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See You At The Races!!!

by Tim Kennedy

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rodger Ward passed away Monday, July 5 at a hospice in Anaheim after battling ailments and diabetes in recent years. The 83-year old racing icon will be remembered as one of the all-time legends in Indy 500 racing history. The oldest living winner of the Indy 500 and one of the most revered open-wheel champions was the subject of a 25-inch obituary by Shav Glick in the July 6 Los Angeles Times. A photo of Rodger sitting in his Indy 500 winning Leader Card roadster accompanied the tribute on page B.9. 

Ward won the Indy 500 in 1959 during his initial season with Milwaukee-based car owner Bob Wilke and car builder/chief mechanic A. J. Watson. They comprised the famous three Ws racing team that was a major force in champ car racing for many years. In addition to his '59 Indy 500 triumph, Ward finished second in '60 (recognized as one of the best 500 races in history), third in '61, first in '62, fourth in '63 and second in '64. For decades historians recalled that record as the most successful six-year finishing record in Indy history.

    My personal memories of Ward go back to the mid-1950s when I read Bob Russo's stories in Speed Age magazine about him and other AAA Championship Trail drivers. Ward was a journeyman driver with limited success in mid or back of the pack cars until he hooked up with car owner Roger Wolcott in the mid-50s. That collaboration led to his becoming part of the front-line Wilke-Watson operation in 1959. My first chance to see Ward race in person came in October 1957 when I watched him race the Wolcott # 8 champ dirt car to victory at the California State Fairgrounds dirt mile. His wife Jo and their small dog also appeared in Victory Lane photos. My first trip to see the Indy 500 in person was in 1959 and Ward won that exciting roadster-era race. His on-track duels with Jim Rathmann, Pat Flaherty and Johnny Thomson made it memorable.

    Hours after the race our charter group waited at the Indianapolis Airport to board our DC-6B pro/jet airplane. We were surprised to see Ward, winner of the 500 earlier that day, come through the airport escorting an attractive young lady to her flight. Ward was quite the ladies man. Several years ago Ward attended a race at Irwindale Speedway and came to the press box early to visit. I sat next to Rodger in the first row and talked one-on-one as we watched activities below on the track. I related the 1959 Indy Airport story to Rodger, but he did not recall it with memory-loss over the decades.

    Born on Jan. 10, 1921 in Beloit, KS, 5'8", 170-pound Ward grew up as a youngster in the north Los Angeles community of Highland Park and attended Franklin High. He built a hot rod from spare parts at his father's wrecking yard. During Word War II Ward piloted the distinctive P-38 fighter and also flew the B-17 bomber. He was such a skilled pilot he was retained after the war as a pilot instructor at Wichita Falls, TX. While serving in the military Rodger attended a midget race in Texas and later bought and raced an older midget. He received the life-long scar on his chin as a result of backing his midget into a

    Ward left the military service in the late 1940s and returned to Southern California. He raced the popular midgets, which competed as various tracks almost every night of the week. Rodger won one of his most memorable victories in 1950 at Gilmore Stadium in the final year of racing at the Los Angeles Fairfax District current site of CBS Television City. Rodger won the main event in a Ford V8-60 Kurtis-midget against a field of the more powerful Offenhauser-powered midgets. He made his debut at the Indy 500 in 1951 and drove in 14 successive Indy 500s from 1951-64. His best finish in eight years before his 1959 victory was an eighth place in a roadster in the 1956 500.

    Ward's racing career was marred by crashes that claimed the lives of two racing legends. During 1954 at Du Quoin, IL an accident on the front straight with Chuck Stevenson sent Rodger's car spinning into the pits where it hit and killed Clay Smith, his friend, mentor and former crew chief. Ward almost quit racing. During the 1955 Indy 500 Ward's dirt track car broke an axle, hit the wall and flipped to mid-track leaving turn two. It resulted in a five-car crash that claimed the life of race leader and two-time winner Bill Vukovich. The 1953-54 Indy winner swerved right, hit the wall and flipped many times
outside the backstretch. Officials revealed his fatality during the race.

    That crash also hit Rodger hard and led to a down period in his racing fortunes. Although some people criticized Ward for the crash, the Vukovich family in Fresno, CA absolved him of blame. The 1955 season was devastating in racing worldwide. Fatalities led to the AAA withdrawal from race sanctioning and the birth of USAC in 1956. Ward's belief in his abilities led him to continue his racing career and his perseverance was rewarded shortly. Ward said Indy 500 victories made his career. Four-time winner A.J. Foyt often says the same thing to this day.

    Ward was an avid gin rummy player and golfer who shot in the low 80s when he and wife Diane lived in Indianapolis. He loved home-made ice cream. Rodger considered his best season to be 1963 when he won five of 12 USAC National Championship races, including three of the last four. Foyt also won five. Rodger won the USAC National Championship in 1959 and 1962 when the circuit had point races on both dirt and paved tracks. He won 26 National Championship races, second only to Foyt at the time. Ward also raced sports cars and stocks cars and was the AAA 1951 National Stock Car champion.

    The year 1959 was memorable for Ward in addition to his Indy 500 victory. Two months after his 500 triumph Rodger drove Ken Brenn's 11-year old Kurtis midget in a USAC Formula Libre race at the Lime Rock, CT road circuit. No specifications or displacement rules were required. Cars just had to be registered somewhere. Sports and stock cars, Grand Prix cars, midgets, super-modifieds and modifieds raced together in a pair of 20-lap races and a 60-lap finale. Ward's midget won the pole by a second and finished second to George Constantine's Aston-Martin in the first 20. Ward won the second 20 after dueling Constantine. Then Ward won the 60-lap race in a battle with the sports cars of Constantine and Chuck Daigh, in a Maserati. Rodger ran third early and after Constantine dropped out he passed Daigh with 10 laps to go and won convincingly. Ward's upset shocked the racing world. During December 1959, Rodger took the midget,
fitted with a clutch, to the first Formula One US Grand Prix at the Sebring, FL road course. He ran eighth for awhile but a clutch failure caused him to exit the race.

    Rodger failed to qualify his rear-engine Watson/Ford for the 1965 Indy 500 and was 34th fastest. He made his final Indy 500 in 1966 aboard the John Mecom-owned, rear-engine Lola/Offy and finished 15th, dropping out with poor handling after 74 laps. Rodger announced his retirement from competition the next night at the Indy 500 awards banquet because racing wasn't fun for him any longer. When he retired, Ward led the Active and All-Time Drivers Championship Point Standings with 16,524.4 points. He also was the only Indianapolis Motor Speedway driver listed in the top ten in all divisions of All-Time IMS records. He was the top money winner, third in lap prize money, fifth in total points, sixth in mileage led, tied for seventh in number of races and ninth in laps led. He also led the number of championship races driven with 150.

    Following his retirement at age 45, Ward became a motor racing goodwill ambassador and visited military servicemen, showed racing films and talked racing. He was a vice president and national safety director for USAC. He became director of public relations for Ontario Motor Speedway when that IMS replica opened in 1970. In 1974 Ward resumed racing in short track stock car to help an injured friend. Rodger raced at the long-gone Speedway 605 half-mile paved track in Irwindale, CA. He qualified second and finished fourth in his first race. He had fun but never won another feature before retiring for good. He also operated a tire business in the San Gabriel Valley.

    The last time I saw Ward in person was Friday night, July 25, 2003 at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel in Monrovia, CA, where he was inducted with other drivers and racers into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame at a banquet. Tuxedo-clad Ward walked to the stage for his award assisted by a respectful Parnelli Jones, his 1960s Indy Car and stock car racing rival. Rodger spoke some words of appreciation and clearly enjoyed receiving the honor.

    Ward eventually retired to the San Diego area and was active with the San Diego Automotive Museum at Balboa Park, where his memorial service was held Sunday, July 11 at 5:00 p.m. Survivors include wife Sherrie, sons Rodger, Jr, 62, David, 58, Rick, 40 and daughter Robin, 39. His son David raced CRA sprint cars briefly as a 1972 CRA rookie in the # 46 sprint car. Ward's death now leaves Jim Rathmann, his long-time friendly rival and winner of the 1960 Indy 500, as the oldest living Indy 500 winner at age 75. Rodger leaves us all richer for the way he lived his life and contributed to the history of auto racing at the highest level.






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