The 103rd Indianapolis 500 event is scheduled to take place on Sunday, May 26, 2019, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana. The legendary event has been the premier event for American open wheel racing for decades with roots deeply imbedded in dirt track racing. To honor this heritage, we plan on counting down the top 20 dirt track racers that have won the Indianapolis 500.
Today we break into our top 10 with Rodger Ward at #10 on our list. Ward was born in Beloit,Kansas, but the family relocated to Los Angeles shortly after Rodger was born. His father ran an auto wrecking and junk yard business in California, where the younger Ward learned about automotive maintenance by tinkering around with the wrecked hulks.
Ward built a few hot rods out of the wrecks in the junk yard, getting involved in street racing. Wanting to avoid trouble with the law, he would race early in the morning hours, which caused a problem with staying awake for school. He dropped out of high school in his junior year to focus on the illegal street racing.
Fortunately, WWII broke out and took the reckless young man and turned him into a fighter pilot where he flew the P-38 aircraft. He was transitioned into the B-17 bombers where his skills saw him reassigned as an instructor pilot. When the war ended, so did Ward’s flying career.
While stationed in Texas, Ward found a quarter-mile dirt track and his love of racing was renewed. He began by doing maintenance on the V8-60 Ford midgets at the track, volunteering to drive whenever a seat opened. When he returned to California after being dishcarged, Ward started racing midgets full-time.
He had started in the back of the pack, then worked his way into a middle of the pack racer in 1946. By the next year, he was racing in the top five consistently. In 1948, Ward won the San Diego Grand Prix race and did well enough to earn an Offenhauser ride the following season.
He found himself driving for Vic Edelbrock Sr., who was experimenting with fuel in his V8-60 Ford powered midget. Ward, with Edelbrock’s experimental fuel, did the unexpected and beat the mighty Offenhauser midgets with the Ford engine. To back it up, he repeated the performance the following night at Orange Show Speedway, becoming a hero in the racing world.
Ward passed his Indy rookie test in 1951, found a ride and ran 34 laps before retiring with a broken oil line. He also won the AAA Stock Car title that year. Back at Indy in 1952, he ran 130 laps before loosing oil pressure and forced to quit. In 1952, he experienced ring and piston failure after 177 laps. In 1954 he stalled the car on the backstretch with fuel issues.
By this time his Indy success was in doubt. While he was experiencing great success in midgets and stock cars, he had been unable to finish an Indianapolis 500 in four attempts. In the 1955 Indy race, Ward was trying to avoid being lapped by Bill Vukovich when the front axle snapped in his car. Vukovich hit Ward’s car, perishing as a result of the crash.
In 1956, Ward began to turn things around. He finished Eighth in the Indy 500, and had a solid year racing in other events. In 1957, he failed to finish the Indy race with supercharger problems, but did well in the Champ car series. Mechanical failure put him out of the great race again in 1958, but he finished Fifth in the national points standings, having won the Trenton and Milwaukee big car races.
Teaming up with A.J. Watson and team owner Bob Wilke in 1959 to form the Triple W team, Ward finally won the Indianapolis 500. He finished the season by winning the USAC National Championship.
The 1960 Indy 500 came down to a battle between Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward with both men taking turns leading the race. Ward’s car experienced severe tire wear and he had to back off with three laps to go, giving the win to Rathmann.
In 1962, Ward captured his second Indy win, doing it convincingly as he led from lap 126. He also won the USAC championship again that year and at that point he was the circuit’s all-time point leader.
As the rear-engined cars started showing up at Indy, Ward’s career was winding down. He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, standing at the banquet podium and making a painful statement to the crowd, “I always said I’d quit racing when it stopped being fun,” he said. He paused as he wiped away tears. “Today it wasn’t fun anymore.” He had 26 victories in his 150 starts between 1950 and 1964, and he finished in the top ten in more than half of his starts.
He qualified for the Indy 500 in 1966, finishing in Fifteenth place and quietly retired after the race. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1995, the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1995, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame. In 2003, he was also inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame.