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 Tributes To Loved Ones

FEBRUARY 28, 2007:  Today, Dave Ward saw his final checkered flag.  An Okie from Muskogee that migrated to Southern California in the early fifties and was able to live a life desired by many, but realized by few.

Dave and Lois became dear friends as we journeyed around this great country chasing our beloved sprint cars.  Many an hour has been spent draining several pots of coffee as we bench raced for hours, recalling great races, great tracks and many lost heroes.  I personally cherish my visits with the Wards.  In 2003, inspired by long conversations with Dave, I decided to write an article for Flat Out Magazine.   While many who knew Dave may not have read the story, I offer it now for all to enjoy and understand the special qualities of Dave Ward.

Rest in peace my fallen comrade, 
Norm Bogan


Race fans love to live vicariously through the exploits of their heroes.  Most will express a dream of tagging along with a race team and becoming involved with the behind the scenes operations, getting to know famous and not so famous racers and experiencing the glory and grief that encompasses a racing tour.  For most, this is just a dream, but for a few it becomes reality and they are able to share their recollections with the less fortunate souls.

Sometimes, when visiting a small track throughout the country, you will find an old-timer, who has lurked around the pits, knows most of the racers young and old, plus possesses some sense of what this racing is all about.  They may be a former driver or car owner, might have served on a racing Board of Directors or maybe just stooged for one team, then another for years and now dispense sage advice and wisdom to today’s racers and teams.

This article is targeted at one of these diehard fellows, who have served with CRA and SCRA over the past nearly fifty years.  Dave Ward was born sixty-three years ago in Muskogee, Oklahoma and attended his first race at the Muskogee Fairgrounds in September 1948.  Dave was hooked for life with the sound and smells of the CSRA Big Car racers with their big Offies, going into corners sideways and knobby tires throwing rooster-tails of flying dirt.  Ward witnessed several Midget races at Muskogee before moving to southern California in 1951, where he attended every race at Carrell Speedway, until it closed in 1954.     

Dave enrolled at Leuzinger High School, whose student body just happened to include the Sweeney and Pivavaroff families, both of which moved on to sprint car racing.  During his freshman year, Ward was a member of the “B” Football team and dreamed of becoming a Varsity star like his big brother, Bud.  Dave had a paper route as a young teen, where he discovered the Dempsey Wilson Cams shop, while throwing papers.  Wandering in, Ward saw a midget, sprint car and a couple of stock cars and met Dempsey Wilson, one of his favorites from the races at Carrell Speedway.  Soon, Dave was frequenting Wilson’s shop and eventually Dempsey offered him an opportunity to learn the cam business after school.  It wasn’t long before Ward was grinding cams for 75 cents apiece, while hanging out with many of the racers who happened by the shop. 

After about a year, Dave liked the idea of money in his pocket and gave up on football to spend more time at Wilson’s shop learning the trade.  Dave had played baseball for the Gardena Parks and Recreation team and claims to have once gotten three hits off Don Drysdale, who pitched for the potent Van Nuys Optimist club.  Ward became a Semi-Pro baseball player with the Oxnard Orioles and was to be traded to a Red Sox farm team in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, but having never allowed any endeavor to interfere with going to the races, Dave ended his baseball efforts, much to the chagrin of his dad, who happened to be a big baseball fan.  Continuing to work at Dempsey’s, it was about this time that he began to help Jim Hurtubise (Herk) build his first sprint car.  “Herk” worked part time welding hard face cams at Dempsey’s in the evening, while Dave ground them.   

In late 1956 and early 1957, Ward went to work with Jack Brunner, Walt Mahony and several others, helping to complete construction of L.A. Speedway, which later became Ascot Park.  One of his tasks was painting the bleacher seats.  Dave had a brief driving career in 1958 with the URA Midgets, running tracks like Balboa, Gardena and Carpenteria.  Not being able to own a sprinter, Dave acquired rides in three different marginal sprint cars.  After a bad crash at Balboa, Ward opted to work on cars and go racing with other people.

Growing up in the South Bay area of Greater Los Angeles put Dave in close proximity with many of the famed race shops from the fifties and sixties.  Visits were often made to the nearby emporiums of Quinn Epperly, Eddie Kuzma, Johnny Poulsen, Richie Coles Machine Shop, South Bay Auto Body and Neo-Glow Sign Shop, where “Herk” worked and fabricated his first sprint car and later built the Sterling Plumbing sprint car.  When racers from back east, came out west to race, they would congregate at one or more of these shops and the bench racing grew to a fever pitch.  Racers like Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Lloyd Ruby and Bobby Marshman enjoyed a respite from their dangerous lifestyle to relax and relate stories of past heroics on many fabled tracks.  These are the times that Dave can now reminisce about with today’s racers.      

Ward once lived across the street from Epperly’s shop and could look out his front window right into the shop door and see racecars being prepared.  In 1959, Ward remembers mechanic George Bignotti calling Epperly, asking to pick up one of his new lay down roadsters to race at Daytona.  Dave watched as the car was loaded and sent on its way and was there when it returned after a late race crash took the life of driver, George Amick.  In 1961, Ward listened as Tony Bettenhausen related to Quinn about how his new Epperly creation was 2 1/2 to 3 miles per hour faster than the rest of the field as he held back on the throttle, not wanting the competition to know how fast this car could go in qualifying.  Unfortunately, Bettenhausen took out his friend, Paul Russo’s car for a shakedown, when a radius rod came loose, pitching the car into the wall and fatally injuring Tony.  Bettenhausen never got to open her up in qualifying.      

Ward continued to work at Dempsey Wilson’s until 1960, where he ground the cams for several of the first Chevy powered sprint cars, including Jim Hurtubise’s.  Dave stooged at Indy for several different teams in the late fifties and 1960 and also traveled for three weeks each summer on the IMCA sprint circuit.  In addition, he made two trips to Florida for the February IMCA season, getting home just in time for the CRA opener at El Centro.  In 1960, Ward traveled on the USAC Championship Trail with Dempsey Wilson, starting at Langhorne in June and running through Syracuse in September.  For this work, he was paid $5 per day plus room and board.  A week after returning home, Dave was married to Lois, who has been by his side ever since. 

In those days, Ward noted that Dempsey had a 1957 Oldsmobile station wagon and pulled an open trailer with the racecar.  The driver and crew rode in the station wagon sharing space with spare parts for the racer and their luggage was often strapped onto the racecar trailer.  A far cry from today’s motor homes pulling forty foot long enclosed trailers.

The teams based themselves in Indianapolis and traveled to the racing venues from there.  Garage space in “Gasoline Alley”, at the Speedway was arranged, where they kept and worked on their steeds.  Dempsey and the crew rented an Airstream trailer at a trailer park on Georgetown Road across from the main straightaway grandstands at the Brickyard.  Fellow gypsies from the Champ Trail inhabited nearly every trailer in the park.  Since air conditioning was an unknown at this time, many evenings were spent lounging in the yards and exchanging war stories.

Ward recalls A.J. Foyt and his crew returning to the garage area at Indy from a race at Terre Haute, after stopping by a farmer’s corn stand and bringing back bags full of corn on the cob.  As they feasted on corn and some malted beverage, a corncob fight broke out.  Soon missiles began to fly around the garage area, when low and behold, the Speedway tour bus came around the corner and was collected in the barrage by a number of soon to be famous racing heroes.       

Once the teams settled in at the Speedway garages, they could work on all their cars and store their spare parts.  When it was time to go racing, they might load up the Champ car and tow to Milwaukee or Springfield and then head to New Bremen or Eldora with the sprint car, since most of the racing was within an eight-hour drive from Indy.  It was this endless pursuit for a racing victory that drove these early day gladiators.  Because of their common goal, many became close friends and would often help each other rebuild a wrecked car and loan spare parts to keep their comrades on the track.

While on the Championship Trail, there were eight races scheduled with Dempsey driving an old 1952 car that was only able to qualify for four of those.  Here is where the camaraderie of the racers shows best.  Lloyd Ruby and Ebb Rose knew that Dempsey and his crew had missed a few shows, so they took the Wilson crew out to a steakhouse and treated them to dinner.  Another time, when Wilson showed up at Trenton for a race, he was told that the entry had not been received and he was not eligible to race.  Dejectedly, Dempsey walked past some of his fellow racers, while relating his dilemma.  Some of the top drivers of that era notified promoter Sam Nunis that if Dempsey were not allowed to qualify, they would also load up and leave.  Score an early win for the drivers. 

Dave recalls sitting in Mariannas Restaurant in Indy having lunch with the team, when ace mechanic, George Bignotti stopped by to visit.  Bignotti mentioned that his new young driver, A.J. Foyt didn’t know how good he was and if he ever won a Champ race, it might be over for the other competitors.  While the Champ Trail was the premier circuit, the racers supported themselves by racing midgets and sprints several days a week on nearby tracks between Champ events.   

Ward went to work for Frank McGurk Engineering, grinding cams in 1963 until 1968 when Frank retired and sold the business to Ed Iskenderian, who named Dave as Manager of the McGurk Division.  It was during this time that Dave became acquainted with many of the racers around the country.  He was their contact for McGurk equipment, parts, service and advice.  As a USAC Licensed Manufacturers Representative, Dave made several trips to Pennsylvania and USAC races representing McGurk Engineering throughout the seventies.

After twenty-five years in the speed equipment business, 1980 found Ward leaving McGurk to go to work in the Garrett-Air Research turbo-charger machine shop, where he stayed for a decade.  After suffering a heart attack in 1988 and additional heart problems in 1999, which included the application of defibrillator paddles in the pits at Perris, Dave is now permanently retired.  Lois retired from her longtime position as a High School clerk earlier this year, so they are now free to go racing together.  By the way, as Dave dishes out advice to racers on chassis setups and analyzes engines malfunctions, Lois is busy updating the SCRA lineup board.  Ward spent seven years as a member of the CRA Board of Directors under Don Peabody, in addition to being a referee and assistant starter.  These experiences have given him a different perspective on operating a racing endeavor.

Dave names his racing heroes as anyone with big enough “spheres” to drive a sprint car.  Favorite tracks mentioned are of course, Ascot, Speedway 117 in Chula Vista, CA, Lakeside in Kansas City, KS, Terre Haute and Ward’s number one track is the St. Paul, MN Fairgrounds, when it was dirt.  Dave says that anyone fortunate enough to witness an IMCA show there in the late 50s would agree.  Over the years, Ward has worked with many different drivers and teams, mentioning a few to be Dempsey Wilson, Jack Brunner, Jim Hurtubise, A.J. Shepherd, Bobby Grim, Jim Edwards, Tommy Hunt, Jack Ward (his brother), 1977 CRA Rookie of the Year, Kenny Gidney, Johnny Anderson, Gary McKeon, Bill & John Beavert and Mike English.

Ward singled out two men that were influential in his career as Dempsey Wilson, who took a raw teenager and taught him a craft and Frank McGurk, who was the smartest man he knew, without benefit of a formal education.  McGurk studied and developed techniques in heat-treating, and hardness testing that became standards in the industry. 

One of the things that set aside these grizzled veterans from the fifties and sixties is that they experienced the loss of comrades along the way.  Today’s safety equipment has allowed most drivers to survive devastating crashes.  Forty years ago, it was not uncommon to lose a number of regulars throughout the year.  Dave reflected on this as he remembers that summer on the National Championship Trail in 1960.  At Langhorne, they lost Jimmy Bryan followed by Johnny Thompson at Allentown then Jim Packard perished at Fairbury, Illinois and finally Allen Franks at Ascot.  Learning to deal with these losses hardened this twenty-year old. 

1966 was another tough year, with the loss of Jud Larson and Red Riegel at Reading followed with another double fatality at Ascot, which took Don Branson and Dick Atkins.  In 1970, George Farmer died at the season opener in El Centro, then two horrendous crashes at the Sacramento Mile claimed three drivers, two in the accidents, Ernie Pursell and Jimmy Gordon and a third, Walt Reiff, who was hit while trying to flag down the oncoming racers, heading into the devastation.  These experiences cause the old-timer to council with the young racers and caution them not to take foolish chances and to ensure that their equipment is in top-notch condition.

Saturday night will often find Dave Ward conferring with one of the teams suffering with engine problems.  Dave draws on his years in the pits to help racing teams turnaround a dismal year, caused by various mechanical problems.  A number of the racers have contacted Dave to stop by their shop and apply some of his vast knowledge accrued with camshaft preparation.  Often, a racer will get an engine assembled and then ask Ward come by to degree the cam and run the valves to ensure that the valve train is in prime condition.  Dave has helped others with injection snafus and header selection to develop the optimum power for their racecar.  Suggestions on chassis setup and tire selection have also been offered.

Life has not always been easy for the Wards.  Dave and Lois lost their only child, a son, Ronnie at the age of twelve in a 1976 traffic accident.  Dave has faced heart problems serious enough to cause him to wear a pacemaker-defibrillator.  It was in 1999 that the track EMTs used the paddles on Dave to bring him back for an encore.  Lois too, has battled Ovarian Cancer and recently celebrated three years of being free from this disease.  Dave and Lois Ward continue to share their time with today’s racers, which has endeared them to all of us.   

Dave has been consulted by a number of auto racing authors, like Dick Wallen, Buzz Rose and Bob Mays to peruse old photos and identify the drivers and car owners.  Longtime photographer, the late Dwight Vaccaro enlisted Ward’s help to catalog his long years of picture taking.  Dave has excellent recall of racing over the past nearly five decades and knew many of the competitors.  His recollection has assisted a number of authors in authenticating cars, drivers and tracks to give improved credibility to their creative effort.

For all of those that dreamed of the exhilaration generated from traveling with a bunch of barnstorming racers throughout America, but got wrapped up in raising a family and getting ahead on the job, this is your opportunity to witness through another’s eyes.  Never able to realize the satisfaction of smelling castor oil and watching your car throwing rooster-tails of dirt, while running up against a rail fence, greeting your driver in victory circle with raccoon-eyes from his goggles on a dusty track.  Dave Ward has given us a glimpse of the emotions experienced as a vagabond racer in an era of great interest in racing history.  







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