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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Ribbs carries fond memories of Indy 500

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At times, it is easy to look back and think about what could have been.

We ask ourselves all the time if things might have been different if we had a little more help or perhaps a level playing field.

So when I had a chance to converse with one on the most versatile and underrated race drivers of my lifetime, it seemed like a logical question. Then again, we are not talking about just a normal person, but rather a man who has taken the hard road to success and been successful at every stop.

So when I asked William Theodore Ribbs Jr. (better known as Willy T. Ribbs) about his epic efforts at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and if he ever wondered what it might have been like under different circumstances, and if he was bitter, I got an answer that was both surprising and refreshing.

“While I am saddened that I did not have a more competitive opportunity at Indy, I remain extremely grateful to those who supported me, and I am not bitter at all,” said the successful and articulate Ribbs, who was in town to address students from the mayor’s charter schools program in conjunction with Black History Month.

Ribbs broke the color barrier at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1991 when he qualified for the Indianapolis 500 at a speed of more than 217 miles per hour. While his race would end after just five laps due to engine failure, his racing career started long before that historic day in Indianapolis.

Ribbs got hooked on racing at an early age and distinguished himself in go karts. Upon graduation from high school, he left the United States to compete professionally in England. He quickly became tremendously successful in the Formula Ford Series, winning the Dunlop Championship in his first year.

Upon his return to the United States, he had a brief opportunity to drive in NASCAR in a ride that was quite uncompetitive and then went on to distinguish himself even further in both the Formula Atlantic and Trans-Am Series, where he won five times and collected top rookie honors.

But his historic arrival at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which was funded largely by entertainment icon Bill Cosby, is something Ribbs remains grateful for and has fond memories of as well. “The Indy 500 is the pinnacle of motor sports and it is always the place I wanted to be,” he recounted as he prepared to address the children in attendance.

“I think I could have been very competitive in the 500 and I have a great amount of respect for this facility and the Hulman family for welcoming me here,” Ribbs said.

Danny Bridges, who feels Willy T. Ribbs in his prime was as good as anyone on a road course, can be reached at (317) 578-1780 or at bridgeshd@aol.com.

NOTES: Willy T. Ribbs told a hilarious story about how he first met Bill Cosby and how relaxed the meeting was. “He offered me a turkey sandwich and a Coke, and then asked rather quickly how much money it would take to sponsor a car.”

Ribbs may have missed his calling as an impersonator, as he sounded just like Cosby as he told the story. I asked Ribbs if he would be interested in driving at Indy again if the offer was a competitive ride. He stated that if a Roger Penske type situation presented itself, he would do it without hesitation.

Nexgenracers also was part of the presentation at IMS as they continue their efforts to teach the fundamentals of karting to aspiring young racers.

The Lucas Oil/Nexgenracers Youth Go Kart Program focuses on ages 11 to 14 and offers three progressive course levels. Racing legend Charlie Wilson is the chief instructor and details about this opportunity are available from promotions director Rodney Reed at (317) 283-7507 or by e-mail at onexgenracers@aol.com or visit www.nexgenracers.com and the program runs on weekends between April and September. There is still  time to apply for 2011.

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