Featured > INDY 500: Willy T. Ribbs, One Of A Kind, Pt 3

INDY 500: Willy T. Ribbs, One Of A Kind, Pt 3

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Originally posted in May, 2011.

We left you after Part 2 of Willy T. Ribbs: One Of A Kind with Ribbs having taken his first laps in the new Lola-Buick just two days ahead of the first of two weekends of qualifying for the Indy 500. Everything had gone according to plan, at that point.

PUSHING THE LIMITS OF HUMAN WILL

What unfolded for Walker Motorsport leading up to qualifying seemed like a short-lived soap opera filled more with daily cliff hangers than anyone could have predicted.

Ribbs appeared for the first time during official practice at Indy on Thursday, May 9th, 1991. Although raw speed was missing, by all accounts, it was a good first-day effort for the team.

A stripped down version of the volcanic Buick V6 turbo. (Image: MP Archives)
A stripped down version of the volcanic Buick V6 turbo. (Image: MP Archives)

The failure of the first Buick engine on Friday, May 10th, didn’t bother Ribbs at the time, but that would soon change. The number of good days awaiting Ribbs and the Walker team were about to become heavily rationed.

“Well, after [blowing up] the first engine, you just figure that’s normal,” Ribbs said. “That’s normal racing business, right?” Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Conventional wisdom said breaking one or two motors during the Month of May could be expected, but Walker Motorsport would soon re-write the worst-case scenario for engine failures at Indy.

In order for Ribbs to try and qualify during the first weekend, he needed to pass all four phases of the Rookie Orientation Program, but the Friday engine failure ended any hopes of that happening. All they could do was sit and wait as Rick Mears shot to claim pole position with Penske Racing.

With the first weekend of qualifying completed, Ribbs resumed practice with a fresh Buick on Monday, May 13th, and flew through his fourth and final ROP phase with ease. He even managed to set the fastest lap of the day (among those drivers who’d yet to qualify) at 213 mph.

The jump from Friday’s 204 mph was huge, and Ribbs still thanks the man he credits for unlocking the secrets of Indy.

“Mears…it was Rick Mears,” Ribbs said of the four-time Indy 500 winner. “Rick Mears was responsible for me totally rethinking my way around the Speedway. He said, ‘I was watching you, and I want you to change your approach to the corner.’ He says, ‘You’re approaching the corner more in a road course type fashion, which is what I would expect you to do. You’re making a diamond out of the corner. You’re turning the car to the center, right?’ He said, ‘What I want you to do is don’t turn in as soon as [have been]. Wait until the last minute and then I want you to make one motion to the center of the corner.’ One motion, right?

“He says, ‘Don’t make a diamond out of the corner, make a bowl out of the corner.’ He took his hands and he put his two hands together like a bowl, ‘Bowl that corner, don’t diamond it.’ That was it. That was all it took.”

Listening to Mears–arguably the greatest driver to grace the Indianapolis 500 with his talent—transformed Ribbs’ driving style at the famed 2.5-mile oval.

“All right, then let me go bowl this son of a bitch!” Ribbs continued. “I went damn near 10 mph faster my next time out. And I thought, ‘that was easy.’ And Rick says, ‘That’s normal.’ So then, hell, once we got that, we started working on [improving] the chassis and that was it.”

With Rick Mears in his corner, Ribbs' oval education soared. (Image: IMS Photo)
With Rick Mears in his corner, Ribbs’ oval education soared. (Image: IMS Photo)

Mears remembers his time with Ribbs quite fondly, and says helping the Indy 500 rookie to learn the track was just part of the job.

“That’s how Indianapolis works,” he said. “The veterans pass down what they know because Indy isn’t a track you can learn in a classroom or by spending a few days on the track. It takes years to figure out, so to be honest, I was only doing for Willy what the guys did for me when I was a rookie. He was a very good student, and you could tell he was a real driver.

“It was just a case of showing him how you had to be smooth around Indy compared to the stab-and-steer stuff you do on a road course. He was a very talented guy and a great guy on top of that. He listened, and so many rookies don’t. He respected the place very much, and that’s why he listened. Seeing the kind of speed increase he had, it was obvious that he understood what he needed to do around Indianapolis.”

Ribbs says a few more legends of the 500 were also responsible for adding to his knowledge base.

“Another person that was very instrumental was Mario Andretti,” he added. “He walked up to me and he says, ‘How’s it going?’ He says, ‘I don’t want you to try to make the car do something it can’t.’ I said, ‘Alright, but help me to understand what you mean by that.’ He said, ‘Make the car work for you. In this place, you have to have the car work for you. If the car is working for you, you can drive around here with one hand.’ He said, ‘If the car’s not working and you try to force it here, it’s going to get you.’ Remember, I had just a few days around Indy by that point. I had this one month of May to get it right. So that also helped me to change my mental approach to how I drove the car.”

Running was limited on Tuesday, May 14th, thanks to Mother Nature unleashing a mix of heat, rain and humidity on Indy. With little more than an hour of track time, Ribbs registered a 206 mph lap, but the day was considered a wash.

The forecast called for better conditions on Wednesday the 15th, and based on the promise Ribbs showed on Monday with his 213 mph lap, Walker Motorsport shifted from practice mode to getting the car—and Ribbs—ready for a simulated qualifying run. With practice time running out before the weekend’s second and final opportunity to qualify for the Indy 500, the time for taking baby steps was over.

With his Lola-Buick light on downforce, low on fuel and sitting on a new set of Goodyear tires, Walker sent Ribbs out to get a feel for life on the edge. Lapping Indy with plenty of downforce and fuel was still a challenge, but it was nothing like the high wire act called for during the unique four-lap qualifying procedure.

As every team did with its drivers, rookies and veterans alike, the goal of a simulated qualifying run was to provide an advance look at how the car would handle during those four laps and, if necessary, to make changes to the car’s handling to perform at its best to earn one of Indy’s 33 starting spots.

For Ribbs, the chance to do a simulated qualifying run lasted less than two minutes, ending with an oily, catastrophic cloud of smoke as he started his second lap. Buick engine number two (of two) was toast.

The budget to run Indy, as it was quoted to Cosby, should have lasted through the end of the race. Even with the anticipation of a few hiccups, Walker’s budget, although incredibly tight, included the standard margin for mistakes and engine problems.

But with money spent on the last-minute switch from Cosworths to Buicks, and two costly engine failures in such a short span of time, Walker’s bank account was running on fumes before they’d even had a chance to qualify. As generous as Cosby had been to put his own money into the program, going back to ask for more wasn’t an option.

Walker Motorsport had to fight for its survival to keep going at Indy, which the team owner proved he was more than capable of doing.

Derrick Walker. (Image: IMS Photo)
Derrick Walker. (Image: IMS Photo)

“There was a lot of behind the scenes horse-trading to get in the race because the amount of money we had to move forward was very, very minimal,” Walker said. “In fact, we were out of money several times before we even got to start the race. We relied on the folks at Buick, for example, they really helped us and loaned us an engine when we had engines blowing up. We had all sorts of dramas just during that one week to get ourselves there because we were just a small unit with no history together. It was the most unlikely crew that could ever have turned up and ever have gotten in the race.”

Prior to Buick and one of its main Indy car engine builders, Brayton Engineering, stepping in to help, Walker relied on the pair of engines he originally acquired to try and get through the event. In hindsight, and knowing how little he had to spend, Walker remains convinced that the ‘fresh’ engines he brought to Indy were probably closer to grenades-in-waiting.

“We had just gotten ‘new’ engines from Vince Granatelli that probably were not…that probably had the pin pulled out of them before we got them,” Walker said with a laugh. “And we didn’t know until we ran them. I don’t think it was any reflection on Buick, per se; I think I bought second-hand engines. Like I said, they had the old pin already halfway out before I got to them. What saved us in the end was actually Buick. I had two engines that I had bought and those disintegrated pretty quickly, and we got to a point where we were in the garage with the [broken] engine pieces strung out all over the ground and looking a bit dejected, and Jim Wright, who was the famous Brayton engine builder, he adopted us, helped in whatever way he could.”

Buick stepped in with Wright’s urging, but with a limited supply of healthy Buicks to draw from, Wright went to work repairing Ribbs’ blown engines while the auto manufacturer sourced another engine for the team to use to keep practicing. Located in Michigan, Brayton Engineering worked miracles to resuscitate Walker’s last motor, but the time required to get the engine ready to use meant the team spent Thursday parked in the garage.

Qualifying—the final chance to make the field—was looming large on the horizon. If they didn’t find the speed to make it into the field on Saturday or Sunday, Ribbs’ second attempt to make the field was over.

With limited running on Tuesday, even less running on Wednesday, and Thursday spent idling in the paddock, Ribbs had only Monday’s brief flirtation with an acceptable qualifying speed—the 213 mph lap set in perfect conditions at the end of the day and—to fall back on.

During a week where something close to perfection was needed, an endless supply of cartoon anvils kept falling from the sky and landing on Walker’s team.  And for Ribbs, the thrill of being at Indy was tempered by the frequent and dangerous engine detonations just over his shoulders.

“Well, these damn rod bolts that Buick had in there, the batch of rod bolts that we had were snapping left and right,” Ribbs said. “An entire batch of them was supposedly bad and we must have got all of them. We had the horsepower but we were getting very little track time.  After the second one blew, that’s what raised the red flag. I mean, I wasn’t getting more than 10 or 15 laps and then a rod bolt was breaking. Do you know that there was a USAC official that actually made a statement that I was purposely blowing engines? Yes. Purposely detonating those engines. I actually read that.”

Walker’s repaired race engine–just back from Brayton Engineering–was installed Friday morning. Provided everything went according to plan, Ribbs would shake the car down just after lunch and then another attempt at a simulated qualifying run would commence.

Ribbs was ready to roll just past 1:30 p.m. on Friday the 17th, but the same could not be said for his engine, which coated his pit stall with a thick layer of oil. With no time to tear the rebuilt engine apart, Buick came through with a well-worn test motor from one of its factory teams, Kenny Bernstein’s King Racing outfit.

If you’re following the chronology, the Walker team had blown the two Buicks they owned and now had to replace the replacement engine they were given. Like Rodney Dangerfield’s old joke about unreliable cars, Ribbs’ Lola-Buick was getting more mileage going up and down on the lift than on the racetrack.

“Buick made an engine available to us from Bernstein,” Walker said. “And I’ll never forget because when we got to that point, a lot of the media, or some of the hardcore media, were following the little drama that was building through the week.”

An intact Buick turbo... (Image: Marshall Pruett)
An intact Buick turbo… (Image: Marshall Pruett)

Ribbs’ recollection of how Buick came to the rescue is slightly different than Walker’s. While both agree that Jim Wright was the catalyst to make the deal happen, Ribbs says it took a fair bit of arm twisting to get the General Motors brand to take action.

“There was some leverage done,” he revealed. “We were all out of engines and Buick said they didn’t want to help out and they didn’t want to support an additional engine that would get us in the race. They didn’t want to do it. Joe Negri was the guy. And apparently one of the representatives went to him and said, ‘This is going to look real bad if the word gets out that you are not going to support Willy T. Ribbs and Bill Cosby.’ There was some muscle that was put down.”

King’s donor Buick engine was wheeled over to Walker’s garage and installed in record time. Ribbs was back on the track by the end of the day and set his fastest lap of the month, a 213.2 mph (compared to Monday’s 213.0), and for the first time in many days, the mood began to lift.

“I was sleeping pretty good Friday night,” Ribbs said. “And Cosby would call every day. Bill would call and say, ‘How are you feeling? Are you sleeping okay? If you’re sleeping all right I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ Bill was so relaxed about it. And he would never say don’t worry or everything is going to be all right. ‘Are you sleeping okay?’ ‘I’m sleeping okay.’ ‘Okay, Goodbye.’ That was Cosby.

“And then Tim Wardrop would say, ‘Strong like bull, cool like cucumber.’ That was our jingle, for lack of a better word. That was our jingle for 1991. Every day, every time we’d roll out to the track to practice, Wardrop would tell me, ‘Strong like bull, cool like cucumber.’ That was it, man.”

“The mounting pressure at Indy could have easily began to fray Ribbs’ nerves, but with his low-key engineer setting the tone, a sense of calm fell over Walker’s driver.

“Wardrop was so mellow that you never got amped up, you never got worried,” Ribbs said. “And he would sit down in the conference room and he’d say, ‘William,’ because he always called me ‘William,’ he’d say, ‘This is what we’re going to do and this is what I expect to get from it. And if I don’t get what I tell you to expect I want you to tell me.’ He’d say, ‘I want the back-end to do this and I want the front-end to do this.’ And every time I’d make a run he would say, ‘How’s the back-end?’ That was his number one question every time. And I’d say, ‘Well, it feels like it’s underneath me.’

Tim Wardrop. (Image IMS Photo)
Tim Wardrop. (Image: IMS Photo)

“He’d say, ‘I want to make sure you’ve got that back-end, when you go to hustling into turn one I want you to be secure about putting your foot down.’ He never pushed you or hurried you. He remained so calm. He worked so methodically and made sure you knew what he was doing, what he expected from the car and expected from you. That made my job so easy. He was the greatest. And that’s no disrespect to the other engineers that I worked with, but especially at Indy, Wardrop was just in another stratosphere.”

The confidence Ribbs had in Wardrop and the entire Walker team was strengthened yet again by Friday’s rapid turnaround. The car had showed some speed, but with Mears on pole with laps above 224 mph the previous weekend, Ribbs’ would have to do better than Friday’s 213 mph lap to safely earn one of the prized grid positions.

With the Buick engine wound up for qualifying, Ribbs pulled out onto the track just after 2 p.m. on Saturday the 18th to make his first qualifying attempt. With two blown engines, a repaired engine that had to be removed and now a loaner engine from a fellow Buick team in the back of Walker’s Lola, Ribbs was ready to put the drama leading up to qualifying behind him.

Unfortunately, the racings gods weren’t quite done with having fun at his expense.

Bernstein’s test motor broke a valve before Ribbs had completed his first official qualifying lap. Any hopes of qualifying on Saturday were lost. Walker had to scramble and find his second donor engine in a 24-hour span, and Ribbs was left with just one day left to qualify for the 1991 Indy 500.

For once, Wardrop’s calming influence had no effect on Ribbs. It took super human strength to maintain his composure through Friday, but with the latest setback, Ribbs’ was having a hard time finding a solution that would get him into the race.

“Yeah, I thought this could be curtains,” he said. “That was really the first time I thought it could be over. I mean, I needed to get in the show on Saturday so I could use all day Sunday to really prepare for the race because I had so little time in the seat. Every time I got in the damn thing, I was hopping right back out because the engine blew up. I mean, one engine blown after another engine blown. And I was starting to come to the realization that I wasn’t going to make enough laps to qualify.

“When that happened again on Saturday, I thought we were done. Toast. But Derrick and Wardrop looked at me and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a lot of time left.’ Let me tell you what, if Derrick and Tim Wardrop were playing poker, they would’ve won $10 million. Okay? Because they were playing poker and I was getting ready to cash out.”

Walker’s team had the broken Buick out of the Lola on Saturday evening and waited for a replacement to appear. When a motor did arrive from Brayton Engineering, Walker had to deny its origins.

Another Buick delivery. (Image: MP Archives)
Another Buick delivery. (Image: MP Archives)

“The media would come around to the garage and find out what’s the latest tragedy was,” Walker said with another laugh. “They had plenty of material to work with…no money, first African-American driver, Bill Cosby, the endless engine problems…they were all over this thing. So they came around to the garage and, of course, the engines were strewn about all over the place, and then this engine turned up from Buick. And they didn’t want anybody to know that they had done that, probably because they didn’t want everybody hitting on them for free engines. But they lent us this engine to use, so when the media guys turned up they said, ‘Where’d you get the engine? I thought you had no money?’

“I had to keep Buick’s name out of it because they told me to, so I just said off the top of my head, ‘Well, I bought it with my wife’s credit card…’ And it just so happened she was flying in from Pennsylvania, and when she arrived at the track and the word had got out that I had bought this engine on her credit card… And so she was like, ‘What’s that all about?’ She knew that we had no bloody money. So she thought I had done a Hari Kari and just flipping blown away our life’s savings by maxing out our credit card. I quickly told her it was just me and my mouth. But the story stuck…”

Walker awoke the morning of Sunday, May 17th, to find that his credit card story had not only made the local newspapers, it also served as a call to action.

“And, of course, the media went into writing it, saying about us not having any money,” he said. “One of the local schools down the road, predominantly African-American kids, they all felt sorry for Willy. And one of the classes passed a hat around and got, I don’t know, 20 dollars maybe, and they pitched in the money and the teacher contacted us and said the kids really wanted to help Willy get in the race. So we put their logo on the car and we arranged that Willy would go over to the school and meet the kids.”

That meeting would have to wait until after the Walker Motorsport team took its last run at making the Indy 500. Ribbs didn’t have another fallback day, nor did he have another engine to use if the secret Buick erupted before his four laps were finished.

With the donor engine in the car and the team ready to go, Ribbs, Walker and Wardrop knew something pretty special had to happen on the final day of qualifying.

GO/HOME

With a familiar to-do list on Sunday, Ribbs went out to shake down to car shortly after the six-hour session began. He had paid his dues in May of 1991—many times over—and the feisty little Walker Motorsport team had refused to give up or give in.

For their dedicated efforts and the drama that grew at an uncontrollable rate, the plight of the No. 17 car touched a lot of people. It was known that the first African-American driver was attempting to make the Indy 500, but thoughts of the color barrier became secondary for many. Throngs of supporters rooted for the underdog team, and Walker’s band of fighters became the sentimental favorites throughout the final week of qualifying.

A familiar sight for Ribbs & Co. in 1991. (Image: IMSP)
A familiar sight for Ribbs & Co. in 1991. (Image: IMSP)

That support, however, could not prevent what awaited Ribbs just before 1 p.m. on Sunday. A blown turbo—believed to be caused by remnants from Saturday’s engine failure—sent Ribbs back to pit lane with a massive cloud of white smoke trailing the car.

“We went out to practice in the afternoon,” Wardrop said. “I was standing by the wall on the exit of Turn 4 and Willy came into the pit entrance trailing a huge rooster tail of smoke. I thought, that’s it, we are done, the last borrowed engine. We all strolled back to the garage area as we thought we were finished with heavy hearts and wondering how we were going to pay our bills next month.”

With one hour down and five left to go, the team began to assess the damage with the help of Brayton’s Jim Wright. Thankfully, the engine’s internals were fine, but dismantling the back of the car to replace the turbo would consume more precious time.

“Jim fired up the engine in the garage and oil was pouring out of the exhaust pipe which normally means the end,” Wardrop explained.

The repair work was completed by 2:30 p.m., leaving approximately three hours to find the speed necessary before putting the car in line to qualify ahead of the 6 p.m. deadline. As you’ve probably come to expect by now, more problems came to light. Debris from the last broken engine also made its way inside the oiling system, which damaged the scavenge pump, and was discovered when the engine was started while the car was still in the garage after the turbo replacement.

Although it took almost an hour to replace the oil pump, if the issue was found after the car had been sent out onto the track, it’s likely Ribbs’ team would not have had enough time to head back to the garage and start the process of dismantling the back of the car once again.

TIME FOR A HAIL WILLY

As Walker admits, the car might have been repaired and ready to run, but his driver was almost ready to walk away.

Would the Buick hold for a full qualifying attempt? (Image: IMS Photo)
Would the Buick hold for a full qualifying attempt? (Image: IMS Photo)

“We were on the last day and in and out of finding enough speed, going backwards, going downhill, losing our way, as you do with the temperature of the day changing and your grip levels changing, and through this process Willy’s getting a little disturbed by it all,” he said. “And he was really not comfortable with it because the car wasn’t feeling good to him and it kept blowing up. And we understood that. It’s pretty common there for drivers. Even the best of them can go through that insecure feeling that you have when the car isn’t 100 percent and the track’s really greasy. He was cussing us out, and he was not happy with it.

“And he didn’t want to put himself in the fence. And we realized that, so we weren’t going to ram it down his throat, but we were pleading with him: ‘Willy, this is your last chance, just give it a try. If it doesn’t feel good enough, then get off of the throttle, park it and nobody can say we didn’t try.’ And he still wasn’t a happy camper, but he said he was going to bloody do it. So, cussing away, he gets in the car and off he goes.”

Ribbs, who doesn’t disagree with Walker’s account of the situation, was reluctantly strapped into the car and went out to practice just after 3:30 p.m. where he set his fastest lap of the month at 213.4 mph in just nine laps of running. It was good, but not good enough.

Ribbs’ ability to jump in the car and suppress his frustration, anxiety, and any lingering doubts about the longevity of his engine was remarkable, but none of those things mattered. More speed was needed to make the field of 33, and ASAP.

As four o’clock came and went, Ribbs’ efforts to keep the intensity of the situation at bay were starting to wane. He knew the car could go faster, but the expectations of a cloud of smoke to trail from his Buick—which could easily lead to a 200 mph greeting with the concrete walls, or an oil leak to spring while sitting in the pits began to creep in.

“Willy was, at best, giving confusing feedback as to the car’s handling,” Wardrop said. “He was under huge pressure to make the race, and to say the least, he was somewhat distracted. He was given advice from all sorts of unqualified areas as to what he needed to make this race. And I had not realized until that time, the political ramifications of a sometimes racist society and the pressure on him to deliver.”

Like Ribbs, Wardrop was also beginning to struggle to keep his emotions in check.

“That weekend,” he said, “Phillip, Willy’s brother, was giving him advice how to exit Turn 4. Phil was a plumbing superintendent…and there he was trying to coach Willy as to how he should drive around the Speedway! I’m a pretty tolerant person, but that sent me close to the edge…”

Ribbs was sent back out at 4:15 p.m. and moved the bar higher to a lap of 214.4 mph. Better, closer, but still not enough to reach the minimum speed it would take to successfully qualify.

Another run at almost 4:45 p.m. signaled they were finally in the window. Ribbs’ lap of 215.4 mph wasn’t fast enough to make Walker or Wardrop relax, but they knew the car still had more speed in it.

“The speed was there and it was starting to come easier,” Ribbs explained. “That’s when my mindset changed to: We’re going to stay here. At noon I was resigned to the fact that I was going to be answering questions to the media as to the disappointment of not being in the 1991 Indy 500. I already resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to answer questions: How do you feel? Is it disappointment? How do millions of black people feel? All those questions… How do 40 million black people feel that you’re not in the race? I’m already hearing this sh*t in my head at one in the afternoon, right?

“So here it is, past four o’clock, and we’re running good laps and the car is surviving. It’s not blowing up. And that’s when we did the 215 lap. Man, I came in, and I said, ‘Tim, I don’t know how much longer this is going to live, so let’s get this piece of sh*t in the show.’ And I was very graphic and I was very confident. There was no doubt because, hell, I was running 215s on old tires.”

Walker Motorsport had 75 minutes to go before the gun would fire to signal the end of qualifying. The emotions and excitement began to swell within Ribbs, but his partner made sure to keep him focused.

“We had a little over an hour left, and Wardrop, with his poker face, leans into the car and says, ‘Strong like bull, cool like cucumber,’ he recalled. “I’m like, ‘you’re sh*tting me…you’re telling me this now? He was absolutely ice cold, which is what I needed. I needed it. I said, well, sh*t, if Tim’s going to be that cool, so am I! So he says, ‘I’m going to put your set of [qualifying tires] on and I want you to do a lap and come in.’

“I said, ‘What? For what? Let’s get this crap over with.’ He says, ‘No, just do a lap and come in. I want to look at them.’ He says, ‘William, I saved these for you, and they are the best qualifiers you’re going to see in the world.’”

NEXT: Time To Perform

 

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Marshall Pruett