Unlikely Indy Hero Roger Rager Passes Away

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 25 2022

Roger Rager, who took a bus into the 1980 Indianapolis 500, has passed away.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Nebraska native Roger Rager, who drove into Indianapolis 500 lore with an engine block sourced from a junkyard, died on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Mr. Rager was 73.

Rager’s daughter, Wendy Rager Derhaag, said in a social media post: “With sadness, we regret to inform you of the unexpected peaceful death of our father, Roger Rager. This unique, adventurous man lived life in the fast lane. Dad, thank you for the memories; you will not be forgotten.”

Rager started racing in 1968 at Jefferson County Speedway in his home state, making his name during the 1970s with Sprint Car victories at various tracks highlighted by the driver’s championship at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway in 1974.

Rager first ventured to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1978 with his small, low-budget team but failed to qualify his Dragon 76/Offy entry. Rager entered the 1979 Indy 500 with an Eagle 68 chassis _ the car originally entered by Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers for Denny Hulme at IMS in 1968 _ fitted with a 355 CID Chevrolet engine. But Rager did not make a qualifying attempt and wound up as one of 32 drivers to not make the traditional 33-car field.

Rager finally qualified for what would be his only career start in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in 1980. The race’s 64th edition, run on May 25, featured a field of entirely American drivers. Rager qualified an impressive 10th with his No. 66 Advance Clean Sweep Wildcat/Chevrolet, sharing Row 4 with Texans Jim McElreath and his No. 23 McElreath Racing Penske/Cosworth and A.J. Foyt Jr.’s No. 14 Gilmore Racing Parnelli/Cosworth. Recall that Foyt had scored his record-setting fourth Indy 500 victory in May 1977.

According to a report on the SPEEDSPORT DAILY website, Rager went into the “Month of May” in 1980 with a $55,000 budget, spending $45,000 of that on a three-year-old Wildcat chassis. The resulting odd chassis/engine combination initially attracted national attention after publication of an article by RacinToday.com’s Mike Harris, then Motorsports Editor of The Associated Press.

“It was a (former) Pat Patrick car,” said 1980 pole-sitter Johnny Rutherford, who went on to win his third Indy 500 in the No. 4 Pennzoil Chaparral 2K/Cosworth fielded by fellow-Texan Jim Hall. “They (Patrick Racing) tried to copy the Chaparral _ and missed it by a bunch.”

Rager’s car was one of four powered by Chevrolet stock-block engines in 1980, including sports car ace Hurley Haywood (No. 99 Sta-on Car Glaze Lightning/Chevy fielded by Lindsey Hopkins); Jerry Karl (No. 38 Tonco Trailers McLaren/Chevy fielded by William Compton) and Mike Mosley (No. 48 Theodore Racing Eagle/Chevy entered by former Indy 500 starter Gurney).

Still, “Lone Star J.R.” recalled the buzz in Gasoline Alley generated by Rager and his junkyard engine. 

“That was the talk of the garage area,” Rutherford said. “And incidentally, Roger pronounced his name as ‘Ra-jer.’ Anyway, he made the race with that engine and it was unusual with all the Cosworths and Offenhausers still running out there. It was basically a stock block engine with a cam and some lifters to make it run a little tougher.”

Indeed, Rager had formed a detailed plan on how he could compete against the established U.S. Auto Club and Championship Auto Racing Teams regulars around the 2.5-mile IMS oval.

“My theory was if I got a block out of a truck or a heavy unit, the numerous heat cycles under load would’ve eliminated the stresses that cause failure,” Rager said, according to the SPEEDSPORT DAILY report. “At the junkyard, I spotted a Chevrolet school bus that I thought would be ideal.

“I called NASCAR and got the phone numbers of their top-10 mechanics. I asked each what cams they used _ pistons, rods, all that _ and compiled a list. The most recommended items were what I used.”

Rutherford _ making his Indy 500 debut in Hall’s revolutionary, ground-effects Chaparral _ said he was impressed by Rager’s ingenuity. “It kind of took everybody aback…and then the media jumped all over it,” Rutherford said. “That’s something it (the NTT IndyCar Series) lacks now…where everybody is even-steven.”

Rager was running ninth early in a race and led Laps 16-17 during the opening pit stop cycle. But on Lap 55 of the scheduled 200, McElreath spun in front of Rager in the short chute between Turns 1 and 2. Rager spun and crashed-out trying to avoid McElreath’s car.

“I had (Gordon) Johncock and (Tom) Sneva on my right rear, so I pushed low to miss McElreath, who I was lapping for the fifth time,” Rager said. “One wheel hit the grass and away I went.”

Rager was credited with a 23rd-place finish in a race dominated by Rutherford and the famed “Yellow Submarine.” As a footnote, Tim Richmond was voted Indy 500 Rookie of the Year after a ninth-place finish in the No. 21 UNO/Q95 Starcruiser Penske/Cosworth fielded by Mach 1 Enterprises. Richmond went on to a short, star-crossed career in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Rager, meanwhile, continued to barnstorm the nation’s dirt circuits and became the only driver to win a feature race at Knoxville Raceway in each of five decades. Rager also was a three-time winner of the Masters Classic, a special 360 Sprint Car event at Knoxville for drivers age 50.

“I had kids whose dads I’d raced against asking me when I was going to quit so they could win,” Rager said. “I told them, ‘If you can’t beat an old man, maybe you don’t need to be racing.’^”

Rager retired from driving in 2009 and was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame at Knoxville Raceway the same year. He also was inducted into the Nebraska Sports Hall of Fame, Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame and the Big Car Racing Association (BCRA) Hall of Fame.

(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1997) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients has included Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y) Daily Sentinel, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing).


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 25 2022
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