You don’t have to attend many SVRA event weekends before you realize how welcoming the paddock is and that it is literally a family. The connections people find are significant and frequently you never know whom you might bump into but the stories are invariably interesting. On hand this weekend is Formula Junior racer Phil Ribbs who has some great stories to tell about both his car and about a top-level champion professional racer who also happens to be his younger brother: Willy T. Ribbs.
The Ribbs are a racing family, beginning with William Theodore “Bunny” Ribbs, Phil and Willy’s father. The elder Ribbs took up racing in the mid-1950s in the San Francisco SCCA Region. At first he owned and drove an MG TD and then moved to an MG A and finally a pair of Elvas. The memories of dad at the wheel in the heat of competition are more vivid for Phil than brother Willy because he is seven years older.
Still, both brothers became smitten with the sport. By 1972 Phil, then 25, bought a March Formula B and set out for driving school. Successful there he followed his father’s footsteps and became an SCCA member with the San Francisco region. He raced in both regional and national competition but the adventure did not last long. By 1975 the pressures of paying the bills put racing on hold.
“I had to go work, and that wasn’t racing,” Phil says with the smile of a man at least satisfied to know he took a shot at something very special. “The reality of paying the bills and just taking responsibility forces those decisions. I don’t regret a thing.”
By the time Phil was putting his driving passions on hold, younger brother Willy was launching a career that would deliver several breakthroughs. Not the least of which was becoming the first black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1991. Phil was there every step of the way.
“I had a full-time job with the city of San Jose, but I was with Willy as much as I could. I really felt a part of the team,” Phil reports. “When he qualified at Indianapolis in 1991 that was an amazing moment. Everyone there knew they had witnessed something extraordinary. It wasn’t easy but Willy overcame a lot of challenges to reach his goal.”
Phil attended all Willy’s races in the Indy car series in the 1990s. Before that he traveled with the team during Willy’s wildly successful years with Trans Am in the mid-1980s when he was the winningest driver in the series, scoring 19 victories. Most of those were with Jack Roush’s Ford team. He then continued his success into IMSA winning 10 races with Dan Gurney’s Toyota-backed team.
Meanwhile, Phil’s non-racing career had progressed and he eventually became the city of San Jose’s chief inspector. He purchased a very special 1963 Lotus 27 in 2003 and set out for the Jim Russell Driving School to knock the rust off. He has competed several times a year in various vintage racing organizations, but this is his first go with the SVRA.
In step with the historic and authentic theme of this weekend’s Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival, Phil’s car is truly a significant racer. Driven by future Formula 1 driver Peter Arundell to the British Formula Junior championship (which a year later morphed into Formula 3) the car today is all-original with the exception of the monocoque frame that affixed to the engine. Phil still owns that and keeps it so he has 100 percent of the original pieces. Otherwise – allowing for maintenance – the suspension, gears and Ford engine are as they were in 1963.
Despite the fact that Phil’s car was the Lotus factory entry, it did not carry British racing green livery. Instead, it sported the deep blue colors with distinct yellow rims of the Ron Harris racing team. Lotus Boss Colin Chapman had his hands full winning the Formula 1 World Championship that year with driver Jim Clark as well as tackling a new challenge with the Indianapolis 500. He effectively subcontracted operations for the Formula Junior effort to Harris, who was a widely respected team manager in the era. Committed to the authenticity of his racer, Phil restored the car using Harris’ team colors. The Lotus also sports Harris’ name along with the standard Team Lotus script.
Obviously, Lotus had a great year in 1963 with the world championship, a runner-up finish at Indy in their first try and Arundell’s British Formula Junior crown. Arundell won his championship by a single point over then-rising star Denny Hulme who went on to win the Formula One championship in 1967.
Arundell’s future proved to be less fortunate. After Chapman promoted him to Formula 1 in 1964 he performed well with two podium finishes but a devastating accident with American Richie Ginther sidelined him for months with severe injuries. He returned briefly but it was the beginning of the end for his career.
Coming from a racing family, Phil Ribbs appreciates such history. One of his goals with his ex-Arundell Lotus is to have it certified for authenticity of preparation with the SVRA’s Gold Medallion program.
Phil understands the value of history, heritage and authenticity – he lives it. In addition to the Lotus he is driving this weekend he also owns a 1970 Bonneville and a 1966 Lotus 23C, one of only six built. He also owns a 1967 Triumph motorcycle with all original parts he is putting to good use this weekend as he tools around the paddock in true Ribbs family fashion socializing and striking up conversations to catch up with friends old and new.