Jerry Grant arrives—he had never been there before and he spent a week driving around—and Phil Hill and myself. We did not know who Shelby was going to push, I thought it would be Dan because they both had run the circuit. I was doing my best to qualify, and they sent Dan out and he was a couple of tenths faster than I was. Then Shelby put me with Phil Hill. Phil knows that track like the back of his hand, and Dan does too, but he taught me so much about racing over there and different things you want to look for whenever you can and get out there and learn the track. We were racing Cobra roadsters mostly. We didn’t run the coupes except at Le Mans and the Tour de France. We were there to learn the circuit well so we had a chance to win the race. Phil is always nervous before a race, and he was saying Dan was going to beat us. I told him, “No he is not. You’re fast and I am fast. Jerry hasn’t driven the track and the lap time is like 42 minutes, so six laps.” So Phil started, and Dan caught him right at the end of the first lap, then it was my turn and I was going great. When it came to be Jerry’s turn to get in the car I passed them and then Jerry started and then we were doing really well, probably because Jerry wasn’t driving really well, he didn’t know the track as well as I did. In the end we lost a bushing in the rear suspension, so they won and we took second.