“There is the right way, the wrong way and the Vollstedt way.”
Rolla Vollstedt, who lived by his own code, died of natural causes October 22nd 2017. He was ninety nine years old.
Several hundred family members and friends gathered at the World of Speed racing museum in Wilsonville, OR in early November to pay their respects and share their memories of a truly unique individual- An icon of auto racing that called the Pacific Northwest his home. Vollstedt was an engineer and innovator that started out in bucket-T roadsters and rose to the pinnacle of motorsports- Indianapolis. He compete at the Brickyard for nearly twenty years beginning in 1964 with a groundbreaking racer he assembled in the basement of his Portland home.
One former crew member told a story about the “monkey see-monkey do” games Vollstedt played with his fellow competitors- fibbing about practice times and installing then removing aerodynamic do-dads just to give their team a psychological edge. Writer Bob Kehoe related an anecdote about Linda Vaughn calling in during a radio interview with Vollstedt. The two (who had known each other for years) played coy for the listeners to the amusement of all. Fellow Portlander and accomplished wheelman Monte Shelton received a ribbing from Vollstedt once at PIR (Portland International Raceway). After no less than three consecutive engine failures in a weekend, Shelton announced he was throwing in the towel. “Humph,” responded Vollstedt, “I guess you’re no racer!”
I didn’t interview Vollstedt until long after he had retired from Indy car. I followed him around his machine shop in Raleigh Hills, notebook in hand, sleeping infant daughter strapped to my back. Vollstedt toiled away, barely making eye contact with me. I think he disapproved of my style but he never uttered a word about it. Twenty years later my daughter Cora (who also writes for Roddin’ and Racin’) met Vollstedt out at PIR. We were among a small group assembled to watch Michael McKinney fire his ’67 Vollstedt Ford. When offered a set of ear plugs, the veteran car owner declined. After feasting on the exquisite song of the four cammer, I believe all present were a little light-headed!
Cora slowly approached Vollstedt’s wheelchair and kneeled beside him, he smiled reassuringly. She told him how honored she was to make his acquaintance and he thanked her. Then he cautiously reached out, lifting her braid off her shoulder, “Oooooo! He exclaimed, “Are there two of these?” “Yes,” she blushed, showing him the other.
To this day, Cora braids her hair on race day. She will forever call them: “Rolla braids”.
I was delighted to share breakfast with Vollstedt at Bill’s Steak House on an occasion or two. Vollstedt would call in his order in advance so that he was served promptly after his arrival- eggs benedict, I believe.
While Vollstedt busily slurped his hollandaise sauce, across the table I lamented about another race night with engine woes. “That Pontiac motor just won’t run,” I related to Corley, “That motor just lies down.”
Without looking up from his plate, Vollstedt interjected: “You don’t have a Pontiac motor.”
“Huh?” I responded. “Excuse me?”
“You don’t have a Pontiac motor,” he repeated putting a forkful of egg in his mouth.
“I don’t?” I said.
“No,” he asserted without looking up. “You have a Pontiac engine, he explained. “Motors have cords.”