Until his passing on Nov. 12, 2021, Bob Bondurant insisted his most cherished accomplishment was winning the 1965 FIA GT World Manufacturers’ Championship in the Shelby Daytona Coupe.
“You know, it was America against the world,” related Bondurant. “You can’t imagine the feeling of winning a race overseas, and then hearing the national anthem played while on the podium before thousands. It still gives me goosebumps thinking about it.”
Carroll Shelby created the iconic Shelby Cobra by mating the small Bristol sports car, with a large American V-8 engine. It became dominant on America’s short road courses.
However, for it to compete for the GT World Championship as Shelby intensely desired, it required more speed for the long, fast, European tracks. The dominant GT car was the Ferrari 250 GTO, with a top speed 30 mph greater than the Cobra.
Increasing the horsepower wasn’t an option. The Cobra’s Ford engine was maxed out.
Aerodynamics was the answer.
That’s where Peter Brock entered the picture.
“Carroll Shelby asked me if I could make the Cobra faster,” recalled Brock. “I told him I believed so.”
Brock was not a trained engineer but possessed an extraordinary design background. After graduating from the Art Center School in Los Angeles, he became, at 19, GM’s youngest designer.
His concept for the upgraded Cobra represented a controversial departure from the norm, the most unusual aspect being the proposed blunt tail.
While working at GM, Brock came across a once-classified, pre-World War II study from a German military aviation designer. It indicated that air directed efficiently over a car’s body would flow smoothly out the rear, without needing additional bodywork to direct it.
However, no one at Shelby America had faith in some obscure designer’s theories. They wanted nothing to do with it. Only driver Ken Miles had confidence in the idea and pressured Shelby to build the car.
In late 1963, Shelby relented and gave Brock the go ahead. John Ohlsen, a new, inexperienced mechanic, worked with Brock.
With occasional help from Miles, who was a decent fabricator, they mocked up the body they had in mind over a Cobra roadster frame. By February 1964, it was ready for testing.
The result was startling. At Riverside Int’l Raceway, Miles ran quicker than the track record and was three-and-a-half seconds faster than the Cobra roadster’s best time.
The coupe raced first at Daytona and dominated its class, building a five-lap lead before a horrendous pit fire nearly destroyed it.
Repaired in time for Sebring, it won. It won again at Le Mans with Bondurant and Dan Gurney co-driving.
“Peter did an excellent job with the car. It was awesome,” praised Bondurant. “Very easy to drive. Not harsh at all. And incredibly fast. We ran 197 mph down the Mulsanne Straight.”
Bondurant and the Daytona should’ve won the 1964 world championship. However, when Enzo Ferrari saw the upstart Americans were on the verge of kicking sand in his face, he exercised his substantial political clout.
He first pulled his cars from the season-ending race at Monza, then prevailed upon the promoter to cancel the race. The season ended abruptly, with Ferrari topping Cobra by a handful of points.
Few doubted that the Cobra Daytona would win the 1965 world championship. Ferrari was concerned enough that rather than be embarrassed, he refused to compete. Instead, he allowed only privateers to carry the prancing horse banner.
The Cobra Daytona couldn’t be stopped.
Bondurant competed in 10 races, winning seven. Of the seven victories, the most memorable came at Reims, France, where he clinched the championship.
That it happened on July 4 only made it sweeter.
“When I got the checkered flag, I was yelling, ‘Yes, Yes.’ Then hearing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ being played on the Fourth of July,” sighed Bondurant, “… Well, it’s hard to describe how good it felt, realizing that a bunch of American hot-rodders, using American ingenuity, beat the world.”