SAN JOSE, Calif. -- A year ago, Willy T. Ribbs was on his way to making history at the Indianapolis 500.
Today, he is on his way to a fund-raising drive there. For himself.
When practice begins at Indy this weekend, Ribbs will not be in a cockpit. He will be in the garages and hospitality areas, trying to find sponsorship money.
"I will be kissing babies and little old ladies," Ribbs said last week before leaving his San Jose home for Indiana. "I will be the consummate politician. I'm looking for a deal."
He has no choice. In May 1991, Ribbs became the first black driver to start an Indy 500. In May 1992, Ribbs will probably become the first black driver to have started an Indy 500 and then not even have climbed into a cockpit there the next year.
Ribbs has no corporate sponsor at Indy. Which means he has no car at Indy.
"We've got some irons in the fire, but it looks like I will be on the sidelines," Ribbs said. "I can't believe it. I thought what happened last year had a tremendous impact on the sport. It's very tough to find corporate support in racing right now . . . but there are still drivers with tremendous backing. I don't know why we haven't gotten the nod."
Well, you can offer some possible reasons. But none sounds very good -- considering that Ribbs' story was the most heartwarming one to emerge from last year's annual monthlong Indy grease opera.
He and car owner Derrick Walker showed up at the start of May with no funds, aside from entertainer Bill Cosby's seed money. They spent two weeks hustling up a decent engine and the dough to pay for it. An elementary school in Indianapolis even took up a collection and sent Ribbs a $20 check. He never cashed it, but painted the school's name on his car as a tribute.
Finally, in the last possible moments of qualifying, Ribbs made the 33-car field and shot both fists into the air. This provoked a warm standing ovation from the earthy, piston-jaded Indy crowd.
"The American people like to see people who work hard and try to make things happen," Ribbs said. "That's what we did."
Some good it did him.
Ribbs is correct in saying that money is tough to find anywhere in this recession. And it costs roughly $500,000 just to get on the track in a used chassis at Indy. It costs millions more for the entire racing season.
After Ribbs made last year's Indy field, McDonald's corporation gave him $250,000 as a one-time contribution. On race day, he was forced out early with a dropped cylinder, but assumed he'd be back. Maybe not. Neither he nor Cosby -- who has invested more than a million dollars in Ribbs' career the last few years -- has found a new deal.
Other drivers have been luckier. One is Lyn St. James, a female sports car racer who had never driven a lap at Indy until this year. A national department store chain, J.C. Penney's, is sponsoring her effort. No doubt, Penney's realizes that women do drive a few cars in America, and the company sees St. James as a wise investment.
You'd think that some other sponsor might understand that black Americans also own a few cars, and do the same. Ribbs tends to downplay this angle. Walker, the car owner, doesn't.
"I'm somewhat surprised that we haven't been able to find something for Willy," Walker said. "In reality, what you're doing here is trying to sell a product. And there's no doubt about it, Willy should appeal to a lot of companies as the only black driver in Indy car racing. It's very hard to see why he doesn't have a sponsor willing to do that."
Hard to see, that is, unless these potential sponsors believe a black race car driver can't sell anything. On the highway of American race relations, there are small bumps and large bumps that can make a person wonder how far the country has really traveled. This week's madness in Los Angeles is one of those large bumps. The case of Willy T. Ribbs this month is a small bump. But it is no trifle.
At age 36, Ribbs is in the prime of his racing career. He finished sixth in one race on the CART circuit last year. Walker has three cars in his Indy garage. Two are pledged to Canadian driver Scott Goodyear. The third is being held for Ribbs -- but only if the sponsorship money arrives within the next few days. Otherwise, Walker may sell the ride to former Indy winner Johnny Rutherford, who apparently has found sponsors.
No offense to Rutherford, 54, but shouldn't America be seeing Willy T. Ribbs in that car, for a lot of reasons?