Through the night of the 1955 Indianapolis 500 Rodger Ward sat alone in the cavernous grandstands of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was despondent and deep in thought.
For hours he pondered his future as a race car driver and whether he wanted to continue, and what was needed to turn his career around if he did.
In later years, he recalled it as, “The longest night of my life. A dark time.”
His buddy, Bill Vukovich, had died in a multicar crash on the 57th lap of that day’s 500, and Ward’s car had instigated the melee that sent Vukovich tumbling over the fence to his death.
Although he blamed himself, it wasn’t directly Ward’s fault. The front axle broke at the spindle, sending his car gyrating out of control and the cars behind him scrambling to get out of the way.
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But Ward had felt a vibration in the car for several laps before the incident and knew he should’ve pulled in to have it checked. He didn’t.
In the wee hours of the morning, Ward left the speedway still uncertain about his future. A few days later, however, an encouraging conversation changed the course of his life. After Vukovich’s funeral in Fresno, Calif., Vukovich’s brother, Mike, pulled Ward aside for a heart-to-heart discussion. “Listen Rog, this wasn’t your fault,” insisted Mike Vukovich. “It’s part of racing. Bill wouldn’t have wanted you to quit.”
Rodger Ward stayed in racing.
Still, he faced an uphill battle. While few doubted his talent, by 1955 he had earned a reputation as a heavy drinker, carouser and a womanizer. The top owners didn’t want him and he was forced into mediocre equipment with mediocre results.
Born in Beloit, Kan., on Jan. 1, 1921, Ward became fascinated with all things automotive and racing when his family moved to Los Angeles in 1930. Legion Ascot Speedway was just over the hill from the Ward home, and he hung out there often, sometimes sneaking into the stands and other times watching from the trees outside the track. He worked in his father’s automotive parts business and by age 14 had built his own street rod.
It wasn’t until after World War II, however, that the ex-P38 fighter pilot first dabbled in racing. While training new pilots at Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, he discovered a nearby quarter-mile track. He worked as a mechanic on a fleet of midgets and got his first shot behind the wheel when one of the drivers failed to show up. He crashed but he was hooked on racing.
Ward left the service in August 1946 and stuck around Texas, chasing race cars until his wife, Wilma, insisted he return to California, stop playing with race cars and get a real job.
He returned to California but kept playing with race cars; midgets in particular. As he progressed, he won his share of midget races, along with some CRA roadster races. His real claim to fame, though, came when he beat a classy field of Offy-powered midgets at Gilmore Stadium in 1950, driving Vic Edelbrock’s Ford flathead-powered car.
Riding that reputation, Ward turned to the lucrative AAA tracks of the Midwest and by 1951 he got his first ride at Indianapolis. He made the field, a milestone accomplishment in those days. Ward started 25th and finished 27th.
The next four years brought no better results. He couldn’t get good rides. His endurance was doubted because of his carousing lifestyle. Car owners even heard Ward had to be lifted from his car after a short midget feature.
He realized, after his night of soul searching in 1955, that if he was to continue racing not only would his career focus have to change, but so would his lifestyle.
Ward got a life-changing assist with that when three weeks after Indianapolis he married his second wife — Jo. Jo was a Quaker and she encouraged him and cajoled him as he stopped drinking and smoking, and began maintaining a strict physical fitness regimen.
The change was miraculous. Given a chance by Roger Wolcott in good machinery, Ward responded with wins at Milwaukee, Springfield and Sacramento in 1957. In 1958, he won two more champ car races and caught the attention of master mechanic A.J. Watson, who had joined forces with Bob Wilke for 1959.
The “Three W’s” made history — two Indy 500 wins, 16 other championship victories and two national championships through 1966.
All set in motion by a lonely night of introspection that instilled a renewed determination to succeed.