1 Roger Rager Indy 1980
Roger Rager in 1980 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (IMS Archives)

Sprint Car Great & Indy 500 Starter Roger Rager, 73

As famous for driving an Indy car equipped with a school bus engine as his numerous sprint car victories, Roger Rager died Feb. 16. He was 73 years old.

Rager’s daughter, Wendy Rager Derhaag, confirmed her father’s death on social media.

“With sadness, we regret to inform you of the unexpected peaceful passing of our father, Roger Rager, on Wed., Feb. 16. This unique, adventurous man lived life in the fast lane. Dad, thank you for the memories; you will not be forgotten.”

Rager started racing sprint cars at Jefferson County Speedway in his native Nebraska in 1968.

Rager erupted out of Lincoln to win sprint car races across the country. He led the 1973 American Sprint Car team that competed in South Africa and claimed the Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway track championship the following year.  

Rager raced at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway, Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park and most everywhere in between, trading slide jobs with the likes of Doug Wolfgang, Jan Opperman, Kenny Weld and others.

In 1978, Rager decided to tackle the Indianapolis 500. After failing to make the race in consecutive years, Rager was determined to qualify in 1980.

Rager started with a budget of only $55,000, $45,000 of which went for a three-year-old Wildcat. For power, Rager chose an engine that secured his place in Indianapolis lore. A junkyard Chevy school bus engine.  

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Roger Rager began racing sprint cars in 1968 and eventually made it to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“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. “At the junkyard, I spotted a Chevrolet bus that I thought would be ideal.” 

He then petitioned expert mechanics for their advice. 

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

With his school bus engine, Rager thrilled followers when he qualified 10th quick, ahead of A.J. Foyt, Tom Sneva and Gordon Johncock. 

Rager raced to the lead of the Indianapolis 500, but his race ended on lap 56, when Jim McElreath spun in front of him. 

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

He found success after the age of 50 racing with WISSOTA, MSS and other upper Midwest sanctioning bodies.  

He won another 30 features and became the only driver to win at Knoxville Raceway in five decades. 

Rager was also a three-time winner of the Masters Classic at Knoxville Raceway. It was a special 360 sprint car race for drivers over the age of 50.

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

Rager retired in 2009 and was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame that same year. He’s also been inducted into the Nebraska Sports Hall of Fame, the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame and the BCRA Hall of Fame.

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