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I’M IN GOOD COMPANY having been schooled in high-performance driving by Bob Bondurant. Bob, who died last November at the age of 88, had taught Jim Garner and Yves Montand how to drive Formula 1 cars for their roles in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 movie Grand Prix. He had trained Paul Newman and Robert Wagner for their roles in the 1969 flick Winning. And, in between these two activities, Bob had established the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving at Orange County International Raceway.
Indeed, this is another Bondurant/Simanaitis link, in that OCIR was where I performed R&T track testing between 1979 and the track’s 1983 closure. By that time, Bob had moved the school from OCIR to Ontario Raceway (in 1970) and to Sonoma’s Sears Point International Raceway (in 1974). In 1990, the school moved to the purpose-built Firebird Raceway south of Phoenix.
School Days. It was around 1980 that R&T sent Joe Rusz and me to Bondurant’s Sears Point facility. I don’t recall that I had met Bob before, and we enjoyed swapping OCIR tales. I recall he was highly amused by the cop training that went on during my OCIR era. And, generally, I found Bob to have a ready sense of humor. Of which more anon.
The Bondurant Technique. Joe and I were the only automotive journalists in our particular group of students for this 5-Day Competition Road Racing program, and Bob enjoyed comparing the quick-learning “civilians” to us, especially given that we all started from scratch in learning Bondurant-approved steering, throttle, and braking. A first step in the Bondurant approach was to convince students they didn’t know as much as they thought about high-performance driving.
For instance, we learned that trail-braking—braking into a corner as well as before it—optimized front grip. Cross-over steering—keeping the other hand at three- or nine-o’clock—helped orient wheel position on sharpish corners. And Bob’s three-light lane-choice exercise taught that power and steering were more useful than braking in an avoidance maneuver.
At Sears Point in those days, students began in Datsun sedans, including a particularly disreputable-looking one dedicated to a well-oiled skidpad. Later in the week, students progressed into Datsun 260Zs.
Tell-Tale Tachs. Throughout the exercises, speeds were monitored by virtue of the cars’ tell-tale tachometers. For instance, initial practice entering a particular corner might begin at 3000 rpm in 3rd gear, then incrementally move to 3500, then 4000, then 4500.
Similarly, linking two corners with acceleration in between, upshifts initially might take place at 3500, then 4000, then eventually approaching the tach’s redline.
The tach’s tell-tale (being a “tattle-tale”) gave indication of a student’s honesty in following instructions.
Finally, Car-to-Car. Basic exercises in acceleration, braking, shifting, downshifting, and cornering involved no car-to-car interaction. On the last afternoon of instruction, though, we were all trusted in a five-lap free-for-all, passing included, around Sears Point’s hilly 2.5-mile circuit.
We were all piloting Datsun 260Zs, some (including my No. 8) the longer-wheelbase, slightly heavier 2+2 version.
To avoid first-corner mayhem, I recall we were released in staged progression. By this fifth day of instruction, all of us were familiar with Sears Point’s corners and elevation changes, and Joe and I had a ball.
During the five laps, I recall passing a few cars and getting passed by a few others. I worked particularly hard not to do anything stupid.
Post-Race Debriefing. Bob’s sense of humor came to the fore in his post-race debriefing. He and his instructors had already collected “incident reports” and no doubt had already checked our cars’ tattle-tale tachs.
Students and instructors alike howled at Bob’s descriptions. At one point he asked, “Who was in No. 14?” Both Joe and I sorta saw this coming.
“I was,” Joe replied, more than a little tentatively.
We all laughed, Joe included, when Bob said, “You looked a little squirrelly out there.”
“And who was in No. 8?,” Bob asked.
Ha. Mrs. Simanaitis didn’t raise no dumb kids; maybe one. In any case, I kept my hand down.
But Bob got me either way: He responded, “Well, whoever you were, you looked really smooth.”
Again, we all howled.
Thanks, Bob, for teaching us so many things. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022
In my auto journalism activities, several car companies gave us opportunities to get instruction in their cars on gymkhana or race tracks by Bondurant and his instructors. On the tracks, he’d gather students in a 10 passenger full size van, and give them a thrilling introductory trip around the track.
Introducing a new, hot version of the Mustang using a wide open autocross track laid out in the Dallas Cowboy’s Stadium parking lot, Bob let the journos compete among themselves for best time. Then he got in the big and top heavy B-van, and equaled their best time.
As a long time pilot, he mentioned at dinner that he’d love to get to fly with Thunderbirds. As a former Naval Aviator, I didn’t want him to settle for second best, and had the connections to arrange a ride for him with the Blue Angels. He showed up at their Yuma training base with some school Mustang GTs, giving the Blues a chance to let it loose on the ground.
Bob repaid the favor by hosting my cousins, two attractive young ladies, when they turned 16. The girls were delighted by the three day advanced driving course, and the instructors found them a welcome change from the usual Senna wanna-be boy racers.
These two links should be a pleasant trip down memory lane. Enjoy.
Thanks, Toaster Oven,