Don King and Pat Boone have precious little in common, except that they both served as would-be benefactors of Willy T. Ribbs. King put him in a car for the Indianapolis 500 in 1985, but it shook so badly during practice that Ribbs got out and refused to get back in. Boone tried unsuccessfully to line up an IRL sponsor for him in 1997. Ribbs has attracted a variety of other patrons as well in his more than two decades of racing. Bill Cosby backed him in the early '90s. A group of seventh-and eighth-graders at St. Andrew the Apostle in Indianapolis sent him a check for 20 bucks in 1991, a few days before McDonald's wrote him a substantially larger check that allowed him to run in the Indy 500. After the last contribution a grateful Ribbs took to calling himself Willy T. McRibbs.
A disparate group though they are, Ribbs's backers all failed to provide him with one thing: a chance to win. "What a driver wants is a great team and a great sponsor," says Ribbs. Ever since he graduated from high school in San Jose in 1977, Ribbs has looked for that dream ride. He has made his share of headlines, largely for being the first African-American to race in the Indy 500, in '91. However, his engine blew up six laps into that race, and after finishing 21st at the Brickyard in '93, Ribbs spent the better part of the '90s raising his two kids, Sasha, now 14, and Theo, nine, as a single parent in San Jose. He drove the occasional Trans Am, IRL and CART race and placed hundreds of phone calls, trying to persuade potential sponsors to give him a shot, all to no avail.
Then last year the deal he was looking for found him. As part of a diversity program, Dodge decided to sponsor a team in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2001 and asked Ribbs to drive. Dodge is the sort of deep-pockets sponsor Ribbs has long awaited; Bobby Hamilton is the racing-savvy owner. "It's great to work with an owner who is a driver," says Ribbs, who is 25th in points after four races. "And Bobby's a lot of fun. You can go out and party with him."
Ribbs has always been something of a free spirit, and that has sometimes gotten him in trouble. He lost a potential Winston Cup ride in 1978 after he was hauled in for taking a late-night drive the wrong way on a one-way street in Charlotte and resisting arrest. (His seat was given to an unknown short-track driver named Dale Earnhardt.) He also has never been afraid to speak his mind, once comparing NASCAR to baseball before Jackie Robinson. "I don't regret anything I've done or said," says Ribbs, but now that he is 43 he is noticeably less outspoken.
These days Ribbs can usually be found under a ten-gallon hat, but he doesn't wear it to prove that the first black driver with a full-time NASCAR series ride has stock-car cred. He's been wearing one since high school, when he raised show hogs and steers on his grandfather's ranch in San Jose and was a member of the Future Farmers of America. In fact, says Ribbs, the whole issue of his skin color "means nothing. All that matters is going fast and running at the front and winning."
Ribbs isn't at all sure that his driving in NASCAR will attract African-American kids to the sport. "When you're a kid you don't think about that," he says. "I never met a basketball player who played because he was African-American. You do it because it's what you love to do."