Willy T. Ribbs loves Indy, loathes NASCAR
When we dropped Willy T. Ribbs at his downtown hotel a little
before 2 a.m. Friday morning, he rolled out of the passenger
seat with a look of wonderment.
"Man, Indianapolis," said Ribbs, a former racer. "I gotta get
back here more often. This town is special."
You can't really appreciate the home of the Peyton Manning-led
Colts, Larry Bird-run Pacers and the NCAA headquarters until
you've been here for the month of May, the month dominated by
talk of Indy cars, straightaway speed and drafting.
And you can't truly appreciate Indy until you've spent an evening
with a NASCAR-hating driver, listening to him talk about "the
greatest spectacle in racing," which is set for its 90th running
I got that pleasure Thursday night and parts of Friday when one of
my old college teammates invited me to join Ribbs, the first black
driver to race at Indy, for dinner.
Financially backed by comedian Bill Cosby, Ribbs qualified for the
race in 1991 and `93. He never mounted much of a challenge,
finishing 21st in 1993, but Indy left an indelible print on Ribbs,
and I learned Friday that Ribbs left quite a print on Indy.
"No matter what the other racing series think of themselves, no
matter how drunk they get on moonshine and delude themselves,
there's nothing that equals the Indianapolis 500," said Ribbs, 50,
who raced in NASCAR's Winston Cup series in the mid-1980s. "This
race started in 1911. It's bigger than the Kentucky Derby. It's
bigger and has more mystique than the Super Bowl. It's the danger
and the speed. You just can't imagine what it's like."
Hmm. What I can imagine is how important being a small part of
Indy's history is to Ribbs. His father was a racer. Ribbs
repeatedly bragged throughout dinner that he was a racing
historian. His eyes would get big when he'd share a story about
Mario Andretti or Al Unser Jr. Ribbs would turn sad when discussing
the $10 million Cosby spent trying to buy Ribbs a competitive car
He raced at Indy just twice. He had little success. He was a star
in the Trans Am series. He drove for legendary owner Dan Gurney
on some of the lesser circuits. Ribbs' racing career was a mixed
bag, a huge success in some ways, a tiny footnote on the sports'
The footnote means the most. Ribbs' love of Indy Car and open-
wheel racing is deep. He's an Indy loyalist and traditionalist. He
raced at Indy before the Champ Car-IRL split, back when Indy Car
fans wouldn't have allowed NASCAR to desecrate Indianapolis
Motor Speedway with a Brickyard 400.
In two days, I never once heard Ribbs say "NASCAR," though he
talked about America's most popular racing series constantly.
Ribbs referred to NASCAR as "al-Qaida" or "Neckcar" or "The WWE."
"I feel the same way about them that they do about me," Ribbs
said when I asked him whether he hated NASCAR. "I grew up and
raced when everybody knew that was the junior league. Mario
Andretti went down south and just embarrassed those guys. And
then A.J. went down there and showed `em."
In the mind of Ribbs and other Indy-car enthusiasts, NASCAR is
living on borrowed time. The Champ Car and Indy Racing League
split will end in the next year or two, many people believe. And
when that happens, the Indy series will again become the
*** racing TV sport.
A victory by female driver Danica Patrick this Sunday would help
close the gap between NASCAR and the IRL. Her fourth-place finish
a year ago captured the country's imagination. Ribbs said he could
sense the added e***ment Danica created when he spent the day
at the track Friday.
"You could feel the energy, the passion," Ribbs said. "It felt like
it was 1991. It was like a homecoming for me (on Friday). The
people at Indy have always been very receptive to me, very
Ribbs is still in great shape. He's built like Priest Holmes' older
brother. His body is chiseled. He still looks like a man who could
jump behind the wheel and race at any time. In fact, Michael
Andretti and Al Unser Jr. stopped Ribbs in Gasoline Alley and
asked him whether he planned to race again. "I'm done," Ribbs
There had been consistent rumors throughout May that Ribbs
would hop in a car. Track officials asked Ribbs to take a physical.
Ribbs refused to confirm or deny whether there was a kernel of
truth to the rumors. He said he's very happy as a competitive
shooter in the National Sporting Clays Association.
"What would I be driving for?" he asked. "If I'm not going to be
out there trying to win it all, I don't want to do it. I raced for
the right reasons."