With World War II in the rearview mirror, and with his service in the US Navy complete, Harold Helmling was anxious to enjoy the fruits of civilian life. He had found work in the grocery business in LaCrosse, Wis., and alongside his wife Imogene, three years his senior, he worked hard to carve out a comfortable existence.
After 13 years of marriage, the couple had nearly accepted that children were not in their future. Then life threw them a curve ball.
To their great joy, in 1951, son Rolland (Rollie) was born.
The family had strong ties to Vincennes, Ind., and when an opportunity arose to head south, they jumped on it.
“I had an uncle there who was a banker,” Rollie recalled, “and he learned about this little grocery store that might be available. The guy who owned it was not in good health and there was no one in his family to take it over. This was a time when there was a grocery store on every block. So, we moved to Vincennes and my dad worked for him, and then a year later he bought him out.”
With the transaction now official, the first Harold’s Supermarket had arrived by 1956.
Harold Helmling put in long hours to make his store a success, but he was also a racing fan. It was a passion he was anxious to share with his son.
Rollie’s first recollection of joining his father at the races was a USAC sprint car tilt at the Terre Haute Action Track. The June 11, 1961 affair was marred by an accident that effectively ended the racing career of Arizonian Wayne Weiler, yet the sound, speed and color was captivating.
The popular Jim Hurtubise would win in his spectacular Barnett Brothers Special sponsored by Sterling Plumbing and Heating. The beautiful piece spoke to California hot rod culture, and with a throaty Chevrolet V8 engine, Herk and Parnelli Jones were fostering a revolution in USAC sprint car circles.
As exciting as this day was, Helmling developed a lifelong love for midget racing, when he returned to the big half-mile oval in October for the running of the Hut Hundred.
Those who were there will likely never forget it. It was a rainy day, and it looked for all the world like the race would be cancelled.
Hours after the posted start time, USAC officials were begging drivers to make a qualifying attempt, even though conditions were far from ideal.
Finally, no less than A.J. Foyt, fresh off his first Indianapolis 500 win, agreed to go out.
According to the hardnosed Texan, he was promised that he would not be bumped from the field under any circumstance. He should have gotten the promise in writing, because when all was said and done he was the 25th fastest and relegated to the sidelines.
Hopping mad – and with assistance from car owner Bob Nowicke – Dick Northam, who held the 24th and final spot, accepted $100 to withdraw his car from the field. When talent, anger and a righteous cause come together, things are going to happen.
In this case, the mud flew and Foyt was up on the wheel. In three laps he made up 10 spots, and by lap 39 he was sailing past leader Bob Wente.
Because of the late start, the race was called on account of darkness after just 75 laps. Nonetheless, the outcome was already clear. A.J. Foyt added another page to what would be a legendary career, and young Rollie Helmling was hooked for life.
Helmling had been so taken by what he had seen he now harbored a desire to get more deeply involved. When he heard about quarter-midget racing he knew he wanted to give it a try. He didn’t have to work all that hard to persuade his father to go along with the idea.
Overall, he spent four or five years behind the wheel, having fun but not making many headlines. His normal schedule included a trip to the city park in Robinson, Ill., on Tuesday night, Fridays were spent at Terre Haute, and the following evening he could be found in Casey, Ill.
When he looked back on those years he recalled, “It didn’t take me long to realize I was not going to be a race car driver.”
While his driving career may have come to a close, Helmling still wanted to do more than just sit in the grandstands. In many ways his father shared this ambition. When he had a few minutes to spare at work, he loved talking racing with his Wonder Bread delivery man.
Wes Stafford raced regularly at Haubstadt, Ind., where he matched wits with drivers such as Don Nordhorn and Dick Gaines.