Rodger Ward, a dominant race car driver, two-time Indianapolis 500 champion (1959, 1962) and two-tine USAC Championship Car champion (1958, 1962) is the subject of this 1964 color film, which features footage from the 1964 Indianapolis 500. Ward is shown in the opening scene explaining how his father owned an auto wrecking yard, giving him access to the parts he need to build his first car — a Model T “Tin Lizzy” in the mid-1930s when Rodger was only 13 years old. His father, Ralph, is shown at mark 00:40, explaining how he allowed his son access to any parts that were “junk” or unsaleable.
Admitting the only areas in which he excelled in high school were shop class and “girl chasing,” he was still a “big shot” in other arenas — such as hot rodding at midnight — as a race scene is played out. As the years passed, he grew from hot-rodding self-proclaimed juvenile delinquent to one of the foremost authorities on safe driving in the 1950s and 1960s race scene, and in 1963 literally wrote a book on the topic: “Rodger Ward’s Guide to Good Driving.”
Ward would visit the Legion Ascot Speedway in El Sereno, California, to watch time trials as a boy and occasionally try to sneak himself into a race. At the time his hero was Rex Mays, who is shown near mark 04:35, and he hoped to pattern himself after Mays. (Mays was killed in 1949 race at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in California.) Ward enlisted in Officer Training School and served in the US Army Air Corps during World War II, where he piloted a P-38 Lightning and also a B-17 Flying Fortress, later training other pilots in the bomber. He began racing midget cars in 1946 after he was discharged from the Army, and his skill quickly improved to the point where he captured a win at the 1948 San Diego Grand Prix. At mark 07:04, we see footage from a violent 1949 accident that injured Ward and landed him in the hospital for a month and out of racing for five months.
In an interview with veteran midget car, sprint car, and Indy driver Duke Nalon at mark 08:20, he recalls how those at the Indy scene had heard about Ward’s victories on the West Coast. Ward won the 1951 AAA Stock Car championship, which gave him an opportunity for a rookie test at the 1951 Indianapolis 500. He finished 34 laps before his car suffered a broken oil line. So began a long line of “spectacular failures” at the Brickyard. He finished 130 laps in the 1952 Indianapolis 500 before the oil pressure failed. His 1953 Indianapolis 500 ended after 170 laps, and his 1954 Indianapolis 500 ended after his car stalled on the backstretch of the 172nd lap. In 1955, he was involved in an accident at Indy that led to the death of two-time Indy 500 winner Bill Vukovich. At mark 12:10, a sullen Ward is shown sitting in the stands, as a voiceover remarks how he took a look at his public image, “and I didn’t like what I saw.” Undaunted, Ward completed all of the laps for the first time in 1956, finishing eighth.
In 1959, Ward joined the Leader Card Racers team with owner Bob Wilke and mechanic A. J. Watson; forming what was known as the “3 W’s”. Ward won his first Indianapolis 500. Ward battled Jim Rathmann for the lead in the 1960 Indianapolis 500. In one of the epic duels in Indy 500 history, Ward and Rathmann exchanged the lead 14 times before Ward slowed on lap 197 to nurse his frayed right front tire to the finish. The two drivers limped home in what is still regarded as one of the greatest duels for the win in Indianapolis 500 history. Ward took the lead at the 1962 Indianapolis 500 at lap 126 and led the rest of the race. He also won the season championship that year.
Mark 20:14 takes us to Indianapolis once again for the 1964 race, as a parade precedes the big event. Race footage shows the sights and sounds of the contest as Ward offers a narration. Mark 23:00 includes the sudden, fiery seven-car accident on Lap 2 that resulted in the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. Thick black smoke fills the track as cars are shown swerving around the conflagration and rescue crews rush to the accident. The accident stopped the race for only the second time, Ward says at mark 23:51. But after nearly two hours, “the show must go on. We’re going to have a restart.” In the end, he finished second, behind winner A.J Foyt. (In 1965 Ward failed to qualify by the slimmest of margins, but returned to Indy for a final time in 1966, after which he retired.)
Ward tells the camera, “Naturally, it was a tragic and unhappy day in many ways…The time I lost in those extra three pit stops probably cost me the race … but as the old Brooklyn Dodgers used to say, there’s always next year.”
This film is part of the Periscope Film LLC archive, one of the largest historic military, transportation, and aviation stock footage collections in the USA. Entirely film backed, this material is available for licensing in 24p HD and 2k. For more information visit http://www.PeriscopeFilm.com