Ribbs-Cosby alliance is no laughing matter

May 14, 1992|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

Every year, Corporate America spends millions of dollars to generate publicity by sponsoring race cars. Yet, there is one deal at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that includes an incredible bonus that no one is willing to buy.

If a sponsor invests in a Willy T. Ribbs IndyCar program, it will get not only Willy T. and the IndyCar, but also comedian Bill Cosby as its product spokesman.

The cost of the program? From $6 million to $7 million. Big bucks, but not outrageous in a sport where top teams like Penske and Newman-Haas operate on budgets in the neighborhood of $10 million and up.

It appears to be an incredible deal, but no one is buying.

Willy T. Ribbs, who overcame all the odds last May to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and become the first African American to drive in the Indy 500, sits by a phone in Indianapolis waiting. Waiting.

It is a tedious activity for a man who is used to moving faster than 200 mph. It is a worrisome exercise for a man who makes his living and supports his family by driving race cars.

"We made history," Ribbs said. "History that will be remembered for 200 years. It was world news. There was a tremendous response, from the general public to the White House. And now, it's beyond words for me to tell you how this feels. It's like it never happened. It's like you get this feeling that no matter what you do, how hard you try, what success you've shown, no matter what, you're not going to get what you deserve."

This weekend, the final qualifying rounds will be held for the annual Memorial Day race, but it is unlikely Ribbs will be on the track.

There is no sponsor in sight. The phone is not ringing.

Given Ribbs' history of success -- he has won in every other racing series he has attempted -- the obvious question is whether the fact Ribbs is black has had impact on his ability to find sponsorship.

Certainly other drivers without any experience at Indy have sponsors for cars at the speedway this May, while Ribbs, a proven and talented driver, does not.

It is a highway Ribbs tries to avoid. He has never played his race as a way to get ahead in his career, and has an aversion to it.

"I don't want to be the best black race car driver, the best woman race car driver or the best white race car driver," he said. "I want to be the best race car driver -- period."

But the frustrations are obviously building.

"Think of it in terms of Larry Bird not being able to play pro basketball because he's white," Ribbs said. "What if someone said, 'Larry you've got all the talent and ability, but you're white and you don't fit our image.' What reaction would that provoke?"

Bob Kachler of the William Morris Agency, who has approached nearly 65 companies without finding a buyer, is aware of both Ribbs' and Cosby's growing frustrations. But Kachler believes timing and economics are the reasons no one has taken this deal.

"We didn't get started until late in the year, November," said Kachler. "By then, corporate budgets are tied up . . . Several companies tried very hard to work it out, but they could not do it because of their current advertising commitments. I think we LTC could have something for 1993. . . I think they know we've got a very good deal for them, but they just can't afford it right now."

In the meantime, Willy T. Ribbs sits by the telephone and waits.

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