John Hobbs’ racing career began in 1966 in the long-established sport of sprinting. He combined this with drag racing and many successful national and world record attempts before migrating over totally to drag racing where he became a dominant force in Europe throughout the 1970s. John retired personally from competition in 1979 but he went on to manage his own successful racing team and continues to compete at sprint events once or twice a year.
In 2007 John became the first bike rider to be inducted into the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame in recognition of his tremendous contribution to the sport.
John’s interest in motorcycles dates back to when he was about 10. In his words “anything that was oily and/or noisy” was right up his street. His first machine was a Villiers two-stroke powered Francis Barnet which he and a friend found abandoned in a hedgerow! They used to ride it off-road before either of them were old enough to get a driving licence.
John’s next machine was equally exotic - an ex-GPO BSA Bantam displacing a whopping 125cc and bought for a fiver. Extraneous bits such as the leg shields and the windscreen were rapidly discarded in the interests of saving weight. As soon as John was 16 he took his test and lost no time throwing the Bantam up the road.
All of this was going on before drag racing had arrived in the UK in any permanent way. Whilst out for a ride on the trusty Bantam with a friend one day in May 1964 John happened upon a sprint meeting being held at Duxford. They were intrigued by this and hopped over the fence to have a closer look. George Brown was at this meeting with his mighty Vincent powered Super Nero and the sound of the blown engine captivated the young Hobbs.
John was determined to have a go at competing in this fascinating sport but decided to spend some time attending meetings first so he went to as many sprints as possible during the remainder of 1964 and throughout 1965. He joined the National Sprint Association (NSA) in 1964 since at that time their meetings were open only to members. Over the winter of 1965/66
the engine from the Bantam was removed and installed in the frame of a 50cc Maserati racing bike and he rode this machine on the road as well as in competition. At this time George Brown, Ian Ashwell, John Lloyd (all three of whom rode supercharged 1000cc Vincents) and Alf Hagon (1300cc JAP) were at the top of the sprinting tree. A really good run from a 500cc machine would result in a mid to high 11 second clocking in those days.
At one of the early sprints John competed in at Duxford, an event took place which provided a salutary reminder to him of the dangers of motor sport even when competing on a relatively modestly powered machine. The return road at Duxford was no more than part of the runway coned off from the track.
Another machine was obviously called for so in the summer of 1966 a dilapidated 1954 Triumph Tiger 100, complete with an all-aluminium pre-unit construction lump, was intercepted on its way to the scrap yard and became the basis for John’s second competition bike. At this time John had not long started an engineering course at Enfield Technical College and it is fair to say his budget was modest. His philosophy was never to buy anything you can make, and if you must buy something then make sure it is second-hand. As a result all the unwanted parts of the Tiger 100 were sold off (resulting in a free engine for John) and the only new components on the bike were the big end shells and the valves and springs. Needless to say a supercharger was out of the question. A purpose-built sprinting frame was constructed by John to complete the set up.
John managed two or three meetings on this bike before the frame broke and the engine threw a rod.
The winter of 1966/67 saw John hard at work designing and building what he regarded as the optimum sprinting frame. John had learned tube bending and welding in his father’s workshop. Hobbs senior ran a small heating company and John’s practical skills were developed and honed working with and for his dad. The Tiger 100 engine had been repaired after the rod let go and generally freshened up and John took to the strips in 1967 on the new machine which he christened ‘Olympus’ - a name that will be familiar to many readers. He raced at as many sprint meetings as he could at places such as Duxford, Bassingbourn, Debden, Ramsgate and Topcliff and he also made his first appearance at Santa Pod Raceway at a bikes-only event organised by the British Hot Rod Association. The times by now were in the low 12 second zone although he did dip into the 11s at the Pod on 17 June. This may not sound earth-shattering now but it earned John the distinction of having made the fastest ever run by an unblown 500 on methanol (and on road tyres to boot!). By this time the NSA had lowered its requirement Expert Status times to 12.5 seconds (click here to see John's Certificate of Expert Status).
The visit to the Pod was another of those defining moments in John’s racing career. There was such a huge contrast between sprinting and drag racing despite the fact that they superficially appeared quite similar. Sprinting was dominated by the purists whose main interest lay in breaking records and it is fair to say that the meetings were no where near as intense as a drag racing event. You could win an event with just one good run out of perhaps six that might be made during the day. In drag racing the qualifying was akin to sprinting, but by the time that competition proper began your first mistake was usually your last. This new sport appealed to John’s competitive instincts and he soon came to prefer it although he continued to attend sprint meetings until the early 1970s.
The next important development was the fitting of a supercharger to Olympus during the winter of 1967/68 and this led to 1968 being one of the most successful of John’s entire racing career. The performance of the bike immediately improved with regular low 11 second runs being the order of the day. John began taking course records away from the established 500cc sprinters such as Fred Cooper and Bill Orris, and he also began to enjoy considerable success on the drag racing strips.
The season opener at Santa Pod was held on 21 April 1968 and saw John facing Ian Ashwell’s blown Vincent ‘Satan’ in the final of Top Eliminator. It was an incredibly close and exciting race, so much so that the timekeepers missed the indicator which told them who had got to the line first! The win was later awarded to Ian. However, on 19 May it was decided that John and Ian should have a best of three match race to clear up the confusion of the earlier meeting. ‘Olympus’ beat ‘Satan’ two out of three to take the honours.
The motorcycle championship in 1968 was decided at just one event which took place at the Pod on 15 September and John rounded off the year with yet another success with a best pass of 10.8 seconds at 132 mph. John’s best elapsed time for the year was a very creditable 10.7 seconds.
John was part of a British motorcycle team which raced at Zandvoort in Holland in the Summer of 1968. This marked the start of motorcycle drag racing in Europe.
At this time the annual world records weekend held at Elvington in Yorkshire was organised by the NSA and it was run on an invitation-only basis. John’s performances during the year had been of such a calibre that he had been invited to compete alongside Fred Cooper and Ron Williams in the 500cc class. Ron was regarded as the hot favourite by the establishment with John very much the underdog. All record attempts had to be performed both ways with the second run being made within an hour of the first, the times were the average of both runs.
The standing start kilometre record had been set by Alfredo Milani riding for the famous Gilera factory in 1958 and it had defied all attempts to better it in the intervening years. This is perhaps not surprising because Gilera had set their cap on getting this record and had reputedly spent a significant sum, not to mention the full resources of the factory, to ensure that they got it. The time set by Milani was 20.945 seconds.
To say that John had a good weekend would be an understatement of biblical proportions. At the tender age of 21 he came away from Elvington with the following records to his credit :
This would have been a magnificent achievement on any basis but when you consider the bike had been built in a shed without professional help of any sort by a young cash-strapped student it really puts it in perspective. It also shattered the existing order of 500cc sprinting in the UK. Click here to see the FIM Certificate of World's Record.
John’s achievement would have been greater still but for an unfortunate administrative oversight. The standing start mile had been covered in an average time of 29.93 seconds which was quicker than the existing national record. Although this time was never in question, it was never put forward by the organisers for official ratification.
Before leaving the records meeting, it is worth explaining the reason that average speeds are quoted in the table above particularly in respect of the standing start distances. The accepted practice in sprinting was that records were expressed in terms of average speed and not elapsed time as is the norm in drag racing. The times taken to cover the distances were only used in order to calculate the average speeds.
John continued to develop ‘Olympus’ and he carried on with his winning ways but he was becoming more conscious of the importance of the launch away from the line, particularly with regard to drag racing. This was not helped by the positioning of the supercharger on the bike which was mounted in front of the engine. This gave very efficient gas flow which was advantageous over the longer distances often covered in sprinting, but this was at the expense of the all-important launch.
Notwithstanding this, John picked up a good number of wins and track records during the year notably at the Santa Pod Spring Nationals when he lowered the E Class solo motorcycle drag racing record to 10.402 seconds at 135.87 mph on 14 June (click here to see the BDR & HRA record certificate).
Another highlight of the year was a return trip to Holland as part of a team of 16 or so riders to compete once again at Zandvoort.
There had been something of a schism in the world of sprinting in 1969 because two records meetings were held at Elvington that year, one under the auspices of the NSA, the other organised by the International Sprint Organisation (ISO). John chose to run at the ISO event and returned with his usual sack full of records :
John had concentrated very much on the flying distances at this meeting and as a consequence he lost his standing start quarter mile record to Ron Williams who clocked a fine 10.78 seconds. It is interesting to note that the speeds over the flying distances were improved by between 6 and 8 mph over the previous year. John had also captured the world (and therefore the national) standing start mile record thus making up for the previous year’s disappointment with interest.
1970 and 1971
For 1970 John decided to concentrate his efforts on drag racing and this prompted a change of location for the supercharger which now resided behind the engine. The hope was that this would increase the weight on the rear wheel thus leading to better traction off the line. It could be said that this measure was a resounding success although John might not have been the first to agree with this notion, at least not immediately.
On one of his early passes with the new configuration John powered the bike off the line only to pull an absolutely enormous wheelie, the biggest of his career by far. It was so severe that the machine came right over and he had to roll out of the way. Well, not quite completely out of the way as it turned out because he broke his toe. Fortunately, this was the worst racing injury John would ever experience. The by now thoroughly understood altered weight distribution required a modified riding style with John needing to lean forward at the launch to keep the front wheel somewhere near terra firma.
John’s annual pilgrimage to the records meeting at Elvington in 1970 ended prematurely when he completely totalled the engine on a warm-up run. Click here to take a look at the damage - very nasty!
Steady development of the bike continued and this was rewarded at a meeting at Santa Pod on 1 August 1971 when John met Dave Lecoq in the final of Top Bike. Dave was riding Howard German’s Volkswagen car-engined ‘Dragwaye’ which could only be described as a two wheeled slingshot dragster. The rider sat behind the rear wheel with the engine immediately in front
of it. The front wheel was situated some distance in front of the engine with steering by a linkage arrangement. This radical machine was proving to be highly effective and had run a succession of mid-nine second runs at over 150 mph to reach the final. This was another of the ‘David and Goliath’ match ups which John seemed to specialise in and clearly he would have to be at the top of his game to stand any chance of winning.
The by now annual trip to Holland had a rather different twist to it in 1970 because the City Fathers of Rotterdam allowed a street race to take place there. I only hope the Dutch roads were in better repair than most of ours are currently.
The 1971 records meeting at Elvington saw a return to the usual winning ways with the following records being added to John’s growing collection.
However, even these performances were not enough for the super-ambitious Hobbs because he sold the fastest 500cc machine in the world to Charlie Harrison and set to work building a twin-engined bike.
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