This story first appeared in the September 2016 edition of SPEED SPORT Magazine.
The list of drivers who should’ve won the Indianapolis 500 but didn’t reads like a racing who’s who — Ted Horn, Duke Nalon, Rex Mays, Jack McGrath and Michael Andretti are among those that came tantalizingly close.
Few, however, got closer to victory more times, only to have it brutally snatched away, than fan-favorite Lloyd Ruby.
When he first climbed into a midget in 1946, it wasn’t his intention to become “Hard Luck” Lloyd Ruby at Indy. In fact, he didn’t give Indianapolis much thought at all. The midget belonged to Wichita car dealer Abe Rayborn and Ruby only drove it on a lark.
“Abe rode motorcycles with us off and on. More off than on because he weighed 300 pounds,” chuckled Ruby, punctuating the story with his soft Texas drawl. “He owned several midgets and the track in Wichita. One Sunday afternoon he had an open practice day and I went over to check it out.
“I was just standing around watching, because I’d broke my right arm and leg in a motorcycle accident, when Abe asked me if I wanted to give it a try. Well, the casts were only half casts and I could still move pretty good. Besides, they didn’t pay much attention to those types of things in those days. Before long, I was running as fast as Abe’s guys and the next week I started driving for him steady.”
Ruby’s success in the midgets thrust him onto what was then the typical route for an American driver headed to the upper echelon of the sport — midgets to sprint cars to championship cars. In 1957, he joined USAC and by 1960 he’d landed an Indianapolis 500 ride in J.C. Agajanian’s No. 98.
“I hadn’t really given any thought about running Indy until I saw some of the guys who I ran with go there. I got to thinking, ‘I wonder if I could do that?’ Then, when I ran the Brickyard for the first time, I said to myself, ‘This is the place for me.’”
Ruby’s performance reflected his confidence. Consistently fast, he finished in the top eight in his first three 500s and was soon considered a contender for an Indianapolis victory. That looked like it just might happen for Ruby in 1966.
Starting in the middle of row two, Ruby battled 1965 500 winner Jim Clark all afternoon. After his final pit stop, Ruby caught Clark and charged around him for the lead. Then, suddenly, on the 147th lap, smoke belched from the car’s rear-end and he was black flagged. After an eight-minute stop, he returned to the race and finished 11th. That was little consolation for the driver who’d dominated the race.
For the rest of his career close calls were the norm. In 1968, just 14 laps from the end, and with an 18-second lead over eventual winner Bobby Unser, Ruby was forced to pit with a broken coil wire. In 1969, after taking the lead from Mario Andretti and stretching it to a full lap, a fuel cell was damaged during a pit stop just past the halfway point. In 1970, he dramatically charged from 25th to the lead in 48 laps only to have a gearbox fail four laps later. In 1971, he led at the halfway mark when he lost a gearbox again.
All the losses hurt, but none more than the 1969 failure.
“All the other times were mechanical failures. You can’t do anything about that. But 1969, that was human error,” Ruby said with a sigh. “That one still gives me nightmares in the middle of the night. And it was as much my fault as anyone’s. I was watching the vent man because when he closed the vent that was my signal to go. He closed it and I started to roll. I went about three feet and the hose was still connected. It pulled the side out of the cell.”
Despite the many disappointments, Ruby never harbored regrets.
“Racing’s been good to me,” he insisted. “It’s given me a great life. I’ve run at the speedway, and led there. I tell you, when you get up there and lead that race, it’s a great feeling. It’s something I’ll never forget. It’s been beautiful. I’d do it all over again. No question.”