"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.