At 14, Willy T. Ribbs used to explain to the California cops who had nabbed him for reckless driving that he was simply in training. His offense was usually nipping off in his older brother’s car to practice 80 mph turns on California mountain roads after school. Fear? No problem. Then, as now, Ribbs believed, “God ordained me to be a race car driver.”
At 27, Ribbs is still setting his own pace. The first black driver since the legendary Wendell Scott to break into the big time, Willy roared to a win in the prestigious Trans-Am Rose Cup race in Portland, Oreg. this summer—another chapter in his “continuing saga to become world champion.”
Hurtling around tracks at 110 mph in his Budweiser-sponsored, factory-built, converted Chevy Camaro Z-28, Ribbs displays a style other racers find explosive and impetuous. Former Le Mans champion Dan Gurney shakes his head fondly and says of the man he calls the Great Black Hope, “He’s got a lot of fire.” Ribbs has won 10 of his 29 races and will probably earn more than $50,000 this year. A young man in a big hurry, he sees his career as a breakthrough in a sport often dominated by whites—Scott never won full acceptance and rarely got into major races. Says Ribbs recalling Jackie Robinson’s “first”: “Now I’m the first to enter the top levels of driving.”
One of five children growing up in a middle-class San Jose neighborhood, Ribbs’ first memories are of driving around a track with his father, a contractor and amateur race car enthusiast and, as an 8-year-old, being nearly killed when an out-of-control car left the track and struck him. After high school, his parents offered him two choices: They would pay for four years of college or one of racing. No contest. “I knew I would either come back as a winner or on a stretcher,” he recalls, and promptly left for the English circuit. “They had never seen a black race car driver,” he says.
Ribbs competed successfully in Europe until 1977 when he headed back to the American circuit and his hometown, where he now lives in an apartment by himself. He continues to nurse an almost mystical belief in his driving destiny. “God controls how long you live, but I control the emotions while I’m here,” he says. “It’s more than just driving a car. There’s nothing so deep in my life.”