Originally posted in May, 2011.
We left you after Part 4 of Willy T. Ribbs: One Of A Kind with Ribbs at the track on Sunday morning, May 26th, as he prepared to start his first Indy 500. Ribbs was moments away from achieving the dream he’d spent six years pursuing, and his Walker Motorsport team, down to its last penny, needed a solid finish to earn as much of the six-figure prize money as possible…
In most boxing movies, the underdog gets knocked down, wages a dramatic comeback, and rallies to win the bout in the final round. And on rare occasions, the bell rings and star of the film is lying face down on the canvas, out cold. Welcome to Willy T. Ribbs’ Indy 500 debut in 1991.
Starting on the next-to-last row in 29th, Ribbs’ strategy was to play it smart on the opening laps. With plenty of power on tap from his high-boost, low-revving Buick, the goal was to make easy passes and capitalize on mistakes.
The start went according to plan, but the race was slowed on the first lap after Buddy Lazier crashed. Ribbs was about to take his first restart at the Indy 500, and wanted to make sure he had a big rush of momentum coming off of Turn 4 to slingshot his Walker Motorsport Lola-Buick down the long front straight.
“On the restart I revved the engine–and we didn’t have rev limiter on our motor,” he said. “I over-revved [it] and I didn’t know I bent a pushrod. I put a little too many RPMs in it and I couldn’t get it out of third gear to let the revs come down. And I kept tugging on [the gear lever] and I had buzzed the engine by then. And with a Buick, you better not do that. It was my fault. I wouldn’t say it the lowest of lows, but it was very typical of the month.”
Ribbs’ team owner was also deflated after being pummeled and spat out by Indy long before reaching the checkered flag in the 200-lap contest.
“I still have the offending part that broke sitting in my cabinet,” Derrick Walker said with a slight chuckle. “Willy said, ‘I think there’s something wrong with the engine, I think it’s misfiring.’ So there’s nothing we could do about it then. We just told him that when it goes green again, run it up hard and we’ll listen and see if it’s misfiring, because we didn’t know the pushrod was bent. And that’s what he did and it went green again and you could hear him coming past the pits and he was down on power and so we brought it in and then we quickly determined it was indeed a bent pushrod.
“It was caused by an over-rev, which is fairly common when you start the race with all the cars and the noise you can get fairly disorientated. So our feeling was that perhaps we just used a bit too much RPM at the start there and it buzzed the pushrod and bent it. There was nothing else wrong with the engine. Just that pushrod. So we went from a high to a real low in about three laps. And then I had the realization that we were broke financially yet again.”
Ribbs was credited with completing just five laps in his first Indy 500 and earned $147,791 for placing 32nd.
One person who didn’t stick around to wallow in the sadness was his engineer, Tim Wardrop.
“It has always been my practice, that if my driver is out of the 500, I immediately leave the track so as to avoid the traffic and watch the remainder of the race at Kelly’s Bar on Georgetown and 56th,” he said. “Unfortunately, that year I was watching the big screen and drinking a cold beer by Lap 15… Whether it was nerves, a sticky gearbox or whatever, Willy had still made history and started the Indianapolis 500.”
Hindsight is a funny thing. If they’d known ahead of time that they would walk a financial tightrope the entire Month of May…and that all of their work would lead to a successions of lows with one solitary high late on the final day of qualifying, Walker and Ribbs might have just stayed home. 20 years after his abbreviated Indy 500 debut, Ribbs still has a hard time conveying the disappointment that continues to linger.
“The race…what can I say? After everything we’d been through…it was sort of anticlimactic…”
Walker knew the joys of Indy from winning the race with the Penske organization, and clearly hoped for a better result during his debut as a team owner. With the benefit of time and perspective, he can look back with admiration for what his merry band of believers achieved.
“We beat the odds, we got into the race, which probably most people didn’t give us a rat’s chance of doing it,” Walker said. “And in reality, on paper, you’d probably say, given all the circumstances that led up to it and what we were all working with, probably we shouldn’t have made it. How could we think, with this little bit of money from Bill Cosby, we could go there and actually pull that off? Willy had no real track record to look at on the ovals, and his total driving experience in these kinds of cars was limited to a fairly short season the year before. There was only about six of us, total. Part-time people, they weren’t full-time, I couldn’t afford to pay them full time.
“We went there and we were the most unlikely candidates to get in the race, right? I wish the race had turned out differently, of course, but the month of May, at that point, was like an emotional roller coaster and just getting in the bloody race was like a high. And so it’s in the record books now and nobody can take that away from us. I’m happy to be part of Willy’s history and the history of the event in some small way. The fact that I was there and I was a part of it will always be something special. I never have thought about it in any other way.”
Indianapolis was only the first race in the burgeoning relationship between Ribbs and Walker Racing. They’d scrape more money together to compete in eight additional events in 1991, recording three top-10s results with a best finish of sixth on the Denver street course. Ribbs ended the year as the highest-placed part-time driver, ranking 17th in the final standings.
The funding saga continued after the 1991 season drew to a close, and despite proving himself at Indy and on road courses, Ribbs returned to the sidelines with empty pockets. Bill Cosby’s disenchantment grew deeper as sponsors continued to ignore Ribbs, who sat out the 1992 season until Walker called and threw him a lifeline to drive a second entry at the season finale in Monterey.
Cosby’s faith in Ribbs never wavered throughout the humbling search for corporate backing, and with Walker’s benevolent move to put Willy in a car to close 1992, Ribbs and Cosby had something fresh to use as a sponsorship recruitment tool leading into the next season.
A shift in tactics by Cosby for 1993—where the entertainer offered to become the spokesman for any reputable primary sponsor that signed on to bankroll Ribbs’ IndyCar program—finally delivered the results he’d been seeking since the adventure started in 1988.
“Service Merchandise was our last hurrah,” Cosby explained. “The owner of Service Merchandise put the money up, I did the commercials, and Willy went out to drive.”
With Cosby serving as the spokesman for the retail store, and a two-year sponsorship commitment signed (albeit after the first three races of the 1993 season had been run), Ribbs and Walker were reunited and started their season at Indianapolis, of all places.
Driving the No. 75 entry for the renamed Walker Racing organization (LEFT), Ribbs’ second trip to the Speedway was a far cry from his 1991 experience.
With a competitive chassis and engine—a sleek 1992 Lola powered by a Ford/Cosworth—Ribbs had no issues making the field, despite running towards the bottom of the speed charts.
Qualifying 30th, Ribbs had a relatively uncomplicated day at Indy in 1993, going the entire distance to finish 21st. It was unremarkable in every way, which is all he’d hoped for during his first appearance.
Although Ribbs got his IndyCar start in 1990 with the Raynor-Cosby team, every year through 1993 proved to be a part-time, piecemeal effort. By 1994, Ribbs finally had his first full-season of IndyCar competition as part of Derrick Walker’s team. He scored his best results on ovals that year in the Service Merchandise-sponsored car–two top 10s from the 16-race calendar. 1994 also served as Ribbs’ last encounter with the Indy 500 as a driver.
Walker Racing entered three cars for the event with Robby Gordon, Mark Smith and Ribbs driving new Lola-Ford/Cosworths. By the end of qualifying, Walker would have only one car in the show.
Smith crashed during his qualifying run, and Ribbs, who ran extensively in practice, struggled to find the speed to earn one of the 33 starting positions. The Lola chassis, as he repeatedly told the team, felt nervous and wanted to spin, no matter what kind of changes they made to the setup. With three identical cars using nearly identical setups, the common belief was Ribbs’ car was just fine; its operator was struggling to do his job properly.
The slowest driver to make the field in 1994 set a four-lap average of 220.992 mph. Ribbs ran a lap of 211.556 mph in qualifying and waved off the attempt. Ribbs’ exit from Indianapolis emboldened those who believed the road racing champion did not have the talent to make it as an oval driver, but the real reason for his lack of pace would later be discovered by his old friend Tim Wardrop.
“I was overseeing the engineering on all three cars that year, and I place the blame on myself for not keeping a closer eye on Willy,” he said. “There was an error made with the rear [suspension] rockers which added an extra 1000 pounds of spring rate to his car. It also had the roll center off by three-eighths of an inch, which was a significant amount. All three cars were setup identically, or so I thought, which made it hard to understand why Willy was having such problems.”
From there, it was a downhill spiral as Ribbs’ speed around Indy plummeted quickly.
“I had one of my old drivers, John Andretti, jump in Willy’s car to give me a read on what it was doing,” Wardrop continued. “He came in and said, ‘It has a LOT of weight on the nose…it’s very twitchy…’
“It confirmed what Willy had been saying, but we still didn’t understand why it was reacting that way. We ran out of time to find the problem and solve it. I was very, very angry afterwards.”
Ribbs was dejected after failing to qualify and questioned whether he’d lost his edge, but Wardrop’s call to reveal the team’s errors helped to restore some confidence a few days later.
“Tim called me and he says, ‘Just for your information, the rockers were wrong on your car,’” he said “And that’s why the thing wanted to spin out in every corner. It took a lot for him to tell me that. That meant a lot to me because I thought I was losing my mind.”
The shock of missing the 1994 Indy 500 has worn off, and Ribbs is able to look back and revel in joining a rather exclusive club.
“Hell, [1986 Indy 500 winner] Bobby Rahal didn’t make it in the show in ’93, but I did,” he said. “Rahal got bumped out – that happens at Indy, especially when mistakes are made mechanically. And then the year after ’94, Al Unser Jr and Emmo—Emerson Fittipaldi—didn’t make it.
“And that was driving for Penske’s team, so what’s that tell you? I didn’t feel bad about it. Rahal out in ’93, me out in ’94, Al Junior and Fittipaldi out in ’95…after winning it in ’94… I’m alright with it.”
HOW FAR COULD HE HAVE GONE?
Like most professional sports, auto racing is driven by youth. After spending more than a decade racing everywhere other than IndyCar, Ribbs was an old timer when he redirected his efforts towards open-wheel cars.
If Ribbs had landed at Indy in his twenties—while he was a relatively blank canvas—some I spoke with felt he could have learned the specialized skills required of an IndyCar driver, and from there, Ribbs’ prodigious talent would have taken to the front of the field.
“Oh, it was unfinished business,” Ribbs said of his short-lived IndyCar career. “There’s no doubt. By the time I came into IndyCar I was 34, 35…”
Like a young quarterback who learns from veterans, Ribbs believes if he’d been signed and groomed by someone like Roger Penske in the early 1980s, a different story would be written about his IndyCar career.
“If it would’ve been a strong team, I would’ve been a competitor right off,” he said. “Let’s put it this way, if I had been with RP, I would’ve been strong right out of the box. With all his great talent on his team and his resources and testing, I would have learned at the altar of the best in the business. I know I would have won races, hands-down. But when you don’t have a lot of resources, it takes that much longer to be successful.”
My longtime IndyCar colleague Robin Miller agrees with Ribbs.
“I think if Willy would have had someone like Penske or [powerhouse 1980s CART team owner] Jim Truman with him from like ’83, ’84 on, he would have been in IndyCars a lot sooner and I think he would have been a star,” he said. “I really do.”
Derrick Walker wishes he could have worked with Ribbs before he made the move to sports cars.
“If he had some money and the support in his impressionable years, and that’s the same for every young driver, I’d like to believe that Willy could have done a lot more with his IndyCar career,” he said. “When he got to the stage where he was working with me, it was short on money and the clock had run out, to some extent.
“Willy was game to keep trying but the money was drying up quicker than the opportunity to get more years. Willy could’ve made something with his career in IndyCar racing. As it was, it was almost too late. It was a lot of work to do and no time to do it.”
Ribbs would make a surprising—and surprisingly brief—return to IndyCar racing in 1999 at the Indy Racing League event on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas oval. Starting 24th, Ribbs crashed on the fourth lap and was credited with 26th and last. It was an unfortunate epilogue that, to be honest, wasn’t needed.
AND IF YOU’RE NOT CAREFUL, YOU MAY JUST LEARN SOMETHING BEFORE IT’S DONE
I was born in 1970, and like many Americans from my generation, Bill Cosby became a fixture at an early age. My father introduced me to Cosby’s comedy albums while I was in grade school, and from the moment I heard Why Is There Air?, the hook was set.
From his albums to Fat Albert to The Cosby Show, he was like an extended member of our family, and through his unique brand of observational stand-up comedy, he shaped many aspects of how I see the world today.
Receiving Cosby’s call to talk about his time with Ribbs was beyond surreal, but it was also incredibly personal and familiar. Like so many of Cosby’s sermons—funny or serious—the man set the tone for our conversation in his first sentence.
“Pruett……..Bill Cosby…………What happens to a dream deferred…….…Langston Hughes….…have you read it?”
“Yes, Sir,” was my immediate reply. “I read it in college, but I can’t say I remember how it goes.”
His reply: “Read it……..…then call me back and we can chit-chat.”
45 minutes later—after my return call, the assignment made sense.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Cosby wanted me to be prepared for a frank and honest account of how he felt Ribbs was treated during his time in open-wheel racing. After reciting portions of A Dream Deferred, Cosby drew a direct parallel from the poem to his former driver.
“That’s what happened with Willy. A dream that was deferred,” he said. “Those who could’ve stepped in monetarily and didn’t…and their silence alone made it clear. What stopped Willy was the inability to get the money. That support was not there. The field never was level for Willy in that way. I went in because I recognized that Willy might as well be out there with a go-kart. I’m asking you to understand that Willy was challenged by the silence, the non-participation, the rejection, the shaded smiles…being dishonest with Willy. And the politeness of those who made it appear that they were wishing Willy well.
“But also there were whites and blacks who wanted Willy to have that even playing field. The abolitionists who came forward, but there were not enough. And so, looking at Willy and our time trying to do what was right, we’re left to parallel this life of the United States of America and its contradictions.”
THE MOST CURIOUS THING OF ALL
“The way that Bill Cosby was not embraced by CART was just fucking mind-blowing,” Robin Miller opined.
While Cosby admitted he knew nothing about motor racing, he demonstrated a great willingness to use his star power to draw attention to Ribbs, and by default, to IndyCar racing. Cosby’s eagerness to help raise the profile of open-wheel racing through his celebrity status was wholly ignored.
“Here’s the biggest entertainer in the world,” Miller continued, “telling Willy, ‘I’m not going to give you any money but if you get a ride, if you get a sponsor, I’ll do free national television commercials for them.’ And that’s what he did with Service Merchandise. To think that Bill Cosby showed up at Long Beach for the press conference about this and none of the CART brass showed up was just mind-blowing. It was like, ‘Really, are you kidding me?’ They turned their back on Cosby, who then figured he was wasting his time trying to help people that didn’t want him around. It was the stupidest thing ever.”
Did CART ignore Cosby because of the popularity the series enjoyed at the time? Or was Ribbs a brand they didn’t want to promote to its fans?
“I don’t know who you’d pick today as his equivalent, but this was the No. 1 entertainer in the country back then,” said Miller said. “This was Bill Cosby, fellas. And you know, I think, once again, what if they’d embraced Bill Cosby and what if Willy would’ve had a really good ride and he won a couple races, who knows where it would’ve gone. It was an opportunity lost, I know that.”
CLOSING THE DOOR
“What Bill was doing was he was testing the industry,” Ribbs said . “He was testing the commitment that the sponsors and advertisers had to what he was doing and what I was doing. It was a test. He was testing CART to see if they were interested. He had no need to be there. It was by choice. He said, ‘Okay, we’re in the game. Do you want us in the game?’ That was his mindset. ‘Do you even want us here?’ And in the end, when it was all said and done, after 1994, he said to me, ‘I really don’t believe they want you here.’ And that’s why he left.”
Bill Cosby helped to start Willy T. Ribbs’ IndyCar career, which makes a comedic tale on their time together in the sport a worthy close to his reflections.
“I don’t know if you know the wonderful story about the owner of Service Merchandise,” he said with his hearty laugh. “The hilarious response from this wonderful gentleman – who, by the way, knew where every penny was going, so he knew that he was backing a black man. After one of Willy’s races, word came back – I think Willy finished, I don’t know where Willy finished, it was in the teens or the 20s.
“And he said, ‘Look, I don’t mind. I know we weren’t going to win, so the only thing I wish Willy would do is there are TV cameras around there and the race is on TV. I wish Willy would find out where these cameras are and just slow down when he’s going by the cameras so that they would read the Service Merchandise [logo] better…’”
I NEVER QUIT
Ribbs wasn’t the only driver to make history at Indy in 1991. Hiro Matsushita, heir to the Panasonic fortune, became the first Asian driver to compete in the 500. 10 years later, Cory Witherill became the first full-blooded Native American to race at Indy, and drivers of Latin heritage had been competing at Indy for decades before Ribbs’ arrival.
Among the three drivers mentioned, each faced a different challenge. Matsushita was wealthy, but lacked talent. Witherill lacked supreme talent and money. Ribbs, on the other hand, had the talent, but lacked youth and sponsorship to take his IndyCar career to the next level.
Willy T. Ribbs will go down in history as the first African-American driver to race at Indy, completing the work that so many African-American open-wheel drivers started decades before his run in the 1991 event.
Was he the best? In all fairness, we’ll never know. Those who came before Ribbs were prevented from competing at Indy and never had a chance to compare themselves to the best white drivers of the day. Ribbs’ inspiration, Joie Ray, certainly had talent. Charlie Wiggins was said to have even more.
While those fine men died without achieving their Indy 500 dreams, Ribbs will be remembered as the man who kept their aspirations alive. He silenced the doubters—among however many remained—that skill and skin color were somehow intertwined.
The Willy T. Ribbs who made history in 1991 was dark, proud, vocal and unrepentant. It didn’t sit well with everyone at the time, but his quest was never rooted in pleasing others. Ribbs’ experience at Indy was incredibly personal—it changed him deeply as a man and as a competitor.
Ribbs’ legacy at the Speedway isn’t centered on finishing records; it’s about the journey he took and the obstacles he overcame. Given the chance to do it over again, Ribbs closed our feature with thoughts on his contribution to the Indianapolis 500.
“You know, if I live till I’m at an age where I will be a grandfather or great-grandfather, I would probably look back and say that it was worth every bit of blood, sweat and tears that it took to get to Indy,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, and I’m not talking about the racing. Everything that came with trying to get there, then getting there and fighting to have the right cars or the right team. It was a non-stop fight, but I’m a fighter. It was something I was born to do.
“If they won’t give it to you, you have to fight and take it. And I would remind any of those who follow after me that you cannot be a quitter and still succeed. You can’t. You cannot quit. That’s how I’d like to be remembered. I never quit.”