While retirement has hit the brakes on his racing career, the soft-spoken engineer was a road warrior in the 1970s and 80s. His weapon of choice — the turbocharged Porsche 935K.
He was the lead driver and owner of Garretson Developments racing team and he competed in the World Sportscar and IMSA GT championships. He drove to victory in 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Daytona, and took home the overall 1981 World Endurance Championship title.
Since then, Garretson has become a kind of elder statesman in the Porsche racing world — a sports car shaman to whom other racers look for advice on slicing precious milliseconds off their lap times.
“You have to think and be disciplined,” he said. “Discipline is very important. Some drivers always had to be the first one down a straightaway and they would end up blowing an engine.”
Garretson cut his racing chops on the mean Southern California drag racing circuit during the 1950s. He was drafted into the Navy for two years and put himself through the University of California, Berkeley by rebuilding V-8 engines.
The quarter-mile began to lose its luster after Garretson got married for the first time and started having a family.
“I decided drag racing was a waste of time,” he said. “All that work and in 20 seconds you’re done.”
His outlook on racing changed irrevocably when a college fraternity brother brought home a curvaceous Porsche from Germany.
“I decided that was it. I wanted one,” Garretson said.
He bought a silver Porsche 57A for $2,700 and later bought a 1960 Porsche 356, which he still owns to this day. In all, Garretson has owned more than a dozen of the German-made sports cars.
He began working in the burgeoning computer technology field in the Bay Area and designed a special probe for testing semiconductors. He started a business selling the devices around the world and used some of the money he made from his invention to start a Porsche repair shop and fund his racing
He didn’t know it at the time, but a chance encounter with a pair of ambitious young computer geeks would help catapult him into auto racing history.
The year was 1980, Silicon Valley was on the cusp of the technology boom and Garretson was working in his humble Cupertino repair shop when the owners of a Bay Area startup pulled into his garage looking to have their bright new Porsche sports cars serviced.
The geeks, as it would turn out, were the founders of Apple Computers Inc., Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
Garretson remembers striking up a conversation with Jobs while the tech guru’s Porsche 356 underwent repairs. Garretson was already distinguishing himself as one of the world’s top Porsche racing drivers, and the brief conversation led to Apple Computers becoming a major sponsor of Garretson’s racing team.
His plucky white Porsche 935K was the pinnacle of racing technology in its day. Twin turbochargers poked out beneath an oversized spoiler and belched fire as the rear-engined roadster rounded tight turns.
Garretson assembled a team that would become a who’s who of auto racing, which included future world champions like Brian Redman and Bobby Rahal.
“Endurance racing was something I always wanted to do and I had the good fortune to get hooked up with Bob (Garretson),” said Rahal, who went on to win the 1986 Indianapolis 500. “He’s universally respected in the Porsche world.”
While Garretson began to enjoy some success on the track, his racing career was not without its setbacks. He suffered a near-fatal wreck while racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1978. He lost control of the car at 200 mph while on the infamous Mulsanne Straight.
“I hit the guardrail and started flipping end over end before coming to rest on the wheels,” he said. “I thought, ‘well this is the end of it, because everybody who has crashed where I crashed is dead.’”
The car was totaled, but Garretson escaped with only a few cuts and bruises.
He left racing in the mid-1980s to go back into business for himself, and opened offices selling computer chip equipment in England, France and Germany.
It was also about this time that he met his wife, Ruth, now 66, and together the two have seven children from previous marriages and six grandchildren.
She said she didn’t learn about her husband’s racing background until the two went on a date to Le Mans, France.
“We get there and all of a sudden there are these people around trying to get his autograph and there were cameramen wanting to get an interview,” she said. “I thought, ‘who is this guy?’ ”
The Garretsons retired to Sonora in 1997 and Bob continues to work on car projects for Porsche owners around the world. They participate in swimming competitions and are active in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. Meanwhile, many of their friends and neighbors are unaware that a racing legend is living within their midst.
“I think the older he gets, the more he realizes what an achievement it was,” Ruth Garretson said.
She said her husband often receives calls at home from frantic Porsche race car owners who need advice to mend uncooperative engines. His expertise with the unique Porsche “straight six” and “boxer” engines is entirely self-taught. In his spare time, he builds special racing parts for a select group of customers.
While most of his time is spent working on older Porsche models, he likes to stay up on modern advances in automotive technology. Porsche recently flew Garretson and other VIPs down to South Africa to test drive the next year’s Porsche 911 model, and he was impressed by what he found.
“You wonder how they can keep making them better, but they always do,” he said. “You keep going deeper, and deeper into the corners.”