The Washington County Historical Society is mourning the loss of our native son and legendary, professional race car driver, Roy Robbins Jr., who passed away on Friday, Oct. 16th, at 88 years of age, at his home in Little York. Breaking into the sport, just after World War II, as an auto racing mania was sweeping across the country, Roy competed against and defeated many of the greatest legends from the “Golden Era” of American auto racing, en route to becoming a legend himself.
He was born in a little house on Pull Tight Road, in Washington County, on September 17, 1927, the only child of Roy Sr. and Irene (Childers) Robbins. As a kid, Roy and his friends, would race any kind of motorized vehicle they could get their hands on, up and down the dirt and gravel country back roads of Gibson Township. He was attending the Little York High School in 1945, when at 17, he falsified his birth certificate to join the U.S Army and serve his country during the final stages of World War II.
He returned home after his military service and started racing a 1939 Lincoln coupe, with a V-8 Studebaker engine, at the Jeffersonville Sportsdrome. Roy achieved considerable success running roadsters and coupes, in the “Stock Divisions”, throughout the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, at tracks all over the Ohio Valley region, including a few races on the high banks of the Salem Speedway and track championships at Brownstown and Mitchell. In the late 1950’s, Roy switched to the new Super Modified Division, the early predecessor to the sprint cars ran today, in the World of Outlaws series. In this division, Roy would gain national notoriety, collecting several championships and becoming one of the most dominate and well known drivers in the country. Barnstorm racing across tracks in 15 states, Roy would do battle with many of open wheel racing’s early legends, such as; Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock, Bobby Ward, Jim “Tex” McElreath, Wayne McGuire, Aldo Andretti, “Pistol” Pete Folse, Bob Kinser and Dick “Mr. Sprint Car” Gaines.
In 1961, Roy began building his own super-modified machine, powered by the increasingly popular Chevrolet V-8, the #37 car would become the most successful of Roy’s career. Racing one night that year, in New Bremen, Ohio, he saw his first “winged” modified. A fellow driver had attached a portion of an airplane wing to the top of his race car, to increase down force, on the rear of the vehicle. Roy immediately recognized the advantage it provided and added one to his newly built car the following week. In late July, he took the first of several trips west, to the town of Knoxville, Iowa, for the inaugural running of the Knoxville Nationals.
78 sprint car drivers, from 15 states, descended upon the race track to compete for the national title, in front of a maximum capacity crowd of 14,000 spectators. The night before the main event, Roy hit the track for qualifying in his winged super-modified and laid down the fastest qualifying lap of the field, setting a new track record. After finishing 2nd in his 10 lap heat race, Roy would line up near the rear of the inverted field, for the Championship Main Feature on Saturday night. When the green flag dropped, the increased down force provided by the wing, allowed Roy to drive deeper and faster into the corners than the non-wing cars ever dared to and he began picking the competitors off in quick order. Roaring around the outside cushion, he had cracked the top 10 before completing the first lap and would eventually run away with the championship feature.
For the win, Roy claimed $1,280 of the $5,000 purse and was presented with a new Bulova watch, a far cry from the $1,000,000 purse offered today at the Nationals. But with the victory, Roy Robbins Jr., of Washington County, Indiana, had cemented his name in the annals of American open-wheel racing history, for the inaugural win, the title of National Champion and for being one of the pioneers of the winged sprint cars.
Around his fortieth birthday, Roy began to think he wasn’t accomplishing anything with his life and realized all the money he won always went back into his racing endeavors, so he decided it was time to retire. He ran his last race, in 1969, at the Bloomington Speedway, shortly after his marriage to Kathleen Meier Buchanan, of Madison. Fortunately, Roy was able to walk away from the sport, while many of his competitors and racing friends were not as fortunate, in an era when the advancement of flat out speed, far exceeded those of driver safety. Roy and his wife have since resided in the quiet countryside of Washington County and he departed this life, on Friday, just a couple of miles from where he was born.
Humble and conventional till the end, Roy seemed completely unaware of his significant standing in auto racing history and always downplayed his numerous achievements, including his triple digit total career wins, his championships and his 1983 induction into the Knoxville Sprint Car Hall of Fame. We now mourn the loss of a local legend and valuable representative of our county.
To find out more about Roy’s career, he is featured in the Official Bicentennial Book of Washington County, as one of our local racing heroes, or the Stevens Museum has a folder on display, showing Roy’s racing highlights.