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Fond memories of racing great Lloyd RubyPosted Tuesday, March 24, 2009, at 3:50 PM
Growing up in central Indiana, I am thankful that I got to live throughout the heydays of the Indianapolis 500 (I admit I rarely watch the race anymore and couldn't tell you three drivers).
From my earliest days in short pants, I could remember looking forward to May, as much for the 500 as for getting out of school for the summer.
You talked with friends about A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Parnelli Jones, Al Unser, Sr., Bobby Unser and Lloyd Ruby like they were part of your family -- you either loved them or hated them.
But the one driver that everyone seemed to like and respect was Ruby, the Texan from Wichita Falls who wore a 10-gallon hat when out of his racing machine and talked as smooth as he guided both front-engine and later rear-engine cars around the famous 2 1/2 mile oval.
Ruby appeared at the Brickyard in every race from 1960 to 1977. He finished in the top nine seven times, leading in five different races. On five occasions, he completed the 200 laps or 500 miles.
But for one reason or another, "Lady Luck" never seemed to be on the side of Ruby. Although he won seven times on the USAC Championship Car Series and endurance racing victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring and the United States Grand Prix, he never took the checkered flag at Indianapolis. He also won over 200 midget races, earning him a place in the Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in Tulsa.
But Ruby, who passed away Monday night in Wichita Falls at 81, never lost his sense of humor about it.
In an article that appears on motortrend.com, author Matt Stone finished up his story about Ruby, who raced in the Indianapolis 500 18 consecutive years, by saying, "Visit Lloyd Ruby's old mechanic's shop in downtown Wichita Falls, Texas, and he's likely to hand you a book titled, "How To Drive and Win the Indy 500." His name is on it as the author. But every page is blank. It's a joke, son."
Ironically his biography by Ted Buss is entitled "Lloyd Ruby: The Greatest Driver Never to Win the Indy 500."
He ran seventh, eighth and eighth in his first three 500s, finishing them all, in 1960, 1961 and 1962.
In 1964, he ran third as A.J. Foyt and Roger Ward finished 1-2. A blown engine was the cause of Ruby's demise on lap 184 a year later.
In 1966, Ruby led laps 65-75, 87-132 and 140-150 -- 68 in all -- but it was a busted cam that shut him down on lap 166 as he settled for an 11th place finish the year that rookie Graham Hill started 15 and won. Eleven drivers, including Foyt, were part of a first-lap crash that eliminated 1/3 of the field.
Ruby continued to be competitive throughout the decade as he started 25th and finished fifth in 1968. He led 42 laps, the last being 174. That was the year Joe Leonard was driving the STP Oil Treatment Turbine, which was cruising toward victory when a broken fuel shaft ended his day on lap 191, leaving the door open for Bobby Unser.
Ruby led 11 laps in 1969, two in 1970 and three in 1971. All three races ended with some sort of mechanical misfortune. Ruby was ahead just past the mid-way point of the race 40 years ago when one of two fuel hoses was not removed before he started leaving the pits, tearing out the side of the fuel tank and flooding the pits with gas.
Ruby said he could not believe it when they told him to get out of the car. "It was just one of those things."
Ruby, a member of the Indianapolis 500 Hall of Fame since 1991, completed 196 of 200 laps and was running at the end of the 1972 race, placing sixth. He ran out of fuel after completing 187 laps in 1974, but still managed to place ninth.
In the Times Record News in Wichita Falls earlier this week, Al Unser Sr., a four-time winner of the Indy 500 said, "Lloyd was just as good as anybody. He was never secondary. Look at the record book. He should have won it (Indy) five or six times. Things just seem to happen. You wonder why people with the ability of Lloyd were not able to win. But he won everything else."
In his final nine races at Indy, Ruby, who won the Bruton Smith Legends Award at the Texas Motor Sports Hall of Fame in Fort Worth a few years ago, was only running at the end in two. Whether it was a fuel hose, drive gear, gears, piston (twice), out of fuel or accident, it was as if you knew that something bad was going to happen to Ruby, who ironically drove for a different team in every Indy 500 and only three times (25, 12, 7) used the same number at least twice.
But that never stopped my mom and dad and my sister or myself from listening and rooting for Ruby to finally experience what that cold glass of milk must have tasted like after winning "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
The funny thing is I never remember Ruby being upset an any of his post-race interviews. He let his driving do the talking, and it said plenty.
Ruby said in a motortrend.com interview that winning other races did not compare to being in front at Indy. "It was the greatest, being able to lead the biggest race in the whole world," he said.
"...I enjoyed racing. I got to travel all over the world. It's been my whole life. I wouldn't trade my life for anybody's."
Although his name might not garner the kind of attention and recollection that Foyt, Andretti and the Unsers do, make no mistake about his contribution to open wheel racing. Inadvertently he taught me a couple of lessons early in my life -- compete like hell, don't make excuses, be a good sport, life isn't always fair and nice guys don't always win.
B.J. Hargis is sports editor at the Greene County Daily World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (812) 847-4487.
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