TeamsLeader Cards Inc: 1959 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
Bob Wilke had a passion for motor racing. He would find another passionate soul and these two would combine to try and take on the best of the world. They would find a whole new world instead.
Roger Ward would be born in Kansas but would spend much of his early life in California. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Ward would be enthralled by the life in the air and would become a fighter pilot flying P-38 Lightning fighters during the war. Flying would be an early passion for Ward and he would end up as an instructor in B-17 Flying Fortresses.
While based in Texas, Ward would find himself near a dirt track. After being discharged from the military, Roger would try his hand on dirt. The first experience would be anything but special. However, within a couple of years he would be winning races and breaking records.
Following his winning a AAA Stock Car championship, Ward would show up in Indianapolis for a rookie test. He would pass the test and would earn a drive for L&B Bromme in the race driving a Bromme-Offenhauser. He would start his first Indy 500 from 25th in the field. He would last just 34 laps and would end up 27th in the final results, but Ward's racing career was now firmly underway.
Over the next seven years, Ward would struggle at Indy, starting the race no better than 10th and finishing no better than 8th. But, in 1959, things would drastically turn around for him when he came into association with Bob Wilke.
Bob Wilke would become famous through paper and this would lead to a passion for motorsports beginning with midgets before the start of the Second World War. While unknown, Wilke's efforts with his Leader Card team resulted in numerous victories and would lead to Wilke looking to greater, more advanced levels, of motor racing by the 1950s.
Wilke would end up testing himself and his new team in perhaps the biggest way possible. After making a name for himself and his Leader Card outfit in midgets, Wilke would look to the world stage in 1958. Hiring the talented Jim Rathmann to drive his Offenhauser-powered chassis designed and built by A.J. Watson, Wilke's outfit's first race would be none other than the Race of Two Worlds, or the 500 Miglia di Monza.
It would prove a fruitful first effort as Rathmann would win all three heats of the race to take the overall victory. Rathmann would beat Stirling Moss, Luigi Musso and the great Juan Manuel Fangio to take the win. The win had come as a result of the roadsters being much better equipped for the bumpy banking of the Monza oval than what the Formula One cars had been.
It would be an impressive first win for Leader Card, but it would also be a serious false impression that Roger Ward would bite hook, line and sinker.
Roger Ward had also taken part in the Race of Two Worlds in 1958. He struggled, but he fought, and this would lead to him joining Wilke's team for the upcoming season. Joining the Leader Card team meant the partnership of what would become known as the '3 W's', or the 'Flying W's'. It would be a rather successful partnership for sure.
The 1959 season, for Leader Card racing, would begin with the biggest race of the year. The team had existed in the years prior to the Second World War and had achieved a good deal of success in midget racing at that time. Then, following the end of the war, Leader Card would be absent until 1958 when Wilke came roaring back in a big way entering the Race of Two Worlds and coming away victorious. Now, in 1959, the team's very first race of the season would be none other than the Indianapolis 500.
The Indy 500 in 1959 would take place on the 30th of May and was the largest racing event of the year, especially for Leader Card and Roger Ward. At the time, the race still counted toward the Formula One World Championship, but very few, if any, of the participants ever really considered the fact.
Ward would be entered in the race piloting Watson's own Offenhauser-powered chassis. The Indy roadster sported a four-cylinder engine of 4.5-liters. Qualifying would commence and Ward's Watson would be one of the quickest cars around the 2.5 mile oval. Johnny Thomson would prove the quickest in his Lesovsky-Offenhauser. He would lap the circuit in 1:01.683 at an average of more than 145mph. Eddie Sachs would start next to him with Jim Rathmann completing the three-wide front row.
Ward's best effort in qualifying would be a 1:02.485. This average would put him on the second row of the grid in the 6th position out of the 33 starters. And, though he would not start from the front row of the grid, the length and demand of the race offered a great deal of hope heading into the race on the 30th.
A great deal of excitement surrounded the 43rd Indianapolis 500. It was widely believed a great battle would ensue between Ward and the others around him within the first couple of rows of the grid. The skies would be split between sunlight and clouds, the threat of rain very real.
Over 200,000 people would be on hand to witness the start of the 500 mile race. Everyone expected an exciting race, and, as the green flag was shown to the field, it would be quickly realized the crowd was going to get just what it had hoped for.
Heading around on the first lap of the race it would be Thomson leading the way by more than a few car lengths over a gaggle of cars that would include Ward in his Watson-Offy. Thomson would continue to carry on in the lead while Ward sat in 3rd place behind Dick Rathmann and just ahead of Jim Rathmann in 4th. This wouldn't last all that long, however, as Ward would move by Rathmann to take over 2nd place.
Enjoying his position with the Leader Card team, Ward would be fast around Indy gaining on Thomson through nearly every corner of the track until he would close up to within a car length or two within the early part of the race. Then, down the start/finish straight, Ward would get a run on Thomson and would end up going into the lead by the end of turn two. This would be followed by a speed by Sachs that would bring out a brief yellow. Though Ward would still be in front, Jim Rathmann would now be bunched right up behind Ward and would end up taking the lead soon afterward.
The battle for the lead would soon include Flaherty. Ward sat in 3rd place and a little ways back, but it would seem he is not running flat-out but is playing it conservatively to ensure he would need just three stops to cover the whole of the 200 laps. Another caution flag period would punch up the field and would enable pitstops to take place. Ward would still be among the front-runners, sitting in 2nd place, seemingly biding his time.
Ward would be no longer off the pace. Despite some more caution periods, Ward would still be in the lead with Rathmann the closest to him. Less than ten seconds would be the difference between the two heading into the last 40 laps of the race. It had been a battle between more than a few cars. Now, with the race coming down to its final laps, the battle had become a duel between just two men.
In the early part of his career, Ward was seen as erratic and prone to mistakes. Now, with the race heading into the final 20 laps, Ward would be demonstrating a maturity beyond his years as he would not only pick up his pace to record levels, but he would also gradually pull away from Rathmann displaying a cool and level head as he piloted his Watson roadster around Indy for the final few laps.
Ward had been among the fastest during the early going of the race, even when he had been holding back. Now, with nothing but the checkered flag ahead of him, he would be pushing hard turning record laps en route toward his largest victory. Running at an average speed of more than 140mph, Ward would be out in front and untouchable despite Rathmann's best efforts.
Appearing out of turn four for the final time, Ward would be all alone as he powered his way across the line to take the victory in the 43rd running of the Indy 500. But not only would it be a special day for Ward, it would also be a special day for Watson as he would have his cars finish first and second.
Wilke's first appearance at Indy could not have been more fruitful. Throwing in with the once erratic Ward, Wilke would have a potent combination and provided the Leader Card team with back-to-back victories following the victory in Monza the year before. It was a remarkable day that would cause the partnership to think beyond its own borders.
The victory in the Indy 500 meant Roger Ward was just a single point behind the winner of the Monaco Grand Prix, Jack Brabham. This would be interesting, and also a little deceiving at the same time.
At Monza the two previous years the American-built roadsters dominated around the steeply-banked Monza oval. While there were some obvious advantages with larger engines and such, it was widely believed the durability of the cars made up a lot of the difference over the bumpy oval. Ward wouldn't necessarily see it that way.
The performance by the roadsters in Monza, and the win in Indy, convinced Ward and Wilke there was a good chance a specially-built midget racer could compete with a Formula One car. Both reckoned the midget would be faster through the turns than a Formula One car, and, with a more powerful engine, there would be no chance for any European-built machine to keep pace.
Such a view wasn't without its merit considering the fact there had been a few Formula One teams, manufacturers and drivers to come to Indy in the past, but never with much luck at all. In fact, the only European manufacturer to have any kind of luck at all would be Maserati during the late 1930s. American roadsters had utterly dominated at Indy. It was believed the right car could continue that domination on Formula One road courses.
There was just one big problem with the view: the costs associated with travelling to Europe to find out were just too high for many of the teams that competed at Indy. However, in 1959, that opportunity would come to them.
The 1959 Formula One World Championship would be the first time in which two rounds of the World Championship would be hosted on United States soil. Indianapolis, of course, would be the first. The second round would actually be the last of the '59 season. It was the United States Grand Prix and it would take place at Sebring in the middle of December.
Sebring was the home of endurance sportscar racing. Home to the 12 hour race, Sebring was a popular stop for American and European racers. It was a popular stop while Europe slowly emerged from its winter slumber. Now, as the northern hemisphere headed into winter, it would play host to the final round of the Formula One World Championship.
The Sebring circuit was, in many ways, a road course version of the banked oval at Monza. Utilizing a former Army Air Force bomber training base, the Sebring circuit would be 5.2 miles of runways and former base roads. Speeds were high around the circuit, but it was also well known for being something else—very bumpy. If there was one way in which a roadster seemingly had an advantage it would be because of the bumpiness of the circuit demanding reliability.
But Ward and Leader Card would not enter the United States Grand Prix with a roadster. Instead, Ward would be convinced a midget would be much better suited and more competitive against the Formula One machines. Therefore, Frank Kurtis would be approached to build a specially-built midget for the 42 lap race on the 12th of December.
Ward had believed the Formula One cars would be much slower through corners than a midget racer would be. However, Ward had not seen much of the new rear-engined Coopers. He would quickly find out differently when the cars took to the circuit for practice.
Stirling Moss would post the fastest lap around the circuit driving a Climax-powered Cooper. His best lap time would be 3:00.0 and would be joined on the front row by Jack Brabham and Harry Schell, all at the wheel of Coopers.
Ward's belief the Formula One cars would be slow through the corners would be proven terribly wrong in practice. While the Coopers aligned along the front row would all be pushing times right around the three minute mark, Ward would be struggling to keep his best times under 45 seconds slower. In the end, Ward would end practice in 19th place with a personal best of 3:43.8. Being more than 43 seconds slower than Moss, Ward would find himself on the eighth row of the grid—dead-last.
It would be a dramatic sight to see Formula One cars aligned on the grid at Sebring instead of the more usual scene of drivers sprinting across the track to jump in their sportscars to start the 12 hour race. The crowd would be large and everyone expected a great battle between Brabham and Moss for the championship. Though Ward was in the field, he was nearly a forgotten man starting at the tail-end of the field.
Moss had been runner-up in the championship more than a few times before. He had yet another opportunity to fight for a championship and he would take full advantage of it leading the field from the moment the flag dropped to start the race. In fact, Moss would lead the first few laps of the race while Brabham sat content in 2nd place. Ward would actually get away well and would be a few places up leading even Tony Brooks in his Ferrari. Crossing the line around the top fifteen, Ward and the Leader Card team would be in hopes they could remain out of trouble throughout the extent of the race. Then they could make up ground through the help of the attrition.
They would get some help when Moss' championship hopes came to an end after five laps of leading. Brabham would take over the point and would begin to lap the circuit with his teammate, Bruce McLaren, following along close behind. While the factory Coopers showed the way at the front, attrition was being kind to Ward who would be fighting to get inside the top ten by the time the 10th lap of the race came around. At this rate, the Kurtis Kraft-Offenhauser midget would be challenging for another championship point.
Ward would make his way up inside the top ten and would remain steady for 10 laps waiting for attrition to help his cause even more. Instead, attrition would turn. Ward would make it to nearly halfway before clutch failure would take away any chances of adding to his 8 points received from the victory at Indy much earlier in the year.
Ward's small role in the '59 United States Grand Prix would come to an end. The title roles would carry on. Brabham would continue to have McLaren following along close behind. Tony Brooks, the only other contender for the championship crown, would suffer from trouble at the start of the race. He would make quick progress up through the field, but even with five laps remaining in the race the Ferrari driver was still down in 4th place unable to challenge Maurice Trintignant for his position. The World Championship seemed firmly within Brabham's grasp.
But to be champion requires finishing. And, as Brabham powered his way down the long straight leading to the bumpy final 180 degree corner, the Cooper began to sputter and struggle to keep consistent power. Then, coming out of the corner it would be Bruce McLaren in the lead. Where was Brabham?
Brabham would finally appear, but would be going terribly slow. In fact, the car wouldn't be carrying on under horsepower, but human power. The Cooper had run out of fuel and Brabham was out of the car pushing the machine the last few hundred yards. McLaren would go on to take the surprise victory. Maurice Trintignant would come through to finish in 2nd. Even Tony Brooks would come through to finish ahead of Brabham. The World Championship was Brabham's, but he needed to finish ensuring that fact. Pushing the car after nearly 42 laps was not an easy task but the Australian would carry on putting one foot in front of the other. Finally, at perhaps the slowest speed possible, the Cooper would cross the line and Brabham would become World Champion.
Ward and his team would be on hand to watch the dramatic last moments of the race. He had been proven terribly wrong about Formula One cars, but he and the rest of the world would be treated to one of the most dramatic finishes to a grand prix and a championship, a finish that likely eclipsed even the previous year that saw Mike Hawthorn barely edge-out Moss for the championship.
Having been proven wrong about Formula One and Formula One cars, Ward would turn his attentions back to Indy and would follow-up his victory performance in 1959 with a runner-up achievement in the 1960 edition of the race. The 1960 Indy 500 would be included in the World Championship, but Ward no longer seemed interested in Formula One after his experience in Sebring. This would not be entirely true however.
As for Leader Cards, the 1960 Indianapolis 500 would be the last time in which the team would be included in the World Championship. Roger Ward's 2nd place finish meant the team would be in the hunt for the constructors' championship, but only briefly.
When Indy ceased being included in the World Championship, Leader Cards continued its presence at the 2.5 mile oval. Entering the 1962 Indianapolis 500, Leader Cards would pull off the first double since the late 1940s. Ward would earn his second victory while teammate Len Sutton would provide the sweep finishing 2nd.
Leader Cards would continue to show up at Indy and other Indycar events. However, the team would earn its greatest fame in midget racing scoring numerous victories that continue right up to this very day. But, among Formula One lore, the name Leader Cards remains something of a surprise.
Leader Cards' presence at Indy would be anything but a surprise. However, it is more than likely anyone rooting the team on during some feature midget race truly knows the intriguing place in Formula One history the team holds. Legendary within the midget ranks, the Leader Cards legend reaches even further than some Saturday night feature and the recollection of the team's success at Indy.