Originally posted in May, 2011.
We left you after Part 3 of Willy T. Ribbs: One Of A Kind with Ribbs ready to qualify for the Indy 500. With a new set of tires bolted onto the Walker Motorsport/Bill Cosby Lola-Buick, the full weight of attempting to make the show was about the descend on the Californian.
Ribbs believes that his engineer, Tim Wardrop, applied a special treatment of some sorts to the tires he was about to use in qualifying, but in reality, they just had a bit more stagger to help the car to turn. Wardrop could have explained what made the tires special, but didn’t want to break Ribbs’ concentration.
“The tires were put in a room with a padlock on them,” said Ribbs. “It was go-time for qualifying, so one of the mechanics runs down to the garage and brings out these magic set of qualifiers. He brings them over and puts them on the car and Tim says to me again, ‘I want you to do a lap and go out and come in.’ So I went out and came right in. [USAC chief steward] Tom Binford said, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s just going to be a shakedown lap.’ So I went out, came in. And Tim looked at the tires and he says, ‘Okay, you ready to go?’ I said, ‘Oh hell yeah, it’s going to be fun. The car is perfect.’ So I hopped out and they rolled the car down to the tech inspection.”
Ribbs believed the tires offered an advantage–which they did–and the end result was just what Wardrop was hoping for: The Lola-Buick was FAST and ready to make a qualifying attempt.
After weeks of turmoil and failures, Ribbs went into fight mode early in the event. He wasn’t physically or mentally aggressive, but after rolling with the punches for so long, it took a few interactions well-wishers to shake him out of that mindset to bring home the importance of what was about to take place.
“My brother Phil and I were walking down to the car and came off the scales to make sure that it was legal,” he said. “I’ll never forget, I was waiting to get ready to go out and [legendary IndyCar team owner] Carl Haas comes up to me and he has that cigar in his mouth and he has tears in his eyes. And he shook my hand and he says, ‘Go do it.’ And he was nervous. I’ve never seen so many nervous people in my life. Even Tom Binford was nervous. It was funny as hell, everybody was nervous. They were being worried for me. And I kept looking at them, I was like, ‘Don’t you guys know that this shit’s going to happen?… I’m going to qualify!’”
The waves of emotion surrounding Ribbs continued to penetrate the cockpit, and no matter how hard he tried to ignore it, the historical nature of the moment began to sink in. Not only was Ribbs about to make a qualifying attempt, but if he succeeded, Indy would have its first African-American driver in the field.
“So I’m in the cockpit, I’m getting ready to go in and Binford looks at me and he says, ‘Hey, Willy, if the car ain’t right, come right back here and I’ll push you right up into the front of the line.’ I mean, it was his show,” he said. “He ran the thing, but you really weren’t supposed to do that…. He said, ‘I don’t give a fuck who’s ahead of you.’ Oh, it was funny as hell. I loved that guy.”
With Binford’s blessing, Ribbs started to roll for his qualifying run.
“So, they release you from the pit stall and direct you down pit lane to start your run. I’m going down the pit lane and they’ve got all these USAC marshals on each side of you, right, and you go between them kind of like you’re driving through a parade on city streets, and they send you off and give you a thumbs up, right? So I’m driving through this parade of people, and then there was a black USAC marshal I saw. And I would say he was in his 60s, maybe 70s.
“He was the only black face I saw – I mean, and as I’m going through these guys to go out onto the track, and I looked at him and he was crying, man. He was crying. And I looked at him and I could see the tears coming down his eyes and I said to myself, ‘Willy, don’t look at him. Don’t look at him, or you’ll start crying too.’”
It was the chance that Ribbs’ hero, Joie Ray, never had. Or Mel Leighton, Charlie Wiggins, Leon Warren, Sumner Oliver, Jack Desoto, Charles Stewart, and so many other African-American drivers who were never afforded the chance to compete at Indy decades before Willy T. arrived.
“I approached Turn 1 and drove right out onto the track,” he continued. “And that’s when I told myself, ‘It doesn’t matter anymore.’ That’s what I said to myself. I said, ‘It doesn’t matter anymore.’ I said, ‘You’re in this race or you’re in a box.’ I tell you that. Dead or alive. That was it. Dead or alive.”
READY FOR ACTION
Ribbs wheeled the No. 17 Lola-Buick out to start his run at 5:15 p.m., and with 45 minutes left to make the show, he took solace in the knowledge that Bill Cosby, everyone at Walker Motorsport, Brayton Engineering, Buick, and USAC had done all they could to put him in a position to succeed.
All he needed now was for his Buick engine—a replacement of a replacement of a replacement—to hold together during his warmup laps and the four laps of qualifying.
“I knew that I had the car underneath me but I also knew that I was going to run faster than I’ve ever run in my life,” he said. “And I knew I had to run flat out. I mean my foot was on that peg where you couldn’t push the throttle down any harder, right? I could feel metal to metal, okay? I didn’t think about the engine not surviving; I was confident that the engine would live and so I didn’t even think about that. My main focus was: Make your laps absolutely perfect, make your turn-ins perfect, make your exits perfect, make your middles perfect, and that was my main concern. And it was the most pleasant ride I had all month. It was like driving through the park. And that’s not an ostentatious statement; it felt like a ride through the park.”
The Lola handled well, the Buick was making serious horsepower, and Ribbs was hitting his marks. His first official qualifying lap was the fastest he’d gone all month, posting a 217.8 mph lap as he crossed the start/finish line and streaked into Turn 1 to start Lap 2.
41.2 seconds later, he crossed the yard of bricks at start/finish with an even faster lap of 217.9 mph. Ribbs was plenty fast to make the race, and just had to hold on for two more laps in the same speed range. Lap 3 was good for 217.5 mph, but with so little time to setup the car to perform at its peak in qualifying, Lap 4 saw a drop in speed.
“The car was as fast and it performed everything I wanted it to do up to that point,” he said. “But on the last lap, the front-end was starting to give up a little bit. It gave up in Turn 3 a little bit. And Turn 3 was my gauge: If I could run flat through Turn 3 easy, I could probably get through Turn 4 pretty good too. Turn 3 at Indy was my favorite corner. It was the corner that I had no problem smoking right through there. Turn 4, on that last lap, gave me problems.”
Lap number four registered at 216.0 mph, which was well off his first three laps, but altogether, his qualifying run averaged 217.358 mph. Not only was Ribbs safely in the field in 29th place, he was also the fastest qualifier on the final day of time trials.
With less than an hour to go, Ribbs and Walker Motorsport performed when it mattered most. The Buick engine ran flawlessly, as did Wardrop’s magic tires. The elation in the pits and in the grandstands told the tale of how popular Ribbs’ qualifying run had been.
For the man behind the steering wheel, it took a few moments before he had final confirmation that he’d made it into the field.
“I saw the checkered flag in a split second, and I looked up but I was by it in a blur,” he said. “As I was going through Turn 1, and Turn 2 on my cool-off lap, we didn’t have a radio, so the team couldn’t talk to me. As I went through Turn 2, on the right was those Turn 2 suites, and out of the corner of my eye I saw everybody on the balcony of these suites waving their arms. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s the signal. You’re in.’ They were waving their arms frantically and I waved back. I knew we’d done it.”
PRINCE WILLIAM’S MOTHER?
The mind can venture into odd and unexpected places when excessive pressure and stress is relieved, and according to Ribbs, what happened as he rounded Turn 2 on his way back to the pits certainly qualifies as both odd and unexpected.
“You’ll never believe what went through my mind,” he said. “So I’m going down the back straight cooling down and Princess Diana came into my mind. Why I thought about Princess Diana, I have no idea. It was like surreal. And I thought, ‘Why am I thinking of Princess Diana?’”
With ‘odd’ now marked off the list, get ready for the ‘unexpected.’
“And then I thought, ‘Shit, you’re a king, man. Take her to bed!’” he added. “That’s exactly what I thought. ‘You’re a King, take the Princess to bed.’ I never told anybody that. Then as I went through Turn 4, I forgot about all that and I see all these people waving as I’m coming down pit lane. And I mean, all these emotions thoughts are going through my head. It was unbelievable.”
Footage of Ribbs entering pit lane to find a receiving line mechanics, drivers, and officials is one of the most enduring images from that day. With the relatively compact Ribbs having climbed partially out of the cockpit, he extended his hand to the side of the car to touch the hands of those who wanted to congratulate him, but at the time, he took some heat for what was regarded as excessive celebrating.
“My arms are not as long as Shaquille O’Neal’s, okay?” he said. “And I could see people reaching out to slap my hand and I knew that I didn’t want to hit anybody with the front tires so I had to unbuckle my belts and raise up and lean out of the cockpit to hit people’s hands who were stuck out there. I was very happy and people were walking out into the front of the car to hit my hand. I didn’t induce that. I mean, if no one would’ve walked out to congratulate me, I sure wouldn’t have gotten out of the cockpit.”
IndyCar reporter Robin Miller remembers the scene quite vividly.
“I remember him coming down on his cool-off lap, coming into the pits, he was halfway out of the cockpit and he’d a gotten a great ovation from the fans that were there and the racing fraternity in general,” he said. “Rick Mears got a big ovation when he got the pole, and they cheered just as loud for Willy. Because they all understood that was pretty damn good to go out and with everything against you and all the pressure in the world on a you, and you go out and perform like that. He just nailed it.”
Tim Wardrop recalls the general joy and positivity that surrounded Ribbs and Walker Motorsport on pit lane after qualifying for the 500, but cautions against the belief that everyone in attendance was happy to see the first African-American make the race.
“One comment from [the team manager of a current IndyCar team] almost spoilt the moment,” Wardrop noted. “He said, ‘Congratulations [Tim], you have the world’s fastest nigger…”
As he got to the end of pit lane and pulled into the pit stall where the official qualifying photo is captured, Ribbs says an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and appreciation warmed his body.
“Well, when I came to a stop, the crew had been coming up on the golf cart, Derrick [Walker] and Tim and all that, they were chasing me down to get to where you stop and where the photographs are taken,” he said. “I knew we had done it and there was a big relief, of course, I felt like, okay, everything went right and I’m in the Indianapolis 500. I am in the Indianapolis 500. And I felt great for myself, I felt more great for those who committed to me. I felt better for Derrick, I felt better for Tim, and I felt really good for Bill Cosby.
“Bill put his name and reputation on the line for me. And I kept thinking about the guys around me. Here’s Bill Cosby, Tom Binford, my team, Tim Wardrop, John Waters and Buddy Lindblom and all the crew… I was raised [to believe] that if people that stand by you, you stand by them. If there was a Willy T. Ribbs movie you wouldn’t have to my whole career, you could just do that month. It was that dramatic. And when I stood up to get out of the car, Mari Hulman George was one of the first people there.”
Hulman George, the chairman of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, had long been a supporter of African-American drivers. She put Joie Ray in one of her sprint cars when he lost his chance to break Indy’s color barrier in the 1950s, and offered continual support and encouragement through May of 1991 as Ribbs and the Walker team kept fighting.
“She was the first person there,” Ribbs continued. “And Mari, she could ask me, and she has, to do anything – and I’m there. That’s how I feel about Mari. She’s genuine. Mari Hulman George is genuine. From the time she was a young lady until, right up until she was the chairman, she was helping Joie Ray back in the days when there was segregation. She told the Speedway and all the officials there, when the Ribbs family comes there, roll out the red carpet. It was my mother and my brothers, everybody, my family had just the most wonderful experience they could ever imagine. And it came from the top.”
Bill Cosby also came to appreciate Hulman George’s progressive stance on embracing diversity at Indy, and drew a parallel between her and what the wife of the United States President had done in World War II to support a certain group of African-American pilots.
“Eleanor Roosevelt…Tuskegee Airmen…Eleanor Roosevelt..,” Cosby said in his non-linear way. “So this wonderful woman, Mari, does what she believes. And I’m sure she took heat. If you’re looking at a group of people and they say, ‘You can’t come here,’ and you wanted to be there like Willy and others did, and they say, ‘You can’t come here,’… I guess that life can be filled with people who, when they got to that point, they stopped and did not pursue it anymore. And then there are people, like Willy, who say, ‘excuse me,’ and they work around it. Always going forward. And then you have the people who help you work around it, like Mari. What a wonderful woman.”
ONE OF US EQUALS ALL OF US
Ribbs also basked in the support and encouragement of his blueprint, the man Hulman George helped 45 years earlier.
“I’m standing on pit lane early in the month and this older black man comes up and asks if he can introduce himself,” Ribbs said. “I knew who he was the moment I looked up and saw him…it was Joie Ray. And he’s asking if he can meet ME? Are you kidding? He was my hero. Always had been. My hero. I was embarrassed. The honor was all mine, man. I mean, this was Joie Ray! From that day on, he was there every day, just giving me love. Always there. That meant so much to me to have him there…to be a part of things. To share in what he should have had long before me, you know? When we made the race, that was for him and everyone that should have had their names in the history books.”
BUSINESS FIRST, HISTORY SECOND
The first African-American had broken through the color barrier, but what seemed to resonate most with people was how Ribbs and the team had broken through barriers of desperation and hopelessness as they clawed their way onto the starting grid.
For Derrick Walker, the fact that Walker Motorsport had earned a spot in the Indy 500 was enough of a prize. History had been made in terms of race, but the human spirit also earned a victory on Sunday, May 17th.
“To be frank, I didn’t really think about the historical significance of it at that moment,” he said. “I mean, I knew about it; I knew it would be us, so to speak, that really did it. But it didn’t play into anything we did. The thing about racing is when you turn up and you jump in the car or you put your helmet on, you’re just another bloody team, you’re just another driver. You can punch around history all you want but nobody really pays any attention to it when you’re competing, and it doesn’t make you go faster. It doesn’t guarantee anything. In fact, if anything, the odds are against you.
“But we didn’t think about it in those terms. We were really just a survivor. This was my first race with my team, my first team and we were on life support most of the time. I’d been racing for, I don’t know, 25, 30 years at that point, and this was when I left the best job ever, which was working for Roger Penske, I left that whole organization to go chart my own course, which was to have my own team. And we just kept after it until we had qualified. It was after that had set in that we realized what had been accomplished for Willy.”
Ribbs carried much of the same sentiment that Walker had expressed, but after what took place in 1985, and the long path back to Indy that followed, the then-35-year-old gave his honest opinion when speaking to the assembled media soon after his qualifying run was over.
“I’m glad to make history,” he said. “Because it’ll only be done once. I’m certainly aware of the cultural and social implications of me making this race, but really, [and] speaking as a racer, this is simply fantastic.”
Later in the decade, Wardrop went on to even greater success at the Indy 500, but he still hails Ribbs’ qualification run as the most significant achievement of his career.
“I have won the Indy 500 and been on the pole there fairly regularly,” he said. “But if you take into account the situation and the adversities, Willy’s qualifying for the 500 in 1991 gave me the most pleasure. It was my finest hour.”
WOULD YOU CARE FOR SOME MAYO?
News of Ribbs’ history-making drive brought an overwhelming amount of attention the following day.
“The telegrams and the gifts came from everywhere,” Ribbs said. “Our garage was flooded with gifts and telegrams from all over the world. A message came from the Vice President of the United States saying he would like to be our guests at the race. It was almost surreal. And then General Norman Schwarzkopf was there two days later.
“And then Dan Gurney sends me a watermelon.”
Rewind the tape.
Gurney did what?
“It was around Tuesday or Wednesday,” Ribbs said with a mischievous laugh. “And a box with a watermelon with fried chicken shows up. And then everyone’s like, ‘What’s this all about?’ And then the media comes running into the garage, ‘What kind of racist statement is that?’ I said, ‘That’s from Dan Gurney, okay? Don’t worry about it. I raced for Dan Gurney, I love him more than anybody I ever raced for. I had to cool the media off. They were like wanting to lynch Dan.”
What the media didn’t know was Ribbs and Gurney–the motor racing legend and American icon, defused any perceived racial tensions through comedy. Dating back to the 1960s, Gurney had impeccable credentials as one of the sport’s first equal opportunity employers, and leapt at the chance to hire Ribbs as his driver in the 1980s, where pranks soon flowed freely between the two.
“I would send him mayonnaise!” Ribbs added. “I would give Dan a jar of mayonnaise and he would send me watermelon and fried chicken. That was our relationship. And it was purely because Dan was a practical joker. And he always knew how to, when it came to race and color and all that crap, he always made fun of it. He made fun of it and I made fun of it.
“When I was racing for Dan he was the only team owner that when I raced and we won, we went out to dinner, we had a big party as a team, as a family. And I trusted him. And to this day I trust him. And the problem with people today is, they all take this so serious. They take it serious – you can’t take everything that serious because life is too short.”
WE GOT TO POINT A, BUT CAN WE AFFORD POINT B?
As Walker said more than once during our call, the team spent all of its money getting Ribbs into the race, but once he was locked into the field, finding the sponsorship to take part in the race was an immediate priority.
Few things had gone easily for Walker in May of 1991, but that changed to a slight degree once they’d gotten past qualifying.
“We got Willy in the race, but how did we get in there?” he said. “We had no money left and we had no sponsorship logos on the car, whatsoever. Luckily, we were the first team after the qualifying ever to get a call from McDonald’s to say, ‘Can we get on your car?’ Because they were the first to realize the significance of Willy breaking that barrier. It’s been like Danica Patrick or Sarah Fisher, these girls who come along, punch a hole in the pit lane and make a mark.
“And Willy made his mark. So [McDonald’s] didn’t give us millions of dollars; they gave us a very small amount but the pride of having them wanting to be part of our little exercise, our little endeavor, was important and it kept us going into the race.”
After a busy week of media obligations and personal appearances, Ribbs was ready to make his Indy 500 debut. Brayton Engineering also had enough time to deliver a freshened Buick engine for the race, and with it installed, the Walker team was prepared for the grueling 500-mile event.
It was an early start for Ribbs on the day of the race. Beating the hundreds of thousands of fans to the track has long been the routine for drivers and teams, with police escorts often used to expedite the trip inside the track.
“They picked us up about five o’clock in the morning,” he said. “There’s six police officers on motorcycles and they came to our condo and said, ‘Okay, follow us.’ And even at that early in the morning, there’s people everywhere, man. So you get there and you go into the motorhome and you try and get some more sleep. And around 8:30 you start to get yourself together and then just stay relaxed. You talk to the crew guys. What you’re trying to do is keep yourself cool. Not burn up a lot of energy. So I got suited up and started walking out to the grid. I met the Vice President and his wife at the start/finish line and we walked down to the car together. That wasn’t a bad way to start things, okay?”
While Walker wouldn’t be drawn on the amount of additional funding that came in between qualifying and the race, it was obvious the margins were very slim. With the Indy 500 representing the most lucrative pay day on the IndyCar calendar, simply making it to the finish of the 200-lap race unscathed could earn the team more than $100,000 in prize money. A crash or an engine failure, however, could consume every penny of that prize money, and possibly more.
NEXT: Day Of Recknoning