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."