PRUETT: Why isn’t Willy T Ribbs’ 1991 car in the IMS Museum?

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PRUETT: Why isn’t Willy T Ribbs’ 1991 car in the IMS Museum?

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PRUETT: Why isn’t Willy T Ribbs’ 1991 car in the IMS Museum?


In an era where CART IndyCar chassis technology relied mostly upon aluminum honeycomb construction, the suspension failure and the ensuing crash into the Michigan wall at nearly 220mph meant Lola T900/00 HU12 had met its competitive end. Owing to the extensive damage in the impact and the section carved away by CART’s emergency response team, there was no chance of repairing and racing Ribbs’ history maker.

“Beek-man was in the car when it was written off,” Ribbs said. “As a matter of fact, he about wrote himself off; that was almost his last race ever. It was a sad way for it to end up.”

Walker continues to lament the mistake that injured the blameless Beekhuis and wrecked his one and only chassis.

“‘Shame on you, dummy,’ is what I thought to myself,” he said. “I’ve still got the faulty pushrod to this day. And it’s clearly snapped off. But of course, I was damn unhappy.”

Returning to May of 1991, a request from one of America’s great institutions was placed with Walker Racing.

“Did you know the Smithsonian wanted that car?” Ribbs asked. “They wanted to get it after Indy. Walker said, ‘Well, we’re gonna run it and then we’ll give it to you at the end of the season.”

“At the time, it was my only car,” Walker said. “There was there was an approach from the Smithsonian on it, but you know, nobody said, ‘Here’s some money, we’ll buy it off you and you can go buy another one.’ I needed the car to race and earn my living and pay my crew, so there was no way I could give the car away to anyone after Indianapolis. I’d have needed to buy something else, and that wasn’t going to be possible after basically going broke running at the Speedway.”

Ribbs at speed in HU12 at Indy. IMS Photo

Transported from Michigan to Walker Racing’s shop in Indiana, a full damage assessment on HU12 was completed.

“We took it back to Indianapolis and stripped off everything we could that wasn’t damaged, because we needed to carry on if we got another car,” he said.

At the same time, Walker scrambled to find new funding to purchase another used Lola T90/00 and prepare it for the next race, held three weeks later on the streets of Denver. He was successful in that endeavor. Despite the sizable setback with Beekhuis at the previous round, a new coat of chartreuse and pink was applied to the replacement Lola, and in the thin Colorado air, Ribbs produced a career-best finish of sixth with the stand-in chassis.

With the crash dilemma resolved and Walker Racing back on the CART IndyCar trail, a fateful decision was made with old chassis No. HU12.

“It’s in the garbage dump,” Ribbs said. “I don’t know what dump it’s in, but that’s where it is.”

Unlike most sports where memorabilia of immense cultural importance or athletic excellence are thought of as items to preserve for future generations, the idea didn’t occur to Walker’s team 30 years ago.

“We eventually pitched the chassis; it’s in some landfill in Indianapolis,” Walker said in a regretful tone. “The thing is, you look back now, and having Willy as the first African American to qualify and race at Indianapolis was a big deal at the time, but it lasted a short period of time afterwards. The bubble was burst once the race was over. It was hard to get that support after that for Willy. Everything was done on a shoestring budget to get from race to race once Indy was over.

“After Willy qualified, we’ve got McDonald’s calling and wanting to be on the car. And they were — it helped us to dig out of the money pit we’d dug ourselves into. But after the race, it’s like the flame went out and everybody else went back to square one. It was back to how do you find money to continue? So what I’m saying is that almost immediately after Indianapolis, this feel-good story had run its course, and we weren’t patting ourselves on the back with this achievement.

“It’s only now, when I think back to then and wonder about whether I should have hung onto that chassis, and I think yeah, maybe I should. But you know, at that point, it was all about survival and trying to run a team and get established. A destroyed race car that we could no longer use was what we saw, and so we got rid of it.”

Original chassis plate and crash damage images courtesy of Derrick Walker

Barring an Indiana Jones-style archaeological expedition to find and recover chassis HU12 under decades of waste, the only chance of seeing Ribbs’ No. 17 Lola-Cosworth at the IMS Museum would come from the funding and assembly of a recreation built around an original T90/00 model. Ribbs says an initiative was afoot when Uppity was about to debut, but the notion has cooled and faded.

“About three years ago, the museum was looking to do a replica of the 1990 Lola,” he revealed. “And everybody wanted a half a million dollars, minimum, and we’re not talking about one with engine. A rolling chassis. They wanted a 1990, wanted to put it in the colors of Indy 1991, car number 17, to go into museum for history’s sake.

“You ever see hyenas out in the bush? They haven’t seen the carcass, but they smell it, nose up in the air. That’s what we got here, you know? People trying to take big money off the Indy 500 museum, wanting to sell an old chassis that isn’t even the real one Walker owned, and they weren’t gonna bite on those dollar amounts. My ass. They said, ‘No thanks.’”

With the purchase of IMS and the NTT IndyCar Series by racer and businessman Roger Penske in 2020, Ribbs has placed his hopes in solving the absence of having a No. 17 Lola-Cosworth — in those blinding period-correct colors — on the IMS Museum floor with the track’s new caretaker.

“If RP wants to get one, he’ll put the dogs out and they’ll track a ’90 chassis down and make that happen,” Ribbs said. “If anyone can do it who truly cares about history, it’s Roger.”

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