Rodger and I were very good friends. He was a tremendous race driver who won the Indianapolis 500 twice, and we spent a lot of time traveling together and socializing. Ward’s background was in midget racing, and he never lost his love for those cars. Never. Ward also liked trying different things, and in 1959 he actually drove a midget at the first U.S. Grand Prix at Sebring. He didn’t do very well, primarily because the other cars could pull away from him on the straightaway.
Although a lot of people don’t know this, road racing appealed to Rodger. He was somewhat fascinated with the idea. He had raced in a couple of events with shit-box sports cars, so he had just enough experience that he was intrigued.
There was a Formula Libre event coming up at Connecticut ’s Lime Rock Park , and a guy from New York named Charlie Kriesler was entering a car. Charlie was a very well-known automobile dealer in New York who did his own television commercials, which he always wrapped up with his signature line, “Thanks a lot, Charlie Kriesler.” Everyone knew Charlie.
He often had lunch at Le Chanteclair, the wonderful French restaurant at 18 East 49th Street in New York. Everyone in racing who visited New York went to Le Chanteclair, where Rene Dreyfus—who was a racing great in Europe decades earlier—was the gracious host. I’m having lunch there one day and Charlie is telling me about this Disco Volante Alfa-Romeo he was entering in the Lime Rock race. I asked him who was driving the car, and he said he didn’t know yet.
“You know who would like to drive that car? Rodger Ward. He’s won Indianapolis twice.”
Charlie’s eyes brightened. “Really!” he said. “Have him get in touch with me.”
I called Ward and told him of the opportunity. We got Charlie on the phone and the three of us agreed to have lunch together at Le Chanteclair and they could finalize the arrangements. Rodger flies from Los Angeles and we sit down at the table with Charlie. We’re discussing the arrangements when Rene Dreyfus approaches the table. “Pardon me, Mr. Kriesler, you have a phone call.”
Charlie excused himself and left the table, while Ward and I chatted. Charlie comes back to the table and says, “Well, Rodger, that was John Fitch, and he’s going to be driving the car at Lime Rock.” Ward was pissed. He had spent all that money and time flying to New York only to discover the car is no longer available.
Some time passes and another Formula Libre race is upcoming at Lime Rock. I began thinking about that race, and something occurred to me: With the configuration of Lime Rock, a good midget should be able to get around there really well if equipped with a two-speed gearbox to make up some time on the straightaway.
I spoke with Ken Brenn, who owned a superb, well-maintained Kurtis-Kraft Offy midget. “How about entering your midget in the Formula Libre race at Lime Rock?” Ken was intrigued, and I said, “You know who would like to drive it? Rodger Ward.”
“You get Rodger Ward, and I’ll take the car up there,” Ken said, a gleam in his eye. I called Rodger, and he contacted Kenny and worked out the details. Finally, Ward was going to race at Lime Rock.
The Formula Libre concept was very simple: almost anything goes. You could bring any kind of racing car you wanted, with no rules regarding engine displacement, wheelbase, anything. It had to be a registered race car from some series, but beyond that there were no other restrictions. It inspired a turnout that was incredible. There were stock cars, sports cars, midgets, Formula cars, modifieds, supermodifieds, everything; truly a remarkable lineup of equipment.
This was July 25, 1959, and Ward and I are at the track waiting on Ken to arrive. He shows up towing the midget on an open trailer behind his Cadillac, and the rear bumper of the tow car is nearly dragging the ground. Ward looks at that Cadillac and turns to me, saying, “What in the world is in the back of that car?”
Ken opens the trunk and there is a spare Offenhauser engine. Ward took one look at that and shook his head, saying, “You know, in all the years I’ve been racing, this is the first car owner that came to the track with a spare engine. I’m impressed.”
Practice is soon underway, and Duane Carter—who was also entered in another midget—came walking over. He says to Ward, “Rodger, my car still isn’t here, and I’d like to get some practice laps in. Do you think your car owner would let me take a few laps in your car?” So Carter gets in the Brenn car and takes a few laps. He rolls back into the pits, and the front brake linings are literally crumbling out of the drums. He had overdone the brakes and literally burned them up. Keep in mind, this is two hours before race time.
Brenn quickly pulled the front wheels and drums. He removed the brake shoes, jumped in his Cadillac, and drove to nearby Lakeville to a gas station where they hurriedly relined the shoes. He gets back with just enough time to reassemble the brakes and drums and rolls Ward to the starting grid.
As it turns out, it was a helluva race. They held two 20-lap heats, with a 60-lap finale. Ward won the pole, but George Constantine, in a DBR-1 Aston Martin sports car, took the lead at the start and went on to win the first heat, with Ward right behind. Ward took the second heat, followed by Constantine .
Chuck Daigh was there, driving a Maserati Formula One car. Ward was following Daigh, right on his bumper. There is a right-hand turn that leads to a downhill, connected to the front straightaway, and every time they came down to that right-hand turn Daigh would drop his left-side wheels off the track and throw shit all over Ward. Ward finally passed him, then chased down Constantine in his Aston Martin and went on to win the race.
Later, Ward told me, “I’ve won Indy twice, but my finest memory was winning at Lime Rock.”
As you might imagine, the sports car people were thunderstruck that a midget could beat their cars. They could not believe it. It really was a sensational day at the track. Many sports car people have long denigrated oval racing. “That’s not really racing…racing is downshifting and turning left and turning right and braking and everything…” And here comes this 11-year-old midget that doesn’t even have a transmission, and it blows everybody off.
Chuck Daigh’s Maserati had won a Formula One race. Constantine ’s Aston Martin DBR-1 had won at Le Mans . There were MGs and specials and other cars. There were a couple of other midgets, but they didn’t do all that well. But Ward had an outstanding day, and I think racing had an outstanding day, as well.
That night, my friend John Cooper was in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, for a midget race. Word soon began to circulate of Ward’s victory at Lime Rock, and the PA announcer informed the crowd that “Rodger Ward has beaten the sporty-car people with a midget at Lime Rock Park,” and the place just rocked as the people roared their approval.
Ward did not soon forget the aborted opportunity to drive Charlie Kriesler’s car. He was forever pissed at John Fitch. Many years later Ward was asked in an interview about his road-racing experiences, and he said, “Well, way back in 1959 I was invited to New York City to talk about driving an Alfa-Romeo in a Formula Libre race, but John Fitch got the ride. John Fitch came to Indianapolis that year, and unfortunately he didn’t go fast enough to get the engine warm.”