SEBRING - Around his Sebring headquarters, he daunts on about dozen stray cats that have become his part-time family, regularly feeding and petting them while they zip to and fro the shined concrete floor.
The solitude and passive mutual comfort now shared between Bob Tullius and his feline pets are a far meow from the roar of the 700-plus horsepowered engines Tullius spent nearly 25 years driving into auto racing and Sebring's history.
Tullius has been retired from competitive racing since 1986 but his legacy and continued support of the 12 Hours of Sebring auto race got him inducted into the 2014 Sebring Hall of Fame. He is the only full-time Sebring resident to be inducted in 2014 and one of two in the Hall's history, and the first actual racer.
Tullius raced at Sebring 14 times from 1963, in a Triumph TR4, through 1986, in his Jaguar XJR-7. He and his team never took the overall win there, but they did so at other tracks.
Established in 2002, the Hall of Fame is open to drivers, manufacturers, officials and promoters who have "played a key role in Sebring's history," according to Barbara Maire, Sebring race volunteer coordinator-special projects.
A native of Leesburg, Va., who has lived in Sebring's Golf Hammock community since 1994, Tullius began racing in 1961, drove his first Sebring race with the Triumph Motor Club in 1963 and retired from racing in 1986. He spent until 1990 testing cars.
Tullius said he was notified by Maire in January that he was one of five 2014 inductees, which includes British racer Vic Elford and Americans Peter Gregg and Wayne Taylor, as well as Jacksonville racing team Brumos Porsche. When he was called about the honor, he said he was not only proud but humbled.
"I thought there were certainly people more deserving than me, but I was honored and pleasantly surprised," said Tullius, sitting in his office housed in a hangar at the Sebring Regional Airport.
Tullius' career was not only long but equally impressive. Through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, along with the racing team he founded, Group 44, he won five national championships with over 250 victories, driving Triumphs, MGs, Lotuses, Dodge Darts, Audis and an array of sporting Jaguars. In addition to Sebring, he also drove the 24-Hours of LeMans and a Daytona 500 qualfier. In 1966, he won the first Trans-Am event in Sebring in 1966, again won at Daytona in 1967 and competed in the British Leyland's Jaguar XJ-S in the Trans-Am Series in the early 1980s, driving a 500-plus horsepower Jaguar.
In 1981, Tullius won the Camel GT Triumph TR8 GTO Class at the Sebring raceway and spent from 1983 to 1986 with the Camel GT racing series before hanging up his helmet, which he said he was ready to do.
"After having done it for so long, I was already 56, and to be competitive really at that age is virtually unheard of in reality and I figured it was time; I didn't want to go down as a punch-drunk fighter," he said.
Tullius has gained respect from all parts of the racing world, said Paul Brand, who began working with Tullius and Group 44 in the mid-1970s. Brand helped Tullius with marketing and actually bought one of his cars, an 1980 MGB, which he raced and won at the Sports Car Club of America EP MGB road race in Atlanta in 1980. He said Tullius is deserving of the Hall of Fame not only because of his racing but also because of his innovations.
"The most unique thing about Bob was he was the prototype of professional motorsports marketing. Everything is always perfect, the tractor trailers, perfect cars and crew and all the successes were in cars that his team put together and built," said Brand, who last worked full-time for Tullius in 1977. "It was a great experience. It showed me what it takes to be successful in car racing."
That success not only has been in racing but has rolled over into all aspects of his life, said John Shoop, president of the Sebring Hall of Fame Committee and president of Highlands Independent Bank. He said about 500 people affiliated with racing are submitted to the Hall every two years and the committee selects a handful that makes it. He said those involved in various aspects of racing are selected and Tullius' inclusion was an easy decision to make.
"He's a great guy. He's been a part of that race and Sebring for a long time and he's real deserving of it," he said.
Tullius now spends a lot of time in his airport hangar, where five retired racing cars and six vintage airplanes are meticulously stored and cared for as part of his other hobby. He said he doesn't follow racing closely but does get out to the 12 Hours of Sebring to mostly walk and talk to folks. He said there seems to be a lot of fair-weather fans who come out at race time.
"There's very few sports car enthusiasts in Sebring. When the race comes around, then they're interested," he said. "But I'm glad to have been selected. There are different halls of fame and this is one that I would have picked to be one of if I had a choice."
Tullius will be inducted into the Hall at a closed luncheon ceremony Friday at the Chateau Elan Hotel at the race grounds.