Beating the Offys: Rodger Ward and the Edelbrock V8-60 Flathead

Edelbrock – Made In USA is one of the most fascinating and comprehensive writings on the history of the Edelbrock company as well as the evolution of the hot rod industry. Vic Edelbrock Sr. was at the epicenter of hot rodding back when it all began. The following is an excerpt from Chapter Four.

Rodger Ward in Edelbrock car 27
Rodger Ward on the gas in the Edelbrock number 27 car. The greatest night of Rodger’s midget racing career and the pinnacle of Vic Edelbrock Sr.’s dream to win at Gilmore Stadium with a Ford happened on August 20, 1950. On the famed Gilmore clay, Rodger, armed with a Vic Edelbrock V8-60 Flathead and loaded with a shot of nitro, planted his foot down and history was made.

When Midgets Were King: Chasing the Offy
By 1950, Vic Edelbrock Sr. had been a success in nearly every endeavor he had undertaken. He was a record holder at the dry lakes, he had developed a line of racing products second to none, and he had built winning race engines for hot rods, midgets, boats and street-driven cars. His business had grown from a tiny shop behind a gas station to a 5,000 square-foot manufacturing building with his name emblazoned on the front. Many men would have sat back and said, “Look what I’ve done,” but not Vic Edelbrock. What happened yesterday was old news; what was happening today was the focus.

Vic Edelbrock was at the peak of his game when he recognized that the racing grind was taking its toll on him and the crew. The V8-60 Flathead (Ford’s 60-horsepower V8 engine) was the lifeblood of his business, and his shipping department hummed, sending off sets of V8-60 cylinder heads and two-carburetor manifolds in rapid-fire order. They were working every day and racing by night to the point of exhaustion—something had to give. Vic backed off and began to pick the races he wanted to run.

Vic came tearing out of the stands with this giant smile on his face. He said, ‘Man you made me the happiest guy in the world!’

Perry Grimm, Vic’s close friend and driver, had started midget racing in the late 1930s and the effects of several industrial-strength crashes had taken their toll on him. He was tired, and recommended that Vic replace him with a rough-and-tumble, hard-living youngster named Rodger Ward, who had been driving Grimm’s car for a few seasons. Ward took over late in the 1949 season and by the following year demonstrated his fearless driving style running the Edelbrock V8-60. He built a reputation for hitting the party circuit as hard as the racing circuit, which made him an unpredictable driver. One night he was untouchable and the next night Vic would have to pick him out of the car at the end of a race because he had indulged too much the night before. He was also quick to mix it up with drivers in the pits after an on-track dispute. Vic Edelbrock didn’t like the wild side of Rodger Ward and set him on the straight and narrow once Rodger became a full-time employee of the Edelbrock Equipment Company.

Two-time Indy 500 winner Rodger Ward
Edelbrock’s hired gun Rodger Ward in the car that he won the Indy 500 with in 1959 and 1962.

The popularity of midget racing was declining, a victim of overkill. If one was going to make history in midget racing, 1950 may be the last chance. Edelbrock and his crew continued to improve the V8-60, experimenting with combustion chamber and valve pocket design, weight reduction, and fuel flow. Each time they ran the race engine on the dyno there was a spike in power. The daily “secret weapon” attack mode included blending nitromethane and working hand-in-hand with Ed Iskenderian, the Armenian cam master whose shop was very close to Edelbrock’s Jefferson Boulevard location.

The fun-loving, celebrated cam grinder remembered the frantic work going on as Edelbrock tried to extract power from the diminutive Ford Flathead. “At the time we were making a mushroom tappet camshaft for the V8-60,” recalled Ed. “I asked Vic if he wanted to test the setup in his race engine. I suggested that he find the power curve, pull the cam, bring it to my shop, and I would grind off a few degrees of intake opening and intake closing. After many tries, we took off five degrees of intake opening and intake closing, with five degrees coming off exhaust opening and closing. We never needed all the duration we had started with. As the cams put out more power Vic stopped telling me the results of the dyno tests. The engine gained mid-range torque without losing top-end power, which meant it would run hard off the corners and keep going strong down the straight. I think that Vic, Bobby Meeks, and Fran Hernandez found a secret with the combination of cam, manifold, carburetors, and nitro. Vic was a very bright man and he knew that when he found some kind of advantage, it was best to never tell.”

Beating the Offys: Two-time Indy 500 Champ and Edelbrock Midget Racer Rodger Ward Recounts Vic Sr.’s First and Greatest Victory Over the Offenhausers with the Edelbrock V8-60
“Perry Grimm introduced me to Vic Edelbrock Sr. in 1950 when I was driving Grimm’s midget,” said Rodger Ward, two-time Indy 500 winner and Edelbrock driver during the midget racing era. “I soon realized Edelbrock was one of, if not the best, midget engine builders and mechanics I had ever seen. He had a way with setting the car up and tuning the engine that set Vic Edelbrock apart; he had the same approach as Clay Smith and other top Indy car guys. When Grimm gave up driving for Edelbrock, Vic offered me the Ford (number 27) and I jumped at the chance. We ran everywhere, and Vic had the V8-60 running as strong as I had ever felt a Flathead run.

“The Edelbrock crew kept after that car until it was near perfect. Vic Jr. was in charge of cleaning and polishing the car after every race; he would work as hard as the other guys making the car shine like a jewel. Vic Sr. told me one night that Fran [Hernandez], Bobby [Meeks], and he had been experimenting with some fuel mixtures that would make Flatheads run stronger. I told Vic, I didn’t care what they did, as long as the car kept running like it was. We were winning and that’s all I cared about. I knew Vic wanted to win a main event at Gilmore Stadium with the V8-60 against a full field of Offys (Offenhausers).

Rodger Ward and trophy girls at Gilmore Stadium
Rodger Ward gave Vic Sr. his greatest victory when he whipped the Offys driving the Edelbrock V8-60 car at Gilmore Stadium. Here he is celebrating a victory with a trophy girl.

“The night when it finally happened, Vic and Katie sat in the grandstands with Vic Jr., and the crew ran the show. Two things went on before I qualified: Bobby put in the latest trick fuel, and Vic had told the guys to reduce the tire pressure in the rear so the car could get a better bite off the corners. Because they had lightened the crankshaft by cutting down the counterweights, Vic was worried about the engine staying together and the low pressure twisting the inner tube and causing a tire failure. There was nothing to worry about. I won my heat race to put me on the front row in the main event. I noticed that the low tire pressure and the light flywheel got me out of the corners quickly and the engine seemed to have power to spare.

“When we warmed up for the main event, I felt the car dancing. It was ready to go. At the green I jumped on the throttle, and the car ran like magic. It was ‘see ya later.’ I took off and that was that. My old buddy Danny Oakes who finished second and his mechanic Danny Eames just shook their heads when it was over. Vic came tearing out of the stands with this giant smile on his face. He said, ‘Man you made me the happiest guy in the world!’ It was a great win and it ended up being the only time a Ford V8-60 won a main event at Gilmore over a field of Offys. There have been many excuses since: The track was too hard for the Offys, the track was too soft, the Offys had a bad night. None of that stuff matters; we won fair and square, end of story.” To prove that the Gilmore race was not a one-time fluke, Ward and the number 27 went to San Bernardino the following night and blew the Offys off again.

Restored Edelbrock midget racer #27
Pictured here is the Edelbrock V8-60 car that beat the Offys. Rodger Ward sits in the cockpit of the number 27 car that Bobby Meeks had just finished restoring in 1989. Behind Bobby is Vic Jr and friend.

After Ward won at Gilmore against the Offys, he continued driving for Vic Edelbrock, but as his reputation grew, he moved onto the championship dirt cars and the tracks of the Midwest and East. In 1951 he took his rookie test at Indy and won the Indy 500 in 1959 and in 1962 driving the Leader Card Roadster built by A.J. Watson. Upon Ward’s departure Vic Sr. turned the midget-racing program over to Bobby Meeks and Don Towle, with Vic Jr. continuing as chief maintenance man in charge of spit and polish. By this time, Vic Jr. was a familiar figure in the pits. Although the rules stated that crew members must be 21 years old, the 15-year-old was big for his age, and most officials turned a blind eye to his working in the pits. Vic Sr. hired Billy Cantrell to drive for a while, then a driver named Harry Stockman took over and continued running the car through the 1951 and 1952 seasons.

READ MORE HOT ROD HISTORY: The Sport of Hot Rodding Finds Its Voice

Midget racing began to fade and by the end of the decade, the glory days of the mighty thunderbugs had dulled. The crowds of more than 50,000 that once filled the Los Angeles Coliseum would be no more. The colorful history of the Edelbrock midget team came to a crashing end at the Orange Show Stadium in San Bernardino in the fall of 1952. Vic Sr. had not been going to the races much after Roger left, but this particular night, he came with the crew and he brought Vic Jr. Harry had qualified second fastest and Allen Heath had a fast time, too. When they started the race, Heath and Stockman moved into a turn together. Heath maneuvered his right front wheel near Harry’s left rear and hit the brake, causing Harry’s tire to ride up onto Heath’s front and flipping Harry completely over the fence.

Vic Jr. remembered it well. “We all went running over to Harry who was crawling out by the time we got there. My dad told Bobby and me to get the car on the trailer ‘right now.’ Afterwards Dad went hunting for Heath, and I tagged along. When he found him, Dad just said, ‘Thanks, Allen,’ turned around, and walked off. Later on Eddie Kuzma, a famous race car builder on Budlong Avenue in Los Angeles, repaired the car. Dad took it home and stored it in the garage where it sat for a couple of years before he sold to Frank Pavese in Chicago.”

Pavese retained the number 27 on the car and his driver, Harold Wildhaber, ran it throughout the Midwest until the late 1950s. When Frank fell ill he gave the car to his mechanic, who raced it for awhile, then sold it. The car was sold a second time to a fellow named Mike Riley of St. Louis, Missouri, and it ran until the V8-60 was no longer competitive and Riley simply parked it until 1986. With the help of race car builder Johnny Pawl, the Edelbrock Company bought back number 27 and Bobby Meeks restored the car to perfect condition. By 1989 the project was complete, and the car was featured on the cover of Petersen’s Circle Track magazine. Today, the car sits in Vic Jr.’s collection and, according to him, “will never leave the Edelbrock family again.”