Ken Brenn is one of the most decorated car owners in open-wheel history, with a career that spans six decades and includes a phone book’s worth of talent behind the wheel.
During his years of owning, towing, wrenching and maintaining midgets, sprints and Indy cars, Brenn won a lot of races with guys like Tony Bettenhausen, Don Branson, Bobby Unser, Pancho Carter, Larry Dickson, Len Duncan, Johnny Coy, Jack Turner, Jiggs Peters, Bruce Walkup and Jimmy Caruthers. He also gave Mark Donohue his first-ever ride in a rear-engine midget.
For the next three nights Kyle Larson, will wheel a midget for Keith Kunz honoring the 92-year-old Brenn as part of USAC’s Pennsylvania Midget Week. But one of the best chapters of this New Jersey native’s career came compliments of Rodger Ward in a very unlikely pairing that produced a very unlikely victory.
In July of 1959 a race was staged at Lime Rock Park which, according to the wonderful story written by Brock Yates for Car & Driver in 1999, was supposed to elevate the status of sports cars and road racing. Instead of running for trophies, there was to be a sizeable cash purse in hopes of attracting name drivers instead of doctors and lawyers. And it did, as Mexico’s heroes Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez were entered, along with Indy 500 stars Duane Carter and Bettenhausen. But Brenn had no plans to run until he got a phone call.
“I came home one night and my wife Dottie told me that Rodger Ward had called,” said Brenn, who was in the business of building roads to feed his racing habit. “Well, he’d just won Indy and was a big star, and he didn’t know me from Adam. I didn’t believe her, so I didn’t call him back right away. Besides, I couldn’t afford to hire a guy like Ward, he’d want too much money.”
Well, they finally connected, and Ward revealed he was to get $2,000 in appearance fees so he suggested splitting that with Brenn and taking 40 percent of what he won in the race. A deal was made and they finally met just before Ward strapped in for the first practice session. “He was right at the track record in just a few laps,” recalled Brenn, who attends the IndyCar race at Pocono every year.
Oh yeah, one small detail that needs to be pointed out. Ward was driving a Kurtis-Kraft midget with an Offenhauser engine and a standard in-and-out gearbox against the Aston Martins, Ferraris and Maseratis.
After Ward broke John Fitch’s track record and won the pole position, the captain of the Maserati team, Rex Wingate, congratulated Brenn and then predicted his car wouldn’t be around at the end because the track would kill their brakes. The program called for a pair of 20-lap heats followed by a 60-lapper.
“Rodger cooled it in the first one and finished third and then we won the second heat and we changed brakes after each race,” continued Brenn, who still possess a fantastic memory and looks as good as he thinks. “We had to load it up with fuel for the main event, so we dropped back at the start while we burned off some fuel.”
But when Ward passed an Aston Martin on the outside to take the lead a third of way into the finale, he immediately began pulling away.
“Tony Bettenhausen had got out of the car he was supposed to drive because it was a dog, so he was running our pit board,” said Brenn, chuckling at the memory of the USAC national champion volunteering for that job. “Rodger had a five or six second lead but Tony kept putting up one second, and I kept asking him why. He said ‘because Ward is lazy and we don’t want him relaxing too much.’”
When the checkered flag fell, the Indy champ and his mighty midget had dusted the field and humbled the sports cars on their own turf.
“Ward had a Champ Car race the next day so he had a helicopter waiting on him, and after we shook hands he told me he’d just keep all the deal money and I could have all the purse,” said Brenn. “Well, it was $4,900, and that was a haul in 1959.”
The 6-foot trophy that supposedly went to the winning team had vanished shortly after the victory celebration, so Brenn tracked it down. “A few Mexicans were taking it apart and loading it into a box, and I yelled at them that it belonged to me,” he said. “They said ‘No, this is Pedro’s (Rodriguez) trophy, he was supposed to win and if he doesn’t get it, nobody does.’
“So I didn’t get the trophy, but I got one of the most satisfying wins of my life and a damn good payday. No midget race ever paid like that.”