Ward’s Fondest Memories Fueled by Indy
As one of the most successful race drivers of all time, Rodger Ward has enough memories to fill several books.
Tops on Ward’s list, of course, is his remarkable record in the Indianapolis 500. He won it twice and from 1959 through 1964 finished first, second, third, first, fourth and second.
During that period, Ward won two USAC season championships, was runner-up three times and placed third once. All told, he won 26 championship races between 1951 and his retirement in 1966.
Ward will always look back fondly to the place where it all began--the old quarter-mile dirt track at Balboa Stadium.
Now 69, Ward reminisced while speaking at the Hall of Champions recently. He is in town from his home in Alta Loma for the second Rodger Ward Invitational Historic Grand Prix, which will be held Saturday and Sunday on a 1.7-mile road course in the west parking lot at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
“Balboa is where I really blossomed as a race driver,” Ward said. “It’s one of my all-time favorite tracks.”
Ward was born in Beloit, Kan., but grew up in South Pasadena, where he built a hot rod from used parts in his father’s wrecking yard at the age of 13. He was fresh from a four-year hitch as an Air Force pilot in World War II when he made his debut as a midget-car driver at Balboa in 1946. He scored his first victory a year later in the San Diego Grand Prix.
“The first race I ever drove, I wound up upside down,” he said. “I was running last and, when I made my move, I spun out. Then Johnny Mantz’s car hit my car, and they took me to the hospital to see if my brains were scrambled.
“In ’47, I had a car that ran pretty well but I wasn’t making it into the main event. Toward the end of ’47, I got into a car owned by Willie West and, for the first time, I was the fastest qualifier. I won a trophy dash or two, and I was always in the main event.
“Then came the San Diego Grand Prix. I qualified second, so I was on the outside of the front row. I took the lead on the first turn and was never headed. Those few weeks in that car were the beginning of my success.”
From then through 1950, Ward won “about six or seven races a year” at Balboa Stadium.
“I’m not sure how many I won altogether, but it was around 25,” Ward said. “That was all in midgets.”
Ward also had some trying times at Balboa Stadium.
“In ’49, I was driving for Perry Grim and there was one evening I’ll never forget,” Ward said. “Perry said to me, ‘Rodger, I know you like to run high, but there’s one hole on the track, so make sure you miss it.’
“Well, I went out to qualify and, the first time around, I hit the hole and flipped upside down. The car was bent all to hell, and Perry was fit to be tied.
“Later that year, Jimmy Bryan, who went on to be a tough Indy driver (winning the 500 in 1958), tried to do a slide job on me. He didn’t get by, and he knocked me upside down.
“It was one of the worst accidents I ever had. I broke my right arm and left wrist, and the ball of my right shoulder was cut into five pieces. I was out until late in the season.”
Ward’s most serious crackup occurred at the Riverside Speedway in 1962.
“I broke my back in three places that time,” he said. “My brakes failed and I went off an embankment. My only thought was to keep the car right-side up. If I had flipped over, it would have wiped me out. I went through a chain-link fence that I thought was going to break my head off, but I stayed up.”
There is one accident that still brings sadness to Ward. He was a key figure in the wreck that took the life of Bill Vukovich in the 1955 Indy 500.
“Billy and I were close friends,” Ward said. “We traveled together, and I really admired him. He had won Indy in ’53 and ’54 and would have won in ’52 if his steering hadn’t failed with nine laps to go.
“He was leading again after 56 laps and I was three laps behind him when my front axle broke. I hit the wall and flipped three times and ended up on the track. Al Keller went across the track to avoid me and hit Johnny Boyd. Then Vukovich ran up over Boyd, flipped end over end, and lost his life.
“Because of that tragedy, I nearly retired. I was so distressed, I was ready to hang it up then and there. But Billy’s brother told me I could be great if I concentrated on driving, so I made up my mind to become more serious about it.”
Foremost in Ward’s determination to dig deeper within himself was to shed his reputation as a playboy.
“Until then, I was probably more famous for my social life,” he said. “People thought I drank too much, although actually I drank very little, but I was never able to handle booze. I also chased a few women at that time.
“The car I drove in ’55 was owned by Lyle Greenman, who had bought it from J.C. Agajanian after Troy Ruttman won the 500 with it in ’52. Before the race, Greenman said to me, ‘I don’t know if you can last 500 miles, because you’re up all night.’ I’ll have to admit I hadn’t done much to dispel that reputation.
“So after Billy Vukovich’s death, I gave up smoking and drinking, and I decided it was in my best interests to get married. In those days, if you were a single man on the road, people considered you a bum.”
Ward’s change in life style--he was married in the early 1950s, later divorced and remarried 10 years ago--paid off. He finished eighth in 1956, and after being forced out the next two years by mechanical problems, he found the combination that carried him to his first victory in 1959.
Ward had been driving for Roger Wolcott, who died after the 1958 season. Suddenly a free agent, Ward decided to hook up with a Milwaukee car owner named Bob Wilke. A.J. Watson was Wilke’s chief mechanic, and Ward considered Watson the best.
“Wilke gave me $1,000 to sign and $1,500 when I qualified for Indy. I was a kid with a new toy.
“They built me a new car every year, and I was always up there. Besides the two 500s I won, I should have won two others--in ’60 and ’64. Those years, things that shouldn’t have happened went wrong.”
After failing to qualify in 1965 and placing 15th in 1966, Ward decided to retire.
“Watson built me a car in ’65 that was a total disaster,” Ward said. “I thought about retiring then, but I didn’t want to go out on a sour note, so I kept racing in ’66. I won at Trenton, finished second at Phoenix and qualified quite well at Indy, so I felt like I had proved to myself that I could still drive.
“I made my retirement announcement at the awards dinner after the 500, and it was a very emotional thing. I had offers to drive again, but I couldn’t have lived with myself if I’d come back and been an also-ran.”
Ward now serves as an analyst on many auto-race telecasts, and is much in demand for speaking engagements. Although he dropped out of Franklin High School in Highland Park after his junior year, it would be hard to find a more articulate or entertaining speaker.
“I was always a glib talker,” he said. “And wherever I go, I recall the old days at Balboa Stadium. It was one of the places I really enjoyed racing. The crowds were probably more enthusiastic than anywhere else.”
Rodger Ward rode in last year’s inaugural Vintage Grand Prix as a passenger in a 1914 Tahi Special, in which it was necessary for him to pump the oil and gas. He says he might drive this year but won’t say for sure. . . . Racing starts at 1 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, following trials from 9 a.m. to noon. There will be seven races each day with cars in nine different classifications. One race will consist of 14 restored pre-World War II race cars; five others will match foreign and domestic production cars matched according to size and horse power. Two formula races will include class A, B and C model cars, including McLarens, Lotuses, Lolas, Coopers and Porsches. . . . All races will be run on a nine-turn, 1.7-mile-course on the west end of the San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium parking lot. A total of 160 cars have been entered, all built before 1972. . . . An car auction will be held from noon to 6 p.m. both days near the main gate. . . . Tickets are $12 a day, $22 for both days purchased in advance, $15 and $25 if purchased at the gate. Parking is free.