As an airman in the United States Air Force, Robert “Bob” Johns parlayed his amateur success into a position as a Triumph works driver, including stints at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring. Bob Johns will be inducted into the British Sports Car Hall of Fame on Friday, June 2.
Bob Johns was born in Bradford, Pennsylvania, and began working in his father’s auto repair shop at the age of twelve, which fueled his interest in racing. By age nineteen, he was full-fledged, fast-car crazy. In fact, he attended the last two original-course races at Watkins Glen in 1951 and 1952. These races instilled in him the auto racing fever.
Bob enlisted in the Air Force for the Korean War in the fall of 1952 and was stationed near one of the greatest race tracks in the world, The Nürburgring. Situated in the village of Nürburg, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, it is about 43 miles south of Cologne. “The Ring” attracted Bob’s attention. He purchased a 1949 MG-TC for racing club events and quickly learned that he needed something better and more powerful. Bob said, “The TC was a miserable thing to drive and it was difficult to drive it in a straight line. It was not very fast.” The TC was sold to allow the purchase of a used 1954 Triumph TR2 long door with overdrive.
Compiling an enviable record in the European motorsports world during his three-year stint with more than 25 events, Bob scored several important victories including first place finishes in the Eifel Motor Sports Club’s annual lap times (Nürburgring course), Landstuhl Air Force Base Road Races, and the Sembach Air Force Base Road Races.
Back in the United States with a strong endorsement from the Triumph importer in Germany, Bob needed and obtained a racing license from SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) to continue his racing pursuits in Roswell, New Mexico. He entered every race within a reasonable distance. Bob secured a first-in-class and second place overall in the Hill Climb at Los Alamos, New Mexico. He had two second-place finishes at the Fort Sumner races.
Discharged from active duty in 1956, Bob had returned home when Alan Bethel, President of Standard-TriumphUSA, contacted him. Bethel was assembling a team for the Triumph factory to compete in the only International Sports Car Race in the United States at that time, the 12 Hours of Sebring Endurance Race scheduled for March 1957. Bethel offered a place on the team and Bob accepted. In the end, Bob finished 1st in class and 19th overall. After his racing feat at Sebring, Bob Johns gave up his helmet and took advantage of the GI bill to earn a mechanical engineering degree from Tri State University in Angola, Indiana.
A full-length article on Bob Johns with the interview which served as the source for this short biography can be found in the December / January 2015 of the national newsletter of the Triumph Register of America.
Note: This is part of an ongoing series focusing on the 23 individuals who will be inducted into the British Sports Car Hall of Fame in ceremonies on June 2nd, 2017, at the Hall of Fame in Petersburg, VA.