The B-17 Flying Fortress Instructor
Rodger Ward was born in Beloit, Kansas, on 10 January 1921, but the family soon moved to Los Angeles. Ward's father purchased an auto wrecking business in Los Angeles, and when Roger was 14 years old when he built a Ford hot rod. He was a P-38 Lightning fighter pilot in World War 2 - and he enjoyed flying so much he thought of making it his career.
He began to fly B-17 Flying Fortress and was so good he was retained as an instructor. After the war he was stationed in Wichita Falls, Texas when a quarter mile dirt track was built. Ward worked briefly for the aircraft industry and joined the Air Force during World War 2 where he qualified as a pilot on multi-engined aircraft and became an instructor on instrument flying.
In 1946 Ward had his first attempt at motor racing. For some time he had been allowed to act as mechanic during leave from the Air Force, looking after a Willys-engined midget. He yearned to race one and, at last, one day the driver did not arrive for a meeting. Ward jumped into the vacant cockpit. But although the seeds of a racing career were sown that night at Wichita Falls the actual result was dismal: Ward spun and was hit by another competitor.
Later in the year Ward left the USAAF and began to race in midget car events, participating in perhaps a dozen events around the Texas/Kansas border area without luck. When he finally ran out of money Rodger returned to Los Angeles to work for his father and soon became involved with midget racing in California.
The San Diego Grand Prix
For five years he remained in this hectic class of racing - there was a race a night for those who could stand the pace - and in 1948 he won the San Diego Grand Prix in his Ford-engined car. The following season he moved up to the faster, Offenhauser-engined midgets and in 1950 he startled midget racing: his humble Fora-powered midget beat all the Offys to win the feature event at Gilmore Stadium.
The feat was considered all the more remarkable as in 1949 Ward had crashed badly at San Diego, an accident which left him with very restricted movement in his right shoulder. In 1951 Ward won the AAA's stock car championship. He also attempted the Indianapolis 500, passing his 'rookie' test but retiring in the race when an oil pipe broke.
The Death of Clay Smith and Bill Vukovich
In 1952 he failed again at Indianapolis, as he did the following year. In 1954 he ran out of petrol in the Indianapolis 500, while in 1955 he became involved in a multi-car pile-up which claimed the life of a competitor. Ward's car flipped, but Rodger escaped with a cut nose. Some people asserted that he was responsible for the accident and Rodger wondered which way to turn. The previous year at a midget race his car had been knocked off the course, freakishly killing Clay Smith, the mechanical wizard behind many of Ward's successes; and now Bill Vukovich had died.
Hogan's Original Lucky Hell Drivers
The strain was enormous and within weeks Ward was fired from sponsor Lyle Greenman's team. He turned to stunt driving, becoming one of Irish Hogan's 'Original Lucky Hell Drivers.' But driving cars up ramps was only a stop-gap measure, a means of paying off debts accumulated during better days. Ward stopped smoking and drinking altogether and was supported by his wife Jo, a Quaker with strong religious beliefs. By the end of the year Ward was 'on trial' again, being hired for two end-of-season races and the 1956 Indianapolis 500. He finished for the first time, placing eighth.
Although his car failed in the 1957 Indianapolis race, Ward had a good year winning at Milwaukee, Springfield and Sacramento. In 1958 he again failed in the 500, but won at Milwaukee and Trenton. In 1959, following the death of his sponsor, Ward teamed up with A. J. Watson, USAC racing's famed car builder/mechanic, and Bob Wike, the wealthy greeting-card company owner. Driving a Watson-built Leader Card Special, Ward won the Indianapolis 500.
USAC National Champion
With further victories at Milwaukee, DuQuoin and Indiana Fairgrounds he was USAC National Champion. Next year late-race tire problems caused Ward to ease up and be satisfied with second place at Indianapolis. For 1961, driving for another sponsor, Ward was third at Indianapolis. The following year he returned to Wilke's team and gave the Leader Card team its second Indianapolis victory and, thanks to successes at Milwaukee, Trenton and Syracuse, its second USAC National Championship. At that time he was also all-time USAC points leader. Then the Indianapolis 'revolution' took place. Rear-engined cars replaced the famous, cumbersome 'roadsters.'
In 1963 an old-style car was good enough for third place in the Indianapolis 500, while he also won 100-mile races at Milwaukee, Springfield, Indiana Fairgrounds, Sacramento and Phoenix. In 1964, however, second place at Indianapolis in a rear-engined machine was his only moment of glory. Next year he failed to qualify for the race after suspension problems and in 1966 he retired shortly after Indianapolis which had begun with a multi-car pile-up.
He survived the drama (which did not result in serious injury to anyone) but following a subsequent race at Trenton he decided to hang up his helmet for good. In 1969 there were rumours of Ward's return to motor racing. Now 48, he wanted a season in Trans-Am-modified 5-liter saloon cars-plus another try at USAC stock car racing and perhaps another crack at Indianapolis. His ambitions were not realised and Ward concentrated on his 'retirement' jobs, as a retail tire distributor in Indianapolis and a motor racing television commentator. He died on July 5, 2004 aged 83.