Arizona sports icons with unique stories of business success to be inducted into state hall of fame

As originally published at the Phoenix Business Journal here.

Six Arizona sports icons will be inducted into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame Oct. 27, the largest class in its history.

This includes former Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson, former Phoenix Suns head coach John MacLeod, former Arizona Cardinals’ safety Adrian Wilson, former legendary high school basketball coach Royce Youree, Erik Widmark and Bob Bondurant.

Widmark and Bondurant have unique stories of business success that overcame health-related misfortune.

 

Despite showing signs of onset of Parkinson’s disease his first
day on the job, Widmark led the Grand Canyon State Games to
success. The event which features competitions from swimming to skiing to art and essay contests, became the largest amateur sports festival in the country.

Meanwhile, Bondurant launched the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving after suffering a near fatal car accident when racing professionally. It’s the largest purpose-built driving school in the world.

Widmark’s resurrection of the Grand Canyon State Games

Widmark’s success is quantifiable.
In his first year as executive director of the Grand Canyon State Games, less than 2,000 athletes

participated, and the Games were in a $180,000 debt, according to Widmark.

By the end of his 19 years, he said he had raised $22 million and had garnered the participation of 455,000 athletes.

“The way I ran it was, ‘You don’t have any problems.’ I take care of all the problems,” he said.

Widmark, 69, said he knew the product of the Games was sound. The challenge was giving it the infrastructure for success.

He said he accomplished this thanks to a staff of three full-time members, a board of directors, sponsors, commissioners and a “tireless group of volunteers.”

“It’s running a business with 100 events, 50 sports, 75 sponsors, 120 commissioners, thousands of volunteers, 30,000 athletes a year,” he said. “This is big-time business.”

Throughout all this, Widmark had begun battling Parkinson’s disease.

He said he first noticed his hands were shaking the first day he signed checks as executive director.

Widmark has had Parkinson’s disease for the last 18 years. Around five years ago, he had three brain surgeries, referred to as “deep brain stimulation,” designed to slow the progression of the disease.

Less than 20 percent of people with Parkinson’s undergo the surgery, and Widmark’s current “business” involves him coaching people who qualify for the operation and are considering having it done.

“The awareness and the ability to still do that serves a driving force to make sure that I remember that I got the dang stuff, and not just sit around and be cry babying about it,” Widmark said. “I’m trying to encourage other people.”

Six months before Widmark retired, the Grand Canyon State Games merged with the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission. Through that relationship, he secured a sponsorship with X-Treme Apparel, a T-shirt company, for $50,000.

Widmark said once the deal was in place, he felt at ease stepping down to concentrate on his health, knowing the Games were financially secure for the foreseeable future.

“The best part of my job when I had it was to stand back and let the vision turn to reality because that’s the hard part,” he said. “I always enjoy the process of watching it work.”

Bob Bondurant and the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving

While Bob Bondurant’s professional racing career is storied—he’s one of the few Americans to have both beaten and raced for Ferrari—his induction into the Hall of Fame stems from his current connection to the Valley.

For the past 29 years, the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving has been stationed at the Gila River Reservation in Chandler. The track was designed by Bondurant himself, and in total, he’s lured in more than 500,000 students.

Bob, now 83, had his professional racing career cut short due to a severe crash sustained in 1967.

Bondurant said doctors told him he’d likely never walk again.

He set out to prove them wrong and proceeded to design a school that reflected his racing mentality. It culminated in what he calls the “Bob Bondurant method.”

“It’s a step-by-step method, starting out slow, doing different maneuvers,” he said. “Everyone wants to come out and go fast… I say, ‘You have to go slow to go fast.’”

“When he tells you about this method, the secret Colonel Sanders’ recipe, it’s really the mystique of being here at Bondurant,” Pat Bondurant, Bob’s wife and president of the school, added. “Each and every student is profiled on what their strengths and weaknesses are.”

The school also strives to ensure its equipment is the gold standard. This centers on sponsorships, and Pat estimates their partnership with Dodge SRT is “probably the single largest sponsorship in the automotive industry.”

Specifically, there’s $11 million worth of Dodge Hellcats and Dodge Vipers at the school, according to the Bondurants.

On the horizon, the Bondurants indicated they’re hoping to finalize a 45-year lease with the Gila River tribe. It would allow their son and current vice president of the school, Jason Bondurant, to take over the business without the thought of relocation once his dad retires.

In the meantime, Bob said his passion for racing and teaching is still kindled.

“The greatest thing is, both Pat and I are here every single day unless we’re travelling,” he said. “Today I rode with all the students so they get Bondurant time personally.”

“You don’t need an alarm clock at our house,” Pat said. “This guy, his feet are out of that bed and he’s headed for that shower and (saying) ‘I wonder how many students I have today,’ and ‘I wonder if anybody in the crowd today is going to be racing.’ It’s a passion that you cannot imagine.”

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