INDIANAPOLIS Indianapolis 500 standout Lloyd Ruby, one of the most popular drivers in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history, died March 23 in Wichita Falls, TX. He was 81.
The hugely respected and much-beloved Ruby competed in 18 consecutive Indianapolis 500 Mile Races between 1960 and 1977 but never was able to pull off what had always seemed to be the inevitable victory. He led the “500” in five out of six starts between 1966 and 1971, only to have something either break or else delay him in some fashion while in a commanding position.
“He should have won the ‘500’ two or three times,” 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones said.
Ruby led for a career total of 126 laps, the seventh-highest number by a driver who never won. He finished 12th or higher in 11 different Indianapolis starts, his best finish third with a front-engine car in 1964. He qualified in the first three rows seven times at Indianapolis, with a best of fifth in 1966 and 1968.
Ruby won seven USAC National Championship races, including three at Milwaukee, two at Phoenix, and one each at Trenton, NJ, and Langhorne, PA. In 1970, he won the pole for the inaugural 500-mile race at Ontario, CA.
A standout in post-World War II midget car racing in the Southwest while still in his teens, Ruby never was given credit for his proficiency at road racing. In 1959, he placed second in the fledgling USAC Road Racing series, and in 1961 he drove a privately entered Lotus in the Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen, NY. Later a key member of Ford Motor Co.’s major international effort, he shared the winning car in the Daytona Continental in 1965, and both the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1966.
His unlikely co-driver in all three of those victories was the expatriate, duffel-coat-wearing Englishman Ken Miles. Although they were eons apart in their upbringings, and seemingly would have had nothing in common, they bonded like brothers. Ruby was to have partnered Miles in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966 but was forced out when the light plane in which he was riding crashed on takeoff from an Indianapolis airport on its way to Milwaukee just a few days before.
Eventual Formula One World Champion Denis Hulme replaced the injured Ruby, and the Miles/Hulme combination was leading in the late stages when it was decided, for public relations reasons, to “slow down” the leading car and have the twin sister car of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, running second, catch up to have them take the checkered flag in a side-by-side salute. Le Mans officials subsequently ruled that, because of the order in which the cars had lined up for the “run across the main straight, jump in and take off” start, the McLaren/Amon car had covered a greater distance.
By the time Ruby shared the second-place-finishing Ford with A. J. Foyt in the 1967 Sebring race, Miles had died, lost in a testing accident at Riverside, CA. Decades later, whenever the Le Mans incident or Miles was brought up, tears would well in Ruby’s eyes.
Normally so even-tempered and easygoing, Ruby felt quite passionately that Miles was the moral winner, not only because he had been leading by a comfortable margin and had slowed down in response to team orders, but that over a period of many months, he had performed virtually all of the development work on the cars. It was something Ruby never got over.
Nobody outside of racing could ever possibly have guessed Ruby’s occupation. He was casual beyond belief; red-flag situations at race tracks and the inevitable rain delays never seeming to bother him because they didn’t bother him.
Once asked how he had been able to train himself to deal with such frustrations, he said that it simply never had been a problem with him. He would recall, with a grin, the long-distance “enduros” at Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring. While many of the drivers would be up all night, drinking coffee and trying to stay alert, Ruby would have a cot set up behind the pit, instructing crew members to wake him up 15 minutes before the scheduled driver change.
“He was a very special man, dignified, well mannered and quiet,” said three-time Formula One World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart, 1966 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. “Not shy, but quiet, and completely out of context with what one would expect a race driver to be. A modest man. Nobody who saw him, if they didn’t know, would ever imagine he was a driver until he stepped into the cockpit. And he was very versatile on the track.”
Mario Andretti once expressed amazement and admiration for the limited amount of time Ruby required in order to get up to speed, whether it be on a road course or an oval, during practice or even tire testing. Ruby’s second time by the start/finish line, Andretti recalled, was usually a real eye-opener.
That Ruby should be held in such high esteem by his colleagues should be of some comfort to his family, friends and followers. When many of the greats are asked to discuss the rivals they have most admired over the years, they tend to use discretion by declining, publicly, to name names, unless they are permitted to mention several. Privately, when pressed to pare down the list, Ruby’s name often is mentioned. One veteran stated flatly that Ruby adapted to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway better than anyone he raced against.
“A soft-spoken Texas lead foot with enormous natural talent,” Indianapolis 500 veteran and American racing legend Dan Gurney said. “He was not a self-promoting type; he was humble. One of the old-fashioned guys who let the results speak for themselves.
“He was a potential winner every time he got behind the wheel. A great oval racer who was also a great road racer.”
At a special ceremony in September 2006 in Wichita Falls, friends arranged for an overpass to be named in Ruby’s honor, the surprising thing being that nothing in that town had previously carried the name of the individual most associated with it.
The celebration ended up beginning early and developed into a multi-day gathering of friends and family, including drivers Parnelli Jones, Al and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Jim McElreath and Ebb Rose.
Sometimes, for hours on end, the drivers attended functions and sat at tables, signing autographs well beyond the amount of time to which most would normally agree. They never complained not once the main reason being their respect and love for Ruby, the man of the hour.
“He was one of the most kind-spoken men I’ve ever known,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rutherford said. “If he didn’t like what you did or didn’t like somebody, he just didn’t talk about it. That was a Texas trait.”
Said Jones: “A couple of years ago a bunch of us were down in Wichita Falls when they dedicated an overpass in his name. I told them, ‘With Ruby’s luck, this’ll probably end up being an UNDER-pass.’ I can’t say just how sorry I am. I’m really going to miss that guy.”
It also says something of the man that with all the years of his success, and, for a while, his considerable income, he never moved away from the place of his birth. Some of his closest friends were those with whom he had grown up and gone to school. A visit to his home likely would entail a casual drive around town, cruising by the location of his old school, a malt shop or two, a drugstore and his favorite watering hole, a very down-to-earth establishment frequented by powerful townsfolk and city officials who were just as unpretentious as Ruby himself.
One would learn, in speaking with friends, that not only did he once race motorcycles, but that as a teen-ager, he had learned to play steel guitar and became an accomplished player.
In later years, Ruby would do much to assist, without fanfare, in local charitable affairs, some on his own behalf and more than a few in support of his wife, Peggy.
The memories of slow-talking, fast-driving Lloyd Ruby, either in a race car or leaning up against a wall, arms folded, cowboy hat tipped slightly forward and one Western boot crossed in front of the other, toe to the ground, will not soon fade.
Ruby is survived by his wife, Peggy; their son, John; and daughter, Mary Ann.
Pictured: A game of cards among Indy 500 legends at "The Shop," Lloyd Ruby’s hangout in Wichita Falls, TX. From left: Al Unser, Parnelli Jones, Johnny Rutherford, Lloyd Ruby, Bobby Unser. Photo by Lee Gholson
Photo: Courtesy of http://www.indy500.com