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.

RMVR/RAKC

Saturday, July 29

It’s that time of year again, when Rocky Mountain Vintage Racers do their big event and raise money for the Race Against Kids’ Cancer, benefiting the Morgan Adams Foundation.

On the road to the track, it was overcast and cool, and a few raindrops fell on me. I was looking forward to a cool day. It was not to be. At the track the sun was shining brightly through scattered clouds, and it was warm and muggy.

My contribution to the event involves giving rides during the lunch hour. It’s called ‘Ticket to Ride’, and people donate $50, $100, or $250 for a ride, depending on the car. A couple years ago I was a $100 car. This year I’ve been demoted to a $50 car, which is where I figured I should be, given the other cars that were there.

Photo courtesy Mike Rogers, Driven Imagery

This year the goal is to raise $150,000 that will be used to purchase a machine called an IncuCyte ZOOM. It’s used by cancer researchers in the Pediatric Brain Tumor Research Program. Just before I went on track, Heike came out of race control and chatted with me a bit while I was lined up waiting to get into pit lane. She said they had already exceeded their target. It gives me a bit of a “warm fuzzy” to be able to contribute, even just a little.

The program says people are buying three laps: out lap, fast lap, and in lap. I did this year what I did last year, and ran a second fast lap. I asked them all if they wanted to do that extra lap, and the all gave me the thumbs up. Sometimes we got stuck for a while behind slower cars, so I felt that was a good excuse to put in that second lap.

I gave four rides. My first rider was a kid who could barely see out the windshield. You can’t even see his helmet in the video. My second rider, maybe 20 years old, told me the Elise was his childhood dream car. Third and fourth riders were grid girls. They get free rides. The first girl screamed a lot. It was her first time in a car on track. At first I thought they might be cries of terror but she kept giving me two thumbs up. The second grid girl had just gotten a ride in a BMW.

The first thing I did when I got out of the car was turn off the cameras. The rear mounted one wasn’t running. It was powered up but not recording. I was sure I had pressed the shutter. The battery wasn’t dead, and the memory card was empty when I started so I’m not sure why it stopped. My lap timer recorded for 54 minutes, I got 54 minutes on the front facing camera, but only 44 minutes on the rear one. Seems like it’s always something. If my major malfunction for the day is losing 9 minutes of video it’s a good day.

Each year, the array of cars running lunch laps gets more interesting. This year, Kent brought his BMW i8. There was a 2006 Ford GT, a fully race prepared Aston Martin Vantage, an Ariel Atom, a Porsche Carrera GT, a Subaru rally car, and an assortment of 911s, a Corvette, a recent Mustang, and a 350Z. A few of the RMVR racers had passenger seats, and these ran as well: a classic Mustang and Firebird, and an old MG. Ralph Schomp BMW brought out a bunch of BMWs and Minis. I was the only Lotus today.

With Tanner Foust. It looks like I’ve been sucking on a lemon.

This is the seventh year RMVR is doing this. This is the fourth time I’ve driven the lunch laps. The whole event seems to get bigger each year. I think this is the second or third year they’re doing a Pro-Am race. This years pro drivers include Alex Figge, Nick Ham, Robb Holland, Robby Unser, Randy Pobst, Tanner Foust, and a couple of others. One of the others is a guy called Paul Gerrard, who was The Stig for the American version of Top Gear.

Last year, after we were done giving laps, we drivers were treated to a lunch and plenty of cold beverages. I looked around but didn’t see where to go. I was hungry and thirsty so I bought a burger and soda and sat in the pavilion and ate. While I was eating, William came by and told me he had gotten a ride with Randy Pobst. William told him he wanted to learn something, so Pobst kept up a running commentary of how to get around the track, all the while going at a pretty good clip. William particularly wanted to see Pobst’s footwork, but said taking his eyes off the track made him a bit queasy.

About half way through my burger I saw where the lunch drivers were congregating. I didn’t need any more to eat, but certainly could do with some more hydration so when I finished my burger, I went over and joined the crowd.

The driver of the Ford GT was there. I needed to apologize to him. He was going quite slow and I needed to pass him a couple of times. The first time was between turns 2 and 3. I was sure he pointed me by on his right but before I was around him he was moving toward me. He was pretty casual about it. It looks pretty close to me on the video. Rather than pointing me by, he was putting his fist in the air, which signals he’s going into the pits. That was inappropriate here, we were nowhere near the track exit. Fortunately, I passed him pretty quickly and there was no drama. In viewing the video, I see that he was always using this gesture.

I grabbed my second bottle of water and a tiny square of dessert and took a seat. I was with Foust and Pobst and a few other guys. It didn’t take long to figure out that they were the pros. It turned out to be Ham, Figge, and Holland, but nobody was using any names. Robb Holland and I finally introduced ourselves to each other in the end, but I didn’t know who they were until later. I had it pretty well narrowed down, but didn’t know which names went with which faces.

I would say that I spent an hour chatting with them. It may be difficult to believe, but I didn’t say much. I just listened. It started with somebody asking Foust if he was going to watch the new season of Top Gear, which led to him to talking a bit about his time working on the show. He said it was one hundred fifty days of work a year, and the days were long with every hour planned. He said nobody on the show knew who the Stig was except whoever wrote the paychecks. He knew who it was, though, as he knew Paul and helped get him the job. When he was on the set he never spoke and didn’t shake hands with anybody. But sometimes Paul would show up for dinner on shooting days, “just coincidentally” in the area. Nobody ever suspected he was the Stig.

Foust got up and left after a while. The rest of the guys kept chatting. They had all raced against each other for years, sometimes as teammates. They were waxing nostalgic. “Remember that time at Miller where my car broke?” “And mine broke at the same time and I parked behind you?” “And the time you had that crash at Miller.” “That was a bad one, but the crash in Detroit was the worst.” I could have listened to them for the rest of the day.

I wonder how many of the pros were on track while I was doing laps. William tells me that only a couple were doing lunch laps, but that many of the others were out with their Pro-Am partners testing the cars. I know Pobst was driving the Focus and I did see a couple of the Schomp Minis in and out of the pits. Although I was running laps with five or six or seven pro drivers, I don’t think I passed or was passed by any of them.

I’m a big football fan but I’ve never had the delusion that I could ever do what Joe Montana or Terrell Davis could do. I was never going to throw a perfect spiral fifty yards down the field while stepping up in the pocket, facing a safety blitz or catch a screen pass in the flat and go the distance. I also don’t have the delusion that I could do what Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton could do. But I can watch a sports car race or a touring car race and imagine doing it, and doing it well. Sure, it’s a delusion too. But I just ran a bunch of laps on a race track with a half dozen accomplished professionals and never got passed. My delusion survives intact!

And I think it’s pretty cool that I got to see some pretty cool cars get out on the race track.

I had a really good time.