Californian had been oldest living winner

Updated: July 5, 2004, 8:11 PM ET
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rodger Ward died Monday at a hospice in Anaheim, Calif., Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials said.

At 83, Ward was the oldest living winner of the race. He won in 1959 and 1962, during a six-year span in which he finished no worse than fourth.

Ward was second to A.J. Foyt in 1964, failed to qualify in 1965 and drove for the 15th and final time in 1966, finishing 15th. The next night, at the Victory Banquet, Ward announced his retirement at 45.

"I felt like it was time," he later recalled. "Some drivers go past their time."

Ward was born Jan. 10, 1921, in Beloit, Kan., and moved with his family to Los Angeles as a child. When he was 14, he built a Ford hot rod with parts from his father's junkyard business and began drag racing.

Ward, a fighter and bomber pilot in World War II, returned to Southern California after the war and began racing midgets. He passed his rookie test at Indianapolis in 1951 and finished 27th.

He considered quitting racing four years later, however, when his front axle snapped, triggering a crash that killed his close friend and two-time defending Indy 500 champion Bill Vukovich.

"I don't know that I could really explain to you how badly I felt," Ward said. "To me, it was an absolute disaster."

Vukovich's family persuaded Ward to continue racing.

During his career, Ward won 26 champ-car races and two U.S. Auto Club titles. His final victory was April 24, 1966, in Trenton, N.J.

"I was pretty famous in my own territory, but when I came to Indianapolis, and the first time I ran here, I wasn't known as a driver from California. I was an Indy driver," he said in a 1999 interview with the speedway. "Indy makes the race driver. You become famous when you come here. I don't care where else you race in the world."

With Ward's death, the oldest living Indy winner is Jim Rathmann, 75, who won the race in 1960.

Surviving are Ward's wife, Sherrie; sons, Rodger Jr., David and Rick; and daughter, Robin.

The speedway said services were pending.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press