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Willy T Ribbs

Full Name:
William Theodore Ribbs jr
3rd January 1955 (Age 65)
San Jose, California
Most recent race (in database):

This flamboyant Californian was a Trans-Am star during the 1980s who was the first African-American to drive a Formula 1 car or race at Indianapolis. However, his obvious talent behind the wheel and undoubted star quality largely went unfulfilled.

Background and early career

His grandfather had established a successful plumbing business in 1927 and his father also raced as an amateur. Willy T.Ribbs’ own ambitions were inspired by watching Jim Clark race Frank Arciero’s Lotus 19-Climax at Laguna Seca in 1963.

He graduated from the Willow Springs Jim Russell Racing School in 1976 before paying his own way to race in England. That was with a Royale RP24 in Britain’s 1977 junior Formula Ford 1600 championships – convincingly winning that year’s Dunlop/Autosport Star of Tomorrow FF1600 title but that was it for his European career.

Ribbs should have made a surprise NASCAR debut in the 1978 World 600 at Charlotte driving Will Cronkrite’s Ford Torino. However, he did not turn up for testing after being arrested for driving down a one-way street in the wrong direction. He was replaced by a young Dale Earnhardt.

Trans-Am Championship

Ribbs instead struggled to finance progress in North American Formula Atlantic before being rescued by entrepreneur Jim Trueman and sponsorship from his Red Roof Inns concern. On pole position for the Atlantic race at Long Beach in 1982, he transferred to Trans-Am for 1983. His DeAtley Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro won five times (each celebrated on the roof of his car with Ribbs’ trademark victory shuffle) to finish as runner-up behind team-mate David Hobbs and clinch rookie honours. He switched to a Jack Roush Ford Capri for 1984 but the Trans-Am title remained elusive despite Ribbs winning more races than anyone else for the next two seasons.

Brabham-BMW Formula 1 test

Intent on progress, he tested a Brabham BT54-BMW at Estoril before the 1986 F1 season and raced in three NASCAR races that year but neither opportunity led to his next move.

IMSA and Champ Cars

Instead, Ribbs joined Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers to race a works-backed Toyota Celica Turbo in IMSA’s GTO class during 1987. The next two seasons included seven class wins and Ribbs spent 1989 developing Toyota’s GTP challenger. He then received a surprise call from entertainer Bill Cosby who offered to back his graduation to Champ Cars with a year-old Raynor Motorsports Lola-Judd.

Ribbs started eight races in 1990 with 10th at Vancouver his best result. However, the race was marred when marshals clearing a spun car panicked as Ribbs passed by. All three were hit and one later died in hospital.

He switched to Walker Motorsports for 1991 and made an historic Indianapolis 500 debut only for his Buick engine to seize after just five laps. Sixth-place at Denver was the best result of his open-wheel career. After a year without a regular ride, Ribbs returned in 1993 and 1994 with Walker’s Lola-Cosworths but he only scored three top-10 finishes.

Subsequent career and surprise comeback

He crashed out of the 1999 Las Vegas Indy Racing League event in a one-off with a McCormack Motorsports’ G-Force-Aurora. He drove Bobby Hamilton Racing’s Dodge in the 2001 Craftsman Truck Series before retiring to take up clay pigeon shooting. However, a chance conversation over dinner led to the 56-year-old Ribbs making a surprise comeback in the 2011 Indy Lights race at Baltimore from which he retired.

Championship seasons

Season Name Starts Poles Podiums Wins Position Points
2011 IRL Firestone Indy Lights Series
Starting Grid Inc
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
28th 17
1999 Pep Boys Indy Racing League
McCormack Motorsports
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
47th 4
1994 PPG Indycar World Series
Walker Motorsport
15 (1) 0 0 0
0% win rate
22nd 12
1993 PPG Indycar World Series
Walker Motorsport
13 0 0 0
0% win rate
20th 9
1992 PPG Indycar World Series
Walker Motorsport
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
1991 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Walker Motorsport
9 0 0 0
0% win rate
17th 17
1990 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Raynor-Cosby Motorsports
8 0 0 0
0% win rate
26th 3
1986 Winston Cup 66th 219