“We get so many hits every day on our school website and others: “Who is this woman?'” says Pat, with a characteristic laugh, from the Bondurants' home in Paradise Valley, Ariz.
This woman is Bob Bondurant's wife, three years this May. A mother of two grown children, Pat is also president of the Phoenix driving school which, for more than four decades, has trained 400,000-plus students to be better drivers: celebrities Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Paul Newman, Robert Wagner, Bruce Jenner, Katy Holmes and others; almost 90 percent of NASCAR drivers such as stars Jimmy Johnson and Jeff Gordon; kart racers; car enthusiasts; housewives; teenagers; military specialists; and chauffeurs for anti-terrorist and anti-kidnapping training.
On Feb. 14, the school celebrates 45 years, two months before Bob's 80th April 27. What will be Pat's birthday gift for the octogenarian racing legend? Last Christmas, she had a vintage 1966 Ford GT40 driven in from New York for him – a car much like the ones he won in more than four decades ago. He recently raced his new classic at the famed Pomona racetrack in California and regularly takes it out for hot laps on the Bondurant School track.
Besides bringing joy every day into Bob's life, Pat is driving the school into new markets such as rebranding the Bondurant car insignia and colors, global franchising and adding Bondurant facilities in the United States. In addition, she is showing women the many roads to cars – as students, corporate planners and often frustrated gift-buyers for husbands, dads, sons and boyfriends.
Men don't want colognes and ties, she says. “They want driving courses so they can drive their other wife like crazy – that is, their cars. “After all these years, I finally deciphered the relationship between men and their cars,” she adds. “It's a love affair that women must no longer ignore but embrace. His other woman is his car,” she says with another big laugh.
“We're also saying to women to come on down to the Bondurant school yourself, even if you're not interested in driving any faster than you do already. Bondurant has always been about driving safely, whether you're doing it at 200 miles per hour or 20, taking the children to the soccer field or ballet classes.”
After marrying Bob in 2010 (LEFT, photo by John Prumatico), she took off her designer heels and slid on pedal-to-the-metal flats. “I was running my television station in Sedona, but Bob insisted that if I wanted to really understand him, then I had to experience why cars and driving are so much a part of his life and the lives of his mostly male students,” she recalls.
Enrolling in a four-day class at the school – it took her six months to finally nerve up to sign up – she was prepared with apologetic lines about not being as good as the male students and expressing a lack of confidence to listen to the instructor about car control.
“It's beyond putting gas in and getting new tires – what women have only needed to know until now,” she notes. “What I learned most was new self-assurance behind the wheel that just spanked the fear right now out of my brain. I have not been the same since.”
She adds: “There is no male taboo on women driving cars or going to a high-performance driving school. We women created it from fear, believing we are not worthy or good enough to drive cars: They're just, after all, for men.”
She's watched a lot of men go through the school and ask them about this taboo, and most laugh and tell her, “‘If my wife or my girlfriend would do this class with me, I would be in love with her forever.'
“This is the aphrodisiac we need in our lives,” she says. “Our men are saying: ‘I want to share my car with her and to watch her drive with confidence.'”
The result is happiness, on and off road: “Bob has a new woman on his hands — now that I can talk the talk with him. He absolutely loves it. He calls me his ‘new Ferrari.'”
But, “He still has to go to the mall with me and hold my purse while I shop. The balance is there, ladies. The balance is there.”
Riding the bull
Pat was the sixth of nine children, the middle of five brothers, three older. There, she recalls visits of family friend, Elvis Presley, just beginning his legendary career.
When she was 5, her parents moved the family out of the city to a 265-acre farm. “By the time I was 9, I was building tree forts, beheading snakes, shooting squirrels, riding bareback and swinging from grapevines,” she recalls. “One day I was coming from a hot sweaty ride on our enormous bull, Charlie, who adored us kids and tolerated us treating him like a slow horse. He had just defeated the neighbor's bull, which had repeatedly challenged Charlie to cross over the fence and take him on.
“It was horrifically bloody and brutal to watch from my hiding place in an old Southern oak tree,” she says. “Charlie won the challenge, and, with blood on his hoofs and horns, saw me in the tree and just leaned up against it until I slid down on his back for the long slow ride back to the barn. As I rode, I just kept patting his neck, telling him he was going to be okay.”
She learned his lesson and stowed it in her saddlebag: “Charlie taught me how to draw my boundary line in my own sand and what to do if anyone crossed it,” she says, noting that this particularly helped her, and her 6-week-old son, following an earlier abusive marriage.
That strength also led her to captain her junior high basketball team and high school tennis team. Although tall and attractive, she was pushed to athletic excellence by her brothers: “They did not give beauty an inch in their rough-and-tumble world. After I won the state archery championship, my brothers kept me humble by saying, ‘With enough practice, I can guess anybody can win a trophy.'”
Everyone – brothers, dad and mom – lived by example. And they all taught her no glass ceiling existed. She says her mother, Marian, a high school graduate at 13, was the second-highest-ranking woman working on the civilian side of the military, selling weapons to American allies as the head of logistics at the Army Missile Command, regularly flying to the Pentagon and worldwide. “I grew up thinking everybody's mom flew on the Concorde.”