Media onslaught colors Ribbs' preparation

May 23, 1991|By Sandra Mckee | Sandra Mckee,Evening Sun Staff

INDIANAPOLIS -- Willy T. Ribbs didn't think it would be like this. Not exactly like this.

Tuesday, there were 42 interviews. Yesterday, 42 more. And today, there is Carburetion Day, the last day to shake down his Walker/Motorsports Lola/Buick.

"It is amazing to be thinking about the final practice," said Ribbs, who is the first black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. "Last Sunday, with four hours left to qualify, I thought our attempt was history. I thought I had blown another engine."

Ribbs had already blown five engines. One more, the one given to the team by Buick, would be the last. But the problem turned out to be a turbo problem, not an engine, and it was fixable.

So the team -- owned by Derrick Walker and primarily financed by comedian Bill Cosby and Walker's credit card -- was alive for one last qualifying attempt.

It was an attempt Ribbs took full advantage of, averaging 217.358 mph, to earn a start in the middle of the 10th row for Sunday's 75th Indianapolis 500.

And that's why Ribbs was sitting in his team's hospitality tent last evening, opening telegrams and looking tired. His face, clean-shaven in the morning, showed a dense 5 o'clock shadow and his eyes drooped just a little.

His day had started at 7 a.m. Every television station in town wanted him. Every network wanted him. Radio talk shows wanted him. Newspaper reporters, magazine reporters, everyone wanted time with Willy T.


"Hey, Dad, could I have a cup of coffee?" Ribbs said to his father, William T. Ribbs Sr. "I didn't expect it to be quite this hectic."

Even actor Michael Douglas senta telegram through his movie company, asking Ribbs to call. A life story may be in the works.

To Ribbs, 35, it is a dream of a lifetime come to reality. To his father, whom everyone calls Bunny, it is also a dream, but one filled with trepidation.

"If I didn't say I was nervous, I'd be lying," said Bunny, watching his son relaxing in a folding chair. "I have faith in him, in his ability. But things can happen out there. I'm not worried about him doing something wrong. I'm worried about something happening in front of him that he can't avoid."

Bunny Ribbs was himself a pioneer sports car racer in the late 1950s and early '60s. But neither that nor his son's other racing achievements, which have included victories in Trans Am, IMSA GTO and Formula Atlantic, have lessened the worry for the family.

"I couldn't be here the day he qualified," said Bunny Ribbs. "So I

had to watch it on television, like a lot of other people. You should have seen our living room. His mom was crying and so was his youngest sister and they weren't tears of happiness. They're both very nervous about this race."

But Bunny Ribbs, who still calls his son Bill -- "He was Bill when he was born and to me he'll always be Bill" -- is as thrilled as he is nervous.

"He has raced a long time and been very successful," said the elder Ribbs. "He loves racing, like I love racing, and he deserves to be here. I can't help being proud of him."

As for Willy T., he's pretty proud too.

"We're in this race," he said. "Now all we have to do is live up to our team slogan and 'Stay strong like bull' for 500 miles. I think a top 10 finish is realistic. I think that's a realistic ambition for a rookie at Indianapolis."

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