A True Racer To The Very End

Sunday night, IndyCar lost one of its last true throwbacks. At the age of ninety-nine, Rolla Vollstedt passed away in his native Oregon on the evening of October 22, 2017.

If you are new to IndyCar or under thirty, there is an excellent chance you’ve never heard of Rolla Vollstedt. If you’re wondering who he was, there is not a short answer to that question. He actually started racing prior to serving in Europe during World War II, when he was wounded twice in Germany. When he returned home to Portland, he began building race cars. He began building sprint cars in 1952 and his status of a legend took off from there.

After Sir Jack Brabham drove the rear-engine Cooper Climax into history in the 1961 Indianapolis 500, Vollstedt showed up at The Speedway for a Goodyear tire test in the fall of 1963 with a rear-engine car powered by an Offenhauser. Although he was told it would never work because there was too much weight in the back of the car, Vollstedt showed up in May of 1964 to find several copy-cats in the paddock.

Len Sutton put the car in the middle of Row Three, but mechanical woes relegated the car to a fifteenth place finish. But Vollstedt’s creation became common at Indianapolis over the coming years.

Rolla Vollstedt is most known for giving Janet Guthrie a ride for the 1976 Indianapolis 500. The car did not qualify, but the two returned in 1977 when Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 by starting twenty-sixth. Like many of Vollstedt’s cars, the car of Guthrie did not finish. She finished twenty-ninth after only twenty-seven laps.

While many will consider that to be Vollstedt’s most significant accomplishment to IndyCar racing, he refers to a day about a decade earlier as the greatest day of his life. It was November 26, 1967 at the USAC Championship Car season finale at Riverside. Two-time World Champion and 1965 Indianapolis 500 winner Jim Clark had flown over to be a spectator. Vollstedt somehow convinced Clark to drive his car for the race. Clark put the notoriously slow car on the outside of the front-row. He took the lead from Dan Gurney on Lap 23 and the car promptly blew up on Lap 24.

Not only did Rolla Vollstedt never win an IndyCar race, he never had any money either. But that didn’t stop him from participating in twenty-one Indianapolis 500’s. He and Janet Guthrie remained close friends over the years. She tells a story of how Vollstedt would always say “Do you know what a racer is? A racer is somebody whose mortgage payment is due, whose kids are hungry and who needs tires for a race this upcoming weekend. And he has only $400. Guess how he spends the $400?”

Despite the shoestring budget, Vollstedt was deeply respected throughout the IndyCar paddock. Names like Jim Clark, Mario Andretti, Len Sutton, Gordon Johncock and Johnny Rutherford have all spent time in the cockpit of a Rolla Vollstedt car.

Vollstedt’s last Indianapolis 500 saw Jerry Sneva qualify on the last day in 1981, only to be disqualified for a pop-off valve infraction. Rolla Vollstedt never participated in the “500” again. He never finished better than ninth, but he built a legacy that lasted for decades. But he is known for doing the most with less than practically anyone in the history of open-wheel racing.

In the past few years, we’ve lost legendary names like AJ Watson, Jim Travers and George Bignotti – men who never drove in the Indianapolis 500, but made their names in Gasoline Alley. Each of those great men lived into their nineties. Rolla Vollstedt almost passed the century mark.

As my life chugs along, I continue to read the obituaries of famous people who made their names when I was in elementary school. Many from that time period are still around, but they are becoming fewer and fewer. As we are all reminded of our own mortality, let’s take time to appreciate those who are nearing the end of their lives that made the sport we love so great. Rolla Vollstedt was one of those. He was a true racer to the very end.

George Phillips

13 Responses to “A True Racer To The Very End”

  1. Great tribute, George. I remember Rolla Volstedt and always admired his efforts.

  2. Thanks George. Always interesting….

  3. Simon Garfunkel Says:

    Excellent! Well said. Thanks for this.

  4. Steven Kilsdonk Says:

    Very well said, George.

  5. There are a lot of people, household names or not, that made racing what it is. I wonder if Rolla Vollstedt ever wrote a book about his adventures?

  6. James T Suel Says:

    Great story on Rolla Voltstedt, one of those men who was a Racer. Never had any money only disregard and love of the sport.RIP

  7. billytheskink Says:

    A lot of folks have a great passion for the 500 and for Indycar racing, but it is clear that few really match Vollstedt’s. He will be missed.

  8. Maybe my all-time favorite memory from my years covering the 500 is of an interaction with Rolla Vollstedt and Dick Simon, one of the years Simon was driving for Vollstedt. My photo poisiton was at the end of Turn One. Apparently something had broken on the car as Simon was approaching the entrance to the turn as the car was already sliding along the wall when it came into my view. I exposed a full 36 exposure roll of balck and white film as the car slid along the wall and out of site through Turn Two before finallt stopping after sliding all the way through that turn.
    After Associated Press had published one of my images, I made 5X7 prints of each image and went to the Vollstedt garage in Gasoline Alley to see if he or Simon would want to see the images. Back in those days before telemetry and TV cameras all over the place, race team members often wanted to see what still photographers had captured because often we provided proof or clues as to what might have been the cause of the incident.
    I saw Simon first and he was eager to see my photos. Simon sat at a little desk against the right wall of that little garage in the old Gasoline Alley and started looking at my photos one by one. Vollstedt was also there and stood next to me looking over Simons sh0ulder at the images. About half way through the sequence, Vollstedt said “Dammit Simon, why didn’t you use the brakes?” Simon replied pointing to the pictures, “Do you see all those sparks [coming from under the car]? I’m dragging my feet as hard as I can!”
    It really was a light-hearted moment as both of them knew that having the right side wheels torn off had also broken the break lines releasing the hydrolic fluid so the left side brakes no longer functioned.
    They both thanked me and one of them paid me for the photos.

  9. If not for Donald Davidson, not sure I’d have ever heard his name. Rest peacefully, siry.

  10. I will admit that with the passage of time I had forgotten about Rolla, so I was delighted tonight to find George’s well researched post about Rolla Vollstedt’s contribution to racing. The $400 anecdote is pretty much still typical of midgets and sprint car racing. You keep raising the bar George.

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