Veteran F1 driver recalls dangers, camaraderie of bygone era
In 1966, Bob Bondurant was driving on country roads through the pine-covered hills of Belgium's Ardennes Forest at about 170 mph.
It was not raining when the then-33-year-old American started his fourth Formula One race, but about three miles into the first lap of the 8.7-mile Spa-Francorchamps circuit, Bondurant hit a wall of rain.
"All of a sudden, cloudburst. I can barely see the car in front of me. It was a torrential downpour," Bondurant, now 79, recalled recently while visiting the Circuit of the Americas track. The rain would carry nearly fatal consequences for another driver, whom Bondurant had to rescue.
When F1 comes to Austin in November, drivers will be restrained by five-point harnesses and wear full head protection and fireproof race suits. Cars will have to pass rigorous crash tests, and steering wheels must be able to snap off. Medical cars and helicopters with EMTs and doctors will be on standby, along with fire crews.
None of that was true in Bondurant's day.
In 1966, the rural Belgian circuit was made up of public roads with farmhouses and buildings only a few feet from the cars. Driver safety consisted mostly of a helmet, and hay bales were often all that kept sliding cars from hitting houses or spectators.
Like many road courses of that era, Spa was long and fast, and several stretches were far removed from medical services. On one of those sections — a straight called Masta that had a quick right-hand kink — the rain started.
"Water was running across the kink, but it was raining so hard I couldn't see it," Bondurant said. "That's what happened to Jackie (Stewart). He hit that, he went sideways and into the embankment. He was pinned inside. I went into the other side of the track, hit a small tree and ended up upside down. My left rear wheel is sitting down in the stump of what was once a tree. I couldn't get out. I felt gas coming down from the gas tank into my helmet, and it burned."
Eighteen drivers started the race, but eight crashed out in that first lap, including the Scotsman Stewart and Englishman Graham Hill. Most were not seriously injured, except for Stewart, who hit a telephone pole and a house before coming to rest near a farm building. His car was bent almost in half, and he was stuck inside covered above his waist in fuel.
Drivers would recover
Stewart and Bondurant would eventually recover. Stewart went on to win three world championships, but he also led a decades-long push to improve safety in the sport.
Crashes still happen and drivers still get injured, but there hasn't been a death in Formula One since 1994.
Bondurant saw some of the newest safety features firsthand during a tour of Circuit of the Americas, under construction in southeastern Travis County.
Calling the circuit "nice and fast with a lot of safety, too," Bondurant took to the track in a Corvette owned by his Phoenix-area racing school, which has taught about 300,000 people to drive quickly and safely since 1968.
"It's important to get the viewpoints and opinions of a world champion like Bondurant," circuit Vice President Bruce Knox said. "It confirms and reaffirms what we're doing here."
Racing in a different era
Bondurant certainly raced in different era, when drivers would switch cars, teams and even race series during a season.
He started racing motorcycles on dirt ovals around California at 18, but within a few years was racing and winning in Corvettes along the West Coast. His success got the attention of legendary Texas auto designer and race car driver Carroll Shelby, who in 1963 invited him to drive his new Cobras.
In 1964, Shelby sent Bondurant to Europe, where his victories included the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans, kicking off the start of Shelby and Ford dominance over Ferrari.
In 1965, he won seven of 10 endurance races en route to the FIA Manufacturers' World Championship and also drove a works Ferrari Formula 1 at the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in New York and a Lotus at the following Mexican Grand Prix.
"In those days, you didn't have wings or any downforce at all, so you had to learn how to set the chassis to make the car work perfect on every circuit, and each circuit is different," he said. "Graham Hill and Jimmy Clark helped me a lot with that, helping me set the car up and what you're looking for."
Bondurant says that camaraderie and openness, even among competitors, is lacking today.
"They're not allowed to talk to other teams, the drivers, for fear of giving secrets away," he said. "When I raced, we were all open. We all became friends."
In 1966, he was hired by Ferrari to drive endurance races but also drove Formula One for a private British team and Dan Gurney's Anglo American Racers team. He also was a technical adviser for the Formula One film Grand Prix, teaching actors such as James Garner to drive a race car.
Bondurant found out just how unsafe racing can be in a CanAm race at Watkins Glen in 1967.
"I come out of a turn at about 150 mph, and the steering arm broke," he said. "Just before I hit I remember saying, ‘Bob, this is going to be a bad one.' "
Bondurant's car hit an embankment and went above the trees. It hit the ground, flipped eight times and came to a rest upside down.
Along with a mild concussion, Bondurant broke both legs, three ribs and the base of his spine.
Forty-four years later, Bondurant is still teaching and occasionally racing, including a victory in April at the Ford Cobra Shelby Reunion in Pomona, Calif., which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Shelby Cobra.
"I love it all," Bondurant said. "I do hot laps every week. ... It keeps me sharp, keeps me young, and I'm on top." The Statesman