1949 ROUNDS ROCKET INDIANAPOLIS RACE CAR
Engine No. SPEC
Blue with maroon leather
Engine: Meyer & Drake Offenhauser inline four cylinder, dual overhead camshafts, Hillborn mechanical fuel injection, 270ci, c350bhp at 5500 rpm; Gearbox: 2-speed manual; Suspension: solid axles with torsion bars. Brakes: four wheel drum. Center wheel drive.
Indianapolis 500 chassis constructors are often the crew chiefs and they know firsthand the great racing rule, To finish first, you first have to finish. That realistic attitude over the years caused Indianapolis car design to evolve at an almost glacial pace. But others were always ready to move into an innovation vacuum. Car constructors and entrants dreamed of coming up with some breakthrough, like Harry Miller's front drive cars, the Novi-V8's and later the Granatelli STP Turbines.
In 1949 Nathan Rounds, a Los Angeles sportsman, approached constructor/mechanic Lujie Lesovsky and premier panel former Emil Diedt with a concept for a mid-engined Indy Roadster, the first mid-engined rear wheel drive car to race at Indianapolis. Rounds had a layout drawing, but it ended where the paper ran out, just behind the driver's cockpit. The story goes that Rounds spoke enthusiastically about the Porsche-designed Auto Union Model C and D. He probably drew some inspiration as well from Harry Miller's last work, the Gulf Miller mid-engined 4wd cars which reappeared in 1946 as the Tucker Torpedo. Lesovsky extracted a $3,000 retainer from Rounds, promising to work on the project as he had time. With Indy coming up, Lesovsky and Diedt didn't have much of that, however, and the Rounds Rocket was finished late, having barely enough time for a test run at Bonneville Salt Flats. At Bonneville H.W. Amer, mechanic on the Rocket, recalled it tripped the SCTA clocks at an amazing speed of 140mph before going to the Speedway. Rounds' driver Bill Taylor (later to become competition director of Mobil Oil and track rep for Simpson Safety Products) rushed to complete his rookie test, set up the Rocket and qualify. He managed to get to 124mph, creditable but not enough in 1949 when the bubble speed was 125.8mph. The Rounds Rocket returned in 1950, somewhat lighter, but apparently no further developed. Sam Hanks and then-rookie Billy Vukovich tried it but were unable to turn competitive times, and the car was withdrawn after it severed a half shaft.
Following the 1950 Indy 500 the Rounds Rocket returned to California where it was stored, still on the trailer that hauled it from Indianapolis, in Nathan Rounds' mother's Beverly Hills garage where it remained untouched for 19 years. Both contemporary and historical accounts mention Rounds at various times claiming close ties with Howard Hughes, and Rocket mechanic H.W. Amer recalled to John Lee that the team accepted as fact that Hughes' money was behind the project. The Rounds Rocket's innovative design and subsequent secretive history are certainly consistent with other Hughes' projects. The Rocket was found in 1969 by Bill Harrah, who recognized its historical significance and had it restored and displayed until the Harrah collection was dispersed.
It was purchased in 1987 by Mr. Lee who commissioned Smith Coachworks to do a complete nut and bolt show quality restoration to bring it back to its 1949 Indianapolis glory. Every detail was attended to down to the Rounds' R monogram sewn into the headrest covering. It was displayed at Pebble Beach in 1993, and has been carefully dry-stored in a climate controlled facility since and was recently started and driven.
The Rounds Rocket is an important example of innovation at Indianapolis, powered by the great Harry Miller-designed Meyer & Drake Offenhauser engine, with an unbroken if slightly mysterious history and just a whiff of Howard Hughes intrigue to add a unique flavor.