There have been many hard luck stories from the Indianapolis 500 over the years, but the face of those hard-luck stories was very frequently Lloyd Ruby back in the day. Michael Andretti and his father Mario were notorious for hard luck at Indy, although Mario did take the checkered flag in 1969. But before the Andrettis, it was Ruby who repeatedly had commanding leads in the 500 only to have something happen that would cost him the victory. None other than Parnelli Jones said that “Ruby should have won the ‘500’ two or three times.” Sadly, Ruby passed away this past week from complications of cancer. He was 81 years old.
Ruby was born in 1928 in Wichita Falls, Texas, and that is where he passed away. He was a common man, like many of his fellow racers of his time. Fellow competitors like Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser thought so much of Ruby that they routinely visited his shop in Texas to listen to Ruby spin his tales of racing back when it was all about racing, not about motorhomes and corporate sponsorships.
Ruby won the 24 hours of Daytona, the 12 hours of Sebring, seven USAC National points events, and more midget races than he could count (he stopped counting at 200). He led the Indianapolis 500 five times during a six-race stretch from 1966–1971 for a total of 126 laps. Unfortunately, the best result Ruby could muster was a third-place finish in 1964. He finished 12th or better 11 times in 18 races but his famous failures became his trademark. His biography was even titled The Greatest Driver Never to Win the Indy 500.
A perfect example of Ruby’s luck was the 1969 race. Ruby had been near the front all day and was leading comfortably when he came in for the final fuel stop of the race. Ruby thought his crew was done fueling the car so he dumped the clutch to leave the pits. Unfortunately for Ruby, they were not done and the fuel hose pulled the neck out of the car’s fuel tank, rupturing the tank and forcing him to retire.
Ruby’s hard luck was not limited to the 500. He was about to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans when the plan he was riding in crashed leaving Indianapolis, forcing Ruby to vacate his seat. That event took place in 1966, the same year he won the 24 hours of Daytona and the 12 hours of Sebring. Had he made it to Le Mans that year, he may have very well won the three major endurance races that are held on the planet and done it all in the same year.
Ruby only competed in one NASCAR race, running at Riverside in 1967. He came home 22nd after an engine failure, but that was hardly indicative of his talent behind the wheel. Seeing Ruby, like many of the other great drivers of his day running around on the dirt tracks of the Midwest was a thing of beauty, and he will be missed by the many fans who appreciated his talents and the many visitors to his shop in Wichita Falls that were given an autographed copy of his book How to Drive and Win the Indy 500. It didn’t have a word in it. Rest in Peace Mr. Ruby.