Racing legend Willy T. Ribbs was fast and furious long before those blockbuster movies about drivers and their amped up cars.
In a career that’s spanned more than two decades, the California native has broken color barriers as the first African-American to qualify and compete in such major races as the Indianapolis 500, and NASCAR’s Winston Cup series.
Over the years he’s nabbed more wins than any other African-American driver in history, along the way receiving “Driver of the Year” titles and other industry accolades.
This Labor Day weekend, Ribbs is taking part in the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix, a 2.1 mile, 12-turn “street circuit” race course that’s drawn two-dozen famous Indy car racers like Dario Franchitti and Danica Patrick. Meantime, celebs like Terrell Owens and Carmelo Anthony are reportedly in town and former Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell is honorary Grand Marshall: he’ll intone those famous words, “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.”
theGrio caught up with Ribbs as he prepped for Sunday’s races. They discussed everything from his racing partner Bill Cosby, to what it will take to get more African-Americans into the sport.
TheGrio: You’re a living legend, but not everyone knows your story. How’d you decide to become a race car driver?
Willy T. Ribbs: When I was a kid, my dad got into racing as a hobby. When I was nine-years-old, I made a decision that this would be my career. I took an unusual path. Most race drivers in this country, they run on old dirt tracks or race sports cars. I went to England. I packed my bags and left two years out of high school. I wanted to race Formula One, which is based in Europe. I won my first in 1977. The people in Europe had never seen an African-American in racing, but they and the sport were very good to me.
You’re 56-years-old now and have not raced in a decade. Yet you’re racing this weekend. Is this a comeback?
It’s like that LL Cool J song, “Don’t call it a comeback.” [Laughter] I was out to pasture, but I was just grazing with my head down and tail wagging. A friend of mine named Chris Miles, who is president of Starting Grid, Inc. asked me to put the saddle on and so I came back. The young men I’m racing are old enough to be one of my three children. I’m racing against these young kids out there, they’re passing me. They are absolutely all over the race track, hitting walls. I’m thinking `Did I used to drive like that?’[Laughter].
So what was your training regimen? Have all the old skills come back?
You ask if the old juices are flowing? Hell no. It’s nothing but powdered milk. [Laughter] I’m 56, and in this business that’s old — just imagine a quarterback still trying to make plays at that age. When I was racing competitively 20 years ago, I was 172 pounds. I was in great condition. Now I weigh between 205 and 210. That shows up in the race cars. Race cars don’t like weight.
What kind of car are you driving? Just how fast do you drivers go?
Ribbs: I’m racing in an Indy car series. It’s a silver Dallora. Now in Indy, drivers are going in the 200 mile per hour range. I’m talking about cornering speed. In Baltimore the speeds are gonna be between 150 and 190.
You have a company, Willy T. Ribbs Racing, and you have gone on record about wanting to see the sport do more to attract African-American drivers like Chase Austin, whom you have been assisting. And you earlier mentioned Lewis Hamilton, who’s half Grenadian — as being one of the best. But why aren’t more blacks in the sport do you think?
You need a rich uncle in this sport — it takes lots of money, especially now. It wasn’t that I couldn’t win races. I have won lots of races. It wasn’t that I couldn’t compete at the highest level, but you need money. I will tell you a story. Bill Cosby called me in June of 1988. He asked me, `Tell me about your sport and why you do it.’ And so he said, `Where would you like to go professionally?’ I told him I wanted to do the Indy Car — that’s the biggest championship. He flew me to Vegas and in three hours we had a deal. He was my greatest backer and partner. The toughest part of the sport was corporate America; I didn’t get much support at all. They did not come in as performance partners with us. We didn’t even consider NASCAR. They are a sport that even today is stuck in the 1940s mentality.
How can young black men and women break into professional race driving?
I did an interview with GQ magazine of India, and they asked about that. I said when you see more black money [in terms of sponsors] coming into the sport, it will happen. I made well in the six figures back in the early 80s and 90s, but at the time I came along it was more about talent than money. Expensive is not the word for it. Just to be an amateur today costs between $100,000 and half a million dollars a year. In the IZOD Indy Car Series — the team owners’ budget is around $15 million.
Where does one start if they want to drive professionally?
The industry leaves it up the individuals to know what path to take to get to the big time. Some people put themselves through a racing drivers’ school. They have them around the country.
So if you do well Sunday, are you considering a return full time?
I don’t know. I’ll see how I feel about it. I been racing 17 years, and I’m more than rusty — I’m another name for rusty that hasn’t been invented. The objective is to finish the race. Get that rust off. Not about scoring. Just get back in the game.