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Rodger Ward Jr.
Rodger was born to a winner, but Rodger Ward Jr. has succeeded in his own way.
The man whom he’s named after won the Indianapolis 500 in 1959 and ‘62. During his 15-year 500 career, Rodger Ward also had six top-five finishes and seven in the top 10.
Junior was 17 the first time his father won the big race.
“It was a highlight,” Rodger Ward Jr. said. “(My brother and I) thought we were so cool.”
Looking back, Ward says being the son of an Indianapolis 500 champion afforded him the opportunity to meet many famous people. He talked football with Johnny Unitas and had dinner with Apollo astronauts. People like Roger Penske and Tony George could pick him out in a crowd.
But that stature also helped fuel his already self-destructive irresponsibility.
“I was way too impressed with myself for not having accomplished anything,” Ward said of his youth. “‘What did you do?’ Well, I was his son. That doesn’t cut much grass.”
That mindset partly explains why Ward didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps.
“My racing career is so limited that you had to read the small print,” he said.
Ward was a motorcross champion in his native Southern California and did a little Go Kart racing here. But he was never willing to pay his dues to be a race car driver.
“I wasn’t truly focused and responsible enough — when I was at the age to develop the talent — to do it,” Ward said. “People with the attention span of a gnat don’t belong in a race car.”
He was owner of a tire store in SoCal with his father when a friend offered him a job selling printed circuit boards. Ward ameliorated that into his own business as an electronics distributor. He moved that here in 1990.
“When I first moved to Indiana, I’m going up (State Road) 136 and a couple kids are crossing the road,” Ward said. “One of them is carrying a gas can. He sets it down, pulls a candy bar out of his pocket and starts splitting it with whomever he was with, picked up the gas can, and started going again. We had to slow down and almost stop to avoid hitting them. There were two or three cars that had to do that. Nobody honked and yelled and screamed.
“Right away I realized there was something different about here than there. I’m much impressed. I really like Indiana.”
But it’s the church, of all things you’d expect with this guy, that Ward considers his passion. About 10 years ago, the district superintendent of the Methodist Church called asking him to be a pastor.
“I’m pretty crusty, so it didn’t really occur to me that that call would ever come,” Ward said. “People always talk about ‘The Calling.’ I said I’d do it. Next thing you know they send you to four weekends of school, pat you on the butt, and out you go.”
Ward now leads the Methodist churches at Mace and New Ross in Montgomery County. The Calling, he’s found, is equally fun and challenging. But most of all, it’s rewarding.
Sure, Ward’s met many famous people. But he’s become comparably enamored with the woman of modest means, with four young children, who recently finished school to become a registered nurse. And with the 90-year-old man who still sleeps in the room he was born in. And with the four generations in one family that gather every year at the 4-H fair.
“Who’s the richest man in the place? The guy watching all this happen,” Ward said. “Those are values you don’t learn to appreciate in Southern California without someone browbeating you. Those are the values I really like about Indiana.”
As much as Ward is removed from his past, he’s still a regular at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Up until three years ago, he had a radio program on WKLU called “Auto Sport Radio.” He still goes to the race every year too. Unlike before, though, he doesn’t have a favorite in the field.
“I just want to see a good car race,” he said.
And even though Ward never followed his father into the winner’s circle, or even onto the track, he has no regrets.
“Will Rogers said you find a job you like, you’ll never work another day in your life,” Ward said. “That’s me. I’ve never had a job I didn’t like.”