Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Lloyd Ruby’s 1966 airplane crash

The author has a long-standing interest in race car drivers and their fascination with airplanes and flying, and recently found a reference to Lloyd Ruby’s short-lived flying career. This article adds another chapter to the author's series of articles on racers and airplanes.

A Beech Bonanza similar to Lloyd Ruby's

During 1966, Lloyd Ruby purchased a Beech B35 Bonanza tail number N5201C from fellow USAC (United States Auto Club) championship racer Bobby Unser, who had purchased a twin-engine Beech 95 Travel Air.  On the morning of June 4, 1966, Ruby and his three passengers departed in the Bonanza from the Speedway Airport, a small airfield located northeast of the intersection of West 21st Street & Griswold Road South of I-74 near the town of Avon, Indiana. The passengers on board with Ruby that day were Ruby’s chief mechanic Dave Laycock, fellow USAC driver Bill Cheesbourg, and Harold ‘Tex’ McCullough, identified in press reports as a friend of Ruby’s from Hondo, Texas.

Lloyd Ruby waits patiently on pit lane during practice for the 1966 Indianapolis 500 as Dave Laycock makes adjustments to the Ford engine. Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection of the IUPUI University Library center for Digital Studies.  

Just five days earlier, Ruby, a 38-year old veteran racer from Wichita Falls Texas led the first laps in his seven years of competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Ruby led the 1966 Indianapolis 500-mile race on three occasions for a total of 68 laps, before his Bardahl Eagle had retired with a broken camshaft stud in the 255 cubic inch quad-cam Ford engine.

Ruby and the Ford GT40 in action at the 1966 Daytona 24 hour race. Photo from author's files.

Despite the Indianapolis disappointment (the first of many to come) Ruby was having a spectacular 1966 season, as he and his English teammate Ken Miles had won the 24-hour sport car races at Daytona International Speedway driving a 427-cubic inch powered Ford GT 40 Mark II and the 12 hours of Sebring in a similarly powered GT40 X-1 roadster. Hopes were high for a victory at the 24-hour race at LeMans France on June 19, so that the team of Ruby, Miles and Ford could claim a historic same-year sweep of the three major sports car endurance races.      

Bill Cheesbourg, long-time friend of Ruby’s had first come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a rookie in 1956 but only started six Indianapolis 500-mile races in his career, the last being in 1965.  During the month of May 1966, Bill had driven two entries, neither of which had any legitimate chance of making the starting field - the Jack Adams Special, an Epperly lay-down roadster fitted with a gas turbine engine, and former Northern California midget racer Al Stein’s Valvoline-sponsored twin-engine powered creation, which had a modified Porsche 911 engine at each of the car to provide power to each axle.

Dave Laycock, at age 27, USAC’s youngest chief mechanic had started in USAC championship racing in 1957 right out of high school as a helper to “Horsepower” Herb Porter on the supercharged Offenhauser powered Roger Wolcott-owned entry. By 1960, Laycock was a chief mechanic in his own right with the team owned by Marion Indiana glass heir Bill Forbes, and first met Ruby when Lloyd drove for the Forbes team in 1964;  the pair had worked together ever since.

Bob Laycock in his office in 1974. 
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection of the IUPUI University Library center for Digital Studies.  

Laycock came from a racing family, as his grandfather, C.P. Laycock worked as a mechanic for the Stutz racing team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the early days. Dave’s father, James Robert, known as “Bob” attended the 1915 Indianapolis 500-mile race as an infant, and as of 1966 Bob had not missed attending a single 500-mile race, a string that would continue unbroken until 1993.  Bob, whose regular career was with the US postal service, worked during the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a variety of roles beginning in 1949 that included timing and scoring, registration and finally the press office.

Gaylord "Snappy" Ford in 1939
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection of the IUPUI University Library center for Digital Studies.  

Much of Bob Laycock’s early career at the Speedway was spent as an assistant to Gaylord ‘Snappy’ Ford, known around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as “the man without a title.” ‘Snappy’ born in 1889, first worked at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as an assistant to the Chief Starter for the 1920 race and simply never left –Ford did whatever task around the Speedway that was asked of him.
In the late nineteen thirties ‘Snappy’ became the track’s chief scorer and served in that role until the outbreak World War 2 forced the Speedway to close.  

‘Snappy’ Ford spent the war years in charge of the Marmon-Herrington Company tank proving grounds, then he returned to work at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1949 at Wilbur Shaw’s request and was in charge of the press office until his death. Legend has it that instead of downplaying the dangers of the Speedway, Ford took novice newsmen on a pace car tour of the 2- ½ mile brick surfaced track and pointed out the gouges in the walls from past fatal crashes. 

After ‘Snappy’s’ death in January 1953, Laycock assumed Ford’s duties in the press office also served as the editor of the Indianapolis ‘500’ record book and the USAC rule book, and during the winter worked as a publicist for the ABA (American Basketball Association) Indianapolis Pacers.  After Bob retired from the post office in 1969, he joined the Indianapolis Motor Speedway full time as its historian and served in that position until 1993.  Bob had two sons in racing besides Dave – Dan, also known as “D.O.” and Bobby who worked as a scorer for USAC.      

The Ruby group’s destination from the Speedway Airport on Saturday June 4 1966 was the General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee Wisconsin. The group then planned to travel the short distance by car to arrive at the Wisconsin State Fair Park one-mile oval in time for the start of practice for the USAC Rex Mays 100-mile race to be run the following day. At approximately 8:30 AM on that Saturday Bobby Unser in his Beech Travel Air took off in the downwind direction, rather than into the wind as is typical. Pilot witnesses on the ground later reported to Indiana State Police troopers that seconds after take-off, the Travel Air wobbled, but Unser, a pilot since 1958, applied more power, the twin-engine plane recovered and climbed away from the airport.

Just after Unser took off, Ruby rolled down the runway for his take-off, also in the downwind direction. Ruby’s V-tailed single engine Beech Bonanza reached approximately 100 to 200 feet in altitude, and then fell into Irene Timmons’ freshly planted corn field approximately ¼ mile northwest of the airport. Eyewitnesses that included Henry Goebel an architect and experienced pilot, and flight instructors Stan Leonard and William Lewis stated that the Bonanza had stalled. When rescuers arrived at the crash scene a few moments later, they found all four men outside of the severely damaged Beechcraft.

Lloyd Ruby suffered the most severe inquires, with compression vertebrae fractures and multiple cuts on his face which took a plastic surgeon 48 stitches to close. Laycock also suffered vertebrae fractures, while Cheesbourg suffered cuts to his scalp, arm and leg. The fourth passenger, ‘Tex’ McCullough who complained of a bruised chest and abdomen was treated and released while the other three men were admitted to the Methodist Hospital under the care of Indianapolis Motor Speedway track physician, Dr. Thomas Hanna. Ruby and Laycock remained hospitalized for two weeks before they were released to complete their recoveries at home.

Ruby’s injuries meant that he wouldn’t be able to race at LeMans, and officials at the Ford Motor Company received more bad news later that day, after A.J. Foyt crashed his #82 Sheraton-Thompson Lotus-Ford in practice at Milwaukee and suffered second and third degree burns on his hands, face and neck. 

Jackie Stewart's 1966 rookie Speedway portrait.
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection of the IUPUI University Library center for Digital Studies.  

The news got worse for Ford just a week before LeMans when another scheduled Ford GT40 team driver, Jackie Stewart, who nearly won the 1966 Indianapolis ‘500’ as rookie, crashed his BRM entry during the rain-soaked Formula 1 race at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium and suffered a broken shoulder, broken ribs and gasoline contact skin burns.

Ford hurriedly called up three replacements for Ruby, Foyt, and Stewart.  NASCAR Ford stock car driver Dick Hutcherson as the substitute for Foyt in one of the Holman-Moody GT40s was paired with sports car and Formula 1 driver Ronnie Bucknum, who had practiced but did not attempt to qualify for the 1966 Indianapolis ‘500’ in George Reeves’ Chevrolet V8-powered Lola T80.   Australian touring car racer Brian Muir replaced Stewart, paired with Graham Hill in one of Alan Mann GT40s, and Kiwi Formula 1 driver Denis Hulme teamed with Ken Miles in the Sebring and Daytona winning Shelby-American prepared GT40 Mark II. 

The finish of the 1966 24 hours of LeMans. Instead of the intended 'dead heat,' GT40 #2 on the left was declared the winner. AP photo.

The fleet of Ford GT40 Mark IIs of course dominated the later stages of the 1966 LeMans 24-hour race and in an ill-advised publicity stunt, Ford team managers ordered the two front-running GT40s, scored on the same lap to cross the finish line together. Ford racing officials believed this would result in a dead heat, but as the Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon driven machine had started further back in the starting field, it technically had traveled further and was declared the winner, which thus cheated Ruby’s friend Ken Miles out his hoped-for 1966 endurance three-race “clean sweep.”  

In addition to the races at Milwaukee and LeMans, Lloyd Ruby missed two other USAC championship short-oval races held at Langhorne Pennsylvania and Atlanta Georgia while he recovered from his injuries. Lloyd returned just fifty days after his aircraft accident to race the All American Racers’ Lotus 38 - Ford in the 150-mile Hoosier Grand Prix held on the Indianapolis Raceway Park 1.875- mile road course.  Ruby started from the pole position, but never led a lap and spun out the race on lap 43.  

Lloyd Ruby told FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) accident investigators that on take-off the Beechcraft Bonanza “just wobbled and started to dive,” while the flight instructor witness Lewis stated that in his opinion the “race drivers were in a hurry.” As aviation safety expert Max Trescott told the author “the same approaches that bring them success in the racing world are not the best practices for safe flying.” 

John Lingle's biography of Lloyd Ruby is highly reccomended

The subsequent FAA preliminary accident report faulted Ruby who only had a total of 55 hours of flight time for three mistakes – inadequate pre-flight preparation, improper and over-loading of the aircraft, and selection of the wrong runway relative to the existing wind, all of which resulted in the aircraft’s failure to obtain flying speed. The FAA suspended Lloyd’s pilot’s license for six months, but it really didn’t matter, as Ruby had taken his last flight as a pilot. As he told author John Lingle for his excellent book Hard Luck Lloyd “I didn’t want to fly anymore anyway,” and Ruby told Lingle he sold the Beech Bonanza for $12,500, which brought a close to this little-known part of Lloyd Ruby’s life.


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