Willy T Ribbs on becoming the first black driver in Indy 500: 'The pressure was unbelievable'

Indycar Racing News

An eccentric celebrity backer, a crack racing squad run on a shoestring and six blown engines – Willy T Ribbs recounts his incredible tale of becoming the first black person to qualify for the Indy 500

Willy T Ribbs and 1991 Indy 500 car

Ribbs and his 1991 Indy 500 Lola


Willy T Ribbs might not have won the Indianapolis 500, but may have experienced more of that race’s emotional ups and downs than anyone else that’s ever competed in it.

This week marks 30 years since his incredible journey to making the 1991 Indy 500, thus becoming the first ever black person to do so. His road to Indy featured an eccentric international celebrity as a backer, a crack racing squad run on a shoe-string budget and no-less than six engine failures across the event.

It may be impossible to establish if that’s a record for mechanical malfucntions across a race meeting, it’s still a figure that beggars belief.

As Ribbs said when relating the story to Motor Sport: “The hardest part of the Indy 500 is getting into it. The pressure was unbelievable.”

The Californian had become a race-winner in Trans-Am in the early ’80s, but it was open-wheel racing that he craved. Ribbs wanted to make it in IndyCar.

Inter-team politics had led to Ribbs withdrawing from an ’86 entry at Indy. For the most part since then, budget had been his biggest barrier.

Enter Bill Cosby. The now-disgraced comedian was then a respected figure in black society, in addition to being an internationally famous celebrity.

Cosby had seen Ribb’s speed and bravado. Despite having no interest in motor racing, he wanted to help his fellow African-American take his dream further and make the Indy 500 aspirations a reality.

“He called me in 1988, out of the blue,” says Ribbs. “He asked me what my plans were for the future.

Willy T Ribbs next to his Budweiser Trans Am car in 1980

Ribbs had conquered sports cars, but now wanted to win in IndyCar

Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

“I told him that unless he had $15 million for Formula One, I wanted to do the Indy 500.”

In 1991, Ribbs spied movements in the IndyCar scene that might just realise his Indy ambition.

Derrick Walker, winner of four IndyCar titles championships and four Indy 500s as Penske’s Vice President of Racing, had just been released from Porsche’s failed IndyCar programme.

Stuttgart had sold the team equipment to the Scot. He had all the gear, but no driver – or any money for that matter – to run it.

“I asked Derrick, ‘What do you think about doing Indy together?’” remembers Ribbs. “He said ‘No problem, but it’s gonna take some money.’

“I replied ‘Well, I’ve got the golden goose'”

“I replied ‘Well, I’ve got the golden goose. A golden goose that lays golden eggs.’

Walker was persuaded, and the two flew out to a Cosby gig in Las Vegas to meet their – potential – benefactor.

“We watched the show from the dressing room,” says Ribbs. “Bill came into the dressing room after the show and immediately liked Derrick. The conversation about the IndyCar team only lasted 45 minutes, then they started talking about golf!”

Walker had told Cosby that $350,000 was the minimum he needed to get a crack Brickyard squad up and running. Though Ribbs’ and Cosby’s efforts were going to be modest, they were keen to show how serious they were in committing to funding a team.

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“That was Saturday night,” recalls Ribbs. “On Tuesday, Walker had the money in his account.

“He called me and said ‘The money is there – in the bank!’ Walker was excited as a blind dog in a butcher’s shop!”

After years of chasing budgets to go racing, Walker couldn’t quite believe someone just handing the cash over. Part of the building excitement wasn’t just that a fast driver and able team manager were joining forces – they also had one of the best race engineers in the business.

“Derrick had Tim Wardorp – he was the man,” says Ribbs.

“With every race driver that I’ve ever known, there’s an energy that they will get from engineers that they’re close to or that they trust.

“Indianapolis is just so dangerous, you need that trust in your engineer. Fernando Alonso will tell you how difficult Indy is and what it does to you mentally – at 11am you think you’re one bad cat, at 3pm you think you’re a bum!”

Ribbs would certainly need confidence – in spades – from the team, because he wasn’t going to get it from his car.

Newly christened ‘Walker Racing’ had purchased a year-old Lola chassis to compete that year. In terms of absolute IndyCar pace, the chassis was already obsolete. The Cosworth DFS engine that came with it wasn’t much better.

This point was hit home during the 1991 Rookie Orientation Programme (ROP) held at Indianapolis in late April. The Walker driver couldn’t get his car much over 200mph, far off the pace needed to gain approval to enter qualifying for that year’s 500. The solution was to change the Cosworth power unit for something much more powerful.

The team opted for a Buick engine, known to be packed with horsepower, but also heavy and not altogether reliable.

Matters were not helped further by the fact that Ribbs couldn’t get truly let rip on track. He knew that if he damaged the car, all their efforts would come to null.

“There was no margin for error,” he says. “I didn’t have a back-up car, so I couldn’t go out there and take any unnecessary chances. I couldn’t jump into the pool with both feet – I had one foot in at a time.”

Luckily, Wardrop’s ice-cool approach to racing brought a serenity over Ribbs in focusing on the job in hand. The historical significance weighing over his driver had the potential to blow him off course.

“There was media asking me: ‘Do you feel like you’re responsible for 50 million African-Americans?'”

“I was spending so much time with Tim on the laptop,” he remembers. “He was just so good and had a very calm demeanour, nothing got him excited – nothing! What he wanted to do was to not get me amped up.”

“There was media everywhere, asking me these questions: ‘Do you feel like you’re responsible for 50 million African-Americans? Do you think you have to succeed because 50 million African Americans are watching and praying? And, if you don’t, maybe there won’t be another African American racing for a hundred years?’ All these kind of questions!”

At least for the majority of the time, Ribbs managed to shut out the noise. Though he may now appreciate the meaning of what he achieved for black people around the world, at the time he was focused simply on qualifying.

“My number one responsibility was to myself, my team, sponsors and my family. Not for anyone else,” he asserts.

“Ultimately, everything is so focused there (at Indy) that you know, you don’t have to think about achievement, sports history, social advancement.

“I was there to be in Victory Circle if I could, and that’s all that matters. If it’s for anything else, you’re not there for the right reason.”

It would be just as well, since Ribbs had such a mountain to climb on track. The run of mechanical failures he was about to suffer had to be seen to be believed.

The team’s change to a Buick engine meant they missed most of the first week of practice for the ’91 Indy 500.

They managed to get the car ready by Thursday, May 9, with qualifying on the following Saturday and Sunday and the race on the May 26. It might not have been blistering in terms of pace, but the team were pleased with some solid running early. On the next day, Ribb’s first Buick engine blew.

The upshot of this was that he was still yet to complete his ROP, and therefore could not take part in qualifying. Ribbs could only sit and watch as three-time IndyCar champion Rick Mears set the pole time for Penske that weekend.

As it turned out, the Indy legend – who would go on to win that year’s race – had some advice that helped Ribbs shave off crucial tenths in lap time.

“At the speedway, everything you do shows up on the watch. Rick said to me ‘You’re making your entry too soon. Drive down into that corner a little farther and then make one turn.’

“And it made everything, not just faster, but also smooth.”

Mears’ advice paid off, as Ribbs improved his average speed by 9mph to sail through the ROP on May 13th.

Alas, the newfound smoothness didn’t stop Ribbs’ PUs from rattling themselves to bits. Come the next practice day on May 15th two days later, his second engine let go.

“I wouldn’t say I was nervous, but I was concerned,” says Ribbs. “I was running out of time to even have a qualifying attempt.”

This was a very real danger. With his engine letting go on a Wednesday, final chance qualifying was coming up fast on the weekend.

With no engines left, a desperate Walker had to appeal to Buick to supply a new engine.

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“It was all over the news that we were out of engines and it was also leaking out that Buick wouldn’t give us any engines.” says Ribbs. “Well, that got back to Detroit, because the motorsport manager did not want to give us a Buick factory engine. After some squeezing, we got that engine.”

Engine building firm Brayton Engineering had helped Walker, encouraging the manufacturer to step in. Buick sourced a third engine whilst Brayton helped rebuild the team’s defunct second power unit.

As a result, Ribbs missed another two days worth of crucial practice laps before his resuscitated PU was installed on Friday the 17th. He barely made it down the pitlane before that blew as well. Ribbs and co had so far finished off three engines (the second one twice) and counting.

Buick in the meantime persuaded the King Racing team to part with one of its engines to give Walker Racing a fourth chance.

Ribbs managed to make some laps at the death in practice on Friday afternoon, ready for qualifying the next day.

Or maybe not. The Walker Racing Lola hadn’t set one timed lap on Saturday before it blew a valve. Engine no4 was scratched off.

Buick stretched again, now offering up a fifth power unit for Ribbs’s final qualifying attempt on the Sunday. The last day to get into the race, this really was the Speedway’s last chance saloon.

One hour into the six-hour session and, unbelievably, that engine died too, a huge plume of smoke emanating from the back of the car at Turn Four.

“That particular was a turbo, we just had to switch it out,” says Ribbs. “But the mechanics had to make sure sure that there was no metal inside in the oil – that took three to four hours to do. The day was nearly over when we got back.”

As grandstand finishes go, it didn’t get much closer than this. It was now all or nothing for Ribbs to realise his life’s dream.

Willy T ribbs in the 1990 Long Beach Grand Prix

Ribbs pictured here, had other IndyCar outings, but it’s ’91 Brickyard appearance which lives long in the memory

Getty Images

Wardrop had apparently been coaxing his driver along with the promise of “special tyres” when they felt the time was right to make the run. Now was that time.

“I said, ‘You got some tyres that you got saved for me, right?’”, recalls Ribbs. “And Tim said, ‘Yeah, I got them locked in the closet.”

Said tyres were duly rolled out. Ribbs had thirty minutes for his only shot at making the 1991 500, as he tried to become the first black person to qualify.

“I knew I was going to be fast enough to be in the show, but I wasn’t sure whether we were going to make the 10 miles,” he says.

“I ran the first three laps and a half laps flat out, then on the final lap lifted a tiny bit at Turn Two, went flat through Three and lifted again for Four.

“When I came off Turn Four I looked down at the gauges and next thing I know the chequered flag is there – that’s how fast you’re going.”

Ribbs clocked a four-lap average of 217.358mph, securely putting him 29th in the field for that year’s race around the Brickyard.

“Everyone there was lined up and they were waving their arms – I was in!”

Willy T Ribbs had become the first African-American and black person to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.

Somehow, with a driver that had barely driven the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with a threadbare squad run on next to no budget, and an out-of-date car which had lunched five engines, the Walker Racing Team had made it in.

“As I was on my cooling down lap on the corporate suites off to the right, everyone there was lined up and they were waving their arms – I was in!”

Famous shots of Ribbs rolling down a pitlane flooded with well-wishers, his belts undone, arms aloft out of the cockpit, really do illustrate one moment of sheer release, adrenaline and unadulterrated joy. The Walker Team could barely believe it either.

“They were on their tippy-toes,” Ribbs says. “Some were crying. You could feel the happiness and the energy. There’d been a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”

Unfortunately, after that herculean effort of all involved, the race – perhaps predictably – didn’t go so well.

Five laps in, on a restart, Ribbs over-revved his engine, finishing off his sixth Buick for the Month of May.

Even now, Ribbs sounds upset about the race. All that effort, and over so quickly.

The Californian would come back in 1993 with Walker Racing again, where they would go to finish a respectable 21st. Their event that year was as uneventful as ’91 had been action-packed.

However, it’s his incredible qualifying effort two years earlier that will always stand out for Ribbs. It’s history, and he made it.