He held the track record at Langhorne, got one of the loudest ovations ever at the Hoosier Hundred, survived spectacular flips on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, raced 44 years over five decades and was one of the most-beloved drivers ever with open wheel fans.
But, sadly, Ralph Liguori will most likely be remembered for never making the Indianapolis 500.
Ralphie The Racer, who died Wednesday at age 93, came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a ride 10 times and never made the big show. He didn’t drive the best cars — not even close — and got bumped in 1959 and 1963.
“I’ve got admit that it does bother me that I’m known as the guy who never made Indianapolis,” said Liguori during an interview back in 1977. “I wanted to make that race so bad but it never happened so I kinda got stuck with the label as a loser.
“But I had some pretty good runs in my career.”
The most memorable came in 1970 at the Hoosier Hundred (pictured, top), which back then was the second highest-paying race in USAC and televised by ABC’s Wide World of Sports. “Lagooch” qualified 10th and steadily worked his way forward until he got right behind second-place A.J. Foyt.
Driving the old Walt Flynn dirt car, the 43-year-old veteran passed Super Tex with a few laps to go as the packed grandstand erupted in cheers. When he pulled in, the runner-up got a bigger ovation than winner Al Unser.
“Probably my most satisfying moment in racing,” he recalled.
Starting in NASCAR stocks in 1951, the New York City native quickly adapted to Langhorne’s tricky and lethal D-shaped oil dirt oval that killed so many drivers. He set the track record of 104.107mph in scoring his first USAC sprint win at the Horne in 1957 and suddenly was on car owner’s radar.
His first visit to Indy was in 1959 and he was assigned to the Eldorado Maserati, a car that had been built for Stirling Moss. He qualified but got bumped. In 1961, he was taking his refresher test in Andy Granatelli’s Novi when the engine exploded and the car slid in its own oil, pounded the wall and caught fire. Ralph got burned but returned to the Speedway a couple days later only to find his ride had been turned over to Russ Congdon. Dick Rathmann and Paul Russo also practiced in the cantankerous car but nobody could go fast enough to qualify.
From 1962-68 Liguori showed up at Indy and drove 13 different cars but never made the show. He got bumped at 5 p.m. on the final day of time trials in 1959 and at 5:40 on Bump Day in 1963.
And the fitting swansong to his star-crossed Indy career came in 1976 when his loyal fans donated $11,000 to the cause but the 50-year-old veteran couldn’t find any takers for his services.
He tried making the Hoosier Hundred in 1983 and won a regional midget race at age 70 before finally hanging up his helmet in 2008.
Yet despite all his heartbreak at 16th & Georgetown, “Lagooch” always maintained a pleasant personality. Sure, not making Indy hurt, but he made a lot of fans with his plucky spirit.
“I’m very lucky,” he said back in 2002. “I’ve got a nice trailer park in Tampa that’s paid the bills and I was able to race in the golden era of sprints and Indy cars against some of the best guys. I had some good days and some bad ones, but no regrets. You know, except not making Indianapolis.”