Indy legend Ward dies

Rodger Ward, one of the greatest drivers in Indianapolis history died on Monday July 5. He was 83. Ward won the Indy 500 in 1959 and 1962, and was the last surviving winner from the 1950s. Earlier this year, he said that 'winning that race was the greatest thing that happened to me in my life.' He also twice competed in the US GP

Indy legend Ward dies

Ward was born January 10 1921 in Kansas, but his father moved the family to Los Angeles when he was young. Ward began showing interest in cars when at 14 he built a Ford hot rod with parts recovered from his father's wrecking and junkyard business. He quit school after his junior year and did a lot of 'night' drag racing.

Then came World War II. Ward joined the Air Force and became a P-38 fighter pilot and even flew B-17 bombers. His flying skills were so good he was retained as an instructor in instrument flying. Stationed at an air base in Texas, Ward talked his way into a job taking care of Ford-engined midgets for drivers racing at a local quarter-mile track. He made his racing debut when a driver didn't show one night.

After his discharge from the service, he returned to Southern California and began racing midgets with a modicum of success. But by 1948, his aggressive driving style had brought some top-five finishes, and then he began winning.

He turned to stock cars in 1951 and won the AAA championship. He also passed his rookie test and qualified for his first Indianapolis 500 that year, finishing 27th. He showed nothing special early in his career at Indy as an eighth place in 1956 was his only top-10 finish in his first eight starts.

Ward seriously considered quitting racing after the 1955 Indy 500. He was a close friend with Bill Vukovich, who won the race in 1953-54. Vukovich was leading in 1955 when the front axle on Ward's car snapped, and Vukovich's car hit Ward's and was catapulted over the wall. Vukovich was killed, but his brothers assured Ward that it was not his fault, and that he should continue his racing career.

His fame gained stature when he hooked up with car owner Bob Wilke and builder/mechanic AJ Watson to form the fearsome Leader Car Racing team. The trio was known as 'the Flying W's.' During their time at the top, Ward's finishes at Indy were first, second, third, first, fourth and second, respectively, from 1959-64.

Ward thought he should have won both the famed duel with Jim Rathmann in 1960 and his battle with AJ Foyt in 1964. He blamed the loss to Rathmann on his own stupidity for stalling the car in the pits while leading and the defeat by Foyt to a 'dumb driver' and a crew that didn't recognise what was causing his engine to burn its fuel too quickly.

Ward ran a sports car race with a midget in 1959 and beat all the road-course drivers. He took a midget to Sebring in December to compete in the first US GP. He ran eighth for a while, but a clutch problem took him out. Ward also drove a Lotus-BRM in the 1963 US GP at Watkins Glen.

Ward suggested to John Cooper and Jack Brabham, with whom he had become friends, to try a rear-engine car at the Speedway. In October 1960, Ward got a chance to drive Brabham's rear-engine Cooper-Climax during a feasibility test, which paved the way for Brabham to compete in the 1961 500. His ninth-place finish with an underpowered engine was the beginning of the end for the front-engine roadsters.

Ward failed to qualify for the 1965 Indianapolis 500, but made his 15th and final start in 1966. He climbed dejectedly out of his Bryant Heating & Cooling machine after parking it on lap 74, claiming a handling problem. The next night at the Victory Banquet, the 45-year-old Ward tearfully announced he was retiring. His 26th and final champ-car victory had been in April that year, at Trenton, and he had won two USAC championships.

Ward is survived by his wife Sherrie and their four children.

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