FRANKLIN, Wis. — Longtime Indy car and midget racing team owner Ralph Wilke died on June 28. He was 90 years old.
The Leader Card Racers team was founded by Ralph Wilke’s father Bob in 1959. The team won the Indianapolis 500 three times — twice with Rodger Ward and once with Bobby Unser. Leader Card operated a midget team at the same time.
Bob Wilke died in 1970 and Ralph took over the Indy car team, but times were changing in the sport with the costs of competition on the rise.
Ralph Wilke also took the reins of the family business, Leader Paper Products, which is located in Milwaukee.
Wilke and the Leader Cards operation left Indy car racing following the 1994 season, but continued to field midgets.
According to the Leader Cards Racers website, the team has collected 483 victories through the years with 195 drivers sitting in the seat along the way.
Midget champions Kevin Olson (44) and Jerry Coons Jr. (36) have the most victories for the team.
Ward won four USAC national championships for the team, while Bobby Unser earned a pair of titles. Olson won three Badger midget crowns and the 1988 USAC title with the Leader Cards operation.
George Snider, Bobby Olivero, Rich Vogler, Tracy Hines and Coons also won USAC titles for the Wilkes, while Vogler, Dan Boorse and Davey Ray earned Badger midget titles.
Olson, Mel Kenyon, Tom Bigelow, Ken Schrader and Vogler combined to bring the team the USAC owner’s title in 1984.
In 1979 Ralph’s two sons, Greg and Mark, fielded midgets separately before joining forces in 1983. Since that point, the Wilke midget team won eight owners championships along with 176 feature wins, including victories in some of the most prestigious midget races: the Chili Bowl (2005), the Hut Hundred (four times), the Turkey Night Grand Prix (1983), the Fireman’s Pepsi Nationals (10 times), the Copper World Classic (three times) and the Belleville Midget Nationals (2007).
A fourth generation Wilke is now involved with the team, as Greg’s son Chris is a mechanic and fabricator. On July 22, 2010, Kody Swanson scored the 134th USAC-sanctioned victory for the Wilke family, giving them the all-time feature wins mark by a single group in USAC history.
Wilke is survived by wife, Marilyn, who still lives in Franklin, and sons Scott, Mark, Greg and David.