Epic Win: How A Lowly Midget Race Car Beat The Best Sports Cars In The World At A Wild Race In 1959

Epic Win: How A Lowly Midget Race Car Beat The Best Sports Cars In The World At A Wild Race In 1959

The greatest upset in the history of road racing in America came 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 speed, midget race car to a win against the greatest assemblage of driving talent and machinery ever seen to that point on a  US road course. Like all great underdog success stories, several factors played a hand in the end result, but the accomplishment was big enough to garner a full feature in Sports Illustrated and to shake the road racing contingent in America to their core.

Before we get to the race we’ll need to learn a little about some of the actors in this story. The man playing the lead was Rodger Ward, a talented race driver and as big a name as one would find in American speed during the 1950’s and 1960’s. He was a guy who earned a reputation for living his life at 100mph on the race track and 150mph off of it. He drank and partied hard. Ward was like lots of guys who made it through WWII and replaced their adrenaline shots from flying (in Ward’s case P-38 fighters) with racing cars at home. That lifestyle which would have probably precluded his rise to success and fame had it continued, abruptly changed after the 1955 Indy 500 where Bill Vukovitch was killed. Ward’s car had broken an axle, swerved, and caused Vukovitch to swerve, launching his off the race track and the resulting impact killed him. Ward adopted a cleaner more healthy lifestyle and went on to win many races, later acting as both a spokes person and role model for kids wanting to be race car drivers. He won the Indy 500 twice, in 1959 and 1962, dominated hundreds of midget races, and even ran a couple Formula One races. He still holds the two best finishing streaks in Indy history. From 1960 to 1964 he finished no worse than third. To say that 1959 was a good year for Ward would be an understatement.

The race itself is another character to examine. Since the inception of the SCCA, it has been about “club” racing which is a euphemism for “no purse money”. While this makes total sense for the amateur ranks, racers with heavy iron capable of running on a “professional” level were itching for an event where they could actually win something to cover the costs of operating their expensive cars. USAC, which was formed in 1956 seemed and answer to their prayers as they started paying purse money at  races and throwing some promotional flair in as well. When they announced the race at Lime Rock, interest was high among racing fans and the racers themselves. Not because of the purse but rather the format.

They called it Formula Libre and it had existed before this race was run but never in this scope. Formula Libre is a fancy pants way of using the old drag racing axiom, “run watcha brung”. The rules were wide open. Literally anything could compete. The announced purse was $5,000, making this one of the richest road races in American history. Accordingly, lots of interesting cars and people signed on to run. Fangio’s former F1 car was entered, Aston Martin factory racers were entered, Porsches and a good ol’ Offy powered midget…actually four.

Outside of Ward’s ride, Tony Bettenhausen, Duane Carter, Brett Brooks, and Russ Klar showed up with midgets to wage war against the army of foreign road racing competitors. We can only imaging the derision that these guys faced when their wee little racers rolled into the tweed jacketed pits of Lime Rock on that weekend in 1959. By the end of the contest those tweed jackets would be absorbing the alligator tears of haughty fans and competitors.

The midget was certainly not “Plan A” for Ward at Lime Rock. After all, when somebody won the Indy 500 in the late 1950’s they were world class stuff. With that win, we’re sure that Ward thought he’s be in one of the European exotics come race day. According to a story 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 set up a meeting between the car owner, a NY auto dealer magnate named Charlie Kreisler and Ward. On his own dime, Ward flew out from California and attended the meeting which was interrupted by a phone call. The call came from US racing legend John Fitch. He called to accept Kriesler’s offer to drive the car. Whoops.

Ward was angry having wasted his time but Economaki kept his thinking cap on and eventually suggested Ward contact midget owner Ken Brenn. Brenn agreed to the scheme with the stipulation being that Ward would drive the car at the race. Ward, who wanted in just to beat up on Fitch at this point, accepted the offer and the wheels were set in motion for a grand spectacle at Lime Rock.

Meaning no disrespect to the specific vehicle or breed, Ward’s midget was a farm implement as compared to the offerings that it was surrounded by. It had no transmission, a quick change rear end (which will be vital to the story), a beam front axle, rear-only brakes operated by a hand lever located outside of the car on the right side, a 91-cubic inch Offy four banger, and a transverse “suicide” style front spring. All that being said, it was light as a feather, complicated as a hammer, and powered by that killer little alky-drinkin’ Offy. The cars were also built to take a beating as their primary theaters of action were flat dirt courses at county and state fair grounds across the country. Knowing that, builders like Kurtis went to great lengths to construct cars that could really take a pounding and stay together for the next race.

According to our research, the actual car that Ward was driving was built in 1946 and had competed in more than 1,000 races before rolling through the gate at Lime Rock hooked to the back of Ken Brenn’s Cadillac (which had a spare Offy mill in the trunk!).

Lime Rock is a 1.5-mile road course nestled into the leafy countryside of Connecticut. The track opened in the late 1950’s and incidentally John Fitch, the guy who stole Ward’s ride, worked as the first general manager of the place. We’ve spent more than a couple weekends there and have actually traversed it in anger a time or two. It is compact, technical, and filled with some greatly named sections. “Big Bend”, the “No Name Straight”, “The Uphill”, and “West Bend” are all names you can throw at a road racer worth his salt and immediately he’ll know where you are.

If there was any road course in the country were Ward’s midget could do the impossible it was here at Lime Rock. Because the car had no transmission, it was most vulnerable on the straights. Lime Rock’s are relatively short and the midget, being shockingly agile, could make enough room for itself in the bends that the straights, while nail-biting, were not a deal breaker. (Subsequent midget road racing attempts at places like Sebring and Watkins Glenn were not successful because the little cars got blown off on long straights).

The necessary elements for success were all in position. They were being totally underestimated, the track suited their car, one of the great wheel men in the world was to drive the car and to top it off, he had a point to prove and John Fitch to embarrass.

Race day was divided into the following parts: Qualifying, 20-lap heat race one, 20-lap heat race two, and 60-lap finale. Things got interesting in a hurry for Ward who went out in qualifying and set a new single lap course record running one minute and four seconds around the track at an average speed of 83.5mph. According to the report of Joseph Raff, published by Sports Illustrated on August 3, 1959, the car was running a 4.60:1 gear and turning 7,300RPM at peak around the course.

USAC, in their wisdom, chose to start the races not with the traditional “LeMans” style start where drivers ran to their non-running cars, but with rolling starts due to the midget’s need to be push started.

The first twenty lap heat saw Ward start at the pole position but quickly he fell behind the 4.2L DBR-1 (factory racer) Aston Martin of frequent Lime Rock winner George Constantine. Making up time in the corners and losing it on the straights, Ward battled to a second place finish, one second behind the Aston Martin, but fractions of a second ahead of a race-winning Maserati Formula One car driven by Chuck Daigh.

We told you to remember the part about the quick change rear and here’s why. Ward pulled in and asked Brenn to swap in a taller 4.48:1 gear. In less than 20 minutes and in front of a huge crowd of road racing people who had never seen, much less heard of a “quick change” rear end, the team got their taller gear installed and Ward brought the thunder in the second heat.

From the green flag drop Ward was in front. He had a 10 car length lead by the end of the first lap and according to Raff’s report, aside from a quick off-track trip, Ward was in total command for the middle heat.

Onto the big daddy 60-lapper. The crowd was on its feet from the get-go. Things didn’t start well for our hero and it looked all the world like the midget would just be putting a scare into the sporty car people, not a gut punch. By the 20th lap Ward was holding on to a tenuous lead and then about 40 laps in, Chuck Daigh in the Maserati F1 machine passed Ward and that looked to be that, until lap 48. Ward hung tough before that because he knew the more fuel the car burned the lighter and quicker it would get. Starting off at just 900lbs, a little weight drop went a long way.

Ward dropped the hammer on lap 48 and passed Daigh for the lead, which he never gave up. As they say, the crowd went wild. A great quote from the SI story came from a race official who muttered the words, “We might as well scrap them all,” as the foreign contingent rolled back into the paddock with their tails between their legs.

Chris Economaki claims that Ward once told him that the win at Lime Rock was actually a prouder moment for him than winning the Indy 500 twice. We can see why. It really was astounding and something that nobody, perhaps even Ward expected.

When word got around about this triumph, midgets started showing up more frequently at road racing events. They never did very well. The no transmission thing really doesn’t help on a road course. Lime Rock was the perfect venue because Ward could rev the car to 8,000rpm for short bursts to keep his position or stretch it a little. Unfortunately, the rest of the road courses in America seem to feature longer straights than Lime Rock’s short chutes. Too short a gear would mean a slow straight-away car while too tall a gear would leave a sluggish car that simply couldn’t pull hard enough out of a corner.

We wish we could make a time machine and place ourselves in the Aston Martin and Maserati factories when the news got back to them. Granted, they probably had no clue as to what a midget was, and the teams, if they knew what was good for them, really played the little cars up.

Ward won the day, beat Fitch, and showed the sports car folks that their disrespect for the world of oval racing was unwarranted. Those guys can drive pretty damn well.

That’s the story of an Offy powered midget kicking all ass on a July weekend in 1959 at Lime Rock Park. It is truly one for the ages and cemented Rodger Ward into racing lore. We think this is the most significant upset ever because of a couple factors. The environment where the race was held, the use of completely unproven equipment, and the fact that the vanquished cars and drivers were all of world class quality.


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2 thoughts on “Epic Win: How A Lowly Midget Race Car Beat The Best Sports Cars In The World At A Wild Race In 1959

  1. Gary D

    Unfortunately I am unable to access the link to the SI article. However, this would have been a great race to be in attendance!

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