Franki Buckman has taken charge of one of the nation’s foremost performance driving schools with the energy of the 717-horsepower Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcats in her stable of racing machines.
Only two months in her new job as CEO and general manager of the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, the Chandler mother of three is breathing new life into a 52-year-old internationally renowned institution that nearly crashed and burned in federal bankruptcy court just a year ago, grappling with over $3.5 million in debts.
Hired last month into a position occupied since May by one of the school’s three new owners who bought it in a court auction, Buckman revved into high gear with a series of changes at the Bondurant School.
And she’s not nearly at full throttle.
“One of the things that I noticed right away when I first came in is the school almost froze for seven or eight years,” Buckman said of the school next to Wildhorse Pass Motorsports Park. “It was a little worn down and frozen in time.”
In less than two months, Buckman helped integrate drag-racing into the school’s curriculum, laid plans for the return of go-kart racing for corporate events; and renovated the garage so dinners and receptions can be held in parts of the school.
She is overhauling the headquarters building to make room for an expanded student lounge and hired two auto industry veterans to handle marketing, sponsorships and other matters aimed at re-growing the school and aggressively courting students who range from beginner teen drivers to military and law enforcement personnel.
She’s adding more high-tech features to classrooms to enhance instruction, ramping up the school’s teen defensive driving program; planning to equip the vehicles with features to enable student-drivers to see their performance behind the wheel and building the school’s relationship with nonprofit and other community organizations.
She also is eyeing new partnerships with car manufacturers.
“This is a great facility for testing and for ride-and-drives because of the track and the different configurations you can run with it,” Buckman said. “Manufacturers are always looking for that wide-open space, unobstructed contact with concrete. And that’s what we have out there.”
Buckman’s vision is rooted in more than three decades of associations with the racing industry that began with an unlikely job – washing cars.
Growing up with six brothers in Scottsdale, she said, “I had never been to a race in my life until I started working in it – which was in college and then I never left.”
Working for Pro Formance Driving Events and Motorsports between 1990 and 1995, a national ride-and-drive company, “They had 60 cars to wash every day,” Buckman recalled.
She became an event coordinator for the company, traveling to as many as 25 different cities as she assisted in national “ride and drive” tours for Chrysler, Nissan and Ford to raise consumer interest in new models.
During her time with Pro Formance, Buckman was first exposed to the world of car racing after her employer created Arizona’s only “Indy Car” team to compete in open-wheel races.
The team was led by racing legend Scott Pruett, who in 10 seasons of racing in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s never finished less than second place in a championship race.
In 1995, Buckman signed up as the vice president of sales and marketing and executive general manger of Firebird Raceway – a position she didn’t leave until six years ago.
“I just honestly I wanted to take time off,” she explained, noting her two youngest of three sons were in high school.
She left Firebird, but not the world of cars and car races, founding her own marketing and advertising firm that promoted motorsports and a variety of other events, most of them tied in one way or another to cars.
“I did work for Ford, for Harley Davidson, for Lucas Oil and live events, some stuff with Monster Jam – same thing, just different way of doing it,” she said. “So, next thing I knew it was five years later and that’s what I was doing.”
In early 2018, Buckman said she decided “my business is either going to get bigger or I was going to get smaller because I was working all the time.”
Instead of getting bigger, she joined a new media consulting agency and handled accounts, including Chevrolet, in Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho and Montana.
“I learned a lot on that job that because I was just doing one thing, helping with the advertising, managing the actual ad agency,” she said. “That was a lot of travel and I pretty much had done what I thought I could do there.”
Out of the blue, during the summer, she got a call from Bruce Belser, one of the three new owners.
“Once he called, I said ‘this could be interesting,” Buckman said.
Five days after a breakfast meeting, she was asked to fly up to Seattle to meet the school’s board of directors and “I got an offer the next week.”
As the head of the school, she said her responsibilities involve “everything, from construction projects to putting the new staff in place to putting together our budgets and our three-, five- and seven- and 10-year plans.”
“I brought in some top-tier talent, some new blood but very experienced in the market,” Buckman said, adding:
“The board of directors and the owners of this facility want to honor the legend, but they want to take the school to where it could never have gone with without that kind of ownership.”
Her plans include building on the new dragster component to leverage “the resurgence in the interest in muscle cars.”
“You see a lot of that going on in the manufacturers bringing back the older, more popular brands from the 50s in the 60s,” Buckman said.
“Of all the manufacturers I’ve worked with, I’ve never worked with Chrysler Dodge. So, this has been the biggest learning curve for me – getting my arms around the vehicles and what their performance capabilities were and how we can better utilize that to market our products.”
She is set on reviving corporate interest in the school site for team-building and other events, expanding the facility’s availability for events like bachelor parties and growing again the school’s relationships with law enforcement and military agencies.
Buckman’s husband is a former racer himself and a second-generation Indy car crew chief and mechanic. Two of her sons were involved in motorsports industry and raced at an early age and her eldest is still an active race car driver.
And while she admits that she is not all that familiar with the technical side of automobiles and race cars, she said, “The automotive industry, high performance-driving events and motorsports in general are really more a part of who I am now.
“It’s in my blood,” she said. “I look forward to being further immersed in the industry as part of a team representing a brand that I am not only familiar with, but truly believe in.”
And having known Bob Bondurant personally for many years, Buckman said she wants the school to be his lasting legacy.
“I know that he wanted this school to survive past him,” Buckman said. “And it will now.”