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Willy T. Ribbs: ‘I was trying to do what the other drivers were trying to do — win races’

The first black driver in the Indy 500 knows his place in history but doesn’t get caught up in it

Willy T. Ribbs won’t reflect on the past during the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.

As the first African-American driver in the race, Ribbs is aware of his historic significance. He’s simply not emotionally tied to it.

“I have no feeling at all about [breaking Indy 500’s color barrier],” said the 63-year-old Ribbs. “I was trying to do what the other drivers were trying to do — win races. I did not become a race driver to break any color barriers. The only color barrier I was interested in breaking was the checkered flag.”

Ribbs, a native of San Jose, California, made his first attempt to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1985. He had the backing of boxing promoter Don King, who managed him. Ribbs, in a subpar Miller Beer March 85C, ran 48 laps with a best speed of 172.2 mph during qualifying. The two fastest rookies, Ed Pimm and Arie Luyendyk, ran at 199 mph and 195.5 mph, respectively. Ribbs withdrew from the race but still made history by becoming the first African-American driver to circle the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval.

Ribbs’ decision may have been a lifesaver. The flawed Miller Beer March 85C engine was a hand-me-down from Luyendyk. The car’s windscreen, the clear plastic piece that makes air go over the cockpit, was not large enough to be aerodynamically effective. Instead of the air flowing over the cockpit, it went straight into Ribbs’ face. As a result, Ribbs was constantly shaking his head left to right while speeding along the track’s long straightaways. Traveling that fast while learning how to navigate the track in a faulty Indy car could have been a disaster.

Ribbs ran three NASCAR events in 1986, but he made bigger news that year when he became the first African-American to drive a Formula One car. He tested for the Bernie Ecclestone-owned Brabham team in Portugal.

The following year, he drove for Dan Gurney in the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) GT Championship series. Ribbs won four races.

“When I was with Dan Gurney, we won a lot,” said Ribbs. “When I was with [Jack] Roush [Racing], we won. The only reason Roush and Ford wanted me was because there wasn’t anyone faster. They weren’t in love with Willy T. Ribbs, but they knew he wins. Dan Gurney and I had a great relationship, probably the best relationship I’ve ever had with an owner.”

Roush — the founder, CEO and co-owner of Roush Fenway Racing — has fond memories of Ribbs, who won 17 races for Roush and Gurney in the Trans-Am Series.

“Willy T. Ribbs is one of the most talented race car drivers that I have ever been around,” said Roush, an International Motorsports Hall of Famer. “I’ve often said you could set up a street course and pour oil, water and ice and anything else going into the corner and Willy might spin it out, but he wouldn’t hit a thing. He had an incredible feel for a race car and a great deal of talent behind the wheel.”

Ribbs joined the Championship Auto Racing Team (CART) series in 1990 in a car partially funded by comedian Bill Cosby. In 1991, he finally qualified for and ran in the Indy 500.

“If it wasn’t for Bill Cosby, I would’ve never been in IndyCar and I would’ve never been in the Indy 500. Period,” said Ribbs. “What he did for me, nobody else did. When the industry I was in made death threats and called me a n—–, he was there for me.”

Ribbs remains a staunch supporter of Cosby, who was found guilty on April 26 of three counts of aggravated indecent assault.

“We’re still in contact with each other,” Ribbs said. “I know he’s going through a very difficult time in his life now at 80 years old. What Bill did personally was none of my business. I had no idea what he does personally because that was not our relationship.”

Ribbs, who made two appearances in the Indianapolis 500, remembers how he met Cosby.

“He called me out of the clear blue,” Ribbs said. “He called me after calling my dad’s house. My number was unlisted. He asked my dad could he talk with me. My dad called me and had me call Bill back. I called the number back and it was [Cosby].

“He said he did not like racing but he liked what I was doing and what I represented and wanted to know if he could get involved with my career.”

Ribbs began the 1991 Indy 500 in the middle row in the 10th spot. He completed only five laps before engine failure forced him out.

There was a feeling after the historic run, with Cosby’s help, that corporate America would want to sponsor Ribbs’ endeavor. That never happened.

“When I was on a level playing field I always won races,” said Ribbs, who also raced in the 1993 Indy 500 and finished 21st. “I was the lead guy and the No. 1 guy to beat when I was on a level playing field. When I wasn’t on a level playing field, I was there. I was in the race. When I got to the top of the sport, IndyCar racing, supporters of the sport, automobile manufacturers and major corporate sponsors did not, let me repeat, did not support Willy T. Ribbs the way they supported the other drivers in the series.

“If I would’ve been step-n-fetch, a shuffling house boy, that would not have changed anything. Their weak cop-out for the real reason doesn’t carry any weight. They were scared. You have to consider that I broke the stereotype glass that black men weren’t mentally capable of driving a race car, being a front-driving race car driver. Lewis Hamilton further destroyed that myth, being a four-time [Formula One] world champion and the second-winningest driver in history. Between myself and Lewis Hamilton, all of that has been tossed in the trash can. I’m not bitter. They were stupid.”

Ribbs’ confident attitude was mistaken for arrogance. That didn’t translate well in corporate boardrooms.

“They didn’t misunderstand anything,” said Ribbs. “My personality was no different than A.J. Foyt’s. I wasn’t afraid. My grandfather used to tell me when I was on the ranch that if you’re afraid of a rattlesnake, he’ll bite you because he can smell your fear. What bothered them was that I didn’t kowtow. I wasn’t afraid. That was the problem. There’s simplistic excuses as to why I didn’t get to where I should’ve gotten.

“I wouldn’t change a thing. I knew the sport before I even started because my dad [William “Bunny” Ribbs] raced. The problem was that most of the people that I dealt with in sport had never been African-Americans or blacks. They come from a wealthy background. Well, I came from a pretty successful background as well. My parents could send me to Europe to become a race driver. I went to England and won my first championship and came back to the United States. I didn’t come from a poor background. That was another shocker. That was like a cattle prod on their a–. They wondered, ‘How dare he come into our sport and think he belongs? How dare him? That was the attitude I got. How dare you, n—–?’ ”

On Saturday, Ribbs will be at the premiere of Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Adam Carolla produced the documentary.

“When my fiancée [Stephanie Bauer] saw it, she cried for half an hour,” said Ribbs. “That’s the truth. She couldn’t stop crying. Adam Carolla told me that every time he sees it, his eyes well up.

“It’s a documentary about my career. This all came together about two years ago. They were doing a film on Paul Newman [Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman] and I was featured in it. They knew about the relationship I had with Bill [Cosby] and Paul and they thought my story would be a good one.”

Ribbs will be at the Indy 500 on Sunday, but he also will be keeping up with the 76th running of the Monaco Grand Prix. The Formula One race through the streets of Monaco will feature Hamilton.

“I’ve got to watch my friend,” said Ribbs.

Since he stopped being an active driver, Ribbs has been a big inspiration in helping his son Theodore become a professional shooter. His specialty is sporting clays, and he’s a competitor just like his father. Theodore is a four-time Texas state champion and three years ago was the Western Regional champion.

“He knows what he’s doing,” Ribbs said. “I started him off, but he’s made a name for himself in the sport.”

Ribbs’ driving exploits were legendary, but he’s uncomfortable with being called a living legend.

“I’m uncomfortable with that because I’m not finished,” he said. “There are plans for ownership in the sport. Maybe IndyCar. I’m not out to pasture yet. I’m not going to be driving but [plan on being in racing] from an ownership standpoint. I’m not finished.”

Daryl Bell is the assistant news editor and columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. He's a veteran journalist who has covered every major sport, and many minor ones.