For Ribbs, the only race that matters is Indy 500 Event's first black has 1 goal: finish line

May 26, 1991|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,The Evening Sun

INDIANAPOLIS -- The rookie will start the Indianapolis 500 near the back of the bus.

He is like all the other drivers in the field. He has earned the right to be here, because once inside the gates of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, everyone is equal. In here, the walls around the 2.5-mile oval will take out any driver. Only ability matters. Only the top 33 are accepted.

The rookie can drive, winning races in every competitive serie ,, he has tried. And just like Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti, he is following a road forged by his father.

But today, the rookie is different. At noon, when the green flag falls on the 75th edition of the Memorial Day classic, he will write his own living history.

Willy T. Ribbs will become the first black to drive in thIndianapolis 500.

"I've been told I'm an American saga," said Ribbs, 35. "But I anot in racing for social responsibilities. I am not now. I have not been. I don't feel any pressure to uphold some type of social accomplishment. I have no social responsibility."

Historians and sociologists, he admitted, might disagree withim.

And Ribbs, for a moment last Sunday -- when he put hiLola/Buick in the starting lineup with less than 45 minutes left in qualifying -- at least acknowledged the achievement.

"I'm happy for everyone who is here to see this," he said then"There won't be a first time again."

Later he said jokingly: "I'm on the bus. A. J. [Foyt] is at the fronof the bus [the front row], and I'm at the back [actually, the next-to-last row], but I'm just happy to be on the bus at all."

But when he thinks of Jackie Robinson, the man who broke thcolor barrier in professional baseball, when he thinks of Frank Robinson, the first black to manage a major-league baseball team, he doesn't believe they were out to make history for their race either.

"They were and are men who loved to play the game they loved,Ribbs said. "I know Frank Robinson, and I know the only thing that matters to him is winning."

But there is a difference, as actor/comedian -- and race-casponsor -- Bill Cosby pointed out last week.

"Jackie Robinson had to deal with some of the name-calling frosome of the people," said Cosby, who is contributing about $200,000 to Ribbs' effort. "But when it came time to play in the field, he had the same equipment as everyone else.

"In the case of Willy T. Ribbs, people in the same sport anamong the general public are rooting for him, but corporate America and its lack of support are saying to him, 'You can't have the same equipment.' You need only check the record. Willy T. Ribbs can drive, and he deserves this moment."

Ribbs will not address the reasons for his inability to gain majosponsorship, pointing out that other drivers also are having problems.

But since qualifying, his team has been getting many feelerslarge and small. On Thursday, WTLC, a black-format radio station here, and the Hubler Group of automobile dealers in central Indiana signed on as minor sponsors.

L And on Friday, Ribbs signed a one-race deal with McDonald's.

Before the McDonald's deal, the team operated on thcontributions of Cosby, the strength of team owner Derrick Walker's credit card and a $20 contribution from St. Andrew Apostle Middle School in Indianapolis, whose students took up a collection.

"On the news, we heard you didn't have many sponsors, so whave enclosed $20 to donate to your racing efforts," said a letter from the students at the school. "We know it isn't much, but we hope that it will help."

Ribbs grew up in California, where his father competesuccessfully on the Sports Car Club of America circuit near San Francisco in 1950s and 1960s.

The Bay area always has been made up of many different ethnibackgrounds. It never occurred to either Ribbs' father, William T. "Bunny" Ribbs, or to him that anything unusual was going on.

It is only after competing outside California that race became aissue.

"A statement on achievement as a black driver?" said BunnRibbs. "We don't make statements like that. When Bill was 5 years old, he went to races with me. I went because I loved racing, and that's why he races. Not for any other reason."

Since Ribbs started his pro career in 1977, he has earned reputation for brashness. He has danced on car roofs, thrown a fist or two and led the Charlotte, N.C., police on a merry chase (no charges were filed) while imitating the stock-car drivers of a bygone, bootlegging era.

It has been a performance with mixed returns. Car owner Walkerwho spent 12 years with the Roger Penske organization before joining Porsche last year and going out on his own this season, admits that Ribbs' rebel reputation made him pause.

"I didn't know him that well," said Walker. "By reputation, he waimpetuous and a bit of a hothead. I would be worried with anyone with a reputation like that. And with my Penske background, you know image is everything. Everyone has to be squeaky clean. But I voiced my concerns to Willy, and what I found out is that reputations can be larger than life."

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