Longtime Indianapolis 500 car entrant Rolla Vollstedt, perhaps best remembered for bringing Janet Guthrie to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1976 as the first female driver to be entered for the Indianapolis 500, passed away Sunday, October 22 in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 99.
Passionate, articulate, outspoken and persuasive, Vollstedt (above, IMS photo) was a designer, builder and fabricator who served as the car entrants’ representative on the board of directors for the United States Auto Club from the late 1960s until the 1980s.
Vollstedt first entered National Championship Indycar competition in 1955, the final year of AAA sanction, but did not take a car to Indianapolis until 1963. That car was one of the very first American-built rear-engine machines powered by a naturally aspirated Offenhauser engine. With Len Sutton driving in summer tire tests, it kept exceeding the official track record, eventually flirting with an unofficial 155-mph run in March of 1964.
Sutton qualified the tidy silver car 8th for the 1964 “500” and was running fourth when the magneto failed after 140 laps. After a dozen years of fielding drivers such as Billy Foster, Cale Yarborough, Dick Simon, Tom Bigelow, Arnie Knepper, Larry Dickson, Denny Zimmerman and others, Vollstedt made headlines in 1976 by providing a car for Guthrie.
Plagued by mechanical issues, Vollstedt’s team was forced to withdraw the car without Guthrie having an opportunity to make a qualifying attempt. She returned the next year, however, qualifying on the fourth and final day with the 18th-fastest speed overall and the fastest of the final qualifying weekend. Guthrie managed only 27 laps in the race before a timing gear broke, but history had been made.
Vollstedt was often the first to file an entry for the annual 500-mile race, and invariably one of his cars was the first to take a “shakedown” lap once the track opened for practice at the beginning of May. He learned these publicity-grabbing stunts from Bryant Heating and Cooling dealer Phil Hedback, with whom he was often associated, and in turn Vollstedt passed them on to another longtime partner, Dick Simon.
The memory that Vollstedt cherished as his favorite from his racing days was when his Vollstedt-Ford qualified 2nd for the 1967 Rex Mays 300 at Riverside, driven by none other than Jim Clark. The two-time World Champion and ’65 Indy winner ran 2nd to Dan Gurney for the first 23 laps, then passed Gurney to lead for a single lap before a missed shift bro a valve in the engine. Vollstedt’s car was the only single-seater that Clark ever raced that was not a Lotus.
Vollstedt was one of the great characters of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a mentor to countless mechanics and engineers over the years. He also came across as a pure enthusiast who, even when he wasn’t an official entrant, always seemed to be aligned with a team in some sort of advisory capacity, official or unofficial. To his surviving family and many friends in and out of the sport, Vintage Racecar extends its sincerest sympathies.