Remember Willy T. Ribbs? Well, he's back.
The only black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and one of the cockiest competitors of all time, Ribbs has landed a ride in the Indy Racing League with car owner Dennis McCormack.
Ribbs, 43, will make his series debut this weekend in the Vegas.com 500 as a replacement for Jimmy Kite. If all goes well, Ribbs will have Kite as a teammate in the Lone Star 500 on Oct. 17 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Although he didn't return phone messages this week, Ribbs already has had plenty to say to the media about his comeback.
"This is perfect for us," Ribbs told the Las Vegas Sun. "What better place to make the return of Willy T. than Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world?"
He also told the Indianapolis Star: "They counted Frank Sinatra out in the '60s and he came back. For Willy T., the best is yet to come."
Ribbs was a prominent figure in racing from the mid-1970s through 1994. He was an exceptional road racer, winning 17 times on the Sports Car Club of America Trans-Am circuit. For various reasons, including insufficient financial support, that success didn't translate into oval-track racing.
In 1991, Ribbs made the Indianapolis 500 field when he qualified 29th in a car owned by Derrick Walker. Ribbs lasted only five laps before the engine expired, and he finished 32nd. He ran in the 500 again in 1993, starting 30th and finishing 21st.
Ribbs ran full-time on the Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit from 1992 to 1994 and has mostly been a spectator since.
Dover Downs International Speedway in Delaware doesn't quite rank with Darlington, S.C., and Bristol, Tenn., in degree of difficulty, but the one-mile, all-concrete oval has its detractors. The speedway plays host to today's MBNA Platinum 400.
"You've got those big, high banks, and driving into them kind of looks like you're driving into a concrete wall," Kyle Petty said. "Your mind kind of fools you every lap, and you sit there and think, 'Now, that track does turn left up there, doesn't it?'
"If somebody was building another Dover today and the word got out, I'd bet at least three of four drivers would chain themselves to the bulldozers in protest." . . .
Bobby Hamilton, who has been somewhat disappointing in the No. 4 Morgan-McClure Chevy, has agreed to a two-year contract extension with the team. Hamilton owns three career Winston Cup victories, the most recent of which came at Martinsville, Va., in 1998.
Steadily improving Bruce Allen of Arlington, Texas, joined the Pro Stock class's "200 mph Club" last weekend during qualifying for the Keystone Nationals in Mohnton, Pa., turning a career-best elapsed time of 6.905 seconds at 200.17 mph. Membership in the 200 mph Club is granted to the first 16 drivers to surpass the mark, and Allen was the 12th. Warren Johnson broke the barrier for Pro Stock cars in 1997.
Sarah Fisher, an 18-year-old Midget racer who passed her IRL driving test at Las Vegas on Sept. 1, has announced tentative plans to make her Indy racing debut in the Lone Star 500. Fisher is aligned with Team Pelfrey, which is expected to part ways with 1998 Rookie of the Year Robby Unser after this year. She will spend the next few weeks getting more "seat time."
If Fisher, who turns 19 Oct. 4, enters the Texas Motor Speedway race and qualifies, she will become the youngest driver to compete in an IRL event and only the second woman. The youngest driver to start an IRL race was Mexico's Michel Jourdain Jr., who was 99 days short of his 20th birthday when he finished 13th in the 1996 Indy 500. Lyn St. James is the only woman who has competed in an IRL-sanctioned race.
Dario Franchitti is the defending champion of today's second annual Texaco Grand Prix of Houston, and he practically needs a repeat victory to keep his title hopes alive.
Franchitti, a 26-year-old Scotsman with an Italian heritage, has seen his chances fade in recent weeks. Rookie sensation Juan Montoya, of Colombia, has opened a 28-point lead over Franchitti with three races remaining. If Montoya extends the lead to 44 points at Houston, he'll clinch a record fourth consecutive title for team owner Chip Ganassi.
CAPTION: Kyle Petty, shown in 1997 at Daytona, said steep banks at Dover Downs speedway make drivers think they are about to crash.