Willy T. Ribbs wanted to be the first black driver in the history of the Indianapolis 500. He used funny words to stress the magnitude of what he liked to believe was impending triumph, words like "colossal" and "phenomenal" and "magnificent."
When he showed up at the speedway for rookie orientation last month, wearing fire-red, fireproof overalls and a turtleneck dickey, he walked through the gates of Gasoline Alley and into the breezeway leading up to the macadam, waving at banks of empty bleachers and winking at a storm of adoring faces only he saw. With no one but photographers around to answer his greeting, Ribbs seemed to wave all the harder.
"They'll be talking about this from Broadway in New York to Main Street in the Congo," he was heard to say only a few days before making a trial run. And: "What (Willy T. Ribbs) dared, he did. What he did, he willed."
But like so many other rookie drivers determined to find a spot in the 33-car field, Ribbs' prodigious ambition outran his experience. He dropped out of contention for the 500-mile race -- to be run Sunday for the 69th time -- after pushing his car to 170 mph and recognizing he could not go much faster without being overwhelmed by the task. As it turned out, Pancho Carter averaged a record 212.583 mph in winning the pole. The slowest qualifier, Rich Vogler, ran 205.653.
"Anybody who says I was chicken or scared is bloodthirsty," Ribbs said on the phone the other day. "Dropping out was a matter of good judgment, of professional judgment. I only had one day to prepare and I just wasn't ready. It wouldn't have been so bad if I knew what the hell was going on, and if I'd had some practice.
"But I'm not disappointed with my decision. I've proven that I'm one of the winningest young drivers in the world, but to be a pioneer as I was -- the first black man to attempt to run at Indy -- that only made the pressure even greater. And nobody was putting more pressure on me than me."
Ribbs, 29, had agreed to drive for Sherman Armstrong, a longtime Indy-car owner, and promoter Don King. The deal, sponsored by Miller Brewing Co., also included a run in the U.S. Grand Prix at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., on June 30. But last week, Ribbs, who has the best winning percentage of any driver competing in a major professional American motor sports series, said he did not know if he would race at the Meadowlands.
"Each situation," Ribbs said, "I analyze. I'm always working in the gym, trying to get stronger. Physically, I'm in great condition. But there is one element I have no control over, and that's mechanical. Every time I got into a race I ask myself, 'Am I competitive?' At Indy, I analyzed right away that I wasn't. Any immature person would have said backing out was a show of fear. But there was no fear. I've never been afraid behind the wheel of a race car."
Even before making his first turn around the track at Indy, Ribbs appeared to be a bit shaken, and with good reason. For starters, members of his crew had a hard time strapping him into the open-wheel car. While reporters asked him silly questions about his place in the history of sports, Ribbs sat with his arms crossed and watched a row of thunderheads in the distance threatening to wash out a much-needed day of practice runs. On top of that, his brand-new, tailor-made racing suit was snug in the shoulders, preventing him from fully extending his arms. "But how am I supposed to grab the steering wheel?" he asked.
Later, Ribbs half-snapped at a reporter, "The fact of my blackness doesn't mean anything. I got here because I was winning races."
Asked if he found questions about "being black and being a competitor at Indy" annoying, Ribbs replied, "No, not really. That's just an identity that some people have to start with. But now everyone knows me as Willy T., the racer. Not Willy T., the black racer."
Nevertheless, Ribbs spoke openly of his place in history, as though it were preordained. Although he made no mention of Mel Leighton and Wendell Scott, two black race car drivers who preceded him, Ribbs said he saw himself as a pioneer and compared his mission to that of Jackie Robinson, the baseball player who broke the color barrier in the major leagues. He also said teaming up with George Bignotti, who had served as the chief mechanic for seven Indy 500 winners, was like having "Angelo Dundee working with the young Cassius Clay."
Once on the track, Ribbs complained of the wind buffeting his head at every turn, and after completing about a dozen laps, he hit a blue jay on the back straightaway and drew a caution.
"You killed a little bird," Armstrong said.
"A bird?" Ribbs asked, pulling off his helmet.
"A little one," Armstrong said. "You can see where it hit."
Because Ribbs had trouble conquering the ground effects of the track, he could not get the car -- painted bone white and trimmed in red and gold -- to hug the ground and give him a smooth ride. Even the rearview mirrors wouldn't stay put.
"Somebody fix these damn things," Ribbs said in frustration shortly before taking an hour off for lunch.
No small amount of hubris kept him from announcing his mounting distress, but he later said, "Just by being impatient you can burn up $200,000 worth of car. It's over with. Crash."
Eddie Gossage, the publicity coordinator for Miller, detected a personality change in the driver. He said, "There's usually quotation marks around everything Willy says."
But Ribbs may have said too much. With most of his driving experience coming from Trans-Am events, which feature a different kind of car than those run at Indy, he could not adjust to the demands of the new machine and complete the long weekend of rookie driving practice. Late in the afternoon of April 27, he pulled Gossage aside and said, "Look, I don't think I'm ready for this. We need to call a press conference."
"When I look back," Gossage said last week, "it all makes sense . . . There was a rookie driver out on the track who'd had over 2,000 miles of test driving before Willy even sat in the car. Every rookie there except Willy had experience racing Indy-style cars. I thought it was a helluva courageous move on his part to drop out. It took a lot of guts for him to come out and say he wasn't ready. Can you imagine the pressure everyone had placed on him?"
After leaving Indianapolis, Ribbs returned to his home in San Jose, Calif., where the phone still rings constantly. He said several car owners called to express their support and ask about his future intentions.
"Seems pulling out showed them how intelligent I was," Ribbs said. "Most people who've seen me race think I'm Superman. But I'm not. I need practice just like everybody else. I can do a lot of great things, but I need time and a little more experience to get those things done. The biggest learning experience is driving.
"You can't win a race calling the shots from the outside. You have to be in the seat."