IRL: Willy Ribbs to Return to Racing At Las Vegas

INDIANAPOLIS, Sept. 16, 1999 -- The "T." in Willy T. Ribbs must stand for "Tenacious." How else would you explain his return to Indy-type racing at age 43 and after nearly five years on the sidelines? "I wasn't going to quit,"...

INDIANAPOLIS, Sept. 16, 1999 -- The "T." in Willy T. Ribbs must stand for "Tenacious." How else would you explain his return to Indy-type racing at age 43 and after nearly five years on the sidelines? "I wasn't going to quit," Ribbs said Thursday at a press conference in front of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum to announce he was going to drive in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League Vegas.com 500 on Sept. 26 at Las Vegas. "The feeling is indescribable," said Ribbs, the only African-American to drive in the Indianapolis 500. "I mean, it's great. This has been my whole life. You've got your ups and downs. It happens in all careers. I mean, it happens whether it's entertainers or sports personalities." Ribbs has signed a contract with McCormack Motorsports to drive both at Vegas and Texas Motor Speedway in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League season-ending Lone Star 500 on Oct. 17. He will replace driver Jimmy Kite at Vegas and then become Kite's teammate at Texas as McCormack intends to run two cars there. Cole Bros. Natural Spring Mineral Water, bottled in Peru, Ind., comes on board Ribbs' McCormack G Force/Aurora/Firestone car as a primary sponsor. Ribbs, a native of San Jose, Calif., emphasizes this is only the beginning of a revitalization of his career. "We are beginning 2000 right now," he said. "This is where it begins, in Las Vegas." Dennis McCormack, who co-owns the Avon, Ind.-based team with his wife, Felicia, agreed that plans are to run Ribbs the full 2000 season. McCormack first met Ribbs in 1990, and they have kept in regular contact over the years. Serious conversations about putting him in a car at the tail end of this season started before this year's Indianapolis 500. Dennis and Felicia discussed how they could assemble a program and thought it was best to hold off until the telecast of the league's final two races moved from Fox to ABC and ESPN. All races next season will be on either ABC or the ESPN networks. "This isn't something that just happened the last couple weeks," Dennis McCormack said. "Our plans from the start were to have him start at Vegas, go on to Texas to build for the year 2000 to give us something a little more concrete under our feet to sell the package for 2000." Ribbs became the first and only African-American driver to make the Indianapolis 500 starting field in 1991 when he qualified 29th in an under-financed effort by car owner Derrick Walker. Ribbs lasted only five laps before the engine expired and placed 32nd. In 1993, Ribbs, with some backing from comedian Bill Cosby, qualified 30th and drove to 21st place, completing 194 laps. When sponsors didn't materialize thereafter, Ribbs lost his ride. A couple years ago Ribbs came to the Speedway with singer Pat Boone, who made an impassioned plea for sponsors to help Ribbs resume his career. Nothing came out of that approach. McCormack called Ribbs recently, telling him that Vegas was a go. McCormack also told Ribbs that he had a bottled water sponsor named Cole Brothers from Peru. "You mean they ship that all the way from Bolivia?" Ribbs said in jest. "I didn't know." What Ribbs didn't know is that Peru in this case is a town located 75 miles north of Indianapolis. A brewery was built by the springs there in 1859 by a man named J.O. Cole, who was the maternal grandfather of songwriter Cole Porter. Dr. Trent Jones, a working chiropractor, formed the mineral water company three years ago and named the product after the original Cole (his wife's distant relative). He has brothers-in-law Joe and Pete Buffington as partners, and they are now launching a nationwide sales program. Calcium content is what makes Cole Bros. water special, Dr. Jones said. Calcium is necessary particularly for older women and African-Americans, which makes Ribbs an excellent representative. Ribbs also will be the first African-American to compete in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League. Ribbs took a refresher test at Las Vegas two weeks ago and Brian Barnhart, Indy Racing League director of racing operations, was impressed. "The conditions were about 100 degrees and 35 mph winds," Barnhart said. "It was not conducive to downforce or stability." Driving a PDM Racing car set up by Tim Wardrop, Arie Luyendyk's former engineer, Ribbs lapped in the mid-180s in five laps and mid-190s two laps later. He ran consistently in the 193-195 ?-mph range for around 20 laps. Indy Racing regulars Eliseo Salazar, Tyce Carlson and others were only topping out at 200 under the same conditions. "He looked very consistent in the car and very comfortable in the car, so I was pleased with what he did," Barnhart said. Ribbs, who may get some extra practice time the week of the race, said the main thing for him was to regain his rhythm and feel for the car. He doesn't intend to go gung-ho in the race but doesn't plan to be a straggler, either. "When you get out there, you're hungry and you want to be competitive," he said. "You just sort of play it by ear. You try to read each situation, each lap, and see what you've got. "We're not going to cruise, that's for sure."

Source: IRL/IMS

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Eliseo Salazar , Arie Luyendyk , Jimmy Kite , Tyce Carlson , Willy T. Ribbs