There have been so many downers in the racing career of Willy T. Ribbs that it might be easy to forget that he has won a lot of races.
Ribbs is the third-leading winner in Trans-Am history, behind only the late Mark Donohue and Bob Tullius--and ahead of the likes of George Follmer, Peter Gregg and Parnelli Jones. He won more money in a single season, $132,933 in 1985, than any other Trans-Am driver ever. Twice he won more races than the champion but lost the championship--to David Hobbs in 1983 and to Wally Dallenbach Jr. in 1985.
"My record in the last four years has been excellent," Ribbs says. "I was the dominant driver as long as I was in Trans-Am, and last year I won two races in the IMSA GTO series. That made 18 wins since 1983. I'll stand on that."
But what people remember are the failures--overexposed in many cases because Willy T. Ribbs is black.
Ribbs likes to compare himself to Jackie Robinson as a black pioneer in a white man's sport. He knows he's still not there, but he feels he's on the road.
"I'm paying my dues, the way guys like Danny Sullivan did," he said. "Danny knocked around for years, driving in Europe and different series, before he caught on. I still have time."
Sullivan was 32 before he got to Indy the first time, and was 35 when he won the 500. Ribbs is 31.
"I've been blessed with ability and my career has been successful so far," he said. "I want to continue winning and now that I'm driving for Dan Gurney and Toyota, I feel I'm truly blessed. Gurney is a legend and has been an idol of mine since my dad (sports car driver Bunny Ribbs, a San Jose plumbing contractor) took me to races from the time I could toddle along. Having Dan in my corner can't help but make me a better driver."
Ribbs will drive a turbocharged Toyota Celica in the hotly competitive GTO class next Sunday in the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix of Endurance at Riverside International Raceway.
"This is the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson making it in baseball," he said. "Maybe that will be a good omen for me this year in a race car. I would love to have a big year and end up going back to Indy one day with Dan Gurney."
Ribbs, like Robinson, is controversial and aggressive, traits not always accepted when skin colors don't match.
"When Jackie first joined the Dodgers, he was always refered to as the black baseball player," Ribbs said. "Now it's never mentioned. No one says, 'Lawrence Taylor, the black football player,' or 'John Elway, the white quarterback.' They're just football players.
"That's the way it should be. I resented the fact that stories about me always used to start out, 'Willy T. Ribbs, the black race driver.' I never considered myself a black race driver. I considered myself as a race driver. Period.
"Now that I've had a few controversies in my career, I've become 'Willy T. Ribbs, the controversial race driver.' I like that better," he said.
Most controversial was Ribbs' short experience at Indianapolis Motor Speedway two years ago. When he arrived, there were more photographers, writers and TV cameras surrounding him than A. J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones probably had in their careers. And it was only for rookie orientation.
Boxing promoter Don King had put together a package with big-bucks sponsorship from Miller beer for Ribbs to drive a March-Cosworth entered by Sherman Armstrong. The "first black" syndrome engulfed Indianapolis.
It lasted only half a day, though. After failing to get the car over 172 m.p.h., Ribbs pulled into Armstrong's pit, took off his gloves and helmet and told crew chief George Bignotti that he was through. He said that he didn't feel comfortable and was not going back out.
Other rookie drivers were testing at around 200 m.p.h. at the time, so the rap on Ribbs was that he couldn't handle high speeds. A bad rap, he says now.
"Speed had nothing to do with it. It was just a bad car. Arie Luyendyk had driven it for the Provimi Veal team and didn't like it, so they sold it to Armstrong. A lot of people told me not to take the ride, but it was a chance to get to Indy, so I did it. Jim Trueman, who had been my strongest supporter since 1981, told me it was a Mickey Mouse operation.
"It was just a bad car. I wasn't going more than 170, and bits and pieces were coming off it. As far as speed is concerned, I had no trouble going 200 at Daytona and I was clocked at 207 at the end of the straightaway testing a Formula One car in Portugal, but to go 200 a driver has to have a car under him."
Ribbs' Formula One experience was as short-lived as Indy, but for different reasons.
"Shortly after Indy, Bernie Ecclestone invited me to Portugal to test a Brabham with 15 other prospective drivers. I had never driven a Formula One before, but I loved it. I was there five days and had the chance to see how a top-flight organization operated.
"Out of the 16 drivers, I was 12th-fastest."
Why didn't he get a contract?
"Bernie had an Italian sponsor, Olivetti, so he picked two Italian drivers."
Then there were Willy T.'s two excursions into the red-neck world of NASCAR.
The first, back in 1978 when he was an impetuous 22-year-old with a pocketful of clippings from Europe, where he had won 6 Formula Ford races in 11 tries and been named a star of tomorrow, ended before
it started. Ribbs was going to race at Charlotte, N.C., but the night he arrived in North Carolina, he was arrested for driving the wrong way on a one-way street and resisting arrest.
All that came out of that incident was a derisive ballad by Dennis McClelland, called "Wrong-Way Willy T."
He got his second chance last year when Bill Gardner hired him to drive for his DiGard team, the second most successful on the NASCAR circuit. Ribbs tried to qualify in six races and made three of them, but his best finish was a 22nd at North Wilkesboro, N.C.
"It was kind of like the Indy deal," Ribbs said. "People I should have listened to warned me not to go with Gardner. They told me about the trouble guys like Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison and Ricky Rudd had with him and that I ought to pass, but I felt I had to take a shot, so I did.
"When I blew four engines in two days getting ready for Watkins Glen, Gardner pulled the car out. I'd qualified it, but he said he'd had enough. The engines weren't the real reason, though. The real reason was because he couldn't get any sponsorship.
"Outside of Gardner, I couldn't have had a better reception from the drivers and officials like (director of competition) Dick Beaty and (NASCAR president) Bill France Jr. Guys like Richard Petty and Waltrip and Earnhardt went out of their way to show me the ropes. I think if I'd had a sponsor and a good team, I'd be there right now."
Ribbs also had a history of controversy in his three Trans-Am seasons, such as feuding with teammate David Hobbs in 1983, and punching out fellow driver Bob Lobenberg before the opening race in 1984 at Road Atlanta and then quitting the DeAtley team on the spot when he felt the team didn't back him up.
Last season, after his brief skirmish in NASCAR, Willy T. joined Brooks Racing for eight IMSA GTO races. He won two, also picking up a reputation for playing bumper tag with fellow competitors.
Twice Ribbs was fined for rough driving in street races at Miami and Columbus, Ohio. Curiously, at both races he also received the Norelco Driver's Cup and it's $1,500 prize as the day's outstanding driver.
In Miami, he was docked $2,000 for ramming the rear of Scott Pruett's Ford Mustang as they were battling for the lead on the final lap. The incident knocked Pruett out of the race and enabled Jack Baldwin to come from behind and win. Ribbs finished fourth.
In Columbus, it was Pruett again on the receiving end of Ribbs' tag. Ribbs won the race but was fined $1,500 and suspended for 60 days for "over-driving" after he bumped his way past Pruett on the second lap.
"I won my appeal after Columbus, so I didn't miss the last race. I was on probation, but everything is cleared up now. I'm in good standing, at least until we get to Riverside," he said with a laugh.
"I grew up watching Parnelli and Gurney and Donohue leaning on each other. They drove hard and that's what made them legends. I want to be a legend some day so I drive hard. I enjoy good in-the-phone-booth driving and I don't think what I do ticks other drivers off as much as it does IMSA.
"Look at Dale Earnhardt in the stocks. He's always being accused of rough driving, but he's a winner. I like his style."
Willy T. has his own style, off the track as well as on.
When he wins a race, he jumps on top of his car and does a victory shuffle. He won so many races in 1985 that the Roush Protofab crew stopped repainting the scratches on the roof in midseason.
"It was something spontaneous I did after I won a race at Brainerd (Minn.)," he said. "I was so happy I won because I had finished on a flat tire that I hopped out of the car and jumped up on the roof and did a little Sugar Ray Leonard shuffle. You know, just a little soft shoe. The sponsor loved it because he got that much more air time, so I did it every time I won."
Then there was the time at Portland, where Willy T. donned an Arab costume and led a camel to the driver's meeting.
"It was a Camel GT race, and a woman had a camel outside the track, waiting to get in to do some promotion for the sponsor. I walked up to her and said, 'May I use your camel?' She was so surprised, she turned it over to me.
"I wanted the drivers to know that I could not only control a race car, but I could control a camel, too," he said. "I thought I would surprise a lot of people, standing there like Willy T. of Arabia, but nobody paid much attention. They've always thought I was different, I guess."
And he doesn't mean because he is black, either.