Rodger Ward, who was the oldest living winner of the Indianapolis 500 and one of its most revered champions, died Monday at a hospice in Anaheim at the age of 83, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced. The cause of death was not reported. Ward won the Indy 500 in 1959 and 1962 and during a six-year stretch starting in 1959 had the finest record of anyone in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history. After his victory in '59, he finished second in 1960, third in 1961, first in 1962, fourth in 1963 and second in 1964.
He won the U.S. Auto Club Indy car national championships in 1959 and 1962, the AAA (forerunner of the U.S. Auto Club) stock car crown in 1951, and 26 championship races, second only at the time to A.J. Foyt.
Ward, a stocky, muscular driver with cool blue eyes and wavy dark hair, grew up in the Highland Park area but was born in Beloit, Kan. He began his racing career in Wichita Falls, Texas, where he was a P-38 pilot instructor during World War II.
"I'd built hot rods when I was a kid going to Franklin High and raced them on the streets, but I'd never really been in a race until one night I was looking for something to do while I was in the service and went to a midget race," he recalled in an interview a few years ago.
"I bought an old car, rebuilt the engine myself for $15, drove the car to the track and entered a race. I had to start in last place, but I thought that would give me a chance to size up the field. When I started to smoke 'em off, I spun out, backed into the wall and got this," he said, rubbing the trademark scar on his chin.
Despite his Indy successes in 1959 and 1962, he always felt 1963 was his best year, even though Parnelli Jones won the Indy 500 and Foyt beat him out for the national championship. In 12 races, Ward won five, including three of the last four. Foyt also won five, Jones won the 500 and Jimmy Clark won the other race.
"It was just a great year," Ward said. "I felt like I couldn't do anything wrong."
Ward drove Leader Card Specials for Milwaukee owner-sponsor Bob Wilke, with car builder-mechanic A. J. Watson, the third member of racing's famous Three Ws team.
Unfortunately, Ward was involved in two fatal crashes: one in 1954 that killed Clay Smith, his close friend and former crew chief, at Du Quoin, Ill., the other in 1955 when two-time Indy 500 winner Bill Vukovich lost his life in a multi-car accident while trying for a third consecutive win.
Ward's car touched wheels with Chuck Stevenson's at Du Quoin, sending Ward spinning into the pits, where he hit Smith.
"I almost quit that night," he said. "Clay had been a mentor to me and was one of the men I most respected in racing."
At the Speedway in 1955, Ward's car broke an axle just as Vukovich and three others were about to lap him. When Ward hit the backstretch wall and flipped in the middle of the track, the other cars swerved to avoid him, and Vukovich was killed when his car flew over the outside wall.
"Bill's death hit me hard, and I was hurt when a lot of people blamed me, but there was nothing I could do," Ward recalled.
It wasn't until the old fighter pilot had won at Indy a couple of times that Ward became a popular figure in the racing fraternity. Old-timers still claim that his wheel-to-wheel battle with Jim Rathmann, Pat Flaherty and Johnny Thompson in 1959 was one of the most exciting 500s ever run.
Before embarking on the national circuit, Ward was a prominent member of the Southern California midget-car racing scene.
He scored one of his most memorable victories in 1950 at the now-defunct Gilmore Stadium in the Fairfax area, where he won the main event in a Ford-powered Kurtis against a field of powerful Offenhauser-powered midgets.
"I felt ready for Indianapolis after that," he said.
Ward got there in 1951 but lasted only 34 laps before an oil line broke. He drove in 14 consecutive Indy 500s, missed in 1965 after failing to qualify, then ran for the last time in 1966, as the rear-engine revolution was underway. Ward pulled into the pits with an ill-handling, noncompetitive car on the 74th lap. He made a tearful farewell at the awards banquet the following night.
"I promised myself that when auto racing stopped being fun for me, I would quit," he said at the dinner. "Yesterday, it wasn't fun."
After his retirement, Ward became known as racing's goodwill ambassador. During the Vietnam War, he toured the combat areas, visiting servicemen and showing films of Indianapolis races. When Ontario Motor Speedway opened in 1970, he became its director of public relations.
Retirement, though, didn't offer what racing had, and in 1974, Ward resumed racing in short-track stock car events.
"I never intended to get back in it, but when a friend of mine broke his collarbone and needed a driver, I said I'd do it," he recalled. "It was at Speedway 605 [in Irwindale], and when I qualified second and finished fourth, it convinced me to keep at it."
He never won again, though, and eventually retired for good.
Ward's death leaves the 75-year-old Rathmann, who won in 1960, as the oldest living Indianapolis 500 winner.
Survivors include his wife, Sherrie; sons Rodger Jr., David and Rick; and a daughter, Robin.
Funeral services are pending.