INDIANAPOLIS -- Willy T. Ribbs coasted his Lola-Buick onto pit road early yesterday afternoon, trailed by a billowing cloud of white smoke.
He had already blown four engines. This looked like No. 5. This looked like the end of the road for Ribbs and car owner Derrick Walker and the Bill Cosby-supported quest for a chapter in not just auto racing history but sports history.
But "nah," Ribbs said in jubilation after qualifying for the 75th Indianapolis 500 had ended and he had become the first black driver to make the starting field.
"That was our opening act, all the smoke, and the curtain rising."
The closing act? A sparkler.
Ribbs celebrated a stirring 217.358-mph rocket ride with as demonstrative a re-entry as this staid old race track has witnessed: He bumped 1983 Indy champion Tom Sneva from the 33-car lineup for next Sunday's diamond-anniversary race.
Even on his cool-down lap, he periodically punched a fist skyward. That wasn't enough. As he rolled onto pit road, both fists were shooting out of the cockpit in tandem. He still felt restrained, so he unbuckled his safety harness, lifted himself half out of the cockpit and slapped congratulatory "fives" with crew members and safety workers with his gloved left hand.
His joy was understandable, and it was shared. He had suffered through the repeated engine failures. And what looked like the fifth and last was, in fact, a blown turbocharger.
It was replaced and Ribbs, 35 and a star in Trans-Am and IMSA GTO sedan racing through the mid- and late-1980s, "played it cool" until time came to show what he could really do.
"It's fantastic," he told an estimated 75,000 to 100,000, many roaring approval from packed stands behind pit road. "And I'm glad everybody was here today to witness history. . . because it will be done only once."
He smiled almost embarrassedly when somebody suggested that this dramatic inroad for blacks made him "the Jackie Robinson of auto racing."
He downplayed social implications. He will weigh those, he said, maybe when I'm a grandfather. But at the moment, I'm looking at my success as that of a race driver, and a race driver only."
Race has never figured in his motivation, he repeated. "Right from the start of my life, I didn't have basketball heroes, or football heroes," he said. "My heroes were racing drivers. And that has been my life's only ambition. I wanted to pursue my passion."
Ribbs' exploits reduced all else that happened yesterday to footnotes as five drivers secured starting spots and two more, Sneva and Johnny Parsons, were bumped.
Two-time champion Gordon Johncock climbed off a tractor on his farm at Hastings, Mich., last Monday to accept the outdated Lola-Cosworth he placed into the field with the slowest successful run, 213.812 mph.
And Randy Lewis waited until only 18 minutes remained on the fourth and final day of qualifications to find the speed to claim his spot and oust Parsons, son of the race's 1950 winner.