I glimpsed his profile in passing and had to chase him back to his booth at SEMA. He was there to promote his school of high performance driving and though I respect his business savvy, I’m more interested in his previous career— that of a professional race car driver.
Is it common knowledge that Bondurant drove a Ferrari to ninth in the U.S. Grand Prix of 1965? (He was fourth the following year at Monaco in a BRM.) Do people know that he was hand-picked by Carroll Shelby to drive the original Ford Cobra? And that partnered with Dan Gurney, he finished first in class at Le Mans in ’64? These achievements were accomplished just prior to my introduction to road racing. Fortunately, I did witness Bondurant contest the 1970 Can Am series and that was what I chose to talk with him about.
Can Am historians will tell you that Team McLaren dominated the series from its inception through 1971, but they did face formidable competition. Bondurant choose the series to promote his fledgling driving school business and to showcase his driving ability. Under the banner of Smith-Oeser Racing, a two year old Lola T160 was prepared for the challenge. It was lightened and heavily modified with swoopy coachwork. Giving up little in the horsepower department, they installed a fuel injected 427ci Chevy for propulsion.
Bondurant took the controls one race into the season at St. Jovite (Canada). He struggled with engine problems in qualifying and fell out of the race with less than half the distance covered. Two weeks later when the tour made its first appearance stateside (Watkins Glen), Bondurant soldiered home fourteenth. This is a better performance than it seems as the field swelled with an influx of closed cockpit, enduro cars that compete in their own race the day before. Then it was back to Edmonton, Canada where the team put forth a solid qualifying effort. Bondurant started the contest from the eighth slot and ran well…until his engine expired with twenty laps to go. Mid-Ohio was nothing to write home about; twentieth in qualifying and an early retirement, this time due to electrical woes.
Finally in the sixth race of the season, Elkart Lake (Wisconsin) the team put it all together. Bondurant tied Team McLaren driver Peter Gethin with fifth fastest time and ran up front all afternoon. When the checkered flag fell, Bondurant was second, only one lap down to Gethin. On this Sunday he’d held nothing back and defeated among others, Peter Revson in the Lola factory entry. For the remainder of the 1970 campaign, Bondurant continued to qualify well (seventh fast at Road Atlanta, sixth at Laguna Seca and twelfth at Riverside) but his fragile Lola could not go the distance. It was easy to surmise that Bondurant was capable of running with the best and even capable of winning. If only he had the car…
For 1971 Bondurant teamed with privateer Lothar Motschenbacher and his chances for a positive result improved dramatically. Motschenbacher was a wealthy car dealer/professional racer who purchased Team McLaren’s cars at the conclusion of each season. Other than a fully tested factory effort, there were simply no better cars available. The new team underlined this point by qualifying fifth and sixth at the season opener in Mosport (Canada), and finishing the race in third and fourth place respectively. At the second outing at St. Jovite Bondurant was a tick slower than Motschenbacher, starting ninth but failed to finish the seventy five lap contest. At the third round they returned to winning form, again claiming side by side starting berths in the third row and again Motchenbacher finished on the podium. This time however, Bondurant lost oil pressure and retired at twenty laps. Spirits were sagging by the fourth round where the team could manage no better than seventh and thirteenth starting spots. It got worse in the race as Motschenbacher crashed out on lap seven. Bondurant actually finished the race in sixteenth position, a full nine laps off the winning pace. Before the fifth race of the season, the racing partnership had dissolved and only one Motschenbacher entry appeared on the grid at Mid-Ohio. It was very likely the McLaren Bondurant had driven in his last outing.
Bondurant did not return to the Can Am but continued to race professionally for another decade. When reminded of the Can Am days, a smile spreads across his face and a gleam appears in his eye. “Those cars were fun,” he asserts.
Once a racer, always a racer.