By Richie Murray
Ralph Wilke, the Wisconsin native whose midgets won 16 USAC National Midget features and whose dirt championship car won USAC titles in both 1971 and 1979, passed away Monday, June 28, 2021 at the age of 90.
Ralph was the second generation of the famed Wilke family with extensive involvement in auto racing. His father, Bob, fielded entries in USAC’s National Championship, Sprint Car, Midget and Road Racing divisions from the earliest days of USAC, taking Leader Card Racers entries to six USAC National car owner championships in 1959-60-62-64-67-68, and three Indianapolis 500 wins with Rodger Ward in 1959 & 1962 and with Bobby Unser in 1968.
During that time, Ralph operated the family business and fielded racecars on a part-time basis. Wilke-owned midgets captured 16 USAC National Midget feature victories between 1959 and 1964 along with co-entrant Gus Wessel. The first of Ralph’s 16 USAC National Midget wins as a car owner came at Illiana Motor Speedway with driver Chuck Weyant on June 13, 1959, just two weeks following Leader Card’s first Indianapolis 500 triumph.
Ralph’s midgets were driven by the era’s greatest racing talent with Don Branson leading all drivers with seven USAC National Midget wins in his car, including Ralph’s last with the series in 1964 at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds dirt mile in southern Illinois. Weyant and Ward won twice in the midgets for Ralph, while Parnelli Jones, Bobby Marshman, Bob Tattersall, Bob Wente and Johnny White each won once.
Bob Wilke passed away following the 1970 season and Ralph, the president of the family business, Leader Cards, Inc., took over the reins of the race team, continuing its winning ways on USAC National Championship circuit with driver Mike Mosley collecting victories in 1971 at Trenton, N.J. and, finally, at Phoenix (Ariz.) International Raceway in 1974.
Ralph Wilke’s USAC Dirt Champ Car was victorious in the third race ever held in what is now known as the Silver Crown National Championship. That came at Du Quoin in 1971 with the steering wheel in the hands of George Snider who went on to win the inaugural Dirt Champ Car season title that same year.
Between 1975-1976, the team went on a tear with the USAC Dirt Cars, winning four-in-a-row with driver Tom Bigelow at Du Quoin, the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, the Indiana State Fairgrounds and the Illinois State Fairgrounds. The Minnesota victory was the first “Silver Crown” race held on pavement.
Ralph’s team won again on the Dirt Champ Car trail in 1977 at Du Quoin with Bigelow and twice more with Bobby Olivero during his 1979 championship season at the Springfield, Illinois and Indiana State Fairgrounds dirt miles which netted Ralph his second championship with the series that year.
Olivero won once more for Ralph at the Springfield Mile in 1982, and under the “Wilke Racers” banner with sons Mark and Greg Wilke, the Silver Crown team won twice more, in 1989 with Rich Vogler at the Indiana State Fairgrounds and in 1991 at Du Quoin with Stevie Reeves.
With Ralph at the helm of the Leader Card racing operation, the team won its sixth and final USAC National Sprint Car race during the 1973 season with driver Mel Cornett picking up his lone career series victory at the Terre Haute (Ind.) Action Track. Cornett had earlier won for Ralph on nine occasions in Badger Midget competition between 1966-67 at Hales Corners Speedway.
Ralph remained a regular annual entrant for the Indianapolis 500 and the complete USAC and CART IndyCar trails through the 1994 season.
Following his retirement from the family business, Ralph returned to his racing roots with the family-owned midget team alongside his sons, who added on to their previous USAC National Midget championships in 1984 and 1987 with additional owner titles in 2005 with driver Tracy Hines and Jerry Coons Jr. and again in 2007 with Coons.
In all, the Wilke family has amassed a total of 136 USAC National feature victories (84 midget, 35 IndyCar, 10 Silver Crown, 6 Sprint Car and 1 combined Silver Crown/IndyCar event.)
USAC sends it sincere condolences to the Wilke family and their many friends within the racing community.