Willy T. Ribbs

The Morgan Adams Foundation in association with Rocky Mountain Vintage Racers and Ferrari of Denver arranged a meet and greet with Willy T. Ribbs today. I was thinking it was a sort of Cars & Coffee event, but the parking lot at FoD is on the small side. And the weather was a bit on the chilly, so most everybody just milled around the showroom and socialized.

I remember Ribbs best from his days as an IndyCar/Champcar driver. He was racing in the very first race I ever attended, the original course on the streets of downtown Denver (not the later one, around the Pepsi Center). He remembers those races fondly, says that that Denver course was one of his favorite street courses, up there with Long Beach.

Before his time in IndyCar, he won a championship in Formula Ford in Europe. He also ran in the Trans-Am series where he was quite successful, winning 17 races. Near the end of his career he did a few seasons in NASCAR. What I did not know was that he was the first black man to drive in Formula 1. He had a test with the Brabham team under Bernie Ecclestone.

After people had a chance to grab some coffee and a bagel or doughnut, the folks from Morgan Adams Foundation introduced Willy to the crowd. He spoke for a while, spinning some yarns and telling us about a movie that Adam Carolla is making about him. The film will be released in May. He talked about how they decided on a title for the film. He asked Carolla if he’d decided on a title. He hadn’t, and asked Ribbs if he had a suggestion. Ribbs told him he thought it ought to be called “Uppity”. A number of people thought that wasn’t a great name, but after some back and forth that’s what they decided on.

Ribbs talked a bit about his relationship with Ecclestone and told a couple of stories. Ribbs once introduced boxing promoter Don King to Ecclestone. On the way into the building Ribbs and King passed an ice cream parlor. “I want an ice cream” King said to Ribbs. “I always have an ice cream when I’m negotiating!” Bernie’s first question of King was “How much do you make in boxing?” After King answered “About fifty million”, Bernie said maybe he should switch from F1 to boxing. I think Bernie did alright in the end.

He had another story about Jesse Jackson wanting to boycott the F1 race in South Africa during the 80’s. Bernie asked Ribbs if he knew Jackson and Ribbs said yes. “Enough to call him?” So Ribbs called Jackson. Jackson didn’t know who Bernie was, but Ribbs convinced him to talk to Bernie. In the end, there was no boycott.

I chatted with him after his talk. I particularly wanted to know how long it took him to learn a track on his first visit, and how long it took to get comfortable with a new race car. The first time he visited a track, he’d spend a half day or so either riding a motorcycle around or taking out his rental car. Then he’d meet with the engineers. They’d have things pretty well laid out for him: “This is a 3rd gear turn, you’ll be at about such-and-such RPM” and so on. By the time he’d finished a couple of practice sessions he’d have it dialed in pretty well.

As to driving a new race car for the first time, he was less specific. “It either works well, or it doesn’t work.” I’m guessing that if the car works well, he was up to speed in it pretty quickly.

Ribbs compared being a race driver today to when he was driving. He’s happy to have done his driving before there was social media. A driver today can’t get away with all the fun the drivers had back then. Let’s just say they partied like rock stars. This led to the story about how they filled up a Holiday Inn swimming pool with rental cars. The pools didn’t have fences around them then. They drove one car into the pool, got out, drove another one in right on top of the first one. “Stacked them like pancakes!”

Before I left, I got a selfie with him. I’m clearly the world’s worst at selfies.

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