A Look Back at IndyCar Great Rodger Ward

Writer / Kyle Baird

Photography Provided

The month of May brings one of the most exciting traditions that Indiana looks forward to — the Indianapolis 500. Then Indy 500, an event which has long served as an Indianapolis cultural icon and the highest level of IndyCar racing, is preparing for its 103rd running and boasts a rich history of contributions to professional racing.

Through the years, many notable drivers have participated in the race, but one of the most successful and closely tied to Indianapolis is two-time Indy 500 winner Rodger Ward. Ward currently holds the record for most consecutive Top 4 finishes in Indy 500 history and enjoyed great success both in Indianapolis and elsewhere as one of the most dominant racers of the 1950s and 60s.

Rodger Ward’s path to professional racing began from a childhood surrounded by automobiles and engines at his father’s business in southern California. Originally from Beloit, KS, young Ward and his family moved to Los Angeles, where his father ran an auto wrecking and junkyard, and it was here that Ward fell in love with racing. Spending his free time tinkering with auto parts and vehicles at his father’s junkyard, he eventually managed to assemble his own hot rod at the age of 14, from salvaged parts, laying the foundation for a life in professional racing.

As Ward got older, his interests in driving only grew, until his racing endeavors were interrupted by the start of World War II. Ward was recruited to join the Army Air Corps once war broke out and discovered he was a gifted pilot, excelling at flying a number of different military planes. His aerial skills were so exceptional that he was held out of active duty and kept to train other pilots for the Air Corps, with the Army believing Ward’s abilities to be the standard they wanted all potential pilots to aspire to. While he didn’t pursue aviation as a career after his time in the military, his experiences in the Air Corps paved the way for a lifetime hobby of piloting planes, as he continued to fly for years to come.

Following the conclusion of World War II, Ward continued to serve in the Military and found himself stationed at an Army base in Wichita Falls, TX. It was here on a small dirt track where Ward got his first taste of professional racing when he was working part-time as a mechanic in Wichita Falls.

“Dad was working as a mechanic for a guy named Abe Rabin, who owned a used car dealership and a racecar,” says Rick Ward, Rodger’s son, when asked about his father’s first race in Wichita Falls in 1946. “One day, the racecar driver didn’t show up, so they let dad take a crack at it. He did ok, but he got in a wreck, and he went down on the windshield and put a really nasty scar on his chin that he kept till the end of his days.”

Following his discharge from the Army and through the rest of the 1940s, Rodger continued to race and improve his craft, eventually gaining several well-publicized victories that, in turn, built his reputation as a skilled driver. In 1948, Ward commandeered a midget car to a first-place finish at the San Diego Grand Prix and drove a stock car to a top finish at the 1951 AAA Stock Car Championship, all of which helped him get a shot with IndyCar. Following the passing of his rookie test, Ward landed his first entry of a storied career with the Indy 500, racing in the 1951 running.

While Ward would continue to race and experience tremendous success across the country, throughout the 1950s, success at the Indianapolis 500 would remain elusive for years to come. A series of mechanical issues led to early exits from the race each year from 1951-1954, and then, in the 1955 running, Ward was involved in a crash that led to the death of his close friend and fellow racer, Bill Vukovich. This event almost ended Ward’s career, as he seriously considered retiring entirely in the aftermath of the disaster at the 1955 Indy 500, until Vukovich’s widowed wife convinced Rodger to stick with racing, as she insisted Bill’s death wasn’t Rodger’s fault.

Rodger managed to revive his racing career, and in 1956 returned to compete in the Indianapolis 500, where he completed the race for the first time and ended the day with an eighth-place finish. This first completion helped springboard Rodger into greater racing success, and in 1959 he connected with car owner Bob Wilke and mechanic A.J. Watson to form the fearsome Leader Car Racing team, more commonly known as “The Flying W’s.” It was with The Flying W’s that Ward went on his historic run of victories at the Indy 500, finishing in the top four at six consecutive Indy 500 races from 1959-1964, including two first-place finishes in ‘59 and ‘62. It was also during this stretch that two of the most memorable racing duels in Indianapolis 500 history occurred, with Ward going toe-to-toe with Jim Rathmann in 1960, and A.J. Foyt in 1964, both races featuring back and forth lead changes throughout the race.

While Rodger Ward’s professional racing career officially ended with his retirement in 1966, his legacy has lived on through the years. Ward’s long, successful career in racing ended with multiple victories in Indianapolis, Trenton, Milwaukee and countless other cities, an induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and the reputation as one of the winningest drivers in Indianapolis 500 history. Outside of his own racing, Ward owned a racetrack in Michigan, worked as a TV broadcaster for NASCAR and the IndyCar Series and continued to fly planes recreationally throughout his life, including one memorable incident where he seamlessly landed a plane with a failed engine onto Interstate 74 north of Brownsburg.

Rodger is remembered as a man who loved and cared for each of his many fans and as a man who always held Indianapolis close to his heart up until his death in 2004.

He once said, “Winning that race (the Indianapolis 500) was the greatest thing that happened to me in my life.”

Rodger lived close to the Indianapolis Speedway for part of his life, and his son, Rick, still lives in Indianapolis to this day. As we prepare for another year of the Indianapolis 500, we remember Rodger and all the drivers who have made the Indy 500 truly the greatest spectacle in racing.

“The Indianapolis 500 is the epitome of motor racing,” Rick says. “I love the 500, it’s the greatest race in the world, and it’s extremely special to me knowing the history that my dad has there.”