SVRA: Bob Tullius embraces the past at Sebring

SVRA: Bob Tullius embraces the past at Sebring

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SVRA: Bob Tullius embraces the past at Sebring

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This weekend’s grand marshal at the SportsCar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) Sebring stop is auto racing legend and self-admitted recluse Bob Tullius. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate choice considering it was Tullius, at the wheel of a Dodge Dart, who won the very first Trans Am race right here at Sebring International Raceway 50 years ago in 1966.

That winning effort was actually a collaboration between Tullius’ fledgling Group 44 team of only three employees and the Team Starfish organization that was preparing Plymouth Barracudas for competition. As the Barracudas roared around road courses others within Chrysler looked on enviously. The Dodge contingent of the Chrysler corporate family had their racing ambitions as well and prevailed upon Team Starfish leader and driver Scott Harvey to recruit the right driver. Bob Tullius got the call. With the factory supplying parts and advice little Group 44 went to work.

“I always loved American V8s, so it was easy to decide,” Tullius says. “We got some factory assistance and financial support. Scott was helpful to me, but don’t think he gave us any special favors, he was determined to beat us.”

Despite making history at the wheel of a Dart, Tullius is best known for his success with British Leyland cars, most notably the Jaguar brand. In a career spanning three decades Tullius and his Group 44 team amassed an amazing record of more than 300 victories including three Trans-Am championships, 21 Trans-Am race wins, 14 SCCA national titles, 11 IMSA victories and picked off a GTP class win for Jaguar at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1985. Tullius founded Group 44 in 1964 with associates Brian Fuerstenau and Dick Gilmartin racing British Leyland cars. Eventually this led to a long association with Jaguar and sponsor Quaker State Motor Oil.

The long list of Group 44 victories is one measure of its success. Another is simply longevity. The team was a major player on the global sports car landscape for 26 years. Throughout most of that time Tullius nurtured relationships with Jaguar and Quaker State Motor Oil (ABOVE, SVRA photo). The secret to his success with these vital business relationships was some groundbreaking marketing practices during those times.

“One of the aspects of our SVRA weekends is to welcome legends back to the track and tell their stories to new generations or just remind mature fans of what they accomplished,” says Tony Parella, CEO of the SVRA. “Race fans today know about Roger Penske’s teams and how he runs them as a business. There’s a whole younger generation who for the most part aren’t aware that Bob Tullius created that business model for his Group 44 race team before Roger established Team Penske.”

Tullius freely admits that while he has a strong aptitude for mechanics and racecraft his greatest strength was as a marketer. He formalized the hiring of marketing and public relations professionals as an integral part of Group 44.

“We did what Penske did and continues to do years before he got started,” Tullius says. “I was in business and we understood what could be done with motorsports as a marketing application.”

Although Tullius has not been active in the sport since 1990 he has kept a watchful eye. He has observed the marketing success of NASCAR and is a bit amused as he reflects on how people could not understand what he was trying to accomplish when he applied principles of marketing and public relations in the 1960s and ’70s.

“We started the practice of reaching out to the press, auto dealerships and sponsor affiliates,” Tullius notes. “My staff was the first real marketing professionals in motorsports. We had a PR team and would go into markets in advance of races with promotional materials for stores, TV, radio and newspapers. It was 24-7 legwork.”

What was most obvious to perplexed onlookers was how Group 44 packaged itself in the colors of Quaker State – white with green trim. It was branding the team and its major partners together in a pristine manner that exuded professionalism – and they did it before the word “brand” was part of race team vocabulary. It was “Group 44 perfect” in the days prior to “Penske perfect,” if you will. For Tullius it was all about never forgetting that the team was a business and it was crucial to represent sponsors and manufacturers in a way that made them proud – especially in front of their customers.

“Jaguar understood,” Tullius says. “Quaker State too. Everywhere we went my PR guy carried a camera. He captured everything. He subscribed to all the newspapers around the tracks. We prepared reports to our sponsors and they saw the value we created.”

Some have said Tullius was loyal to Jaguar as if he was somehow making sacrifices or missing other opportunities out of some sense gratitude. Nothing could be further from the truth, he asserts.

“I was in business,” he says. “The bottom line was money. Loyalty came as long as I felt appreciated. I never considered leaving them as long as they treated me fairly and demonstrated that they valued what I was doing for them. That was very satisfying.”

RIGHT: Tullius with SVRA racer Allen Goode, who owns and races a 1967 Triumph TR4, a replica of one of Bob’s early Group 44 cars.

Like everything in life good things come to a conclusion and people like Tullius write new chapters and climb new mountains. His burning passion for auto racing eventually cooled a bit and a burgeoning enthusiasm for aviation that had sparked in 1969 filled the void. He was fascinated with vintage World War II aircraft. His pride and joy was a P-51 Mustang he acquired in 1990, a full 20 years after earning his pilot’s license in 1970. At 85 he has slowed down a bit and the P-51 has been donated to London’s Royal Air Force Museum. Still, he hangs on to a Beech King Air 350 and three World War II “trainers.” They are in a hangar in Sebring where Tullius lives – for now.

“I’m not sure what I’ll do next,” he says. “Honestly, I am a recluse and I like it that way. When Tony Parella asked me about being the grand marshal this weekend I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. This just might be my swan song for this kind thing, but I do think it was a really nice thing for the SVRA to do.”

Despite Tullius’ pride over his contributions to motorsports marketing, the race driver comes through when he is asked about his favorite race. Was it one you drove? Was it a team victory? A true racecar driver, his greatest memories are of two races he won.

One was his triumph in the D Production event of the 1964 American Road Race of Champions – the precursor to the SCCA National Championship Runoffs. He drove a Triumph TR-4 to victory in that one. The other big win was the Marlboro 12-Hour contest at Maryland’s now defunct Marlboro Park Speedway. Appropriate to this weekend’s occasion, that was his second Trans Am win, nearly 50 years ago and again with the Dodge Dart that started it all.

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