This is part two of a three-part story on the career of Rollie Helmling that appeared in the April issue of Sprint Car & Midget Magazine. To read part one, click here.
At the end of the 1985 season, John Andretti was invited to race on the IMSA GTP trail for BMW North America.
Andretti was teamed with the youthful and gifted Davey Jones, while a team car would be handled by veterans John Watson and David Hobbs. Andretti and Jones were victorious at Watkins Glen in September, but the word soon came down that BMW was pulling the plug on their IMSA program.
Throwing his friend a lifeline, Rollie Helmling called Andretti with a simple message. Anytime Andretti felt like going midget racing, he was ready.
In the meantime, Helmling purchased a new Challenger chassis and installed a Cosworth engine. It was the hot setup at the time, and the pair decided to venture out to the North Central Kansas Free Fair at Belleville.
They were fast, but when a rock hits your distributor cap while leading, it is a certain sign that Lady Luck has turned her head away from you.
For Andretti, things would soon look a whole lot brighter.
“We were sitting in the hotel,” Helmling recalled, “and the telephone rings, and someone asks if John Andretti is there. So I hand him the phone and he is like ‘Yup, yup, OK,’ and he hangs up. I said, ‘John, what was that all about?’ He told me it was Cary Agajanian. At that time, Cary and Mike Curb owned the Skoal Bandit Indy car team. They had just fired Tom Sneva, and Cary was asking John if he wanted to drive the car. They told him they were going to send a contract, and the next day UPS delivers it.
“John is going through it and saying, ‘I don’t know about that, and what do you think about this?’ Finally, I said ‘John, we’re out here in the middle of Kansas making no money whatsoever, doing what you have been doing and going nowhere. Sign the S.O.B. and send it.’ Two weeks later he was at Elkhart Lake,” Helmling continued. “He always pestered me about buying an Indy car, and I told him I would do that when I had 50 stores. At the time our cars were always red, so he sent me a picture of that Skoal Indy car, which of course was green, and he had written on the picture ‘This car could have been painted red!’”
If you were a USAC fan and followed midget racing, you were aware that Helmling always had well-prepared cars that were capable of winning.
He employed Kevin Olson for a time, but then a set of circumstances would bring a number of key players together that would change more than just the face of midget racing.
With the benefit of hindsight, Helmling said with a chuckle, “A wise man told me I would much rather be lucky than smart.”
If one followed the thread that ultimately led to a watershed moment, he added, “It goes back to Bob East. Bob had gone to work for Gary Stanton, and then Gary sold the chassis business to Harold Annett and moved to Iowa. It was all to build sprint cars, but then they decided to build midgets. My old Kenyon was pretty worn out and John was doing his road racing thing.
“Toward the end of the year, Bob called and said we need to get some cars in USAC and asked if I was interested. They were building state of the art cars. So, I went to Des Moines and picked it up.”
Helmling liked the Challenger chassis, but in the ever-evolving world of midget racing, suddenly the Pontiac engine was at the top of the heap. He had asked Sam Jones, the noted Washington, Ind., builder, to put a new bullet together for him, and decided he should pair it with a new Challenger.
He ordered a new chassis, but shortly thereafter Bob East called with the news that he was relocating to Indianapolis and was prepared to start building cars on his own.
Even though Helmling had a new Challenger, Bob assured him that everything he did would fit on the car.
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