A friend asked an innocent question a few weeks ago: Why isn’t Willy T. Ribbs’ history-making chassis from the 1991 Indianapolis 500 on display in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum? Having reached the 30-year anniversary of Ribbs’ entry into the record books as the first African American driver to compete in the Indy 500, it was an interesting topic to consider.
In that tall, square building nestled between Turns 1 and 2, dozens of Indy cars dating back to the first 500 in 1911 are presented for tens of thousands of annual attendees to see. Dragsters, sports cars, off-road trucks and even Indy 500 obscura like the last car to qualify with an average speed below 200mph have been preserved and shown to the museum’s visitors.
Finding the reason as to why something as important as Ribbs’ No. 17 Walker Racing Lola T90/00-Chevrolet is missing from the hall of vehicular honorees didn’t take long to answer. Arriving at the conclusion also offered an interesting tour through IndyCar’s past.
“I bought the car from a guy called Antonio Ferrari, whose Euromotorsport CART team ran it in 1990,” Derrick Walker told RACER. “It all came about because I’d decided to start my own team in 1991 and was trying to find some money and a driver. So I went to Phoenix, which is where many teams went to test before the season. I was waiting there, mooching around, trying to see if there were any deals going, and somebody mentioned to me Willy T. Ribbs was trying to find somebody to run him in the Indy 500.
“So I tracked him down. He had some sponsorship — not enough, really — but with that, I decided to do it. I talked with Antonio, who had an old Lola for sale with an old, worn-out Cosworth engine to go with it. It was the best we could afford, so I bought that off of him. That was Lola chassis HU12.”
Well chronicled in the documentary Uppity, Walker — the former Indy 500-winning Team Penske team manager — went from the proverbial penthouse to the outhouse after leaving the wealthiest and most dominant IndyCar program to start his own outfit. Stuck with last year’s Indy car design and a tired engine, Ribbs and Walker Racing were in for an epic uphill climb to make enough speed and qualify for the biggest single-day sporting event in the world.
Beset by crushing setbacks and mounting pressure to make the field of 33 starters, Ribbs and the Walker team persevered amid high drama and earned 29th-place on the grid with a four-lap qualifying average of 217.358mph.
The 200-lap race was anticlimactic by comparison; a missed upshift by Ribbs overrevved the Buick engine on loan, and by Lap 5, the chartreuse and hot pink No. 17 Lola was coasting to a smoky stop.
Although their finish of 32nd was far from satisfying, Ribbs made history with Walker. The duo added one more Indy 500 start during their collaboration in 1993 where, using a newer Lola T92/00 chassis, they started 30th and placed 21st at the checkered flag. But the whereabouts of that original Lola T90/00, chassis HU12, is the one of interest.