Alumnus Profile

Rolla Vollstedt ’40

Rolla Vollstedt ’40 at the Pedal to the Metal exhibition at the Oregon Historical Society.
Photo by David Gillaspie

Speed Racer

By Raymond Rendleman ’06

Turning 93 hasn’t slowed Rolla Vollstedt ’40 down—not that anything could. Speed is in his blood.

Rolla kick-started his legendary career as a race car designer back in 1948, when he used the shell of a ’25 Ford roadster and bored out the V-8’s cylinder block to make room for aluminum heads, a custom manifold, and a converted ignition from a Lincoln Zephyr. He won the Pacific Northwest championship that year and the next.

His most radical innovation came in 1963, when he built the first successful Indianapolis race car with an Offenhauser engine in the rear. Critics said it would never work, but Rolla’s car clocked 152 mph and changed the Indy forever—the rear engine is now a standard design element. In the fall, the Oregon Historical Society honored Rolla’s legacy in the exhibition Pedal to the Metal, complete with an example of one of his early cars, a muscular golden racer that looks like a rocket with wheels.

“We made some great cars, and I’m really proud of the work that we did,” Rolla told us.

A graduate of Benson High School, Rolla came to Reed intending to become a doctor, but World War II threw a monkey-wrench into his plans. After the war, he joined the Coast Guard and later drove log trucks. Today he’s proud to be a bona fide race-car witch doctor.

“I’m in good health, and I still enjoy building cars and engines,” he says. Aficionados from around the globe still make the pilgrimage to his home in Southwest Portland to see how he’s keeping those spark plugs firing and ogle the engines he’s putting together in his garage. While he mourns the loss of his wife of 66 years, Irene, who died last year, he has had an opportunity to watch his son, Bruce, take up racing at the Portland Speedway.

Further Reading
From Track Roadsters to Indy Cars: The Rolla Vollstedt Story (2002)