Book Review by Richard Parks, Photographic Consultant Roger Rohrdanz
Open wheel and track roadster racing fans will welcome a book by Rolla Vollstedt and Ralph Zbarsky titled Vollstedt; from Track Roadsters to Indy Cars, the Rolla Vollstedt Story. Self published by the authors, this book documents Vollstedt life as a racecar owner and businessman from the 1940’s through the ’80’s, which many fans of auto racing will argue was the heyday of motorsports racing. Zbarsky encouraged Vollstedt to tell his story, and therefore the story of those he raced with and against for over four decades. Vollstedt has an easy and informative story telling style and the photos are first class. 1600 books were printed and there are still some copies available from the authors. The size of the book is 8 ½ by 11 inches, in a hardcover format, published by Zed Engineering and the ISBN number is 0-9733661-0-9. The price is $39.45 and there is no dust jacket. The paper quality is excellent and the cover is coffee table quality. However, purchase a clear dust jacket to protect the book. There are 160 pages, an introduction, preface and a foreword by Chris Economaki. There are seven chapters, an appendix and an index. Most pictorial books leave out an index and I was pleased that the authors took the time to include one. The appendix includes information on the 14 racecars that Vollstedt built and raced in his time, which is important because so often one car morphs into another and readers get confused as to which car is which. There is an appendix on Indy Qualifiers, showing the extent of Vollstedt’s influence. He also has a section dedicated to the Indianapolis track owners and the feud that broke apart the racing league into bitter factions. Vollstedt makes it very easy for the novice as well as the true open wheel fan to understand and grasp the history of the world’s most famous race.
There are 139 black and white photos, 57 color photos and 19 miscellaneous posters and other informative displays. Many of the black and white photos are sepia toned and all of the photos are well done. Vollstedt allows plenty of space for text and plot development. His story flows naturally from chapter to chapter and the reader will have trouble putting the book down. Vollstedt tells how he began working in a speedshop in Portland, Oregon just prior to World War II. He would be drafted into the war and serve in Europe until he was wounded and sent home to recuperate. Like so many returning servicemen, who had stared death in the face, Vollstedt came home with a desire to do those things that he had dreamed of for so many years. He bought his first race car in 1947 for $500, and met Len Sutton, who would be his driver for many years. Together the team of Vollstedt and Sutton would have success on the track roadster circuit for many years. 1948 proved very successful financially for Vollstedt, who by this time was racing professionally with Sutton. His net income that year would have bought him two houses at that time. They raced throughout the Pacific Coast as far down as Gardena and Huntington Beach and north to Seattle. Track roadster racing is fast and furious but eventually the lure of the big sprint cars proved to be irresistible and in 1952 Vollstedt built his first sprint car. They won the North West Sprint Car Championship in 1953 through 1955. Sutton would leave for Indianapolis and race cars back East, while Vollstedt hired Ernie Koch to be his driver. Vollstedt and Koch would race in the East as well at the end of the ‘50’s. They raced at Langhorne, DuQuoin, Indianapolis, Trenton, Springfield, Sacramento, Phoenix and other tracks.
Chapter three discusses Vollstedt’s rear-engined Indy car, which he built in 1963. With Len Sutton back as a driver, the rear-engined car was in fourth place halfway through the 1964 Indy 500 when the fuel pump housing broke and slowed the car to a 16th finish. Nevertheless, rear-engined cars would take over at Indy and other open wheel racing events, and Rolla’s car would help to make that revolution official. Other drivers who drove Vollstedt cars were Cale Yarborough, Billy Foster, George Follmer, Jimmy Clark, Larry Dickson, Tom Sneva, John Cannon, Gordon Johncock, Tom Bigelow, Denny Zimmerman, Emerson Fittipaldi and Bob Harkey. But it was Janet Guthrie who drove for Vollstedt from 1976 through 1978 that garnered the team the most notoriety. Dick Simon was the primary driver and helped Janet make her entry into the Indy 500. Simon was instrumental in many other ways and great at finding sponsors for the team. Janet was new to circle track racing and Simon’s tutoring made all the difference. Trouble with the car kept Guthrie out of the 1976 Indy 500, but the next year she qualified right in the middle of the pack. A broken part caused Guthrie to drop out of the 1977 race, but she had impressed the other drivers. In 1978, Guthrie drove a George Bignotti car and placed ninth overall and gave Vollstedt 10 percent of her purse for all that he had done for her in getting into the Indy 500 program. Rolla would continue to race at Indy through 1984, and also compete in England during a USAC tour in 1978. Vollstedt would continue to race his Offy powered cars through 1981, and was the last team owner to do so. From 1982 other V-8 engines like the Cosworth dominated the field and the storied Offy engines ceased to race at the 500.
Although 1984 was to be Vollstedt’s last year to field an entry at the Indianapolis 500, he never really retired. Active in the racing organizations, he watched as feuds tore apart his beloved sport. He and his family still work on engines and attend reunions. He never won Indy but he was always competitive and but for bad luck and equipment breakage, could have had a real chance to have won it all. Vollstedt; from Track Roadsters to Indy Cars, the Rolla Vollstedt Story, is more than just about Rolla Vollstedt. It is a fascinating look back in time to an era with mighty characters in oval track racing. Men and women like Rodger Ward, A.J. Watson, Parnelli Jones, Janet Guthrie and Len Sutton come to life in this well documented book. A book every oval track fan should have in their library.
This book can be ordered from the author, Rolla Vollstedt, by sending $39.45 To
4525 SW Lee Street
Portland, Oregon 97221