Bob Bondurant, an auto racing instructor who broke records as a red-haired teenager and later taught fledgling drivers in Hollywood how to fearlessly tackle the racetrack, has died. He was 88.
Bondurant died Monday at a nursing home in Pebble Beach, California, his daughter Melanie Bondurant said.
Bondurant, a classically trained pianist and performance artist, was 11 years old when he took up racing. His dominant combination of blond hair and blue eyes, bold belt buckle and tight racer’s pants quickly made him a top celebrity driver.
“He had a tan from driving all night, but then he’d fall asleep sitting up and bite his fingernails while working on the engines and the cars,” his wife, Peggy Bondurant, recalled.
In his book “Undesirable People,” Bondurant described frequent confiscations of his flashy clothes and new cars for unpaid parking tickets. The police-drafted ticket in which he was smacked with a $38 fine carried the words: “Too many privileges granted to this unreliable driver.”
Among his career highlights: winning the 20th annual historic Long Beach Super Late Model race in 1955; working the first race of the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, in 1964 as a close aide to track announcer Thurman W. Marsh; and mentoring an annual group of Hollywood celebrities and their children on the track.
“The Bondurants became car racers before there was such a thing,” said Oren Stolz, an actor, former race car driver and former friend of the Bondurants. “They kind of blazed the trail.”
“You could be silly, aggressive, goofy. Nobody told you not to do that. You were allowed to do it,” Bondurant told a local newspaper in 1987.
Bondurant grew up in the London suburb of Borehamwood, was a member of Britain’s national sports hall of fame and has also received an honorary doctorate from a British university. He is also one of six founding members of the National Motor Sport Hall of Fame in Dover, New Hampshire.
In 1996, Bondurant and other auto racing celebrities spoke before Congress about child athletes being injured on track by then-illegal racing, notably by the trailer-tracked “wheelbarrow” style tracks set up on college campuses.
He was able to run track and field contests again, though in a wheelchair, following a long fight against paralysis that he suffered when he was run over at 18 during a dirt-track race.
A lifelong glassware mason, Bondurant also produced “A Cofeed Around the World: A Collectible of Vintage Auto-Adventure Photos,” for which he was nominated for an Emmy.
He and his wife retired to Monterey in 1991, where they rented out the family’s El Morro house, first favored by Jack London and Ernest Hemingway in the 1930s.
As the family’s frequent dinner guests, comic actor Pat Morita and his wife treated the guests to dinner in the laps of Bondurant’s 1965 VW bus, which was painted in the team colors of the San Francisco 49ers and Golden State Warriors.
“Dick King-Smith was a frequent guest and we used to play the games until he fell off the back, got very tippy and had to be held,” Peggy Bondurant said.
In retirement, he formed the Bondurant Racing Museum and Cyclorama, which housed a collection of Formula One cars along with vintage motors, from a 1955 Ford truck to a 1953 Ford Model T. He was founder of the American Motorcyclist Association.
In his wife’s family, he is survived by daughters Melanie Bondurant and Candace Reeder and sons Richard Bondurant and Danny Bondurant.