The following is an excerpt from Hard Luck Lloyd: The Complete Story of Slow-Talking, Fast-Driving Texan Lloyd Ruby. The book was written by More Front Wing contributor John Lingle and features more than 280 color and black and white photographs interspersed with interviews from racing greats like Mario Andretti, Al and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Parnelli Jones, and Dan Gurney. Hard Luck Lloyd is available for order now from Racemaker Press and Coastal181.com.
‘I BLEW A WHEEL’
A Firestone dealer from Atlanta and overseer of the brand’s racing-tire distribution for 21 states, Gene White started his own Indy car team for the 1967 season. Backed heavily, some say entirely, by Firestone, the team from the outside looked to lack nothing when it came to funding or equipment. Lloyd’s friend Dave Laycock was brought on board as chief mechanic, and Laycock designed his own chassis for 1967, which was dubbed the “Mongoose.” Based on a tubular-space-frame Brabham chassis, the Mongoose was as cutting-edge as Indy cars got in early 1967. Racing technology was growing at an exponential rate, as qualifying speeds at Indy that year would jump 4 mph over 1966. As engines were constantly evolving, Gene also had a Lotus Ford as a backup car, should Lloyd need it in lieu of the Mongoose, which was outfitted with a turbocharged Offy. Surprisingly, though, given the length of time the team ran the chassis, the Mongoose was never actually part of the plan in the beginning.
“I went to work for Gene White, and he was supposed to get us some cars from Brabham,” said Laycock. “Ruby and I had signed on to work for him, but they couldn’t get any cars and Ruby and I had to do something. I had never really built a car, but we built one in about two months based on a Brabham. If we wanted to go racing we had to do something, and the Brabham guys weren’t getting the job done, so we had to do something.
“We copied the Brabham to some degree, but we put our own touches on it as well,” Laycock continued. “Well, Gene turned around and sold that one since we had about four going at that time. So the second one we tested a couple of times, and took it to Phoenix for the opener.”
To say the Mongoose got out of the gate on a good note would be a colossal understatement. Ruby, Gene, and Dave debuted the car on April 9 at the Jimmy Bryan Memorial at Phoenix International Raceway. The car was so new when it came off the trailer that it didn’t even have a paint job yet. Taped-on black numbers adorned the all-white chassis, but the lack of sponsor logos proved of little concern to Ruby. Rube put the Mongoose on the pole at a blistering 122.324 mph (29.43 seconds), then proceeded to dominate the entire race. Lloyd led all 150 laps—despite being spun out while lapping Mel Kenyon on lap 123—to take his third career USAC championship car win. Lloyd’s closest competition on the day would come from Roger McCluskey, but even he was more than a full lap behind Ruby at the finish. The fact that 40 of the 150 laps were run under caution makes it even more apparent how dominant Mongoose and Ruby were in their debut together.
The next event saw a faulty turbocharger housing put Lloyd out at Trenton after qualifying a close second to eventual race winner Mario Andretti, but Rube’s hopes were still high as he looked for redemption at Indy that year. Mario definitely saw the Gene White Racing team as a threat. “As a competitor Lloyd was always one to be reckoned with,” Andretti said. “He was always there. If he was on the track you damn well knew he was there if you were going to try to win any race.” Mario chalked up Lloyd’s ability to adapt quickly to new cars, rather than equipment alone, as a reason for his success in Indy cars: “He was really good in the rear-engine cars. He was so adaptable, and he could adapt because he had that talent. He was one of the first roadster drivers to really adapt and that’s why he was a force to be reckoned with.”
The Gene White Racing team rolled into IMS with a car that they thought was good enough to win. The Firestone tires, on the other hand? Maybe not as much. As practice opened, Lloyd experienced a blowout on his #25 American Red Ball Special. When questioned by reporters as to what had happened, Lloyd succinctly responded, “I blew a tire.” This wasn’t the answer that Firestone wanted their drivers putting out at the height of the tire wars. The next day drivers were told to use anything as an excuse other than a blown tire. One particularly hilarious term was to say that the “tire equalized pressure,” meaning that there was as much air outside the tire as inside it. Goodyear got in on the act and told its drivers to do the same. Cale Yarborough remembered that Firestone PR then issued new instructions to drivers. “They said to say you ran over something or that something broke, but not to even mention the word ‘tire,’ ” Cale recalled in his memoir. The next day Lloyd went out and again had a tire failure. When asked yet again by reporter Bill Pittman for the cause of the issue, Lloyd thought for a minute and then drawled, “Well Bill, I blew a wheel.”