Rodger Ward: Nigel Roebuck's Legends

“Back in 1964, I was doing a tyre test at Trenton, New Jersey, and there’s this young guy there, driving a roadster for Clint Brawner. I got a little careless, and brushed the wall, so that was the end of my tyre test. Brawner says to me, ‘I’ve got this new kid here, and I don’t know if he’s going to be any good or not. Will you take a ride in the car?’

“Well, I ran about three laps, and that was enough. I says, ‘Clint, tell you one thing: this kid may be the greatest race driver in the history of the sport. That car is such a shit-box I can’t believe it! I don’t know how he was even able to keep it in line down the straightaway…

“Anyway, I showed him what he should do, changing the roll-bars and stuff. And the next time I see him, we’re at Phoenix, Arizona, and I’m leading – and who d’you think is trying to pass me? That goddam Wop! In that damn roadster!

“I enjoyed Mario Andretti from day one. Such a great driver, and such a nice guy. A lot of people thought he was over his head in his early days, but I never thought that. You’d just keep saying to yourself; ‘Nobody can be that good’. But he was…”

Just when you start to believe that the tentacles of political correctness have strangled the humour out of motor racing, you meet Rodger Ward. Two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, among the greatest oval drivers in history, and, at 78, still plainly a tough old boy, speaking of his racing days with a refreshingly salty tongue.

Round the calendar, Goodwood’s Festival of Speed is ordinarily my most enjoyable weekend, and this year, given my obsession with ‘the roadster era’ at Indianapolis, I was in clover, for Ward, Parnelli Jones and Johnny Rutherford were all there.

All are best known for their 500 victories, but many believe Jones would have been a topline Grand Prix driver, had he accepted Colin Chapman’s offer to join Lotus in 1965. “Pamelli,” Ward quietly said, “was the quickest guy in a race car I ever saw.”

As it was, PJ never did take part in a Formula One race, while Ward did – albeit at the wheel of a somewhat unconventional car. When Formula One first took itself across the pond, in 1959, Rodger wanted to be part of the inaugural US Grand Prix.

It was run at Sebring, familial already to many of the F1 drivers, who ran there each March in the 12-hour sportscar race. For the Grand Prix the organisers made efforts to tart it up.

Stirling Moss was disappointed. “They’ve knocked the bloody trees down!” he commented sadly, “changed the whole appearance of the place…” Well, things were different back then.

Moss, Jack Brabham and Tony Brooks were there to settle the World Championship, and, remarkably, they qualified 1-2-3, though Brooks did not make the front row, for Harry Schell achieved third fastest time by means of taking a short cut!

At the other end of the grid was Ward, driving a midget, such as he had raced on dirt ovals throughout his career. To enter this car, he says, seemed like a good idea at the time.

“Earlier that year, I drove one in a road race at Lime Rock, Connecticut. As I had won Indy that year, the promoters wanted me there. I guess they figured, ‘Well, we’ll get him up here to a road course, and we’ll show him how to drive’.

“They gave me the numbers of several people who had sportscars. I called these guys, and their attitude was, ‘Well, Rodger, we know you do that roundy-roundy thing pretty good, but road courses are a little different’. I got pretty discouraged.” Then Ward got a call from Chris Economaki, doyen of American racing journalists. “Chris says, ‘Rodger, there’s a guy here in New York, and he’s got a new Cooper Monaco, with a 2-litre Climax engine – it’d be perfect for Lime Rock’. I says, ‘Wonderful! What should I do?’ He says, ‘When can you get to New York?’ I says, ‘Tomorrow too soon?’

Getting a flavour of how Ward tells a tale? “We went to Rene Dreyfus’s restaurant, Le Chanteclair, for lunch. I said to the guy, ‘Well, what I would like to do, sir, if l might, is get over and see the car, and make sure the pedals are where I can reach them,’ and he says, ‘Well, the truth of the matter, Rodger, is that we’ve got a problem.’

,p>”I said, ‘Well, what might be the problem?’ And he says, ‘Well, the fact is that one of the truly great road racing drivers in the world has made himself available to me. They’re very expensive, these cars, and I’ve got to go with the driver who’s going to give me the best chance to win


I said, ‘Well, who might that be – Moss? Brabham ?’ ‘No – John Fitch.’

“I said, ‘John Fitch? That turkey came to Indianapolis he couldn’t get going fast enough to get warm!’ I said, ‘Let me tell you this, I don’t know what I’m going to drive, but if I get something, he is the guy I’m gonna beat!”

Problem was, no suitable car was available, and Ward put Lime Rock out of his mind. “Then Economaki called again: ‘Rodger, there’s this midget…’ I said, ‘Obviously, you have to be kidding – I’m not going to to Lime Rock in a midget, and embarrass myself’. He said, ‘Well, a midget might not do too bad up there’. I said, ‘Chris, give me a break…’

“Anyway,. the car owner called me, and he’s a clever guy, right? He says, ‘Rodger, you can’t imagine how honoured we’d be to have a .great driver like you…’ How’re you gonna tell that guy no? So I called the promoter, and made him double my deal, thinking, ‘Well, if I’m gonna be embarrassed, I’m gonna get paid for it!’ “

When he got to Lime Rock, Ward found this a very superior midget, and in practice found himself backing off for the others at the entry to corners.

“The premier driver in this race was George Constantine, who had a factory Aston Martin. In qualifying, he broke the track record and of course the applause was unbelievable. I was next out I broke his track record by half a second, and you could hear a pin drop on the grass…” This was emphatically a ‘sportscar’ crowd.

“They ran the race in three heats, and in the first I had too low a gear in – I could pass Constantine almost any place, but down the long straightaway he’d smoke me off again. Well, we raised the gear before the second heat, and from then on it wasn’t even a contest. We won the race, kind of going away.”

And where was Fitch? “Well, I only lapped him three times and each time I went by, I saluted him, of course. As I was getting the trophy, his car owner walked by. I said, ‘Pardon me, sir, but next time you need a real race driver, let me know – I’ll introduce you to somebody…’

Rodger’s car was a standard midget, with 1.8-litre, four-cylinder, Offenhauser engine. How many gears? “One! That’s. as all you had in those things. It had drum brakes, too, but in a midget you didn’t use the brakes that much – you just threw it sideways into the turns.”

Flushed with his success at Lime Rock, Ward decided to chance running a midget at Sebring. “It belonged to Bob Wilke, for whom I was driving at Indianapolis. And we did some work on this car; we actually put a clutch in it, and a two-speed diff, together with a two-speed gearbox, so it was like we had four speeds. To meet the F1 rules, we also had to run on gasoline, which was not that great for an Offy engine.”

The bare facts are that Rodger qualified 19th, and last, for his one and only Grand Prix, and retired after 21 laps, clutch done. For all that, though, he remembers it with pleasure.

“We had a lot of fun down there. I was getting up to 140mph on the straightaways, which was quite something in one of those midgets. I wasn’t really surprised by how quickly the Formula One cars went. I knew they were great cars and it was absolutely not the same as racing against George Constantine!”

“What I remember most about Sebring was meeting Jack Brabham. He became World Champion at that race, and we were to become close friends. In fact, I told him he should take that Cooper to Indianapolis, and a couple of years later he did. And that, of course, was the beginning of the end for the roadster…”