When we last visited Don Rounds in 2001, old “101” was a memory – alive in old photographs, but in the flesh, or should we say steel, the car was long gone. Don told us of his adventures as a dirt track stock car racer long before NASCAR had turned stock car racing into a billion-dollar cash cow for promoters and merchandisers. Back then, you won your race, picked up your trophy and were back on the job, as a mill hand or an auto mechanic on Monday morning.
That’s how Rounds started, after the war, in a souped-up 1937 Ford coupe that advertised “Scott’s Oil Service.”
“We took that car apart, right down to the chassis, and built it back up again,” said Rounds. “We raced in Rhode Island and Connecticut, but the biggest track was in Stafford, Conn. … My son recently asked me, ‘Who was the first dirt track champion at Stafford,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, who?’ And he said, ‘It was you.’ You didn’t have too many places to race back then, and Stafford was one of the closest to us.”
The dirt track at Stafford started out as a venue for horse racing, but in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a new kind of racing emerged from the south. Those good old boys down south had a fondness for bootleg liquor and a knack for “souping up” manufactured, or “stock,” engines in a variety of cars noted for their powerful engines. They combined the two activities for illegally delivering moonshine in cars that could move faster than anything the “revenuers” were driving. When they found out they could make as much money driving their modified cars in races, without risking jail for bootlegging, stock car racing was born.
Horse race courses were already laid out in standard measures in many places back then, and it was an easy transition from horses to cars. But jockeying a horse and driving a car are two different skills. Drivers who knew how to get around a dirt rack on four wheels quickly honed their skills, and by the early 1950s a whole generation of dirt car racers were coming of age.
Enter Don Rounds. His grandfather built what came to be known as the Apponaug Garage, but was called Economy Garage back then, and Don and his father grew up around automobiles in the first half of the 20th century, after the American public had fallen in love with the automobile.
This early access to cars and the tools to modify them gave Rounds an advantage over most drivers. He hung around with other young people who loved to drive fast and knew how to make cars go faster. By the end of World War II, young men like Don Rounds were itching to get behind the wheel again and show people what a modified engine and a skillful driver could do on a dirt track. The war was over, the ration book was history and gasoline was cheap.
“It was five for a buck,” Rounds said. “During the war, most cars were allowed about three gallons a week. There was no driving for pleasure in those days for regular householders. If you were a fisherman, you could get more. If you were a truck driver for a living, you could get more. Now I see gas selling for $3.75 and more per gallon! Even black market gas only cost $1.50 a gallon! But after the war, you could get five gallons for a buck when you had the money.”
Rounds had the money, relatively speaking. He worked at the garage, but he also worked in the textile mill that was still operating in Apponaug when he was young.
“I was working for the Apponaug Company, making fifty-four and-a-half cents an hour,” said Rounds. “And that was in the good times.”
Stafford was a regular stop on the New England dirt track circuit. The track welcomed stock cars known as modifieds, which is what Don and his friends were doing – putting post-war engines into pre-war coupes. The new racing was popular, and the managers of Stafford decided to pave the track and invite the burgeoning number of modern stock racers that came to be known as NASCAR.
“He put asphalt on the track but people stopped coming and he ended up putting the dirt back,” said Don Rounds Jr., who has probably amassed more knowledge of his father’s career and trophies than his dad.
“I have taken his scrapbook and put it all into the computer,” he said. “Some of this stuff is very delicate, and some of the photos had to be downloaded and then corrected on the computer.”
The result is that certain artifacts from his career have been enfeebled and changed by time and suffer each time they are handled. The digital record that Don Rounds Jr. has assembled will contain priceless material for future historians of regional racing, but more importantly, it captures the spirit of optimism and unlimited possibilities that encouraged a generation of young people who were much wearied by war and the years of the great Depression that preceded it.
So, it was no surprise when Don Rounds and his family took the opportunity of a ride up to Franklin, N.Y., last month to see how Mel Ogden had done restoring old “101” to what it was when Don Rounds tore around New England dirt tracks, racking up victories. Rounds was pleased with the result. At the age of 87, he has more memories than contemporaries from that era, and he appreciates them all.