PROFILE: Johnny Gemmell
Johnny Gemmell was born in Kenya and grew up in Australia before settling in South Africa with his parents. He operates a plant hire business together with his family based on the East Rand.
Like many talented motor sportsmen Johnny Gemmell started his career in karting, but unlike most he opted to start in the top class in karting – 250cc Superkarts. That was in 1981. In 1982, just his second year of competition, he won the South African 250cc Superkart championship.
His rally career started in 1999 with a 21 year old Toyota Corolla. His first event was the Belfast Rally in that year, a regional event. He finished second in class and 7th overall on that event. That level of success continued through the year and at the end of the season he was runner up in the SAHRA Championship ahead of many more experienced competitors with more competitive equipment.
The following year saw an upgrade to a one-year-old class A7 Sentra for a full season in the South African national championship. Dogged by mechanical and reliability issues this was not Johnny’s happiest season in rallying. On sheer speed however he was ahead of the opposition in just about every event. Given a trouble free run the class championship and a potential top-five overall in the championship would have been a very real expectation.
For the 2001 season Johnny opted to move into the Group N4 Class for turbocharged Group N cars. Here he chose a Subaru WRX 4X4 to contest the season with. That year saw Johnny end up second in the South African Rally Championship, just two points away from an overall win! This very competitive season saw him win 2 national championship rallies outright – the first privateer to achieve this in an era of manufacturer supported teams at the forefront of South African rallying.
For 2002 Johnny decided to add competing in the FIA African Rally Championship to his schedule in addition to the South African Championship. He won the African Championship together with Robert Paisley and was nominated as a finalist for the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motor Sportsman of the Year for this achievement.
For the 2005 season Johnny upgraded to a more competitive vehicle in the Group N4
class. He won the Group N Championship and the Production Car Championship (within the South African Rally Championship) that year. In 2006 he was ranked second in the Group N and Production Car Championships.
Based on his high profile and success as a true privateer in the South African Rally Championship, Johnny was considered a top candidate to take the place of Serge Damseaux in the Castrol Toyota works team after Damseaux announced his retirement from rallying.
Johnny immediately impressed in a test session and was contracted by Toyota Motorsport to take the team forward as the leader of a new two car S2000 line-up together with Mark Cronje for the 2008 season. He adapted quickly to the RunX S2000 and scored his first win for Toyota in just his second event in the car. He ended a very competitive season with a second win, this time in the Toyota Gauteng Rally.
The 2008 season was a transition year for the team with the focus on the homologation of the Auris S2000 car and development on the RunX.
Armed with the new Auris for 2009 Johnny put in a stellar performance in one of the most competitive seasons ever in the South African Rally Championship. He went into the final event with just one point separating him from eventual championship winner, Hergen Fekken. With everything to win or lose, Johnny suffered a failure of a valve spring in the Auris mid-way through the event with the championship in sight and had to settle for the runner up position.
In the 2010 championship Johnny was once again a serious challenger and won both the Rally of South Africa and the Volkswagen Rally. History repeated itself and the championship went through to the final round of the year with Johnny ending up just four points short of the title as runner-up.
Despite again being a serious title challenger in 2011, he could only manage three runner-up finishes and was third in the championship. In 2012 he will be paired with experienced co-driver Carolyn Swan, who joins the Castrol Toyota team after many years with the Team Total Toyota team.
Away from rallying, Johnny is an ardent soccer enthusiast and enjoys lounging in front of the TV watching his favourite team play.