INSIGHT: Racing's original Willy T

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INSIGHT: Racing's original Willy T

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Racing's original Willy T

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Within the family, William Theodore Ribbs Jr garners most of the attention.

Thanks to the success and fame attained in motor racing, and more recently from the documentary Uppity, the driver we know as Willy T Ribbs has been brought to the masses through Netflix.

But there’s more to the story. Long before Junior went on to break barriers as the first African American to compete in the Indianapolis 500, it was his namesake, William Theodore Ribbs Sr, who served as the family’s pioneer in the sport.

Born in 1925 in San Jose, California, Willy T’s late father – nicknamed ‘Bunny’ – earned a reputation as a badass on two and four wheels. After serving in the Army during World War II, Bunny returned home in 1946 and found a motorized escape. In the hours after working plumbing jobs with his father Henry, he practiced his favorite activity, kept hidden from the diminutive patriarch.

Bunny’s passion was stoked while sliding sideways with fellow daredevils and thrill seekers in the imminently lethal sport of flat-track motorcycle racing. Held at county fairs and horse racing venues, it was a primal affair. The fortunate ones rode home after the events.

Among the many things that make Willy T Ribbs unique, the distinction of being a second-generation racer – a rarity among African American families of his era – has always warranted further exploration. One gets the impression Bunny, who retired from racing while Willy T was in grade school, could have been a big deal if he’d been able to focus his energies on the sport where his son would eventually thrive.

“The war ended, he was straight to work in the family business, and my dad grew up with a bunch of kids who became motorcycle racers, so when he came home, they reconnected,” Ribbs told RACER. “Our hometown of San Jose wasn’t that big at that time, and it was an agricultural town before Silicon Valley started, and there was nothing to do but race.”

Bunny’s introduction to the somewhat safer world of four-wheeled racing in 1954 was born out of necessity.

“It was a pretty famous story in our family about dad racing at the Bay Meadows track in Belmont, which was for horses, by the way,” Ribbs said. “I don’t know how he got into it, but it’s a big track and he crashed and got beat up pretty bad. He did some endos, knocked himself out. They took him to the hospital and he recovered eventually, but that’s when he decided he needed to try four wheels. In those days, you didn’t tell your parents about that stuff. And my grandfather hated racing – didn’t want to know anything about it – so they kept that crash a secret.”

Unlike his son’s open-wheel aspirations, Mr. Ribbs gravitated towards touring cars and sports prototypes. Starting out in a MG TC, he graduated to the V8-powered Baldwin Special and more MGs through the 1950s, sampled a Lotus 11, and closed his time behind with wheel in tubeframe Elvas in 1964.

“The Elva Mk IV was his favorite of them all,” Willy T said. “I was at Indy for the VROC race, a guy walks up to me and says ‘I have your dad’s old Elva’, and walked me down to it. It was nice and clean, and he kept the same original white color. The same as I remember sitting in that thing when I was a kid.”

After surviving a foray into flat-track motorcycle racing, the elder Ribbs closed out his racing career wheeling Elvas in the 1960s. Image via Willy T. Ribbs

Like many who are drawn into motor racing, the communal nature of the sport is where Ribbs’ earliest interactions were made. Whether it was preparing for a race at home, or traveling up and down the west coast to participate in the events, Junior was included in the adventures.

“Of course we had the family business, so it was race cars in the garage,” he said. “It was my dad’s buddies who came over and worked on their race cars at my dad’s place. Because my family had enough property where you could put a dozen race cars, right? So a lot of my dad’s friends who owned race cars brought them to my dad property, and they’d work on them there. And I was always around race cars.

“My dad was damn fast. I mean, he’d been on the pole at several races. I remember we were down in Phoenix, he was out in front, and we were up in Kent, Washington, he was out in front. And I remember for him to be in it was really exciting. Without that experience in my life, there would have never been a Willy T. Ribbs in (professional) racing. No question, no doubt about it. I never would’ve thought of or discovered the career that I was in love with without that exposure.”

As the inspiration for his son’s future career, Bunny took immense pride in the opportunities that arose in sports car competition, first in the SCCA Trans Am Series, and then in IMSA, where Junior won 1987’s version of the GTO Drivers’ championship in Dan Gurney’s All American Racers Toyota Celica. When possible, he’d join his son at the races, drinking in the grandeur that was so far removed from his dirt and mud-strewn flat-track days.

Ribbs Jr had plenty of paternal support when he decided to begin his own racing journey. Image via Willy T. Ribbs

Upon his arrival at 1991 Indy 500 where history would be made, something different unfolded as the danger posed at the Speedway connected Bunny and Willy T in new ways.

“When I was a kid, the race wasn’t on TV, so dad would take to the San Jose fairgrounds to watch the Indy 500 on a closed-circuit feed they had,” he said. “But dad had never been to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He got in during practice, and his first time on pit lane, he watched Mark Dismore crash right in front of him. It was a bad one. Broke the car into pieces, broke Mark’s neck, broke his legs. And the look on my dad’s face. I had never seen that before… he had no emotion on his face. Just staring into space. He’d seen terrible stuff on closed-circuit before, but the TV did not justify the speed and the danger of Indianapolis.

“So we went to dinner that night and we found Mark was going to survive, and dad was just sort of looking into his food, and we were talking and then he looked up and we were making light of what was going to happen the next day. And he said, ‘You guys are nuts.’ He said that out of nowhere. ‘You guys are nuts.’ He says, ‘I had no idea the cars go that fast.’ I’d never seen him quite like that, because he was so affected by it. My dad made light of a lot of things, but this was something where he could see the real risks out there that we faced every day. I think it changed how he saw what I was trying to do at Indy.”

While Ribbs Sr had watched many Indy 500s via telecast, it took his first in-person visit to the Speedway for his eyes to be opened to the dangers inherent in racing there. Image via IMS

Bunny was there for many of the dramas chronicled in Uppity, as constant engine failures and dwindling odds of qualifying for the race brought constant drama to his son’s efforts. While the tensions reached a crescendo at the conclusion of the documentary, Ribbs remembers something rather different as it happened back 30 years ago.

“My dad and my family were taught not to show emotion, and that all stems from my grandfather Henry,” he said. “You do not show weakness at all. You don’t talk about it, you don’t show it, you don’t cry. I mean, that’s how I was raised. My dad was just calm and went along with the flow, with all the engines blowing up and he was observing everything that was going on, he didn’t chime in at all. When we qualified, I’m jumping out of the damn car coming down pit lane, hugging everyone, doing high-fives, do the photos and interviews and all that stuff.

“Finally, I get to see my dad… No hug. He just shook my hand. Said, ‘Good job.’ Because you just didn’t do that in our family to men; men didn’t hug each other. And for right or wrong that’s how it was handled. So we shook hands.”

Ribbs Sr’s outward reaction to his son’s landmark qualifying run at Indy in 1991 was muted, but there was no doubting his pride. Image via Willy T. Ribbs

Despite receiving a somewhat cold and clinical response to qualifying for the Indy 500, Ribbs delighted in seeing his father showed with adoration from his friends and the media. Although outward displays of emotion were kept in check, Junior watched as Bunny stood proud and basked in his son’s achievement.

“He said, ‘Good job,’ and then he went back to entertaining everybody that was talking to him about what his kid just did. S***, he gave me like five seconds, turned around, and did an interview like it was his own show!” he said with a laugh.

“He was too busy entertaining everybody, but it was great to see. He was proud that his son accomplished it, and he didn’t have to make any excuses or explain why I didn’t. And when I think back to all the cars my dad raced, everything I grew up around in racing with him, there was only one direction I could go, and we ended up getting there together.”

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