Lloyd Ruby -- A gem from the dirt

This quiet Texan went from midget racing to Indy, F1 and Le Mans. He talks to Harold Pace

Wichita Falls is a small, rustic Texas city just south of the Oklahoma border, and Lloyd Ruby has lived there most of his life — that is when he wasn’t driving the wheels off everything from motorcycles to midgets, Ford GTs to Watson roadsters, Maseratis to NASCAR stockers and Lotus Formula One cars. In short he raced almost everything on wheels, and he raced them well.

Ruby, a quiet man with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, was born in 1928. By 17 he was racing Harley-Davidsons on the dirt tracks that dotted Texas and Oklahoma, winning much-needed prize money. Just as well — while his father’s repair shop paid the bills, there was no change left for hobbies.

Ruby quickly progressed to midget racing, which was blossoming in the late ’40s. His first racer was a homebuilt with a flathead Ford V8 owned by local businessmen Abe and Meyer Raben. Of his subsequent first drive in an Offy midget, Ruby remembers he “lucked out. The first time we ran it was at San Antonio. It was the Championship race and I accidentally won it.”

He progressed to other teams, eventually landing a ride with Bob Nowicke, who ran a body shop in Chicago. Nowicke plugged him into a Kurtis-Offy and Ruby responded by winning 91 races and three championships in 1948 and ’49. “We’d run every night, sometimes twice on Sundays,” Ruby recalls. “He (Nowicke) would just turn me loose with it. I’d run Indianapolis on Friday night, then I’d tow to Chicago late that night. He had a garage and I’d pull in and go to a bedroom in his office and go to sleep. By the time I woke up he and his brother would have the car completely stripped down. They’d put in a fresh engine every week. We’d run there in Chicago Saturday night, then Sunday I’d take off again.” Ruby towed and maintained the car himself on the road. Midget racing paid good money — he ranged from dirt tracks in Dallas to a board track in New York (and all venues in between) and began wearing the yellow straw Resistol cowboy hat that became his trademark.

Ruby won Oklahoma City Fairgrounds titles in 1950, ’55 and ’56 and headed East to run the lucrative Florida midget circuit, travelling and sharing lodging with another struggling Texan named AJ Foyt: “If I was doing good and he wasn’t I’d loan him money. If AJ was doing good he’d loan me some.” But by that time the era of the midgets was ebbing and Ruby began to look for other venues. He tried sprints and stock cars, but a sportscar ride changed his fortunes. In 1957 Bobby Burns, a Wichita Falls businessman, had a shiny new Maserati 150S he wanted to race in the Sebring 12 Hours. His mechanic convinced him that Ruby was the driver he needed. Few start their road-racing careers with a paid ride at Sebring in a Maserati, but Ruby was up to the task. Unfortunately the car wasn’t and it expired early. But Ruby’s growing reputation brought him to the attention of Ebb Rose, a Houston trucking company executive who owned a stable of midgets while racing Corvettes and exotica in SCCA races. First, Lloyd went to work for Rose and raced his midgets in USAC events. Then, in 1958, USAC started a professional road-racing series and Rose entered Ruby in a Maserati 300S. In ’59 Rose added a 450S to the fleet and Ruby manhandled it to second in the championship.

Ruby also raced a 450S for Tennessee bottling tycoon J Frank Harrison. In 1961 Harrison upgraded his cache with a Lotus 18 Formula One car and, in ’62, a Lotus 19 sportscar. His driver was a doubter at first. “I looked at that little old thing (the 19) and I thought, ‘It might run through the turns but wait ’till I get to that straightaway!’ I was wrong there too. That little old thing would run!” grins Ruby. At Laguna Seca in ’62 he won one heat and finished a close second overall to Roger Penske’s Zerex Special. In ’63 a Ford 289cu.in V8 replaced the Climax, a one-off body was fitted and Ruby drove it to a win in the Kent USRRC race. “It was a more powerful engine, but I wouldn’t say it was any faster. It messed up the balance of the car.”

Meanwhile, Ruby had taken the Lotus 18 to Watkins Glen for the 1961 United States Grand Prix. It was his first and only exposure to F1 racing and he didn’t embarrass himself. After qualifying last on the grid, he worked his way up to 11th before a magneto drive failed. In ’63 he put the 18 on the pole for a USAC race at Trenton, much to the consternation of the roadster drivers present, then battled for the lead with Foyt until the fragile Lotus ‘queerbox’ let him down.

Ruby’s performances brought him to the attention of yet another Texan, Carroll Shelby, who was gathering a team for the Ford GT programme. He needed a teammate for the brilliant but prickly Ken Miles. Team members called the laid-back and affable Ruby and the intense and sarcastic Miles “the odd couple”. Between driving stints Miles paced the pit wall, while Ruby would fall sound asleep. Much to everyone’s surprise they hit it off, becoming close friends as well as a formidable driving team. “We liked the car set up the same way. The only thing I told him was, ‘If it starts raining get your helmet!’ I didn’t like rain and he could run faster than anyone in the wet.” The payoff came in 1965, when they captured the hard fought Daytona 2000km race in a Ford GT40.

The next season Miles and Ruby again conquered Daytona (now a 24-hour race) in a Ford GT MkII, then squeaked a win at Sebring in the one-off Ford X-1 roadster. Miles’s death in a testing accident was a huge blow to Ruby, who still speaks in reverential terms of his former co-driver. In ’67 he paired up with Foyt to take second at Sebring, but at Daytona the MkII he shared with Denny Hulme fell victim to gearbox woes.

At Le Mans Ruby and Hulme were in a new MkIV, but an accident put them out. Ruby was not sorry when the race was over: “Of all the tracks I have run on, Le Mans was my least favourite. You’re going down that long straight — we were hitting 220mph — and you run into a fog bank and you can’t see a damn thing. And about half the field are little cars that won’t go 100mph and you’re afraid you’re going to hit one of them, but if you lift someone is going to get you in the rear.”

Ruby’s main target now became Indianapolis, where he eventually put in more than 75,000 race and test miles. His first 500 had been in 1960, when he drove a new Watson-Offy for JC Agajanian. “It was the only time in my career when I had a signed contract,” says Ruby. He also has fond memories of the car builder: “AJ Watson was the kind of guy who could put on a white shirt, pick out his tools, crawl under a car and fix everything without ever getting dirty.” He made the most of the opportunity, running as high as third and finishing seventh after running out of fuel with 11 laps to go.

In 1964 Ruby established his reputation with a fine third place behind Foyt and Rodger Ward (a scoring error may have deprived Ruby of second). Two years later Dan Gurney snapped up the Texan for his Eagle squad. For the first time Ruby led the 500, only for a cam to fail late in the race.

Ruby began driving cars built by his mechanic, Dave Laycock, and entered by his friend, Gene White. In ’68 he had the race in the bag with nine laps to go when the coil went dead, dropping him to fifth. That was to become a recurring theme: Ruby often led, but mechanical maladies intervened each time.

An unusual modification proved terminal in 1973, when they were running a turbocharged Offy: “Laycock and I would always start the race by taking all the instruments off the car. If you lost oil pressure you would have to be looking right at the gauge when it happened to shut it off in time. And you might have a gauge go out and then you’d be spraying oil. So we just took them all out.” Ruby didn’t have time to look at them anyway, as he shifted by sound and track position. But the turbocharged engine was so much faster that he overrevved it and broke four valves. “That car was really quick. Boy, when that turbo came in you’d better have it straight!”

Probably Ruby’s finest car was the works McLaren he drove in 1975, teamed with ’74 winner Johnny Rutherford. The team was having teething trouble and was unable to sort the cars out. Lloyd convinced the McLaren crew to let him set up the car and things quickly improved, but unfortunately the Ruby ‘luck’ struck again. A mechanic, starting the engine on race morning as a final check, forgot to shut off the fuel system afterwards. Methanol drained into the cylinders and washed down the bores. Although the problem was caught before the race, the damage was done: Ruby was out on lap seven.

In 1976 and ’77 Ruby ran second-string cars with nothing to show for it. The next year Gene White made arrangements to buy Danny Ongais’s back-up car from the Parnelli team, but before they took delivery ‘On The Gas’ destroyed it in a testing accident. Parnelli offered another chassis, but ran out of engines before race day. White asked Ruby what to do next and got the reply, “Why don’t we just quit?”

Getting out of racing wasn’t easy, the first year or so, but eventually Ruby became involved in oil drilling and had plenty to keep himself busy in Wichita Falls with Peggy, his wife of 52 years, and frequent golf games with Parnelli Jones.

Ruby has made two exceptions to his retirement. In 1993 he participated in the Fast Masters, a Jaguar PR fiasco involving the televised destruction of XJ220s by retired racers. By then aged 65, he was making a run on Bob Bondurant in one heat when the two cars touched, then spun out with terminal results. Bondurant was furious, but an unfazed Ruby was convinced he had added to the spectator interest!

In 2003 a similar event at Texas Motor Speedway put retired racers in small-scale replicas of Indy roadsters powered by ‘bike engines. Ruby finished third, proving that the touch was still there.

Back in Wichita Falls, Ruby has a group of friends who meet daily in a converted repair garage to swap tales, play gin rummy, cook food and drink an ice-cold beer or two. For Lloyd Ruby, life is good.