Bruce Belser will tell you it’s not exactly a need for speed that made him one of the East Valley’s newer residents.
But fast cars sure did.
The former Air Force fighter jet and Delta Air Lines pilot in May took on the day-to-day responsibilities of stabilizing — then growing — one of the auto racing world’s most famous schools.
Belser transplanted his home from Florida to Ahwatukee as the CEO of the Bob Bondurant School of Performance Driving on the Gila River Indian Community reservation.
He and two longtime friends and fellow Bondurant graduates, Jeff Hunter of Georgia and Pat Velasco of Florida, shelled out $1.6 million as the winning bidders in an auction before a federal bankruptcy judge in Phoenix.
The auction marked the end of a turbulent nine-month legal effort by founders Bob and Patricia Bondurant to pull the school out of $3.5 million in debt after running it for 50 years.
Belser and his two partners formed a partnership called Stig Investments — named after an anonymous figure who set lap times for cars tested on a British motoring show.
Now, they are putting the protracted bankruptcy battle behind them and focusing on keeping the school a multifaceted venue revolving around fast cars.
The school has trained thousands of beginners in driving and accident-avoidance, thrilled just as many performance car enthusiasts who just wanted the rush of zooming along a racetrack, helped countless military and law enforcement personnel refine their chase and evasion skills and served as a venue for corporate gatherings and private parties whose hosts wanted a unique setting.
Now, Belser and his partners wanted to not only continue that legacy, but extend it as they rebuild the multi-million-dollar business that sits on a 100-acre piece of Gila River Indian Community land.
Stig salvaged from the ruins of the bankruptcy case a long-term contract with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles so the school could continue as “The Official Performance Driving School of Dodge//SRT.”
That helped the partners keep a fleet of 100 high-performance vehicles patrons use to tear along Bondurant’s the 3-mile, 26-turn and 11-multi-configuration track.
“Basically, other than the ownership changing, life is going on as usual here,” said Belser, who not only has had the task of moving his wife and household here from the Florida Panhandle but also has to find a place for his private plane and collection of vintage automobiles.
“The curriculum is great and the instructors are great,” he said. “All the instructors have been here for years and years. So that portion of the business is solid. There’s no reason to mess with something that’s working so well — other than to increase the capacity.”
A spokesman for Dodge//SRT hailed Stig’s efforts, declaring, “Together, we have the perfect setting for a fully immersive driving experience like no other.”
But a cloud looms over Stig Investment’s sunny horizon and will play out in Maricopa County Superior Court next month.
The issue is whether Stig can keep calling the school after the Paradise Valley racing legend who named it.
Shortly before the forced bankruptcy sale, the Bondurants revoked the inclusion of Bob Bondurant’s name in an apparent effort to stop the auction in a desperate effort to keep the school.
The couple said any buyer would have to negotiate a separate agreement for the use of Bob Bondurant’s name as well as continued use of a museum on the site that houses a number of vintage racing cars they claimed as their personal property.
In a signed statement filed in bankruptcy court, Patricia Bondurant declared:
“Bob and I will aggressively prosecute causes of action against any person, including a purchaser of the school, who uses any of the museum cars, memorabilia, other property, his name and likeness, photographs, videos, articles, interviews of Bob or me and/or any pictures or information from the archives without first entering into agreements with bob on terms acceptable to us.”
After the bankruptcy judge basically refused to settle a fight over intellectual property, Stig Investments asked Superior Court to give it full use of Bob Bondurant’s name.
Stig claimed that the school listed, among its assets in the bankruptcy filing, 13 federally registered trademarks that covered not just instruction and vehicles, but clothing, travel bags and other accessories.
Since those trademarks belonged to the school, the partners assert, they now belong to the school’s new owner.
While Belser would only say that the name comes with the school and that he and his partners bought both, Stig said in a court filing that “the Bondurant School lives under a continuing threat of litigation from the Bondurants.”
“The Bondurant School desires to move forward and growing the Bondurant Racing School, but finds itself hampered by the Bondurants’ continued threats of litigation,” Stig’s filing states.
The Bob Bondurant name became a legend for racing enthusiasts during the 1960s as he became one of the world’s top race car drivers of Corvettes, Shelby Cobras and Daytonas.
In response to the Stig suit, the Bondurants have asked the judge to throw it out, arguing that they have sole right to decide how the name can be used.
“Any rights that the school may have had to use the Bondurant marks were contingent upon Bob Bondurant’s continued consent to use his name and likeness, which he revoked,” they state. “Even if Bondurant had not revoked his consent, as a matter of law, the consent is not assignable without his permission.”
While the parties prepare for a hearing Sept. 16, Belser is making sure the school does what it has done for more than five decades.
Classroom instruction is part of the curriculum. But the centerpiece of its programs involves sliding behind the wheel and putting the pedal to the metal in Dodge Hellcats or a tamer go-kart — though even the go-karts can hit speeds of 50 mph.
In some cases, the students own Hellcats just like those in the Bondurant School’s fleet.
“The majority of the people are just normal owners that appreciate what their car can do,” Belser said. “Very few of them really have any intention of doing any drag racing or racing at all. They just come for the experience. The majority of our customers are people that don’t have any aspirations of racing.”
There are some who do come for accreditation so they can take to the racing circuit, added Belser, who has been through the school twice as a student, most recently in May 2018 with his wife.
“It was a thrilling experience,” said Belser.
In large part, though, Belser’s days are far removed from driving and more closely focused on operating the school.
In his first few months, he had to tend to all the things that confront any business owner — setting up the internal nuts and bolts of the operation.
“The worst part is there’s no real administrative staff,” he said. “I don’t have someone that I just can say, ‘Go do that.’”
But Belser said he’s thankful that most of the school’s cadre of mechanics and instructors stood fast through the turmoil of the bankruptcy litigation, including Chief Instructor Michael McGovern, who has been at the school for more than 30 years.
Belser, who also is responsible to a board of directors, hopes to broaden the school’s government training program.
The loss of some of military contracts several years ago helped push the Bondurants into bankruptcy, according to court filings.
Belser said that shortly after Stig Investments took over, one government agency brought its own bullet-proof vehicles.
Belser said his main task now is more marketing than anything else — getting the word out that the Bondurant School is securely in the fast lane.
“The bankruptcy kind of presented an opportunity,” he reflected, “because we can tell people we’re out of bankruptcy, we’re going on, we’re going forward and strong. We’re excited and that’s all true.”