PRUETT: Why isn’t Willy T Ribbs’ 1991 car in the IMS Museum?

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PRUETT: Why isn’t Willy T Ribbs’ 1991 car in the IMS Museum?

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PRUETT: Why isn’t Willy T Ribbs’ 1991 car in the IMS Museum?


After the Indy 500 on May 26, Ribbs and Walker raised modest amounts of sponsorship to keep going and complete a partial season, with stops at the CART street race in Detroit next on the calendar, followed by visits to the airport circuit in Cleveland and another street race out in New Jersey where they earned a 10th-place finish. It was at the next round, on the big superspeedway oval in Michigan, where the story of chassis HU12 takes a pivotal turn.

“I had a conflict that Michigan weekend, so I couldn’t be there,” Ribbs said. “So they put Jon Beekhuis in the car.”

Raised 15 minutes from Ribbs in Los Altos, Calif., Beekhuis was a talented open-wheel racer who won the 1988 Indy Lights championship before waging a three-year campaign to find consistent opportunities to drive in CART. Nearly a year had gone by since Beekhuis took part in his last race — the 1990 Michigan 500 — when the chance arose to fill in for his fellow Bay Area man with Walker at the 1991 event.

Beekhuis and his ill-fated Lola at Michigan. Image by Dan R. Boyd

Beekhuis and the renumbered No. 10 Walker Lola-Cosworth were nothing less than impressive, qualifying 12th with a speed of 220.627mph around the fast 2.0-mile oval.

“I know Willy really didn’t want us to go and race without him, but I told him, ‘I have to go because that’s the only source of income I can get,’” Walker added. “And so that’s how we went to Michigan with Jon.”

“I didn’t find out about the old pushrod until I woke up in the hospital,” Beekhuis said.

As the official record shows, Beekhuis and chassis HU12 got through practice and qualifying, but didn’t take part in the Michigan 500 race.

“It wasn’t until after he’d crashed that we learned a [suspension] pushrod failed,” Walker said. “It was the right-front pushrod that went in the morning warm-up session, and he hit the Turn 3 wall very hard on the right side. When people from Lola came by and looked at the car and saw the pushrod, they said, ‘Well, you’ve got the original pushrods on this thing. We’ve made updated pushrods, since the originals were a problem… That’s why it failed.’”

Beekhuis at speed with the old pushrod highlighted in blue. Image by Dan R. Boyd

“The year before at the Michigan race, Al Unser Sr. had exactly the same crash I ended up having,” Beekhuis said. “He was in a ’90 Lola and the pushrod failed; he hit the wall hard, broke his femur, and they stopped the event for a long time while they assessed the reason and had reinforced pushrods done for the Lolas, because the field was mostly Lolas.

“Somehow, an older pushrod got used and we had a big crash ourselves; that was well over 200mph. And when the pushrod fails, the car just sits down on that corner and scrapes along the track while you’re truly a crash test dummy waiting to hit the wall.”

Decades later, Beekhuis — better known these days for his peerless broadcasting career as a motor racing pit reporter — has no problem recalling the small details.

“My right hand was trapped against the steering wheel,” he said. “The right-front wheel got trapped between the wall and the car in the impact and the wall pushed the wheel and tire into the side of the tub right where my hand was gripped on the steering wheel. The whole tub kinked around that tire. I was in the cockpit under major pressure for 20 minutes until they cut the car apart.

“So it smashed my hand against the steering wheel — which I still have — and then my helmet hit the wheel, so I think that, with the G forces in the impact, ended up knocking me out. But after I hit, I was sliding down the track with my broken hand on the radio button, I said, ‘Something broke on the car’ to the crew, and then I passed out. That’s such a driver thing to do…I needed them to know it wasn’t my fault, and then I was out.”

The pushrod-induced crash pre-empted Beekhuis’ run with Walker, and his IndyCar racing career ended shortly thereafter. Image by Dan R. Boyd

Heavily bruised and dazed, Beekhuis was extricated from the twisted chassis once it was cut away on the right side by the safety team’s hydraulic Jaws of Life machine. Transported to Foote Hospital in Jackson, Mich., Beekhuis was fortunate to escape with a single broken bone in his right hand.

“Of course, I’d never run a Lola before this one I’d bought,” Walker said. “I didn’t realize there was a part on the car just waiting to fail. We found out the hard way.”

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