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Racing suits Willy to a T

The sport now has a rising new black star in California's Willy T. Ribbs

You've heard of David Pearson
And ol' King Richard P.
But I'll bet you've never ever heard of Wrong-Way Willy T.
From Wrong-Way Willy T., 1978

In 1977 Willy T. Ribbs, who now calls himself the best black race driver in the world, was just starting out. He was only 21, living in a cheap flat in London, racing in England because that's where one of his two heroes, the late Jimmy Clark, learned the stuff that made him a two-time world champion.

One day Ribbs heard that his other hero, Muhammad Ali, was in town. That afternoon Ribbs went to the Hilton Hotel, where Ali was staying, and waited in the lobby. Ali showed up, surrounded by his usual entourage, and was in the elevator before Ribbs could get to him. Knowing Ali did road work every morning, Ribbs sat down in a big chair in the lobby and waited...all night.

At dawn the next morning Ali stepped out of the elevator in a sweat suit. Ribbs jumped up and introduced himself and asked if he could run with him.

"No!" said Ali, "I train alone."

"But I waited all night," said Ribbs.

"You shouldn't have done that," said Ali. But Ribbs looked so mournful, Ali relented. "All right," he said, "but stay behind me."

After a couple of miles of running through Hyde Park in a gray mist, Ali looked over his shoulder. Ribbs was still shadowing him. Ali slowed and dropped back. "What's a black boy like you doing over here in London?" he asked.

"I'm a race driver," replied Ribbs.

"A black race driver?"

"I'm going to be world champion."

"Hmph," said Ali. "You keep thinking like that and you might be."

They ran beside each other in silence for a while, then Ali said, "You ever get scared drivin' them cars?"

"You ever get scared of Joe Frazier in the ring?" Willy replied.

And, says Willy T. today, "From that moment on we've been friends."

Ali now has the satisfaction of seeing Ribbs starting to fulfill his promise. Willy T. won the 1977 English Formula Ford series—a one-design competition aptly called the "Star of Tomorrow," in which he finished first in six of the 11 races. But when Ribbs came home, "tomorrow" turned out to be half a decade away. From 1978 through 1982 he marked time, working as a plumber for his father in San Jose and eating his heart out. His first real break came only this year, and he has proved he deserved it. Racing a Camaro Z28 in the 12-event Sports Car Club of America Trans-Am road-racing series, Ribbs won five races, was on the pole four times and, by taking first in last Saturday's finale at Caesars Palace, finished second for the season. His teammate, Britain's David Hobbs, won the championship. It was an extraordinary performance by a rookie in a professional series, and close to astounding for Ribbs, given his limited experience.

"It might sound stupid, but I really believe I was born to race," says Ribbs, now 27. "I believe fate dealt me to be a racing driver." Ribbs's father, William T. Sr., confirms this evaluation, recalling that when Willy T. was just a baby he used to take the corners riding his tricycle on two wheels. "He made a track through the house," his father says, "and around the corner from the den to the kitchen he'd miss the damn TV by the same quarter inch every lap."

Although Ribbs has always been very athletic, he didn't play any organized sports in high school; the beckoning of his dirt bike and go-kart was just too strong to resist. By the time he was 20, his major claim to fame was a collection of 23 speeding tickets and a first-name relationship with most of San Jose's traffic policemen. Of course, Ribbs's name then was plain "Bill," which it still is to his father. "He only started calling himself Willy T. when he went over to England," says William Sr. "He figured he needed a more colorful handle for people to remember him by."

In 1976 he enrolled in a driving school in California, and at the end of the year he went off to England. "He conned his mother out of $1,000," says his father. "The two of them announced to me he was going to England to go racing." Once there, Willy T. paid $500 a race to rent a Formula Ford; he finished third in his first race and won the second. Mike Eastick, the owner of the car, was so impressed he allowed Willy T to continue racing without paying for the ride—Eastick was stunned to learn that those races had been the first two organized events this cocky American had ever driven.

Because of his success in England, Willy T was invited by H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler, general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, for a tryout. Wheeler's plan was to enter Ribbs in the 1978 World 600 in Charlotte, specifically to draw black fans to a sport in which the only black to gain any national attention previously had been a driver/owner named Wendell Scott. Underfinanced and forced to run outdated or hand-me-down equipment, Scott retired from racing stock cars in 1973, after 26 years on the circuit, with a record of only one win in 495 races.

Ribbs had never driven a real stock car before, but, says Wheeler, "that day he went faster sooner than any rookie driver who had ever been at the speedway. He did some things instinctively that it takes most drivers a long time to learn. We were tremendously impressed." So a press conference was called to announce Charlotte's rookie entry.

That tryout and press conference proved to be the high point of Willy T.'s stock car career. The next step was to send Ribbs to Alabama International Motor Speedway in Talladega to actually witness a stock car race. And, equally important, to meet with NASCAR's president, Bill France Jr. Back then, Ribbs's tail-out driving style was matched by a tongue-out personal style, and the latter reputation preceded him into France's office, where the reception was icy. It didn't help that France, who also owns Talladega and Daytona speedways, and Wheeler were competing promoters. The people who would have used Ribbs to spin their turnstiles seemed to forget that he was 22 and inexperienced in dealing with the public. He was also completely ignorant of the take-your-medicine-and-keep-your-mouth-shut attitude expected of all NASCAR rookies, not that it would have made much difference. Willy T. fast-talked himself into trouble by being himself—announcing that he intended to run right up there with Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough. "I was so mad after that meeting with France I was saying anything," Ribbs says. "I didn't know any better. I was real young and I didn't understand what was happening."

So Ribbs got a lot of press, much of it painting him as an Ali-style braggart. He compounded his troubles by getting charged with driving the wrong way down a one-way street. It was late at night in Charlotte in a car loaned to him by former NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett, and the TV cameras were at the police station even before Humpy Wheeler got the call to come down and bail Ribbs out. The publicity effort had worked too well. The next morning Wheeler called Ribbs to his office, told him he lacked maturity and sent him packing. The song that graced the airwaves of a Charlotte area radio station for weeks afterward, Wrong-Way Willy T., fortunately didn't follow Ribbs back to San Jose.

But the reputation had become part of Ribbs's baggage, preceding him to the door of every potential sponsor he called on. Which is why for the next 2½ years Ribbs couldn't beg his way into the seat of a race car. "I was like Dracula," he says. "The Charlotte business nearly put a stake through my heart. There was absolutely nothing. No testing, no practice, nothing."

These were Ribbs's dues-paying days: the sitting at home, the crawling under other people's leaking sinks, and hating it. Willy T believed he could drive better than nine-tenths of the guys with sponsors and good rides. Ribbs is proud that he never asked Ali for sponsorship. "So many people try to con him and rip him off and use him," he says. "He was my friend and he gave me moral support, but no matter how bad I wanted to race, I wouldn't have asked him for money."

Ribbs was rescued from his status as an untouchable by Jim Trueman, one of racing's staunchest patrons, owner of Red Roof Inns and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, sponsor of 1982 Indy-car rookie Bobby Rahal and a winning IMSA endurance race driver himself. Trueman bought rides in six Formula Atlantic races for Ribbs in 1981-82, and that was enough to help Willy T. recast his reputation. And then, this season, Willy T got his big break.

A two-car Trans-Am team was being formed by Neil DeAtley, a Lewiston, Idaho highway construction contractor, but DeAtley was not having much luck getting sponsorship. He had been trying Budweiser and was making no headway, so "we figured we had to do something to get their attention," DeAtley says. "What can we do to be different? Well, let's look around and see what's available in the black department."

So DeAtley Motorsports went back to Budweiser with two angles: first, a sponsorship payment program based on team performance so it would be of low risk to Budweiser, and second, a black race driver named Willy T Ribbs. Suddenly the door swung open.

Willy T. finally got his ride because of his color rather than his speed, but that is a fact of life in racing: Talent often is not the top priority in driver selection. Ribbs is aware of this. His father says, "I told Bill a long time ago, 'Hey, if you got to exploit yourself, that's what you gotta do.' " The ultimate irony is that even DeAtley had little inkling how fast Willy T. could go in a race car. He was like a director who hires an actress for her body and finds out she can actually act.

Ribbs takes a fighter's approach to racing. He trains like a boxer six days a week in a gym in Santa Monica, guided by Ali's former cornerman, Drew Brown, better known as Bundini. Ribbs runs five miles in the mornings and goes to the gym for a 90-minute workout—skipping rope, doing sit-ups and five rounds with the heavy bag. Some days Ribbs gets in the ring and works on his hand/eye coordination, Bundini wearing mitts to receive Willy's punches. "I tell you," Ribb says, "when you get finished with that workout, you really feel aggressive. And so many times this year, reflexes got me out of trouble. Hey, I jump rope for a reason—makes my feet quicker on the pedals."

Willy T met Bundini in 1979, and he drove Bundini's new Cadillac, called Black Beauty, from New York to L.A. for him. Bundini still has mixed emotions about the experience. He says, "Willy left New York at midnight on a Saturday. I flew to L.A., and Monday morning Willy calls me on the phone. I thought he was broken down somewhere, Oklahoma or someplace," says Bundini. "He was in front of my house on the corner! Ol' Black Beauty's never been no good ever since. When she be parked on the street in front of the gym and Willy walks by, she go, 'No! Get him away from me!'

"Before I had the gym, Willy used to come to my house 'cause he liked me, 'cause he knew I believed in him. He had somethin' about him made me believe in him. If you believe in a person, you're settin' him free; he needs that. Now that he's makin' it, he likes to come back and show me he appreciates it. I call Willy the Jackie Robinson of the car."

As Ribbs works toward a crack at the world championship, he'll probably be back in the Trans-Am next year, and most likely will be the favorite. And the Indy 500 is definitely on his mind; all it would take to get him there is a sponsor. As for racing in NASCAR, it's not likely. But, says Humpy Wheeler, "I knew all along that somewhere down the road he'd rise up and shake the rafters. And since he's matured, I'd love to see Willy T. Ribbs racing in NASCAR right now."

As a prophetic verse of that once derisive song says:

Here comes a new superstar
That you just gotta see.
Here comes Wrong-Way Willy,
Wrong-Way Willy T.


Ribbs led Saturday's SCCA Trans-Am series finale at Las Vegas from start to finish.


Ribbs, wife Suzanne and his father were confident—justifiably so—before the race.


"The best black race driver in the world" belongs here, out from under leaky sinks.


Bundini takes Willy T.'s punches, but won't let him get his hands on his Caddy again.