The David and Goliath story was re-enacted at Lime Rock, Conn. last week when a midget auto slung its stones into the headlights of giants such as Aston-Martin, Maserati and Jaguar. The personable Rodger Ward, who won the 1959 Indianapolis "500," had a chance to drive one of the larger models in Lime Rock's Formula Libre event, but his experience on the U.S. Auto Club's professional circuit led him to pick a Meyer-Drake alcohol-fed midget for the curly 1.5-mile course. It was the first time anyone had even tried such a specialized speedway-type vehicle in a major sports car road race.
Ward said his car had "just a foot throttle," meaning it had only one gear which he initially set at 4:60 ratio for the first heat. The tiny 900-pound midget is powered by a smaller version of the engine plant which won honors for Ward at Indianapolis. It attracted all eyes at the start when it set a new one-lap course record during qualifying trials: 1 minute, 4.67 for an average of 83.5 mph.
"I turned 7,300 rpm to qualify," said Ward, adding that he could wind 200 more rpms out of the engine.
"We might as well junk them all," sighed one official, surveying the fleet of foreign sports cars as Ward came into the pits in his tiny racer.
August 3, 1959
The $5,000 Lime Rock race had a special significance in the USAC program of 1959 professional and amateur racing. Eastern fans were being exposed to the meeting of such speedway drivers as Ward and Tony Bettenhausen with the best of the sports car chauffeurs—Chuck Daigh, Lance Reventlow, George Constantine and Pedro Rodriguez, the brilliant young Mexican. The race itself was run in three heats from rolling starts to accommodate the midgets, Bettenhausen piloting another of the five. The first two heats of 20 laps each and the final heat of 60 laps constituted a total of 150 miles to be covered before winning point totals could be determined.
In the first heat the oft-crowned king of Lime Rock, George Constantine, led the pack in a 4.2 Aston-Martin with Ward trailing by a little over a second. Daigh, racing an old Maserati GP for the new team of Camoradi, USA, came in third, but very close.
Ward told pit men to change his gear ratio to 4:48 for the second heat. "I could stay with him on the turns, but he gained on the straight," Rodger said of Constantine. "The lack of a gearbox is a handicap," he added.
Constantine, talking to his pit men, guessed Ward would adjust to overtake him on the second heat. Ward did take the lead immediately, picking up five car lengths in the S turn and stretching it to 10 lengths by the end of the first lap. Ward lost his margin when he went off the course momentarily at a turn, with Daigh pressing close behind. But inching his way back through traffic which the larger cars could not pass, Ward regained the lead and took the second heat, with Constantine second and Daigh again third. Now Ward and Constantine were even in point standings, with Daigh next. The point-heavy third heat of 60 laps looked depressing for Ward as Constantine took the lead and Daigh was threatening Ward for second. While this trio worked out front, Rodriguez in a Maserati and Reventlow in a Cooper Formula II were continually badgering each other in the background.
Daigh pressed hard, gaining second position, and then passed Constantine by the end of the 11th lap. Later, as the leaders began to lap the field, Ward again did the leading when his blue midget danced through the jam; in the 21st lap Constantine left the affair with a damaged rear-end bearing. Daigh, stalking the little car, finally managed to pass Ward and looked mighty like a winner. His victory in the 60-lap heat plus two third places would have more than offset Ward's early-point advantage.
For most of the mid-race Daigh dominated, but all the time Ward had more than skill riding with him. He knew his light car was getting proportionately lighter as he burned fuel and that the weight difference would be in his favor. With patience and cold nerve he overtook Daigh in the 48th lap. There was little question about Ward's ability to hold a lead once he got it, and his midget did not disappoint the 10,000 thrilled spectators who watched him average 80.657 mph on the short, twisted course.
But while Ward ponders Sebring and other upcoming races, drivers like Reventlow still doubt the future of the midgets on the longer courses. Reventlow, who scarcely needed to move out of third gear and shifted into fourth only as a formality, still feels the midgets' effect will not be profound. The way he explains it, they just don't have the speed to compete with the bigger cars on the courses with the longer and more demanding straightaways.