DOVER, Del. -- Willy T. Ribbs never wanted to be a role model. He said so more than once when he became the first African-American to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
He was 35 then, and this is what he said about opening doors in the white-dominated world of racing.
"I've been told I'm an American saga," Ribbs told The Sun before running his first Indianapolis 500. "But I am not 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."
That was 1991, and he was saying the same thing three years later when he was still the only African-American driving at Indy.
So it is a surprise to find Ribbs driving a Craftsman Truck as the point man, the role model, for the Dodge Diversity program that is designed to bring more minorities into NASCAR racing.
He is sitting in his team's transporter. He looks almost the same. His eyes are bright and eager. His cowboy boots are a warm, worn, brown leather.
"I'm the survivor," he says. "The real survivor. The ones on the island are only there for a little while. I've been surviving my whole life."
Racing has been his entire life. His dad raced in California. Ribbs followed in his shoes. He raced stock cars for a while, sports cars for a while, Indy cars -- for a while. Each time he was the only minority in the field, often the only minority to ever have been in the field.
He spoke his mind everywhere, which rubbed sponsors the wrong way, because he thought they had a responsibility to give talented drivers a chance no matter what their skin color. He rubbed some owners the wrong way, because of his propensity to irritate sponsors. He rubbed some drivers the wrong way, because of his expressed self-confidence. Eventually, the full-time race-driving jobs ran out.
But racing was still his life.
For four years, he gave inspirational speeches, talking about his life and racing, picking up driving opportunities where he could. Last year, he competed in the B.F. Goodrich Trans-Am Series. The year before, he spent a little time in the Indy Racing League.
Then last winter the phone rang. Would he like to drive a NASCAR Craftsman Truck as part of a new Dodge Diversity program?
"When we decided to establish this program, we looked at it from different angles," said Ray Richards, program manager. "We considered if we wanted a diversity team owner or a driver. We decided a driver could be out front and become a role model for other young African-Americans and other minorities."
Dodge looked around for a driver and found there were a lot to choose from. But they were driving in small series. Ribbs was the only one with major-league stock car, sports car and open wheel experience and the only one who was used to running the speeds necessary to compete in the truck series.
He was also the only one with a recognizable name.
"Willy has obviously matured, and we are very comfortable with him," Richards said. "With age comes maturity, and he realizes he needs to be that person for people to look up to. He's not so flamboyant and boastful as he used to be."
Ribbs the original
Much of the time that's true. But Ribbs is still Ribbs.
"In those days, I didn't think [being a role model] was important," Ribbs says now. "And I could be very short with people when I felt they wanted to focus on that aspect."
Ribbs says he now understands he is a leader by pure example. He says he realizes he is doing more than just racing, that he has a sponsor who is trying to accomplish something through a theme. But, he adds, he also has an owner who wants to win races.
"And, for me as a driver, it's still about racing," he says.
To emphasize that point, he tells how he walked away from a television interview at Daytona in February because of the focus the interviewer's questions took.
"I had just qualified pretty well and I was in a good mood," Ribbs recalls. "I was asked to come out and do a television interview. The guy with the microphone had an Afro. His first question was not about how well I'd just run. He said, `As a black man in NASCAR, do you think your race has held you back?'
"It was the focus of his question. I just was not going to address ... those issues. I simply didn't want to. I just walked away."
What Ribbs wanted to talk about that day was his new career. How he was learning to drive a vehicle he was unfamiliar with. He wanted to talk about how he was learning a whole new language and about how hard he was going to have to work to succeed in it.
"It didn't take me long to decide to join the Dodge program," he says. "It's a diversity program. It's a first-class program, a first-class team with [car owner] Bobby Hamilton. As a driver, that's what any driver wants. And off the track, I do know there is the social responsibility side."