Bob Bondurant – Interview and Profile Page Three
SCD: What can you tell us about running at the Nürburgring?
BB: The Nürburgring was a new race for me. I had never been there before, they were all new circuits. It was 14 miles a lap, 176 turns. When I got there I found out there was a Hanseat Driving School there, so I enrolled in it. One of my instructors, Jochen Neerpasch, had raced there and he already knew about the Cobras, that they were very fast and very competitive. What they were doing at the school was teaching people who bought Porsches how to drive, so they teach them the safe line. Because he knew I was going to race, Jochen said, “I’ll show you the real line.” So I learned the real line and it was different. That took about four days. At night I would have dinner there at the hotel restaurant and then you could go do a lap, so I would have dinner and then do a lap every night. The first night I was there I met a guy, a really good driver, very fast, can’t remember his name. He said would you like me to show you the track, I said sure. Pouring down rain, scared the hell out of me, he was really fast and sliding through the corners. “Holy shit,” I thought, “this is going to be a tough job.”
What Shelby would do in every single country where we raced, he would hire two of their best drivers to drive the fourth Cobra. So I knew he was going to hire two guys, and I said that I had gotten to know Neerpasch and he is really good, and so we hired him. We were doing really well. At the first Le Mans start we learned never to use seat belts, the others just fired up and went, but I was putting my seat belt on and the other drivers were driving away. It was a poor start. Before the race I was talking to a German driver and he said, “Is your name Bondurant?” And I said, “Yes, Bob Bondurant,” and he said, “You think you’re pretty darn fast?” I said, “No, actually I haven’t driven here before.” I started out quick and he didn’t, but there was one steel post by the track and he came up behind me and hit me and put me into that post and blew my tire out. So I had to drive 14 miles around with a blown tire. I thought, “If I ever see that guy again I am going to put him out.” The mechanics cut the fender out and put a new wheel on and I took off. We were pretty quick. I finally saw the guy up ahead, but he had blown his engine and dropped out, because he hit me so hard it blew his radiator out. I said, “Thank you God, you didn’t have to do that.” So I went on by, but then we lost a crankshaft and did not finish. The second year, 1965, we went back with three Daytona Coupes and one roadster. I was in a Coupe and I had three laps to qualify. The first lap was 9:23, the second 9:21 then 9:18.5. I hadn’t got down to shaving tenths of a second yet. Those were our qualifying times and they were the fastest. Then we ran the race and won, Neerpasch and I, and it was really nice because he had never won. Everyone loved the Daytona Coupe. An American car, wow! Going that fast, unbelievable. Beating the Ferraris, wow. That was so cool! About 1980 I had a guy go through my racing school at Sears Point and he said, “You know your record just got broken last weekend!” I said, “You have to be kidding.” It lasted for 15 years, I was amazed. When next I saw Jochen and his wife, he said he was surprised it lasted that long.
SCD: Didn’t you race at Sebring in a Daytona Coupe with Jo Schlesser?
BB: Yes, I drove with Jo Schlesser in ’65 at Sebring. We were having breakfast and he orders a glass of red wine, I said, “Joe, what in the hell are you doing?” He said he always had a glass of red wine at breakfast. I said no. I let him only drink half the glass. That was the year they had a terrible rain, and we were both very, very quick. I knew I was getting close to coming in, then I got the signs for three laps, then two laps, and then the last lap. It had just started to rain as I was coming in. Now in Europe for the first two years I raced it never rained, and I was surprised. But in ’65 it rained every single race at practice, qualifying or the race—or all three. So I said, “It’s yours, Jo,” and he said, “Thanks, Bob.” We came in and changed drivers and tires and took on fuel. Our car did not leak, the car that Phil Hill was in was full of water. He took a center punch and punched holes in the floor to drain it. He went back out in it and there was water on his lap. Then it was my turn and it was still pouring like hell, but we won our class and finished fourth overall in the race. That was fantastic. Every time we won we had a wonderful time together. We drove well together. He was quick, he never damaged the car, he was very easy on it.
When we did the Tour de France at the end of 1964, it was a 10-day race and I had to trust someone that I could ride with who wouldn’t put us off somewhere, so I chose Neerpasch, even though he never used a seat belt. We went on the Tour, we went to each hillclimb and we practiced it in between races. We would get together and go to the next hill town. At Rouen, coming in to Rouen at the next race I could feel the throttle cable starting to come out of the fitting and so I told the mechanic. He checked it and said it didn’t look like it, but I said well it is. So we got a good start and got into the lead, and with about three laps to go, at the bottom of the hill the throttle cable came off. So I jumped out of the car and looked under the hood, and I had one French Franc that I folded up to use as a screwdriver, and it fit perfectly on the idle screw. So I set the idle at about 3000rpm, put the hood down, put it in gear and took off and finished the race that way.
SCD: How would you describe your driving style?
BB: I was quick, and very smooth. I always wanted to take care of the car. I learned that in the Corvettes and in Old Yeller and every car I drove. I would always try to go as quick as I could in the first five laps. After the race at Rouen we had to put a new throttle cable on, so we lost a lot of time. You couldn’t work on the car before the race, the only time you can work on it is after the race. In the meantime all the race traffic is on the highway and going to downtown Rouen, a big town. Jochen was with me, and I told him we don’t have time to make a little pit stop because we always had a pit stop down the road maybe a mile or two because we needed to change tires on a longer track and change the gear ratio and make it a little higher. So we pulled into the first gas station we came to and I told him to grab one hose and I would grab the other one, and we filled it up with gas, jumped inside and took off. I said we didn’t have time to change the tires because if you’re late to the next checkpoint you’re disqualified. We’re going down the highway and we were doing 160mph or 170mph, pretty much flat out, a couple of times and Jochen said, “Bob please be careful,” and I said, “I am!” So he put on his seat belt and the harness for the very first time. We got to the checkpoint with 19 seconds to spare. If we had changed the tires we would have been disqualified.
SCD: Tell us more about your driving style.
BB: I was smoother, I knew the white line and I controlled the weight of the car with the brakes and the throttle. I never called it trailing brakes until after, at the school, but I would squeeze brakes on and I could brake later. I really learned to do that a long time ago in the TR2. I have always been smooth. I was when I was racing the bikes, too. I learned to be smooth and judge my distance coming into a corner and judge my entry point, exit and all that. When I learned hillclimbs I got up at 4 a.m. I had never done one before; it’s rough. So I would get up at 4 in the morning and drive up and down the hill. Around 7 a.m. people who lived up there started coming down the hill. I was using all the road in my VW bug. I was thinking that the Cobra was going to understeer in this corner and oversteer going into this corner, and in my bug you just drive around it. I would do like four or five runs and visualize the right corners and then I would do it again and change something. As you ride it down it stays in your head; I didn’t know I was doing that. The only other people who were doing that were the Porsche team and Abarth, but I was up there early before they got there. One time Edgar Barth was coming down the hill and I was using all the road going up, and he came around the corner and I said, “Oh Shit!” Later we met down at the bottom and he said, “I think we should do this together,” so he taught me something, too.
SCD: Did you ride together in Barth’s car?
BB: Yes. I got to know every driver on the hill. Over here the tracks are so short. Over there everything is much longer and much more difficult. Spa and Reims were the two fastest circuits over there at that time. Spa was all down hill and up hill, mountain roads, and people would live along the sides, and so you had to learn how fast you could really go into the corner. I would always go, lift a little bit and maybe the next lap lift a little less until I found the point that worked for me going quick like that. That’s how I set the lap record at the Nürburgring.