Farewell to Rodger Ward
We paid our last respects to Rodger Ward on July 11, 2004, at the San Diego Automotive Museum, in famed Balboa Park. Over 300 people showed up to honor this great man and pay tribute to his life and to his racing accomplishments. Rodger would have been pleased to know that so many cared about him, but he was more than a successful car racer and 2 time Indy 500 winner. He was literally the hub of any gathering around which the other racers and auto racing community and fans congregated. Sherrie Ward, Rodger's wife, could only guess how many would attend the memorial service in the museum that Rodger had lavished so much time and love on. Packed from one end to the other, the building was packed with his family, friends and fans.
Born in Beloit, Kansas, on January 10, 1921, and raised in the Highland Park area near Pasadena, Rodger's father operated a wrecking yard, which was a highly prized asset for young hot rodders during the Depression years. He was looked up to by younger teens even in his youth, and built his own hot rod at 14, which though unusual by today's standards, was somewhat common for youth in those hard times. Rodger left high school after his junior year, and liked to say that he did a lot of dragracing. Since drag racing was done illegally on the streets at that time, it earned him a reputation as a tough kid, which only endeared him to more of his peers. He entered the Army Air Corp during WWII as a pilot, often reminiscing with other auto racers, like Ralph Foster, about the planes that they flew and the experiences they had. Rodger, always spelled with a D in his name, flew P- 38's and B-17 Bombers, and was assigned as an instructor in the service. After the war had ended, his commanding officer gave him a choice of ending his weekend car racing, or be discharged from the Army. For Rodger, who loved flying, that was a difficult decision, but one that could lead to only one choice.
Rodger raced anything and everything after the war years. Everyone did at that time. There wasn't much money in auto racing in those years, but a hot young driver with a lead foot and nerves of cold steel and an assassins heart could win some races, make more money than the average Joe, and garner all the attention of the pretty young ladies in the crowd. He did quite well, but hit his stride when he reached the Indy 500. Then, in a period of less than a decade he blazed across the brickyard as very few have ever done.
He won in 1959, and again in 1962, giving credit to lady luck that the '62 race fell into his lap when Parnelli Jones had car trouble. But Rodger was never far from the lead. In a five year span, his worst finish was 4th. Danny Oakes, the great Midget driver, always used to compare car racers to Ward. In Danny's eyes, you raced for the prize money, not the glory. The object was to bring the car home, unhurt, and with as much purse money as possible. Ward was what they called a money driver. He brought the car home and the owner and crew shared in the success that he had on the track. He always told me that it takes skill, brains, talent and luck to bring that car back. Rodger thought Parnelli was the greatest driver he ever faced, but he often said "he made A.J. Foyt famous," by the narrow losses that he had against Foyt.
Not all of Rodger's life was filled with triumph. He had his share of run- ins with authority when he was young, though nothing serious. An accident at a race in the Midwest cost Clay Smith his life and sent Rodger into a depression that he had never felt before, but the Smith family urged Ward to go on and continue to race. Their understanding, forgiveness and compassion rescued Rodger at one of the worst times in his life. Rodger spoke of the fact that he was married 6 times, and that some of the marriages didn't work out, but not once did he malign or belittle any of his wives or the situations that caused him so much stress in his family life. It also helped him that he had a true and faithful wife in Sherrie Ward at the end of his life, who kept the family together and treated all of Rodger's family with love and caring.
Charles Rodger Ward, or Junior to all the rest of us, officiated at his father's memorial service. As a retired Methodist Minister, Junior called for Amens as he honored his father, and got them from family and friends in the audience. Donald Davidson, from the IRL, gave a long history of the man, and kept asking if he should stop, but we yelled out to him to keep going, and the throng relished each fact about this great man.
Davidson recounted Rodger's years at Indy, and where he lived, worked and played. He told us about the time that Rodger just barely made it to the track when a tow truck operator noticed him stuck in traffic. Leaving his wife behind to find her own way, Rodger took the proffered ride and made it to the race on time. Rodger had a storied life and took on many kinds of racing opportunities. He brought a roadster to the road-racing course at Lime Rock and beat the great John Fitch and others, telling the media that he had to yell at Fitch to stop blocking the road. The road racers retaliated by this upstart's victory by awarding Rodger the most nondescript plaque possible. Rodger cherished that unpretentious plaque more than anything else that he ever won. Mel Larson was the next speaker and told us how Rodger helped to create the Silver State Road race in Nevada, operate an oval track in Wisconsin and race in all classes of auto racing. Rodger raced sprint cars, midgets, stock, road races and other categories. He put on vintage racing events. He won the USAC Stock Car Championship in 1951. Rodger was known as the dealmaker and if a racing project was underway, he had a hand in it. Dapper and well dressed, Rodger took special pride in his natty attire. He was a big tipper and a generous man. He was quick to offer advice in a way that no one could take offense at, and everyone accepted. He was a gentleman, a knight gallant among racers, and he set his standards high.
Among those at the service were Rodger's family, nieces, nephews, children, in-laws and his ever-faithful wife Sherrie. I spoke to Dick (AKA Dick Webb) and Faye McClung, J.C. Agajanian, Jr and his lovely wife Francine, Ron Henderson (Lady Dragon fame), Albert Wong, Dale Crossno, Ken Hillberg, Ray Alcaraz, Art Evans, Bobbie Colgrove from AARWBA, Doug Kruse, and Bob Estes. Rug Cunningham bought 200 copies of Art Evan's excellent book, The Fabulous 50's, on famous road coarse racers, including Rodger, and gave them out to the people in the audience. Also present were Ed O'Hara and his wife, Maria-Elena, and their family, Fran Muncey, John and Ginnie Dixon, Jim Burton, Dick Guldstrand, Jim and Steve Logan, and Jim Weaver. Casey Kuhl, chief starter at Barona Speedway represented the younger crowd of racers. The San Diego Automotive Museum was represented by many of their members, including Art Bishop and Bill O'Hearn. Tony Solarzano came from the L.A. Times, and the Colonel John Hogan and I represented the drag racers. The following couldn't make it but sent in letters praising their friend and fallen colleague: Hila Sweet, Parnelli Jones, Bobby Unser, Sir Jack Brabham, and Rodger's old road racing foe and great friend and tormentee, John Fitch. Shav Glick, Dick Mittman and Damian Dottore, among others, wrote glowing tributes to Ward.
A special Memorial Service will be held by the IRL at the next Indy 500, in May of 2005.
They plan to go all out, according to Dick Mittman, PR Director. Be sure to keep in touch with the track and with Gone Racin' for news of this event. Contributions in Rodger's name can be made to the San Diego Automotive Museum, 2080 Pan American Plaza, #12, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92101.
By: Richard N. Parks