All week, Robin Miller is highlighting the stars of the Indianapolis 500 who never made it to racing's most famous Victory Lane (see links on right). Today, he reaches No. 2 with the quiet Texan who had several chances snatched away through no fault of his own…
Here is the classic photo of Lloyd Ruby, helmet in hand, making the long walk back to Gasoline Alley after his car failed during the Indianapolis 500. It doesn't matter what year that picture was taken because it could apply to many of his 18 starts.
If ever a driver needed a snake-bite kit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was Rube. Nobody ever ran stronger and longer at 16th & Georgetown and had less to show for it than this soft-spoken Texan from Wichita Falls.
During his Indy career from 1960 to 1977, he had at least three, and possibly four, victories snatched away by some mechanical malady. Just about every May he wound up at the Heartbreak Hotel.
“He was always a threat to win at Indianapolis, but luck was never on his side and it takes some luck in a 500-mile race,” reasons Mario Andretti, who is a bit of an expert on that particular subject. “With just a few breaks, he could have won three or four times but, for whatever reason, it wasn't meant to be.”
A badass on two wheels before becoming an accomplished midget racer, Rube's debut was a preview of things to come as he ran out of fuel while running third late in the race in 1960 (RIGHT). He did finish third in '64 but it was '66, '68, '69 and '70 where he won over the fans after not being able to win what looked to be his race.
In 1966, he led the most laps (68) and was out in front of Formula 1 aces Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart on lap 150 when his engine began sputtering and finally succumbed on lap 166.
In 1968, he was ahead of Joe Leonard's turbine and eventual winner Bobby Unser on lap 174 when the coil went bad and forced him into the pits and out of contention.
But the cruelest day of his professional life came on May 30, 1969. He'd stormed from 20th to first by lap 103 and was the strongest car on the track when he pitted three laps later. He never made it back onto the track because his car had lurched forward when it came off the air jacks – jerking the fuel hose with it and tearing open the left-side fuel tank. As 75 gallons poured onto his pit box, Lloyd sat stunned for a few moments before climbing out.
“That was devastating,” recalls fellow Texan and good friend Johnny Rutherford. “Rube never let much get to him but that one really hurt because his car was so good that day.”
The final kick in the crotch came in 1970. Starting 25th, Lloyd wasn't there long, passing 10 cars in two laps and taking P1 by lap 50. But an oil leak and subsequent fire KO'd him two laps later. It was the last time he'd lead at Indy.
I had the pleasure of working on his pit crew in 1974 (that's Robin on the right) and he was still plenty quick at age 44. He might not have known much about a chassis, but nobody drove harder and he was a gracious, humble soul who was as cool out of the cockpit as he was in it.
He never, ever bitched and moaned about his bad luck and, even though his face isn't on the Borg Warner Trophy, his rivals knew that was only because of a series of fluke circumstances. Rutherford always marveled at Ruby's driving style but also his ability to roll with Fate's punches.
“He was so smooth, especially at Indy, and he helped me get going there,” says Lone Star J.R. who won the “500” in '74, '76 and '80. “It wasn't fair what happened to Lloyd, but I never, ever heard him feel sorry for himself. He made his mark at Indianapolis and I think he was the best who never won the race.”
Andretti, who obviously benefited from Ruby's bad break in 1969 to score his lone Indy victory, admired his innate abilities.
“Nobody could get up to speed faster; by the second lap he was right on pace, he had such tremendous feel for a car. He was also a real racer, very tough…and we all knew it.”
Four-time winner A.J. Foyt grew up racing midgets with Ruby and they were buddies for 40 years. Super Tex doesn't want to hear any comparisons.
“Anybody who doesn't think Ruby was the best to never win Indy doesn't know s**t,” declares Foyt. “He was as tough to beat in an Indy car as anybody I ever raced and one hell of a road racer, too. It's a damn shame he never won Indy but he just seemed to be snake-bit.”