The best upset within the historical past of street racing in America got here on July 25, 1959 at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. It was on that day that Rodger Ward drove a direct drive, hand brake, single pace, midget race automotive to a win towards the best assemblage of driving expertise and equipment ever seen to that time on a US street course. Like all nice underdog success tales, a number of components performed a hand in the long run outcome, however the accomplishment was large enough to garner a full function in Sports activities Illustrated and to shake the street racing contingent in America to their core.
Earlier than we get to the race we’ll must study just a little about a few of the actors on this story. The person enjoying the lead was Rodger Ward, a gifted race driver and as large a reputation as one would discover in American pace in the course of the 1950’s and 1960’s. He was a man who earned a popularity for dwelling his life at 100mph on the race monitor and 150mph off of it. He drank and partied arduous. Ward was like a number of guys who made it via WWII and changed their adrenaline pictures from flying (in Ward’s case P-38 fighters) with racing automobiles at house. That way of life which might have in all probability precluded his rise to success and fame had it continued, abruptly modified after the 1955 Indy 500 the place Invoice Vukovitch was killed. Ward’s automotive had damaged an axle, swerved, and brought about Vukovitch to swerve, launching his off the race monitor and the ensuing affect killed him. Ward adopted a cleaner extra wholesome way of life and went on to win many races, later performing as each a spokes particular person and function mannequin for teenagers eager to be race automotive drivers. He received the Indy 500 twice, in 1959 and 1962, dominated a whole bunch of midget races, and even ran a pair Formulation One races. He nonetheless holds the 2 greatest ending streaks in Indy historical past. From 1960 to 1964 he completed no worse than third. To say that 1959 was a superb 12 months for Ward could be an understatement.
The race itself is one other character to look at. Because the inception of the SCCA, it has been about “membership” racing which is a euphemism for “no purse cash”. Whereas this makes complete sense for the novice ranks, racers with heavy iron able to working on a “skilled” stage had been itching for an occasion the place they might really win one thing to cowl the prices of working their costly automobiles. USAC, which was shaped in 1956 appeared and reply to their prayers as they began paying purse cash at races and throwing some promotional aptitude in as properly. After they introduced the race at Lime Rock, curiosity was excessive amongst racing followers and the racers themselves. Not due to the purse however relatively the format.
They known as it Formulation Libre and it had existed earlier than this race was run however by no means on this scope. Formulation Libre is a flowery pants means of utilizing the previous drag racing axiom, “run watcha brung”. The principles had been broad open. Actually something may compete. The introduced purse was $5,000, making this one of many richest street races in American historical past. Accordingly, a number of attention-grabbing automobiles and other people signed on to run. Fangio’s former F1 automotive was entered, Aston Martin manufacturing unit racers had been entered, Porsches and a superb ol’ Offy powered midget…really 4.
Outdoors of Ward’s journey, Tony Bettenhausen, Duane Carter, Brett Brooks, and Russ Klar confirmed up with midgets to wage conflict towards the military of overseas street racing rivals. We are able to solely imaging the derision that these guys confronted when their wee little racers rolled into the tweed jacketed pits of Lime Rock on that weekend in 1959. By the top of the competition these tweed jackets could be absorbing the alligator tears of haughty followers and rivals.
The midget was actually not “Plan A” for Ward at Lime Rock. In spite of everything, when any individual received the Indy 500 within the late 1950’s they had been world class stuff. With that win, we’re certain that Ward thought he’s be in one of many European exotics come race day. In accordance with a narrative by the legendary Chris Economaki, Ward was initially going to drive a full-on race Alfa-Romeo that had been shipped over from Europe. Economaki arrange a gathering between the automotive proprietor, a NY auto vendor magnate named Charlie Kreisler and Ward. On his personal dime, Ward flew out from California and attended the assembly which was interrupted by a cellphone name. The decision got here from US racing legend John Fitch. He known as to just accept Kriesler’s provide to drive the automotive. Whoops.
Ward was offended having wasted his time however Economaki saved his considering cap on and finally prompt Ward contact midget proprietor Ken Brenn. Brenn agreed to the scheme with the stipulation being that Ward would drive the automotive on the race. Ward, who wished in simply to beat up on Fitch at this level, accepted the provide and the wheels had been set in movement for a grand spectacle at Lime Rock.
Which means no disrespect to the precise car or breed, Ward’s midget was a farm implement as in comparison with the choices that it was surrounded by. It had no transmission, a fast change rear finish (which will likely be important to the story), a beam entrance axle, rear-only brakes operated by a hand lever situated exterior of the automotive on the best aspect, a 91-cubic inch Offy 4 banger, and a transverse “suicide” model entrance spring. All that being stated, it was gentle as a feather, difficult as a hammer, and powered by that killer little alky-drinkin’ Offy. The automobiles had been additionally constructed to take a beating as their major theaters of motion had been flat filth programs at county and state truthful grounds throughout the nation. Realizing that, builders like Kurtis went to nice lengths to assemble automobiles that might actually take a pounding and keep collectively for the following race.
In accordance with our analysis, the precise automotive that Ward was driving was in-built 1946 and had competed in additional than 1,000 races earlier than rolling via the gate at Lime Rock hooked to the again of Ken Brenn’s Cadillac (which had a spare Offy mill within the trunk!).
Lime Rock is a 1.5-mile street course nestled into the leafy countryside of Connecticut. The monitor opened within the late 1950’s and by the way John Fitch, the man who stole Ward’s journey, labored as the primary basic supervisor of the place. We’ve spent greater than a pair weekends there and have really traversed it in anger a time or two. It’s compact, technical, and stuffed with some drastically named sections. “Huge Bend”, the “No Title Straight”, “The Uphill”, and “West Bend” are all names you’ll be able to throw at a street racer price his salt and instantly he’ll know the place you’re.
If there was any street course within the nation had been Ward’s midget may do the inconceivable it was right here at Lime Rock. As a result of the automotive had no transmission, it was most susceptible on the straights. Lime Rock’s are comparatively brief and the midget, being shockingly agile, may make sufficient room for itself within the bends that the straights, whereas nail-biting, weren’t a deal breaker. (Subsequent midget street racing makes an attempt at locations like Sebring and Watkins Glenn weren’t profitable as a result of the little automobiles obtained blown off on lengthy straights).
The required components for achievement had been all in place. They had been being completely underestimated, the monitor suited their automotive, one of many nice wheel males on the earth was to drive the automotive and to high it off, he had a degree to show and John Fitch to embarrass.
Race day was divided into the next components: Qualifying, 20-lap warmth race one, 20-lap warmth race two, and 60-lap finale. Issues obtained attention-grabbing in a rush for Ward who went out in qualifying and set a brand new single lap course file working one minute and 4 seconds across the monitor at a mean pace of 83.5mph. In accordance with the report of Joseph Raff, printed by Sports activities Illustrated on August 3, 1959, the automotive was working a 4.60:1 gear and turning 7,300RPM at peak across the course.
USAC, of their knowledge, selected to start out the races not with the normal “LeMans” model begin the place drivers ran to their non-running automobiles, however with rolling begins because of the midget’s must be push began.
The primary twenty lap warmth noticed Ward begin on the pole place however shortly he fell behind the 4.2L DBR-1 (manufacturing unit racer) Aston Martin of frequent Lime Rock winner George Constantine. Making up time within the corners and dropping it on the straights, Ward battled to a second place end, one second behind the Aston Martin, however fractions of a second forward of a race-winning Maserati Formulation One automotive pushed by Chuck Daigh.
We instructed you to recollect the half concerning the fast change rear and right here’s why. Ward pulled in and requested Brenn to swap in a taller 4.48:1 gear. In lower than 20 minutes and in entrance of an enormous crowd of street racing individuals who had by no means seen, a lot much less heard of a “fast change” rear finish, the crew obtained their taller gear put in and Ward introduced the thunder within the second warmth.
From the inexperienced flag drop Ward was in entrance. He had a 10 automotive size lead by the top of the primary lap and in line with Raff’s report, except for a fast off-track journey, Ward was in complete command for the center warmth.
Onto the large daddy 60-lapper. The group was on its toes from the get-go. Issues didn’t begin properly for our hero and it seemed all of the world just like the midget would simply be placing a scare into the sporty automotive folks, not a intestine punch. By the 20th lap Ward was holding on to a tenuous lead after which about 40 laps in, Chuck Daigh within the Maserati F1 machine handed Ward and that that, till lap 48. Ward hung powerful earlier than that as a result of he knew the extra gasoline the automotive burned the lighter and faster it could get. Beginning off at simply 900lbs, just a little weight drop went a good distance.
Ward dropped the hammer on lap 48 and handed Daigh for the lead, which he by no means gave up. As they are saying, the gang went wild. An incredible quote from the SI story got here from a race official who muttered the phrases, “We would as properly scrap all of them,” because the overseas contingent rolled again into the paddock with their tails between their legs.
Chris Economaki claims that Ward as soon as instructed him that the win at Lime Rock was really a prouder second for him than profitable the Indy 500 twice. We are able to see why. It actually was astounding and one thing that no one, maybe even Ward anticipated.
When phrase obtained round about this triumph, midgets began displaying up extra ceaselessly at street racing occasions. They by no means did very properly. The no transmission factor actually doesn’t assistance on a street course. Lime Rock was the right venue as a result of Ward may rev the automotive to eight,000rpm for brief bursts to maintain his place or stretch it just a little. Sadly, the remainder of the street programs in America appear to function longer straights than Lime Rock’s brief chutes. Too brief a gear would imply a gradual straight-away automotive whereas too tall a gear would depart a sluggish automotive that merely couldn’t pull arduous sufficient out of a nook.
We want we may make a time machine and place ourselves within the Aston Martin and Maserati factories when the information obtained again to them. Granted, they in all probability had no clue as to what a midget was, and the groups, in the event that they knew what was good for them, actually performed the little automobiles up.
Ward received the day, beat Fitch, and confirmed the sports activities automotive of us that their disrespect for the world of oval racing was unwarranted. These guys can drive fairly rattling properly.
That’s the story of an Offy powered midget kicking all ass on a July weekend in 1959 at Lime Rock Park. It’s really one for the ages and cemented Rodger Ward into racing lore. We expect that is probably the most important upset ever due to a pair components. The setting the place the race was held, the usage of utterly unproven gear, and the truth that the vanquished automobiles and drivers had been all of world class high quality.