Doc Bundy: Longtime Pro Racer, Now Battling COVID-19

Story by Steven Cole Smith

The unfair struggle faced by 74-year-old racer and Vietnam veteran Harry E. “Doc” Bundy, who had heart surgery years ago but was forced to have last-chance, open-heart surgery May 15 due to his battle with COVID-19, reminded me of a possibly unfair assessment I made about him back in 1997. It kept me angry at Bundy for nearly two decades.

Let me explain that first bit of hitherto never-told unfairness, then I’ll get to the second one.

Out of the blue, the guy who was handling public relations for Dr. Don Panoz’s sports car team—of course, Panoz went on to found, then sell to NASCAR, the American Le Mans Series—had contacted me with an unsolicited pitch for a story: Come on down to Road Atlanta, close to where Panoz had his race team, his 3500-acre Chateau Elan Winery & Resort, and his son Danny’s auto manufacturing business, which then consisted of a Plymouth Prowler-like roadster powered by a Ford V8–and we’ll let you drive the loveably absurd new Panoz Esperante GTR-1 race car at Road Atlanta.

Being a motorsports-centric editor at Car and Driver magazine, and appreciating the value of an exclusive, I said: “Sure!”

The story, as I saw it, would be about Don Panoz, who envisioned, then helped create, the product best known as the nicotine patch, which made him wealthy even before his company was sold for $8.6 billion, and who:

  • decided to hop into sports car racing, despite the fact that he said he couldn’t tolerate sitting through an actual race to the end, by hiring master designer Adrian Reynard to create a front-engine car powered by a Roush NASCAR Ford V8, which he then planned to send to France and win the 24 Hours of Le Mans with 57-year-old driver Mario Andretti, because he had heard Mario was good and because he was Italian and Panoz liked Italians. Better than the French, anyway.
  • decided to build his enormous resort and certainly soon-to-be-award-winning winery here, when Georgia is not at all known for growing grapes.
  • had just bought Road Atlanta and Sebring International Raceway (the ALMS came later).

And perhaps the story would have a sidebar on Danny’s Panoz Auto Development business. Mainly, though, it would be about my exclusive drive of the GTR-1, because I was writing the story. It would be complete with test numbers (achieved with an actual racer driving).

What followed was weeks of agreeing on a date between me and the Panoz PR guy, whom we’ll call Corky, and then him canceling. Then an agreement, then a cancelation. Weeks turned into months. 

Finally all of the Panoz ducks were in a row, and Corky said he had a date solid enough for me to book flights from Detroit for myself; for Car and Driver engineer Don Schroeder, who would oversee testing and, as a result, had to schlep around a half-ton of delicate testing equipment; and for Car and Driver art director Jeff Dworin, who would personally photograph my journalistic coup d’etat.

Then Corky canceled, and I had a bunch of plane tickets and hotel reservations (no, rooms at the Chateau Elan were not included) to cancel. 

Then Corky came up with a date that was really, really solid. And like good ol’ naïve Charlie Brown, always assuming that when Lucy held the football for him to kick, this time she wouldn’t snatch it away at the last minute and land him on his ass, I agreed and rebooked everything.

Reading this so far, you can tell that I end up on my ass, right? And it was all Doc Bundy’s fault.

So, the three of us flew to Braselton, Georgia, in time to spend a crappy night in a crappy local hotel. Then we presented ourselves at the Panoz facilities the next morning, where we were greeted by Corky and Danny Panoz, which was a bit of a surprise because Danny knew little about racing and had even less to do with the development of the GTR-1.

The day began with a tour of the Panoz Auto Development factory, ending as we passed a massive stack of wooden crates, each holding a Ford V8 for Danny’s Panoz Roadster, a surprisingly solid car that was much more fun to drive than the Chip Foose-designed Prowler. (Yes, Chip did the basic design for the Prowler around the time he was working for Boyd Coddington, which is another story.) Then we went on a longer-than-expected drive of the Panoz Roadster.

Then it was time for lunch at the Chateau Elan, served outdoors at a lovely table on the manicured grounds, with Dr. Don Panoz. I found him at first to be a bit of a pompous ass, but over the years our friendship warmed and I realized that he was an amazing, thoroughly delightful guy and a splendid source. How can you not like somebody who invented the nicotine patch yet chain-smokes Silk Cuts? (Which Dr. Panoz didn’t at the moment. When he resumed smoking, it was Mario Andretti’s fault. But that’s another story.)

The afternoon sauntered along at a leisurely Georgia pace as I reminded Danny and Corky that we had a story to do on the GTR-1. When I pack my Nomex and helmet, I expect to be able to use them. “Yes, of course, later,” Danny kept saying.

Later on, someone else did get to drive the famed Panoz GTR-1.

Eventually, when we hadn’t even been to the race track and it became dark enough to see the moon, I realized I had been snookered. WTF, Danny?

Not my fault,” Danny said. It was all because of chief race car driver Doc Bundy, who was at the track, testing the GTR-1. Doc, as I was told, was sort of a sensitive hothead, and he was inexplicably convinced I would wreck the GTR-1, simultaneously turning it into scrap salvage and a story.

Later on, someone else did get to drive the famed Panoz GTR-1.

I argued that I had never told anyone that I wanted to drive the GTR-1 at speed, despite the fact that, at the time, I held an SCCA Pro license, which suggested I could turn left and right, and an NHRA Super Comp license, which suggested I could drive straight. 

All I expected was a couple of calm laps in the car, just so I could tell readers that this is what the seat feels like, the engine sounds like, how the transmission is to shift, how the steering wheel steers, the accelerator accelerates. I’d never wrecked anybody else’s race car. 

(Then. Of course, I’d wrecked race cars I had owned, such as the Chevelle that I put into the wall 25 feet after the green flag, requiring 3 hours on the frame-straightening machine. But it was years, or at least weeks, before I lunched the sequential transmission in an NHRA Pro Stock truck and crumpled every surface of a Grand-Am Ford Racing Mustang Challenge Series FR500S—20 minutes after the series tech director, a friend, stuck his head in the window of the car as I sat on the grid and told me, “Just a reminder, Steve, that this is the only track we run at where they charge you for each section of Armco barrier you hit,” and he wasn’t kidding.)  

So who was Doc Bundy to tell me I couldn’t drive the car, and wasn’t man enough to deliver the news himself? I told Danny Panoz that without the drive, there was no Panoz story. I had to make the magazine eat the cost of the trip for us three staffers. Telling that to Danny Panoz and Corky was the easy part. Telling it to my Car and Driver editor, Csaba Csere, was—less easy. 

For nearly 20 years, I avoided Bundy, turning down multiple opportunities to meet him.  

Then, in a casual rain-delay conversation with a (very) longtime Bundy friend and racer whose name you would know, I mentioned I was not a member of the Doc Bundy Fan Club.

He was confused. “How could you not like Doc? Everybody likes Doc.” I told him my sad story, and he laughed. “He told you that Doc was the one who wouldn’t let you drive the car? Hell, Doc would have helped buckle you in! Couldn’t have been Doc Bundy.”

So if he really wasn’t my story-spiking culprit, I hereby apologize to Doc Bundy. I hope there may still be time to listen to him tell racing stories, how he fared with his co-drivers, a list which includes Paul Newman, Andy Wallace, Scott Pruett, Elliott Forbes-Robinson, Wally Dallenbach Jr., Hurley Haywood, Hans Stuck, David Brabham, John Paul Jr., James Brolin, Preston Henn, Dale and Bill Whittington, Bobby Rahal, Jim Trueman, Bob Tullius, David Hobbs, Brian Redman, Klaus Ludwig, and the friend and mentor who gave him a shot at a racing career, Al Holbert. 

Or hear about the races Doc has competed in, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, as well as the vintage races he was competing in until recently.

Rupert Berrington photo of Bundy driving the No. 124B Lotus at the Mitty. 

And maybe not about that IMSA crash he caused in 1986 at the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside International Raceway (yes, of course it’s on YouTube), where he jammed his IMSA GTP Chevrolet Corvette where it didn’t belong, which was inside Lyn St. James’s Ford Probe, wrecking himself, St. James and Chip Robinson in the Group 44 Jaguar. Robinson and St. James flipped: She was left upside-down, her car burning like Hal Needham fire-bombed it for one of the movies he stunt-coordinated. Somehow all three walked away, but it’s amazing how many fans are still pissed at Bundy. Jeez, who holds grudges that long? Wait, never mind.

As we mentioned way up there at the top of this story, Doc Bundy is in trouble. His already compromised heart couldn’t withstand the coronavirus, so he had open-heart surgery to deal with the damage, and it was expensive.

Janet Upchurch, Doc’s friend since she was a manager at his home track, Road Atlanta, decades ago, set up a GoFundMe to help. He survived the surgery and he’s home, and at this writing the fund has collected about $60,000, which is $10,000 above the original goal.

But Upchurch has continued the campaign as she gets a more accurate picture of Doc’s expenses. The fund no doubt got a boost from a Facebook post by writer Jonathan Ingram, which was picked up by Autoweek.com, but it may not be enough.

Upchurch’s last post on the site, dated May 26, said that Doc couldn’t talk thanks to COVID cough: “Doc sounded awful tonight,” she wrote. “The hospital advised today that before doctor fees and ER fees and after Medicare, Doc’s bill will be $77,000. Now, that does not count Humana, but also does not take into consideration living expenses, additional medicines, and the bills that have yet to come in. So we are going to continue to pursue a higher goal.” Bundy lives by himself, and his dog Bandit reportedly flunked nursing school, so he needs some home health care.

Among the contributors was a generous Danny Panoz, who posted that Doc is “a true gent, and all in all a great character.”

So I still don’t know who cost me a good story. But maybe, after 23 years, it’s time to let it go. I reserve the right, though, to retain my grudge against Tommy Lee Jones. Worst. Interview. Ever.

But that’s another story.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Doc Bundy articles.
Comments
View comments on the CMS forums
slowbird
slowbird SuperDork
5/28/20 4:02 p.m.

Good story. I'm rooting for him to pull through.

Snowdoggie
Snowdoggie Reader
5/28/20 6:06 p.m.

I remember watching him drive on TV and it didn't seem like long ago. 

I wish him well. 

PeteLoBianco
PeteLoBianco New Reader
5/28/20 10:28 p.m.

Raced against him in his early days.  We won sometimes, but he won the big one in Atlanta.  Nothing but a nice guy no matter who won.  Wishing him a speedy recovery!

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
5/29/20 10:26 a.m.
slowbird said:

Good story. I'm rooting for him to pull through.

Classic Steven Cole Smith. And, yeah, hopefully Doc pulls through. 

And wash your hands, everyone. 

Our Preferred Partners
QulK80ZpJBEAaNRZkhjuIGJOGCrv01mnM3H6s6oKoxPCdDmWpOwEKYEsXZh5AfNN