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Phoenix: Let's play, at the Bondurant

Phoenix: Let's play, at the Bondurant

Bob and Pat Bondurant: You think you know Bondurant? Think again (Photo: Bondurant)




   By Mike Mulhern

   Jeff Burton is jamming gears, diving deep into the corners, skidding sideways through the turns, and maybe hoping to give his co-pilot a thrill.
   Sand flying. Ripping over speed bumps and ripple strips. Blind hills. Wheel hoping here and yon.
   Man, I wanna ride with this guy through the Kulwicki Korner at Sonoma.....
   It's always one of the highlights of the NASCAR season, the annual fall stop at Bob Bondurant's place out here on the east side of town, for a day of high-speed playing with high-powered Camaros and Corvettes.
   Invitation only.
   Lead-and-chase. Hot laps. Team Slalom.   
   Thursday was bright blue skies, 80 degrees, and a couple dozen of Bondurant's 235 high-performance machines given a nice workout on the several courses Bondurant has here, with Burton and Austin Dillon -- lay that black cowboy hat on the table for a moment --  on hand to help out.
    It's not a week for the SEALS here at the Bondurant, or the CIA, or the FBI, or Secret Service. The chase helicopters were all parked somewhere else. No bad guys to chase...
   That's part of what the Bondurant is all about, high-performance, really high-performance. The SEALs, well, they may have, uh, a higher thrill quotient than the rest of us. The CIA, well, think Jason Bourne. And the FBI and Secret Service, well, you know the deal.
   This is where they learn the tricks.
   For the rest of us, it's a high-tension afternoon of play and games.


   Bob Bondurant, in his prime (Photo: Bondurant)

    Bondurant, always on hand for these things, is the racing legend whose high-performance driving school has been a fixture out here in the Arizona desert for years now, with his all purpose-built cars. He's just turned 80, but his legend is immense.
   NASCAR drivers, particularly newcomers to road racing, have been coming out here for a long time to learn some of the intricacies of the footwork needed at Watkins Glen, Sonoma and Road America.
   "We had about seven of us come out here, road racing rookies, back then, to learn stuff for about two days," Burton recalls. "Nobody told us anything about rules or what, so we just banged up the cars pretty good in learning. Partied all night, wrecked cars all day.
   "Then the last afternoon, this guy comes out with a big clipboard, going around each car making check marks.
   "And when we got into the office for check-out, we all got our bills."
   Burton laughed.
   Dillon and Burton were two featured NASCAR men here Thursday, jamming gears and slamming brakes and generally having a fun time showing journalists first-hand just how it's done.
   It's a General Motors sponsored driving school, but given Bondurant's Ford ties, it's not surprising to see a Ford 'skills' display of drifting out near the front gate of the facility which they lease from the Gila River Indian community.


   Bob Bondurant's layout. Beautiful. But how much is this property really worth? (Photo: Bondurant)

    It has been more than 40 years since Bondurant's racing career ended in that crash at Watkins Glen in the summer of 1967...just a year after he served as technical advisor and stunt man in one of the sport's most famous movies, Grand Prix. The tiny office next to the custom-designed track has dozens of pictures of Bondurant in his prime, including the Grand Prix shots of him with that 3-D camera helmet for some of the best shots ever of a driver at the wheel.

   Pat Bondurant, Bob's wife, has stepped up the marketing of this long-time driving school, big time. She steps out of her black Cadillac Escalade with Bob and strides into the office, to set up the day's program.
   Fresh home from the Las Vegas SEMA show, that aftermarket extravaganza that is a must-see/must-be-seen-at expo for major league racers, this time with 135,000 visitors, and every driver and superstar that can be persuaded to attend. She steps out of the Cadillac so regally, tight black pants suit, blonde hair flouncing.
   She's landed more sponsorships for the school, like Puma.
    She's changed up the school's logos and paint schemes.
   As a Christmas present, she found a 1966 Ford MK40, and had it delivered from New York. That's the car that Bondurant made history with back in the day, when Bondurant ate Ferrari's lunch.
   Bondurant himself was one of the top international drivers in 1966, a promising Formula 1 star. And then in the summer of '67 his world ended. Never walk again. Issues to overcome.
   Bondurant is, as ever, here to attend, in that solid black outfit.
   Pat at his side.
   Pat has helped turned this project around.
   It's no longer just a driving school, the world's best perhaps.
   It has become a marketing project. And she is working it to beat the band.
   She's reached out to doctors, to attend the school. (Psst: she's got a tip for making boots fit your feet -- use a hair drier to loosen up the leather.)
   And this afternoon, she is working this NASCAR crowd like a pro.
   She's the type of marketer that NASCAR could use.
   For some 30 years this place where the Bondurants rule was known as Firebird Raceway.
   But now the name has changed, and there is speculation about just what might happen next here  -- because this 400-some acres on the far southeast side of town, nearly an hour east of Phoenix International Raceway, sits on some very prime real estate, as the city of Phoenix expands southward to Tucson along the I-10 corridor.
   Just across the street is the Wild Horse Pass casino, and the Indian tribes that own much of this part of the area, have just passed on renewing the racing lease with the company that ran Firebird for some 30 years. The tribes have signed a new lease, for only five years, with a new group, and the new guys are charged with sprucing up this place...which has just been renamed Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.
   Will the new operation thrive here? The NHRA packs 'em in, and it says it wants to come back in 2014.
   And Bondurant's driving school is always busy. His 235 high-performance machines are spread all over creation out here.
   Bondurant's contract with the property owners is up at the end of the season, and officials here are planning to renew, and perhaps gain some more of the land.
   However there is the nagging sense that there is something else at play in this part of town -- might this track follow the history of Ontario Motor Speedway and Riverside Raceway, with the property much too valuable simply to remain as a race track?
   On another side of the equation, Jim France's sports car series still doesn't play in this town, though Phoenix is one of the country's biggest markets. And France's Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) doesn't even have a real road course.
    "They asked me one time to design a road course at PIR for them," Bondurant says of the France family. "But it never came about."
   Maybe then it's time for Bondurant to make that pitch again.
   The far west side of Phoenix, where PIR sits, in the picturesque valley at the foot of the Estrella range, along the Gila River, has seen a huge burst of expansion the past several years. However the housing crash five years ago put a hurting on that expansion.
   Maybe adding the Bondurant....
   Thursday night, while Rick Hendrick's guys are giving the Bondurant tracks a private workout, the Bondurants themselves have moved over to PIR, where they're hosting 1500 'friends' in a huge ride-around, under the lights. With a police escort from Firebird over, because most of their race cars don't have all the tags.
   Me, I'm just decompressing.


    Bob Bondurant, the legend. Sign me up (Photo: Getty Image for NASCAR)



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