Making the rounds with the 101

By ERIN O’BRIEN
Posted 10/13/21

If you look closely as you pass the single-story building on Post Road in the shadows of the power lines, you can almost make out the words in faded white paint: “Lewis W. Rounds and Harold L. …

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Making the rounds with the 101

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If you look closely as you pass the single-story building on Post Road in the shadows of the power lines, you can almost make out the words in faded white paint: “Lewis W. Rounds and Harold L. Rounds.”

In the village’s heyday, this father and son’s humble Apponaug Garage, established in 1915, was the birthplace of the fabled “101,” a 1937 Ford coupe, legendary in New England stock car racing history.

The 101’s driver, Don Rounds, in his white helmet, goggles, and sporting his customary Hood’s Dairy uniform, clocked thousands of miles on dirt racetracks from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, generating a following that has lasted to this day.

Today, the ancient roof of the garage slopes like a horse’s back, and a couple of old cars on the property are entombed in ivy. Underneath the faux brick exterior you can see the shops’s original wood siding. Three red chairs still sit where they were placed in front of 3081 Post Road, where many a customer waited for his car or visited with the Rounds family.

Yet from this very spot, in a village turned crossroads, emerged a championship race car that contributed to storied New England racing history.

The family name

After Israel Rounds built his garage, and a subsequent misunderstanding, he and his son Lewis weren’t on speaking terms. “That’s why there were two garages in Apponaug – Israel’s in the confines of the hotel, and the other on Post Road,” explains Israel’s great-grandson, Billy Rounds. Israel’s Economy Garage and a three-story hotel stood where Apponaug Color and Hobby Shop is located in one of the village’s traffic rotaries. Adds Billy, “My father, Harold, remembers visiting his grandfather’s shop.”

“Part English and part Swamp Yankee,” both Billy and his cousin Don Rounds Jr., describe their family’s heritage. The Rounds name, of English extraction, has its roots in Middle English and Old French, from the Latin “rota,” or wheel, the early version of the Rounds surname denoting either a rotund person, or in the Rounds family’s case, a wheelwright, builder of wooden wagon wheels.

Wheels would figure prominently in the Rounds family for generations.

(A little family lore: a variation of the Rounds name drops the S, the result of a family disagreement; “some silly Swamp Yankee thing,” Billy shrugs. You’ll find the “Round” name on a cousin’s auto garage in North Scituate.)

At the races

Brothers Harold and Don Rounds returned home to Warwick in 1948 after serving overseas in the U.S. Navy. Together with their father, Lewis, they set to work building a race car in the Apponaug Garage. Emblazoned with their sponsor’s name – “IGA Market,” which was located on the site of the present day Walgreen’s – the 101 was built during the winter of 1950, in anticipation of the 1951 racing season. That year, Don won the Waterford Speedbowl in Connecticut, his first feature race.

“Back then,” as Ted Rounds describes, “there was no 95 freeway, only main roads: Route 101 and Route 6, windy, hilly roads. It was a Herculean effort to get a car to the racetrack.

Enter Lewis Rounds and the family car, a 1956 Mercury Montclair.

“In the early days, races were held at old horse tracks, at the fairgrounds. They weren’t built exclusively for car racing,” Billy points out.

New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame inductee Bob Silvia muses, “We must be thankful for horses!” The New England racing historian continues, “The first oval racetrack in the U.S. was built in 1896, Narragansett Park, a horse track in Cranston.” He smiles at the memory of experiencing his first visit as a small child. “The earthen embankment, the bleachers, turn one in the original track – I felt the energy!”

Silvia’s business card features a photo of Rhode Island’s Lonsdale Sports Arena, which was built primarily for racing. “It regularly drew crowds of 20,000 to 30,000 fans, especially during the stock car era.”

His basement collection bursting at the seams, Silvia and co-founder Ric Marisacal created the Pronyne Motorsports Museum, “New England’s only auto racing museum.” Located in Pawtucket, the 7,400-square-foot space is dedicated to a collection of vintage racing cars and the preservation of racing memorabilia of all kinds. Even in tiny Rhode Island, “There was a lot of talent here.”

Among Silvia’s racing collection are several photos of Don Rounds and the famous 101. While writing for a racing magazine, Silvia borrowed Don’s personal photographs for his article. Silvia took the original photos to CVS to have them duplicated, when he walked by a Ford pickup, the truck bed and back seat full of tools. There was only room inside for the driver. Upon entering the store, he saw Don himself. “Is that your car?!” he exclaimed.

Silvia first watched Don Rounds race in the late 1960s in Lakeville, Massachusetts. “It was quite the place. There were no guardrails, only haystacks. It was rustic, low-key – Swamp Yankee.”

He continued to follow Don’s career for years

Built to win

“My father was in the Sportman’s Division,” says Ted.

Don Jr. adds, “The Modified Division cars were faster, with bigger engines. At a feature, it could be a mixed race. Eventually, the Modified Division was eliminated.”

“No one had a mirror!” interjects Ted, “You didn’t know if someone was coming up behind you.”

“They were illegal at a lot of races,” Don Jr. explains.

“The newer version of the 101 was built for the 1964 racing season,” Ted says. Grandfather Lewis had been cautious, with steel up front for the radiator up high. His son Don stripped it down for weight and lowered it to make the 101 more competitive. “They bumped heads a lot,” Ted admits.

“My dad went to the Father & Son [Café] every morning for breakfast for years.” Its former spot is the corner of Pawtucket Credit Union parking lot on Post Road in the Apponaug traffic circle. The new version of the 101 bore the diner’s name on the passenger side door, easily visible to fans in the grandstands.

“Scott’s Oil Service” was hand-painted on Don’s driver’s side door.

“George Scott worked at the Post Office in Apponaug,” Billy says, as he shares another anecdote. “The Apponaug Garage had a contract with the Post Office; oil changes, towing, repairing, and painting,” by Lewis. Billy points out with a chuckle, “United States Post Office Blue and White are on the 101!” Why “Bluebird Jr.” is painted on the passenger door remains a mystery.

Lewis looked at the 101 through the lens of restoration. “A driver usually entered via window, but the 101 had a full door,” Billy and Ted corroborate. Don’s leather belt through the window secured it afterwards.

According to Billy, for any welding, it was done from the inside, so the seams would still show, for a cleaner look. “Lewis could never step away from the restoration part.”

Billy shares more details about the 101: “Don left the full radio face in it. Lewis came up with the idea to flip up one side of the windshield to clean it. He was very resourceful! There was a screen in front of the radiator to prevent dirt from clogging it.”

The family car

“He always had two races,” says Billy of his Uncle Don, “one to get to the track, and then the race. He wouldn’t get there until ten minutes before the race!”

“My Uncle Harold did the towing, and Leon usually picked my father up at Hood’s and drove him,” Don Jr. recounts. Grandma Idella rode along in Harold’s Mercury Montclair, attending all the races.

A day at the races was truly a family affair. Ted Rounds, Don Jr.’s brother, fondly remembers a trip to West Lebanon, New York. “Five of us piled in the back of a station wagon – in 1965, maybe, I was 6 years old – on a Saturday night, with my cousins, coming home at 3 o’clock in the morning …” His voice trails off at the memory.

Don’s sister Elaine knitted her father Lewis a thick gold sweater with an image of the 101 on the back to wear at the races. “‘Uncle Frenchy,’ Leo Meunièr, did all the welding,” Billy adds. Family friend “Big Wayne” Voelker provided ground support at every race, as a one-man pit crew.

The man behind the wheel

In 2001, Don Rounds was inducted into the New England Auto Racers Hall of Fame, but his legacy extends far beyond racing.

He was a man among men, both on and off the track. United States Navy veteran, son, brother husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, Don influenced people he never knew. Tributes poured in at his passing in 2019.

At his home, Ted Rounds, whose license plate reads ROUNDS, gingerly opens an envelope, postmarked “Florida,” unfolding a letter penned on several sheets of a narrow writing tablet. “My father touched a lot of people,” he says thoughtfully, “more than we knew.”

***

“In the 1950s I was a very poor kid with virtually no solid men in my family.

I was lucky, however, to have one very nice man who would take me to the races if I mowed his lawn and kept the race car shop clean.

In 1957 or 1958 we went to Stateline Speedway in Burlington, Vermont. I saw a really good race where a beautiful blue coupe, #101 Father and Sons Special led the race for the second half of the 50 lap race. On the last turn another lapped car hit a hole and locked onto the 101. Steve Danish passed Don and I think Don wound up about 8th.

After the race the other driver came over and apologized. Although very upset Don said, “I know you hit a hole but you should have slowed. But there is always next week. See you later.”

The other driver went on to be a national champ – and I – as “corny” as it sounds, decided I wanted to be a real man just like Don Rounds. I never got in trouble again – won scholarships and TAUGHT for 37 years.

Years later I saw one of the “101s” in a dirt museum. I just stood there and thought about how smart I was at 12 years old wanting to be like MISTER Don Rounds.

I will never forget him.”

The letter was signed, “Orson P. Griffiths.”

A homecoming

As Ted tells it, Lewis and Harold sold the 101 in 1974 to a woman in Connecticut who, as a 10-year-old, once told her dad, “I’m going to buy that car!” And she did. Racing enthusiast turned owner, she was a carefully possessive caretaker, keeping it in her garage for eight years.

It changed hands to Jim Banks from Chelsea, New York, in 1982. “Chelsea is about as big as Apponaug. He was the best caretaker of the car,” Billy says decisively. “He’d been looking for it, chased it down, and bought it.”

In 1990, Banks asked Don to be the pace car driver in his old 101 at a Lebanon Valley race. “Forty cars behind him – it was amazing,” recalls Ted with a grin. “Afterwards he was bombarded with questions!” Jim owned the 101 for about 20 years.

It finally ended up elsewhere in New York, in the possession of Mel Ogden in 1992. Mel showed up in Apponaug one day, found a gas station to ask directions, and was directed to the Apponaug Garage, Don Jr. relates.

“It had been 16 years since the family had seen the 101, at the Springfield, Massachusetts Fair,” Ted shares.

In 2014, then-owner Ogden “set up a racetrack outside his yard, a huge farm,” for Don to take the 101 for a spin, Ted remembers.

“Mike and I couldn’t rub two dimes together,” their cousin Billy says wistfully of his and his brother’s wish. “I always wanted to buy it.”

Jeff Goldstein and Billy Rounds paths had crossed several times, even before realizing they shared a local bicycle shop in common. One day, over a few beers and talk about cars, “Billy’s stories were punctuated by stories of the 101,” Jeff says. As Billy extolled the virtues of “My Uncle Don,” and described how “My grandpa built that car,” and recalled attending the races as a child, Jeff grew more and more curious.

“What ever happened to the 101?” he asked Billy. Sadly, he revealed it had been sold, and belonged to a man in New York.

Jeff gently pried for the current owner’s name: Mel Ogden.

“The Rounds family is a very close family, and the car was a unifying piece in their lives,” observes Jeff. “I love local history,” he continues, “and automobiles – local automobile history!”

“I Googled Mel on a whim, and found him, a collector of vintage race cars.” Jeff placed a cold call, and Mel answered the phone.

Jeff: I’m from Rhode Island. I understand you have the 101.

Mel: Yes …

Jeff: What are your plans?

Mel: I’m 86 … I’d like to see it go back to Warwick, Rhode Island.

Jeff: I’d like to come this weekend with my trailer.

“I didn’t even tell Billy. I called him and told him, ‘I have a surprise. Come to the garage.’ I told him to close his eyes and walk with me …”

“How did you do that?!” Billy cried when he opened his eyes, slapping his hands on his legs. “How did you do that?!” Jeff remembers the look in his eyes.

“Every day for the following week he wanted to polish and clean the car with me. We got it to run. All his friends pitched in.” As a footnote, Jeff adds, “Billy knew who painted the ads on the car.”

“I had no idea how much this car meant – or how big the family was!” Jeff laughs. “Every now and then I get a call; ‘Do you have the 101 here?’ (Or a little girl: ‘Do you have my grandpa’s car?’)”

Ted came bearing the history of the car, in “snapshots of dirt races, trophies,” and other memorabilia. “I thanked him profusely, and put them on display.

Then Don Jr. arrived with more, “photo albums of the family through the generations, including Grandpa building the car.”

Part of the community

“The Apponaug Old Timers Association meets once a month. There are no minutes, and no dues. It’s about 60 guys who either grew up in Apponaug or had businesses here, including the Coutu family, owners of the old Father & Son [Café]. They meet at the Firemen’s Hall in East Greenwich,” Jeff paused, and ended with, “Billy said, ‘You’re invited – but bring the 101!’”

Jeff arrived early for the meeting, parking the 101 in such a way that one had to walk completely around it to enter the building. Imagine the looks on the Apponaug Old Timers’ faces, and the expressions of the Coutu family members remembering the “valuable advertising” as Jeff calls it, of their neighborhood restaurant!

Over 70 years later, the 101, born in an auto garage in Warwick’s Apponaug Village, and traversing many miles, has found its way back home to Warwick.

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