“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.”
Tall, svelte and blond, Pat became a “Glamour Girl” for Runway Modeling and the “It Girl” on a dozen Ford commercials and was a finalist in the Miss Alabama contest when she was 18. “Just before the final night, I had to bow out,” she recalls. “My boyfriend popped an engagement ring on my finger, and, of course, in those days, you had to be single and unengaged to compete for the crown.”
Her first full-time job, at 19, was as a draftswoman for NASA's first space shuttle in Huntsville, Ala. Fewer than 30 women were involved with the project – and some 3,000 men – she recalls.
She saw aerospace was reducing forces and looked toward its architectural division – a very good move for her, she says, as she became a facilities designer for United Technologies. Proving her abilities, she was promoted to be lead designer for the Tomahawk Cruise Missile Facility, also in Huntsville.
“It was an opportunity of a lifetime – I had a team of architects to support me and it was a springboard to own a design firm of my own,” she says. In her first year, she won a national design award for a two-story fitness facility – the largest in the country at the time, she says.
Pat moved to Sedona in 2001 from Seattle, started businesses, invested in real estate and began writing books. Two years later, she moved with daughter Meagan and son Jason to Paradise Valley for their education. At a 2010 January car auction in Scottsdale, Pat and Meagan were selling their Dodge Viper to help finance Meagan's singing career. Bob saw Pat, and he navigated to her lane quickly.
“Like most guys, I waited all my life for this perfect dream woman I had in my mind to appear, and when I finally gave up on her ever coming, there she was,” Bob says.
Meagan, who had been through a Bondurant School course six years earlier, begged mom to take a tour following Bob's amorously inspired invitation to visit his school: “‘He is perfect for you, mom,' she told me.”
Bob took her on fast laps in one of the school's Chevrolet Corvettes and guided her through the museum at the school with many of the cars that are part of its history, such as the orange Datsun 240Z he taught Paul Newman in. Behind the cars are images of Bob's many races during the last 50 years. “When he proposed after three weeks of our first meeting,” she says, “how could I say ‘No'?”
Hearts, racecars and dolphins
The Bondurants actually married twice: first at the school April 23, 2010, and three weeks later during the Monaco Grand Prix – on the track where Bob had raced four times, one a fourth-place finish in 1966 behind Jackie Stewart, Lorenzo Bandini and Graham Hill. (That's Bob – far right – at Le Mans in 1964, with Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby; and below, at Monza in 1965).
“People parted for Bob and me at the Hotel de Paris to meet the Prince of Monaco, who is a huge fan of Bob's, and, on the race track heading for turn 12 for the ceremony, they came out on their mega-yachts in the harbor to applaud as we walked by,” Pat relates.
They spent their six-week honeymoon in Monte Carlo, Modena, Milan, Florence, Rome, Reims and the last six days in Paris before returning home. “Bob and I share an intense love of the European culture, richness, history and finesse, so there are gobs of fabulous gold trim on everything in our home,” she says. “It's filled with our love of fine things, our children and our love.”
Pat has been transforming the Bondurant house into a home for both — a place to greet friends, family business associates and charitable groups. Working with Phoenix interior designer Ernesto Garcia, ASID, she has created luxurious spaces expressing the Bondurants' shared European experiences and tastes such as French glass vases and Louis XVI Bergère chairs from Paris.
In addition, there are Versace rugs in the living room, sculptured mermaids, a white stallion, Wyland's turtles, dolphins, leprechauns, fairies, angels, mermaids and hearts and many pictures of Bob's racing years and related automobilia.
“Our house is a kind of mini-estate where we host many racing friends,” she adds. “We have racecar drivers here all the time, and they can't get over the combination of luxury and hominess.”
Here, too, the Bondurants host fund-raisers for some of the 24 Phoenix-area charities they actively support, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Barrows Institute, United Cerebral Palsy, Southwest Center for AIDS Research, American Cancer Society and Cox Charities.
“Pat's beauty, brains and humor are in perfect balance with those around her,” Bob says. “She has changed every facet of my life and given me great happiness and joy. It's more than change; that is a transformation, and I feel fantastic!”
“He found me, he loves me, and I am one happy woman,” she adds: “And that's Pat Bondurant.”