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THE ONE AND ONLY WILLY T. RIBBS By Mark Hollis

Like so many others this past Memorial Day weekend, I immersed myself in the plethora of sports on television. As I channel surfed from one station to the other, I happened upon the Indianapolis 500; the premier racing event of the year. I was never an avid fan of car racing, but I have always been intrigued of what it would feel like to drive 200 miles per hour. While watching the 500, I noticed that although there was diversity on an international scale, there were no African-American drivers participating. I reached out to my brother, Craig Hollis, who is one of the Indy Car Fire Safety Supervisors at the Sonoma Raceway. He supervises the pit crew responsible for the fire safety operations during the races. I posed the question about the lack of blacks in the sport and what I learned from him was an eye opener. Craig told me that in 1991 an African-American racer, Willy T. Ribbs, participated in the Indianapolis 500. I was flabbergasted that this pioneer had gone under the radar for me and probably many others as well. I started looking into his career and was amazed at what I uncovered.

Ribbs-to-return-to-racing-after-10-year-hiatus-MIAN2S3-xWilly Ribbs was born in San Jose California in 1955, and the family of five eventually relocated to Guinda, California where his father, William “Bunny” Ribbs worked as a plumbing contractor. Bunny Ribbs had been an amateur race car driver in the 1950’s and 60’s and the racing bug was passed to his son, Willy. After graduating from high school, the younger Ribbs went to work for his father and saved enough money to go to driving school. In 1977, at the age of 21, Ribbs went to England to compete. There he won races in the Dunlop Championships and the Ford Formula series. When he returned to the States in 1978, he was ready to mix it up with the heavy weights.

He made his debut in the Formula Atlantic open wheel series and finished 10th. Throughout the ensuing years, Ribbs competed in races all across the country earning a repetition of a highly competitive driver, but one with an attitude that got him into trouble at times. He was often compared to Muhammad Ali for his no-nonsense approach to his sport and command of respect. He was known to do the “Ali Shuffle” on top of his car after winning a race much to the spectator’s delight.

In 1991, Ribbs became the first African-American to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. He was driving for the Walker Motorsports Team. Unfortunately, Ribb’s experience was short-lived on the 5th lap by blowing a pushrod in the engine. Disappointed as he was, he continued to persevere and again qualified in 1993 finishing 21st in the field. During his racing career, Ribbs participated in the Trans-Am Series, IndyCar, Champ Car, IMSA, and the NASCAR Spring Cup `Series and Craftsman Truck Series.

Ribbs’ racing career as a diver ended in 2003, but even after retiring, he tried to remain connected. When asked what he thought about making history he stated, “I just want to be involved with a winning effort. History books are great and milestones are great, but I want to be on that podium.”

Today Ribbs is still an advocate for equality in racing, but spends more time in the sport of professional shooting. Will we ever see another Willy T. Ribbs at Indianapolis? “Perhaps,” said my brother, advising me that drivers of color like Lewis Hamilton, a Formula One driver and Bubba Wallace, NASCAR, are competing where the opportunities are provided.

In hindsight, I believe that Willy T. Ribbs’ advocacy for acceptance as an Indy Car driver went unnoticed. Like other “firsts” like Jackie Robinson in baseball, Wendell Scott in NASCAR, or Arthur Ashe in tennis, Ribbs broke the color barrier in his sport. In the future as I look to Memorial Day weekend and the Indianapolis 500, I’ll remember the contribution of Willy T. Ribbs.