Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Page Seven
SCD: You then came back to the States and started driving Can-Am?
BB: Every year before that I would come back at the end of the season to race in the USRSRC. Then I ran a Corvette in ’67, racing against Jim Jeffords. He is hysterical, a real funny guy and a good driver. I usually beat him, but he was right on my tail in those years, ’59, ’60, racing Corvettes. It was very competitive, lots of good drivers and you had to work hard for it, so you had to learn to drive well.
SCD: Do you remember racing against the Northern California driver, Paul Reinhart, in purple and orange?
BB: I always beat him. It was always the Northern California Corvette driver against the Southern California Corvette Driver. We were usually quicker and I beat him almost every time. They were sure I was cheating. I had a hard time qualifying a car at Riverside, it was always overheating. There was another driver at that time who we wanted to beat, Jim Jeffords in the Purple People Eater Corvette. So I said to the other guys, “If you can catch up to me I’ll move over and let you go by and you can go after Jeffords.” At Turn 7 it was uphill then downhill then left-hander followed by right-hander then straight. So I moved over and Paul ran straight off the track and crashed, rolled the car and ended up in the hospital, but he turned out OK. I asked him what happened and he said he just wasn’t thinking. I moved over for him and he watched me go by and Jeffords was right up ahead and so he was really close to Jeffords, too. I was following him and he was really quick. On the long straightaway downhill I just moved way over to the far side, outside of his rear view mirrors where he could not see me, then I drove right on by him. He chased me for about eight or ten laps, then he gave up and I pulled away and I won. We ran our Corvettes back then 155mph or 160mph and never got higher than that. We were racing on retreads. I found a guy in Pasadena who built really good retreads and he made them nice and sticky. Jeffords was complaining that he had brand-new Goodyear casings so it looked like Goodyear. He tried to protest us, but we all ran those tires. He said, “I’m not going to race against you guys with those tires,” and said he was going to protest them. I told him, “Well then you’re going to protest all of us. You’re going to look mighty stupid out there by yourself.” We’ll all chip in and get you a brand-new set of Goodyears. Our tires worked a little better. Then after the race he protested me. My mechanic crawled under his car and found the chassis was drilled and a whole bunch of other things. I said I was going to protest back, and he said for what? I said for a drilled chassis for one thing. So he dropped the protest. He didn’t like getting beaten by some young California thug.
SCD: In 1967 you came back to run in the Can-Am but before that ran a couple of USRRC rounds. Who did you drive for?
BB: A guy who used to work with Shelby from Ford named Peyton Cramer bought a Chevrolet dealership in South Gate, and wanted to have a racing team. He was supposed to buy two Lola T70s, that was the car to buy, but he got a deal on a McLaren and they weren’t quite as good. So Peter Revson and I were teamed together, but the cars just weren’t that great.
SCD: Then you had a big crash before the USRRC race at Watkins Glen, didn’t you?
BB: Yes. The McLarens weren’t as good as the Lola T70s and we always ended up in third or fourth. I went out for the warm-up, and the car just didn’t feel quite right. I had no idea it was going to break the steering arm, but I didn’t feel really confident in it. I qualified seventh and got a good start, so I get down below and coming around on the fifth or sixth lap doing 150 or so. The curbs in those days were higher, and coming out of a turn, on line, perfect, something broke. I thought something in the rear suspension broke, but it was the right front steering arm, so the right front wheel turned right and it came up on the curbing and it just took off. You’re doing 150 and it’s like, your mind works so quick it is unbelievable. In those days we had a fuel switch to turn the fuel pumps off, and another switch for the engine, so I turned the fuel pumps off because I didn’t want it to catch fire, you were always thinking about fires. And I turned the engine switch off, and then took a deep breath and relaxed the muscles in my neck, shoulders, hands and wrists. I remember seeing the embankment coming up and thinking, “Shit, it is going to be a bad one Bondurant,” and it was. It took the bottom off the car the aluminum belly pan and I was so high that I saw the treetops as I was coming down. Then as I was coming down and it hit and I don’t remember anything after that. I broke my legs, my feet and my ankles. I broke three ribs and had a mild concussion. All I remember is hitting the embankment, seeing treetops and hitting the ground. It had rained the night before and the ground was a little softer. I flipped half the distance of the straightaway. The corner where straightaway was, they ran over first. I had blood on my feet, the shock brought me to, and it’s funny what you think about. I landed in a mud puddle—how embarrassing! And then I looked up and I saw the crowd I thought, “Oh man, I hope I stay out of the crowd,” but they had run over to where we were. I tried to take my helmet off and that was the last thing I remember. Then I woke up on the other side of the track in the ambulance. The body is a wonderful thing, I had no pain whatsoever. I didn’t feel anything; the shock takes care of that. I remember thinking I must have been in a bad accident and I had no pain. Then I passed out and woke up in the hospital a little bit later. They already had my legs and feet in casts. I went out for a pretty good time after that, and when the doctor came in the next day I asked him, “How soon am I getting out?” And the doctor said, “Young man, you’re not going anywhere. I’m amazed that I am looking at you. I saw the last part of the accident. I was the doctor at the track and I thought you were dead. But then you’re not, thank God.” He said, “Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?” I said I would take the good news first thank you, and he said, “You have a mild concussion, you will be fine, you broke three ribs and that will be fine.” I thought I would break everything. Then he said, “You have two broken legs, below the knees, and they will heal up, but I cannot allow you to sit up because the lower vertebrae in your back is damaged and if you sit up there’s a risk you can become paralyzed. So don’t sit up.” I said OK. He said, “You broke nearly every bone in your feet and ankles and you’ll never walk again.” That scared me and I said, “Wow! Never?” He said, “I am a bone specialist and I put you back together and I will do everything I can do, but they will never heal right.”
I thought, “Damn, what am I going to do now?” I was thinking of Grand Prix, when I trained James Garner and the other drivers. I had more time with Garner at Willow Springs, had him in a Mustang GT350, then in a Cobra then in a Formula Ford, then we rented an F1 car. He was going pretty decent with that and every day he got better. When we were doing that it felt good to my heart, so I thought, “Maybe I’ll do a school. I have to make a living somehow, and if I can’t walk I need to doing something.” For about two or three days I wrote down on a legal pad how I would do the school. The cars, the parts, to do a school, everything I could think of. I needed sponsors. So I put it away and didn’t look at it for a little while. They put me in an ambulance and put me in a small plane and sent me back to SoCal, and I was in the hospital there for about two weeks and then they brought me home. They said they couldn’t do anything more for me, just let me heal up. I found out who my real friends were, and who they weren’t. A lot of guys would visit you in the hospital to see how beat up you were and then you never see them again. I had people who I met and knew a little bit and they turned out to be my real friends, and a there was young guy who worked in a really nice restaurant in Beverly Hills, and he brought me dinner every night. So I just spent time healing up and since I can’t sit very long I was in a wheelchair. I was doing wheelies in my wheelchair down the hall and flipped over backwards a few times. When I got myself back up and went down to Club Porsche, because I raced for them, too, and I put down on my list that Porsche would be my preference for my school cars. I had a really good friend help me write a good proposal. They were listening to my proposal and looking down at my feet and casts, I was still in a wheelchair. I said I would like to have Porsches as my school cars because they are the best. They said they were not going to say no and were not going to say yes, they were just going to observe how I did with my plans. I said, “I won for you.” They said, “Yes, you did a good job.” I said I was going to do the school, and if you’re not going to help me with it then I understand, I know my broken legs and feet don’t look very good. So I went down to Datsun. My buddy loaded me up in my Camaro and drove me down there and I talked with the PR guy with my good proposal. I had three proposals written up for three car manufacturers. He said, “Well that looks pretty good, let me get Mr. Katayama, I think he is here today and he is the president of Datsun and created Datsun here.” So he came down, a really neat guy. I started calling him Mr. K. We looked eyeball to eyeball and I started telling him what I wanted to do and he just asked me what I needed. I said I needed a 4-door 510 sedan for an instructor car. I have three students, and I need at 1600 roadster and we can graduate up to a 2000 roadster (which I have in the museum), and I need parts. He asked what parts I needed, and I said, “I have no idea. It depends on how your cars are.” They were starting to win races. Pete Brock was running the race team and he said, “I’ll do that.” He is the one who got me started. He is now 101 years old, and I called him on his birthday and he said he wanted me to take him on hot laps. His wife was with him and she is a little petite gal and said, “Mr. Bondurant, can you take me for hot laps?”